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"There should be an 'Abstract of Principles', or careful statement of theological belief, which every professor in such an institution must sign when inaugurated, so as to guard against the rise of erroneous and injurious instruction in such a seat of sacred learning."

James P. Boyce
from "Three Changes in
Theological Institutions"
- summarized by John Broadus, 1856



For the Bible tells me so
Have Baptists replaced Jesus with a book?

by Russell D. Moore
November 2000

It must have been quite a business meeting. The word of what had happened at Berea Baptist Church had reached even to the editorial pages of the Kentucky Baptist newspaper, the Western Recorder. It was not a sex scandal or an embezzlement scheme. Instead, a guest preacher had dared to say that "our Christianity rests upon our experience of God," rather than on the authority of the Bible.

    The year was 1925, the autumn following the Southern Baptist Convention's adoption of a new statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message , in the context of a controversy over evolution. W. G. Frost, former president of Berea College, took up the issue in a sermon entitled "Religion and Evolution." It was not well received. The Berea congregation immediately passed a resolution condemning the "brutal doctrine" they had heard in their pulpit, reaffirming their belief in the Bible as God's "written and revealed Word." Frost responded by noting that he did not do away with the Bible, but, "I love to dwell upon the present-day experiences that men have with God… It is important to see that God did not stop working when our old Bible was finished 1800 years ago," the Recorder reported in its September 17, 1925 edition.

    The Western Recorder congratulated the Berea church and added a few comments of its own on what it called "a modernistic sermon in a Baptist church." Interestingly, the Recorder's chief criticism was not first with Frost's evolutionary theories, but with his view of the relationship between the Bible and experience:

    … it places the final authority, which it has denied to the inspired Book, in the religious experience of each professing Christian. But religious experiences differ tremendously. In fact religious experience as a final authority is as the quicksands, for Satan himself is a spiritual power in this world and has his hand in a lot of the "experiences" that pass for religion. Christianity rests upon the revealed supernatural Word of God, declaring the redemption of man in the person and substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ our Lord. The Bible- not individual experience- is the authoritative revelation of God concerning Christ and our need of Him. To try to take the foundations out from under the authority of the Bible and place them on the quicksands of human experiences is the very heart of the Anti-Christ work of Modernism. If Doctor Frost had said nothing else, this would locate him as a disciple of the New Religion.

    With the passage of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, the SBC now faces a similar controversy. After years of wrangling over the authority of Scripture, Southern Baptists have attempted to remove any confusion as to where the Convention stands on the Bible. At this summer's meeting in Orlando, the Convention voted to affirm that the Bible is "God's revelation of Himself to man." The new confession explicitly stated in Article I that all Scripture is "totally true and trustworthy" and that, "All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation."

    Some immediately castigated the Convention's action. The SBC has "demoted Jesus" and now worships the Bible, some Baptist moderates suggested. The SBC has replaced the Trinity with a "Quadrinity" of Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and Holy Scripture, others argued. Such rhetoric moved from the convention hall to the states, as state conventions and associations consider adoption of the new Baptist Faith and Message. These are serious charges. Have Baptists made the Bible into an idol? Have we dethroned Jesus? The debate has been confusing at times for the secular media. For more and more Baptists, however, the events since Orlando have confirmed the need for the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

Jesus versus the Bible?

    One of the most talked-about revisions in the new BF&M was a change in the last line of the first article. Where the 1963 confession read, "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ," the 2000 confession states, "All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation." David Currie, a Texas Baptist leader, immediately compared the SBC leadership with the false prophets Paul condemned in Galatians. "They do not want us to have freedom; they want us to be slaves," Currie warned in the July 2000 Texas BaptistsCommitted. "They do not want Jesus to be the criterion by which the Bible is interpreted because that gives to (sic) much freedom." Dan Vestal, coordinator of the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), also blasted the BF&M change on the CBF web site, noting that moderates confront difficult biblical texts by asking "What would Jesus do?" In a brochure published by the CBF, Baptist Principles coordinator Gary Parker indicted the BF&M as "More Book, Less Jesus." Baptists, Parker said, "are first and foremost a Jesus people who believe that everything before and after Christ must be interpreted through the lens of Christ's life and teaching."

    As moderate theologian Jeff Pool has pointed out in Sacred Mandates of Conscienc e (Smyth and Helwys, 1997), the "criterion" language was included in the 1963 confession largely in response to Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Ralph Elliott's claim that Melchizedek was a priest of Baal, a contention that Herschel Hobbs and others saw to be an assault on the high priestly work of Jesus. Conservatives shared Hobbs' concerns. Indeed, much of the conservative criticism of the pre-resurgence SBC was fueled by a belief that the moderates did not interpret the Bible by the criterion of Jesus Christ. Against those who contended that Jonah was a parabolic figure, for example, conservatives noted that Jesus mentions Jonah as an historical figure (Luke 11:29-32). Against those who denied a literal Adam, conservatives pointed to Paul's historical parallel of the first man with Jesus, the Second Adam (Rom 5:12-21).

    Conservatives became alarmed, however, when they saw the "criterion" language being wielded to discard whole sections of Scripture that allegedly did not reflect the character of Jesus. In Baptists and the Bible (Broadman and Holman, 1999), L. Russ Bush and Tom Nettles, for instance, pointed to Clifton Allen's introduction to the controversial Broadman Bible Commentary as a grievous misapplication of the "criterion" language. Allen dismissed as "errors" or "falsehoods" such biblical passages as Deuteronomy 17:2-7 and 2 Samuel 21:1-9 because they are "out of harmony with [God's] nature as holy love and clearly in conflict with the example and teaching of Jesus." Such language became even clearer in the aftermath of the 2000 BF&M. Ronald Sisk, pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, criticized the new BF&M by noting, "Not all Scripture rises to the full level of Christ." Sisk pointed to various passages from the Old Testament and from the teachings of Paul as examples, Louisville's Courier-Journal reported on June 12, 2000.

    During the BF&M 2000 debate, committee member R. Albert Mohler Jr. and others contended that what we know about Jesus is what the Bible reveals. Moderates countered that an internal experience of Jesus, apart from Scripture, is adequate to judge even the biblical text itself. Such rhetoric reached its boiling point at the CBF General Assembly, also in Orlando, two weeks after the SBC adoption of the BF&M. CBF Coordinating Council member Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler, for example, said, "We see our authority in Christ; Southern Baptists see their authority in the Bible" (Baptist Press, June 30, 2000). Several critics attacked the BF&M's stance on a male-only pastorate not with biblical arguments, but by noting that Jesus never addressed the issue. Some dismissed Paul's admonitions on the matter as, once again, not rising to the level of Jesus Christ.

    This is precisely why Southern Baptists found it advisable to clear up the wording in the confession of faith. The biblical canon, not a vaguely defined concept of "Jesus," has always been the definitive authority for Baptists. After all, the state churches were all too confident about what "Jesus" would do when it came to the baptism of infants. "Let the children come" was thus severed from its biblical context and transferred to the baptismal font. Baptists, however, risked floggings, imprisonment, and even death that they might honor Jesus by believing His word. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the nineteenth century Baptist preacher, withstood those in the Church of England who argued for a state church based on a less than biblically informed conception of Jesus. At a rally opposing the legal persecution of dissenting congregations, Spurgeon ridiculed such a tactic:

    We are told that Jesus Christ would never have interfered in this question. I am not so sure about that; but I never could believe in the Jesus Christ of some people, for the Christ in whom they believe is simply full of affectionateness and gentleness, whereas I believe there never was a more splendid specimen of manhood, even its sternness, than the Saviour; and the very lips which declared that He would not break a bruised reed uttered the most terrible anathemas upon the Pharisees, who formed the State Church in that day (G. Holden Pike, The Life and Work of Charles Haddon Spurgeon , volume one [Banner of Truth reprint], 1991).

    Baptist evangelicals have not, however, diluted their passion for the supremacy of Christ. It is strange indeed that conservatives are accused of "demoting Jesus" by some of the very people who indict them as "creedalists" for insisting that seminary professors hold to the full deity of Christ, the necessity of His substitutionary work, and the historical reality of His resurrection from the dead.

    In the current reaction to the BF&M , for example, in an analysis published by CBF-funded Baptist Center for Ethics moderate Bob Setzer criticizes Southern Baptists for emphasizing "right ideas about Jesus: he was born of a virgin, died a substitutionary death for the sins of the world and will return on a cloud to rescue the redeemed." Setzer says that Jesus never made believing such things a condition of discipleship. He merely called for "a simple creed, consisting of two words only: 'Follow me.'" To this conservatives respond, "Follow who?" The Jesus of the Bible made it rather clear that knowing Christ, not merely following an ethical example, is what saves. (Matt 7:21-23). Indeed, almost every New Testament epistle was written to correct false experiences with "Jesus" by presenting the apostolic testimony to the true Lord Jesus Christ.

    Southern Baptists do not reject the necessity of personal experience with the risen Christ. Again, this charge is ironic since conservatives in the SBC have been accused by moderates of being too "experiential" and "revivalist" for emphasizing a personal experience of the new birth. Conservatives have criticized the social gospel emphases of some moderates precisely because they did not take into account the need for an individual experience with Christ. In more recent days, Southern Baptists have been harshly criticized by moderates (as well as by the secular culture) for insisting that Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists must have a personal relationship to Christ in order to be saved. To most Baptists, this does not sound like a demotion of Jesus or a denigration of personal experience. Instead it sounds an awful lot like what most Baptists learned in Vacation Bible School: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

Biblical authority versus Bible worship?

    Another controversial change in the BF&M proved to be the affirmation that the Bible is not merely a "record of God's revelation," but is in fact "God's revelation of Himself to man." In the midst of the "battle for the Bible," philosopher Ronald H. Nash counseled Southern Baptists that the controversy was about more than just inerrancy. Many of those who rejected inerrancy, he cautioned, do so because they reject the notion of revealed truth. "If the Bible is not the inscripturation of revealed truth, the presence of an error here or there is of little consequence," he wrote ("Southern Baptists and the Notion of Revealed Truth," Criswell Theological Review, 2 [1988]). If the Bible cannot be a communication of information, he continued, "there is little reason to care when important biblical claims are dismissed as false." The recent debate seems to have proven Nash right.

    The framers of the 2000 BF&M intentionally clarified this language about divine revelation. Protestant liberalism has long affirmed the Bible as the "record" of human experiences with the divine. German neo-orthodoxy spoke of the Bible as a vehicle for God's ongoing experiential revelation to humans. Since such views are neither the intention of the 1963 committee nor the belief of the vast majority of Southern Baptists, the SBC voted to remove any doubt as to the Convention's stance on biblical authority.

    Once again, the controversy since the convention action has proven the clarification to be a necessary one, even apart from moderate Texas pastor Anthony Sisemore's unfortunate suggestion from the convention floor that the Bible is "just a book." A large number of participants at this summer's CBF General Assembly, for instance, were willing to agree with Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler that the debate over biblical authority is "what it all comes down to" in the Baptist controversy.

    Stan Hastey, head of the Alliance of Baptists, told Baptist Press on June 30, 2000, that the Southern Baptist insistence on the Bible as revelation does not provide "an adequate basis of authority for Baptists." Hastey's organization puts this ideology into practice in, among other things, the debate over homosexuality. In the 1999 "Report on the Task Force on Human Sexuality" the Alliance of Baptists states that its view of biblical authority is a key element in its adoption of a position advocating the legitimacy of homosexuality. The issue is examined not only through the lens of Scripture, but also through experience and the insights of modern science. "The Task Force assumes that Scripture must be interpreted in light of the experiences of the interpreters — individual and shared — in and through which the Holy Spirit may speak in new and insightful ways," they contend. Similar arguments are being voiced with increasing frequency in some Baptist organizations.

    Such things sadden most Southern Baptists. The vast majority of Baptists have decided to stay with the historic Baptist conviction on the Bible as the once-for-all revelation of God to His creatures, the final authority for all matters of faith and practice. Southern Baptists have communicated to the world that we do not believe in an impersonal "Ground of Being," but in the personal and living God who has spoken to us in His Son Jesus, and also in the Scriptures, which are themselves a testimony to Christ.

    Ironically, for all of their talk of "protecting" Jesus from the BF&M, those who refuse to call the Scriptures "revelation" are contradicting their claim that the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ. The Bible after all is not just a record of how God has acted in history. The Bible also, as the verbal revelation of God, interprets these events in light of His redemptive purposes in Christ. God made a covenant with David to set a descendent on his throne, but it is the inspired words of Scripture that interpret for us that He has done so in Jesus (Acts 2:24-36). Jesus came back from the dead, but it is the words of Scripture that tell us it was God's confirmation of Jesus as His Son (Rom 1:4). Some remarkable events happened at Pentecost, but the words of Scripture tell us that this was the risen Jesus pouring out the Spirit He promised (Acts 2:32-33).

    A Baptist state paper editor has argued that honoring the Bible as God's revelation means that Southern Baptists have "erected a paper calf" to worship, (Religious Herald, June 22, 2000). Again, this is not a new tactic. E. Y. Mullins faced head-on this charge of bibliolatry in 1913 in Freedom and Authority in Religion. Ronald Nash called similar arguments an intellectually dishonest smoke screen. "It is precisely the fact that genuine knowledge is available about the nature and will of God that makes bibliolatry sin," Nash countered. "True revelation of God's nature, character, and will enables us to know the difference between worshiping Almighty God and worshiping a book."

The Path from Orlando

    Accusations that Southern Baptists are Bible-worshippers might make for interesting stump speeches, but they do not stand under the scrutiny of the facts. The Baptist Faith and Message is not a scary departure from the Baptist witness, but is a clarification of historic Baptist confidence in biblical authority. Believing in soul competency and the priesthood of believers, the messengers to the 2000 Southern Baptist Convention have trusted grassroots Southern Baptist churches to affirm what they believe about the Word of God. The consensus has been overwhelming.

    The current theological chaos in the mainline denominations — and in the left wing of Baptist life — has reminded Southern Baptists that the stakes are high. The BF&M 2000 does not mean that Southern Baptists will march in doctrinal lockstep. There will always be coffee shop debates over the timing of the Rapture or the use of drums in worship. But, as long as there is a common submission to biblical authority, there will not be a debate over whether the lost need to hear of Christ or whether two men should be married to each other in a Baptist church.

    When confronted with the truth of the gospel, the Jews at Berea searched the Scriptures, to see whether these things were so (Acts 17:10-12). When confronted with a denial of the truth of Scripture, the Baptists at Berea, Kentucky, affirmed the Scriptures as their final authority. May Southern Baptists continue in the example of both sets of Bereans.

Russell D. Moore is a doctor of philosophy degree candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He received the master of divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

This article reprinted by permission from Southern Seminary Magazine, November 2000 (Volume 68, Number 4)

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