Christ, The Bible, and Human Experience. What Order?
by Dr. Paige Patterson, President, SBTS

Debate flared at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Orlando (June 2000) when a special study committee, appointed by the SBC President at the instruction of the Convention, brought suggested revisions, which were subsequently adopted by a vote of more than 95 percent of the nearly 12,000 messengers present. The revision of Article I adopted by the Convention is cited in the right-hand column with the previous Article I in the left-hand column. Revisions are in heavy type. Items omitted from the 2000 statement that were in the 1963 statement are in italics in the left-hand column.

1963 Baptist Faith & Message
I.  The Scriptures

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is the record of God's revelation of Himself to man.  It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction.  It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.  It reveals the principles by which God judges us; and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.

2000 Baptist Faith & Message
I.  The Scriptures

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man.  It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction.  It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.  Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.  It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.  All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.

Critics of the work of the committee and of the Convention's action allege that Southern Baptists have elevated Scripture over Christ.  Some go so far as to say that Southern Baptists have "deified" the Bible, making a "Quadrinity" instead of a Trinity.  Others have responded by saying that we must remember that "the Bible is just a book" and is nothing more than a "record of revelation" and, therefore, should not be counted as revelation itself.  While some have attempted to backpedal from this last avowal, referring to it as "an unfortunate statement," it is nonetheless quite to the point. 

On the one hand, there is infinitely greater distance between the best book written by the artifice of man and, on the other hand, a book that contains the very words of God (revelation), than there is between a stumbling, pedestrian attempt at writing and, juxtaposed to that, a great book containing human religious testimony, some of which is correct and some of which is incorrect.  Whether the book is a sorry, bungling human effort or a magnificent, solely human recording of some divine events, which is still pockmarked by human error, what such works have in common is that neither is protected from human error and neither is the unmitigated Word of God.  Contrast this with 2 Timothy 3:16, which says of the Bible that it is "God-breathed" ("All Scripture is given by inspiration of God (Gk. theopneustos– "God exhaled"), and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness").  Make no mistake, the issue still remains whether or not the Bible is entirely true so that it can be totally trusted and followed.

Are these charges levied by moderates (neo-orthodox thinkers) correct?  Should Southern Baptists have so easily adopted such simple but significant changes to their Statement of Faith?  Why did the study committee recommend such alterations?

First, the charge that Baptists have placed Christ over Scripture is demonstrably false and possibly deliberately misleading.  Consider the following avowals from the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.

Article II.  God

    There is one and only one living and true God.  He is an intelligent, spiritual, and personal Being, the Creator, Redeemer, Preserver, and Ruler of the universe.  God is infinite in holiness and all other perfections.  God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures.  To Him we owe the highest love, reverence, and obedience.  The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence or being.

A.  God the Father

    God as Father reigns with providential care over His universe, His creatures, and the flow of the stream of human history according to the purposes of His grace.  He is all powerful, all knowing, all loving, and all wise.  God is Father in truth to those who become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ.  He is fatherly in His attitude toward all men.

B.  God the Son

    Christ is the eternal Son of God.  In His incarnation as Jesus Christ He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  Jesus perfectly revealed and did the will of God, taking upon Himself human nature with its demands and necessities and identifying Himself completely with mankind yet without sin.  He honored the divine law by His personal obedience, and in His substitutionary death on the cross He made provision for the redemption of men from sin.  He was raised from the dead with a glorified body and appeared to His disciples as the person who was with them before His crucifixion.  He ascended into heaven and is now exalted at the right hand of God where He is the One Mediator, fully God, fully man, in whose Person is effected the reconciliation between God and man.  He will return in power and glory to judge the world and to consummate His redemptive mission.  He now dwells in all believers as the living ever present Lord.

C.  God the Holy Spirit

    The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, fully divine.  He inspired holy men of old to write the Scriptures.  Through illumination He enables men to understand truth.  He exalts Christ.  He convicts men of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment.  He calls men to the Saviour, and effects regeneration.  At the moment of regeneration He baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ.  He cultivates Christian character, comforts believers, and bestows the spiritual gifts by which they serve God through His church.  He seals the believer unto the day of final redemption.  His presence in the Christian is the guarantee that God will bring the believer into the fullness of the stature of Christ.  He enlightens and empowers the believer and the church in worship, evangelism, and service.

Note that Article II B. entitled "God the Son" says of Christ that He is "the eternal Son of God."  Further, "He is the One Mediator, fully God, fully man, in whose Person is effected the reconciliation between God and man."  In the initial paragraph on God, the 1963 statement was retained in the 2000 statement: "The eternal God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being."  The addition of the phrase "the eternal triune God" actually strengthened the avowal.

Not only did the study committee or the Convention not make such claims for the Bible, but also they actually made the article on God stronger by adding this phrase, "God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures."  Strengthening the article on the Son, the 2000 Convention adopted two proposed amendments.  First, the statement speaks of the death of Jesus on the cross as substitutionary and second, it declares that Jesus is "fully God and fully man."

Obviously, no such claims as these are made for the Scriptures.  Indeed, the fact that both the 1963 and the 2000 statement declare that the Bible has "truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter" is only the case because the Bible is the very revelation of God–words revealed by God to His holy prophets and apostles (2 Peter 1:20-21).  We learn from the Bible that God is all powerful and all knowing and that Jesus is fully God and fully man in the Bible.

Consequently, for someone to assert that the Convention has elevated Scripture over Christ is at the very least an exhibition of deliberate ignorance–at its worst it is an attempt to prevail in an argument by means of deceit.  Either is unworthy of those who call Jesus "Lord."

But we may not let the matter rest there.  The Convention also strengthened Article IV, entitled "Salvation," with the statement previously lacking that, "There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord."  Not only is the Bible not mentioned as having saving efficacy, but also it is plainly stated that there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ!  How then could the Bible be exalted above or even placed on an equal plain with Jesus?

To say it another way, Jesus is God; the Bible is not.  Jesus saves us; the Bible does not.  Therefore, how can the Bible, which is not God and cannot save, be elevated above Christ?  Clearly the Convention did not intend to elevate the Bible above Christ.  Neither do Southern Baptists believe that the Bible is above Christ.  And obviously the Baptist Faith & Message does not elevate the Bible above or even to an equal status with Christ.  Neither, however, does the Baptist Faith & Message allow what the neo-orthodox theologian desires–namely, to separate Christ from the Word of God and declare that the Bible contains error.

But why would the committee recommend the deletion of two such venerable phrases–"The Bible is a record of revelation" and "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ?"  First, they recommended removal precisely because they had no long history.  Neither phrase can be found in the New Hampshire Confession of 1833, which served as the foundation for the Baptist Faith & Message. More astonishing is the news that neither phrase is found in the 1925 Baptist Faith & Message originally adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention.  In fact, the phrases were only added in 1963 and, hence, have a history of only thirty-seven years!  Furthermore, those phrases were admitted to the 1963 Baptist Faith & Message at the very time when neo-orthodox theology achieved its most influential period in Southern Baptist life.  Whether or not the 1963 committee or Convention fully comprehended what they were accepting in these two phrases, neo-orthodox professors rejoiced in their victory knowing that in the doctrine of the Holy Scripture they had opened two holes big enough to drive any alleged error in the Bible through untouched.

What Can You Know of Christ and How Can You Know It?

Is the Bible then of no importance in matters of salvation?  In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul reminds Timothy that he had been taught from childhood the Scriptures "which make you wise unto salvation."  In other words, God has revealed Himself in various ways.  He has revealed Himself in nature and inner testimony through which man may conclude that there is a God and that He is all powerful (Romans 1:20).  But that is sufficient only to increase man's guilt, never to save him.  So God revealed Himself and the way of salvation both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. 

Both Testaments are a "testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation."  These are the appropriate words adopted by the Convention in Article I of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.  Jesus is the focus of biblical revelation and is Lord of the Bible.  But the Bible carries the message of the saving person and work of Christ, and in the reading of it one is made aware of God's work in salvation and how that work may be effectively accessed.  Of course, one might come to Jesus and be saved through the testimony or preaching of someone without seeing the Bible or even knowing that the Bible existed.  But if this happened, the salvation that person experienced would be as a result of the person and work of the Jesus revealed in Scripture and never a Jesus who is in any way contradictory to the Jesus of the Bible.

This suggestion raises an interesting question.  What exactly do you know about Jesus outside the Bible?  Only four times is Christ mentioned outside the Bible in literature from the earliest period following His life, passion, and resurrection.  Those four references apparently refer to Him but tell nothing about Him.

If it were not for the Bible, you would know nothing of His incarnation.  You would never have dreamed of His virgin birth.  His sinless life, His teachings, His miracles, and His death on the cross would be shrouded in mystery, if known at all.  The resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ would be altogether unknown.  Much of this might have been transmitted orally, but after twenty centuries, had there not been codification in the Scriptures, almost certainly diminution of that message would have occurred. 

Consequently, the Bible really does "make us wise unto salvation," telling not only the story of Jesus but also informing all that coming to Christ can only be accomplished through repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Now you can understand why the Bible must have "God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter."  If the Bible errs anywhere, claiming as it does to be the "Word of God," then how do you know where it errs?  Who is qualified among mortals to make such a decision?  And if it errs in some areas, how can you be sure that it does not err in what it says about Jesus or salvation?

To make the point one last time, you know nothing of Jesus Christ regarding His nature, His works, or His proffered salvation other than that which is contained in the Bible.  All analogies ultimately break down, but at least the reader will be helped in grasping the point when an accident victim has his life saved by the physician ferried to the scene by a rescue helicopter.  Now a helicopter is incapable of medical treatment and, consequently, incapable of saving the life of the victim.  But the chopper is the vehicle that ferries the doctor to the rescue scene.  Therefore, the Scriptures are the vehicle transporting the message of the saving Christ.  Luther used a similar analogy when he said that the Scriptures are the manger in which the Christ-child rests.

Competency, the Priesthood of the Believers,
and the Value and Testimony of Religious Experience

Did the framers of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 not believe in religious liberty?  Or did they wish to jettison the competency of the soul to experience God?  Did they not subscribe to the priesthood of believers?  They affirm all of these, and in response to pre-Convention concern, the committee placed these concepts in the preamble to the document, which was subsequently adopted by the Convention.  But why did they not originally include the concepts of the competency of the soul and the priesthood of the believers? 

A strong affirmation of religious liberty was already included.  The reason for not initially including the concepts of the priesthood of believers and the competency of the soul is the misunderstandings that have developed around these ideas in recent years.  Some have redefined the competency of the soul to experience God and the priesthood of the believers in such a way as to exalt personal experience over the Word of God.  For example, perhaps my experience of Christ leads me to believe that I am called to be an apostle.  This, of course, is impossible since to be an apostle one must have been a witness to the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:22). 

However, if the competency of the soul to experience God means that my experience of God is subject to no standard, then even if I experience God as a small green Martian sitting on the moon eating a toasted cheese sandwich, my experience must be considered valid.  If the priesthood of the believers means that I am entitled to believe anything I wish and still be called a Christian and a Baptist, then I could not be faulted for such views.  By extension an unrepentant homosexual, lesbian, or murderer might avow that his or her experience is that God is calling him or her to be a pastor.  If there is no standard for adjudication of such matters, then how could such thinking be in error?

But is it not the case that Bible-believing conservatives are misrepresenting and overreacting?  For years the neo-orthodox and liberal Southern Baptists have alleged that there was little, if any, difference between conservatives and moderates.  They claimed that conservatives were merely seeking to take political control.  This allegation is interesting since it went largely unnoticed that the suggestion itself was a tacit admission that neo-orthodoxy was "in control" at the time of the commencement of the conservative revival.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship met in Orlando a couple of weeks following the Southern Baptist Convention.  Finally, the whole issue got flushed clearly into the open.  Longtime neo-orthodox leader Stan Hastey agreed with conservatives that the issue, in fact, was theological and not just political.  Hastey said, "Al Mohler is right; it has been a battle for the Bible and is about the inspiration and authority of the Bible."  Hastey went on to declare that the Reformation principle of Scripture alone as final authority had proven an inadequate basis of authority for Baptists.  Inerrantists, he alleged, could not abide the discomfort of discrepancies in Scripture.  Directly contradicting the words of Jesus, Hastey said that unlike the SBC leadership, he did not believe that Christians should be aggressive in evangelizing those in other world religions.  In a few sentences, this neo-orthodox leader admitted that the real issue is the nature of the Bible rather than politics or power, charged that the Bible contained errors, and contradicted the command of Jesus!

At the same meeting, Gary Parker, CBF Baptist Principles Coordinator, referred to the view that the Bible itself is God's revelation "and not merely a record of God's revelation," as heresy.  Agreeing with the messenger to the SBC who said that the Bible was "just a book," Rev. Kristina Yeatts, Associate Pastor of First Baptist Church in Clayton, North Carolina, said that the Bible contained biases.  She concluded, "It is a book to guide us, but it is just a book."

Ken Sehested, Executive Director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship, funded partially by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, claimed that the Bible nowhere condemns the practice of homosexuality as a sin.  He claimed that passages about homosexuality are about "power relationships with minors" rather than consensual adult gay sex.  Hastey agreed that homosexuality is not necessarily sinful.  Let the reader judge.  Here is what Paul said,

    Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.  Amen.  For this reason God gave them up to vile passions.  For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature.  Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due (Romans 1:24-27).

What is the problem here?  As a Baptist I affirm the "rights" of these friends to believe whatever they wish.  Furthermore, if the Bible is merely the greatest human book ever written and not explicitly the Word of God, then there are few grounds upon which to argue against these stated positions.  Elevating one's own experience above Christ and the Scriptures ultimately makes it possible to justify almost any position.

In the final analysis, conservative Bible-believing Baptists cannot do that.  Believing, as they do most passionately, in the necessity of Christian experience in both regeneration and positional and progressive sanctification, they know well that all such experiences must be in accord with the clear teaching of God's Word, the Bible, in order to be valid.

Strangely the very people who complain that Baptists have exalted the Bible over Christ have actually hoisted their own religious experience above both Jesus and the Bible.  Hence, both Christ and the Bible do not regulate experience, but rather experience regulates both Jesus and the Bible.  Can this have serious consequences?  Please consider a classic case.

Mormons claim to have experienced Christ.  The Jesus whom they have experienced is not an eternal being but was born from a union of God the Father and one of His wives!  These Mormon friends are understandably elated for Christians to lift human experience above accountability to the Bible.  In this scheme the Jesus whom the Mormons experience is just as much real and just as normative as the Jesus worshiped by orthodox Christians.  So, for that matter, is the Jesus experienced by Islam (Jesus is only a great prophet).  Why?  Because experience has no accountability to a "norming norm."  Thus, Yasser Arafat could say to me, as he did, "I believe in Jesus."  The problem, however, is obvious.  The "Jesus" Mr. Arafat confessed is very different from the Jesus of the Bible who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

Another example is the widely discussed "Jesus Seminar."  According to the "scholars" of the Jesus Seminar, Jesus said very little of what the Scriptures report Him to have said.  Naturally, it follows that claims about the Deity of Jesus, His virgin conception, sinless life, substitutionary death, and resurrection are false.  No wonder John Dominic Crossan, leading scholar of the seminar alleged that Southern Baptists were like Walt Disney, Inc., both contending for global control of fantasy.  Robert Funk, the other major name in the seminar insisted that Christianity needs to replace the "mythic Messiah" of Scripture with a contemporary political Messiah.  As absurd as such conclusions will appear to many Southern Baptists, two deductions are inevitable.  If personal religious experience is enthroned above the standards of the Bible, then Crossan, Funk, and the Jesus Seminar can never be identified as "wrong."  After all, they only speak of the Jesus of their own experience and second, their conclusions are merely the inevitable result of ridding oneself of a sure and certain standard of truth.

Actually the concept of religious liberty has little enough to do with the priesthood of the believers or the competency of the soul to experience God.  All people should be–yes, must be–free to make their own religious choices.  That is freedom of religion! 

The competency of the soul to know and to experience God, however, recognizes that mankind was made by God to have meaningful fellowship with Him.  Consequently, both men and women are capable of and responsible for coming to God.  The priesthood of the believers, on the other hand, removes all human mediaries and declares that through Christ you can come directly to God.  Neither doctrine suggests that you can come to God on your own terms or substitute an experience contrary to revealed Scripture as an acceptable and right experience.

Crying Foul

Some Baptists who oppose the statements in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 will cry "foul" at the above analysis.  They will argue that in spite of the messenger who publicly declared that "the Bible is just a book," they do believe in an authoritative Bible.  Since this writer certainly does not wish to misrepresent anyone, I must then ask: How much of the Bible is authoritative?  If, for example, there are mistakes or socially conditioned interpretations erroneously claiming God's authority, then certainly those could not be authoritative.  And if this is the case, who makes the decision about what is authoritative and what is not?

Now, you can see that this is precisely the reason detractors of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 statement wish to divide Christ from the Bible.  There are teachings in the Bible that they do not like and with which they do not agree.  Often these teachings are also "politically incorrect"–that is, out of step with the common beliefs and spirit of the age.

Consider, for example, how the Bible cites Jesus about Himself.

    "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it" (Matthew 7:13-14).

    "For many are called, but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14).

    "Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41).

    "I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6).

    "So it will be at the end of the age.  The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire.  There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:49-50).

Since according to some these passages do not present a compassionate, loving Jesus who is politically correct, they must be in some way rejected or reinterpreted with appropriate bias.  For these verses present an exclusive Christ, threatening hell fire for anyone attempting to come to the Father in any way but through Him.  The only way to dodge the bullet here is for one to say, "This is what a human writer claimed that Jesus said, but my experience of Jesus is different and must be correct because it seems so right to me."

Or consider the claims of Paul, who is more often than not the cause of neo-orthodox discomfort.  Paul argues that all people, regardless of their situation, are guilty and condemned sinners (Romans 1:19-20).  He apparently defends capital punishment (Romans 13:4) and considers the practice of homosexuality to be one of the most degrading forms of sin (Romans 1:24-28).  Even if those who have embraced neo-orthodoxy could somehow stomach all that, the role assignments for the home assigned by Paul and also those for the church are clearly unacceptable.  Since every attempt to assign some creative interpretation to those passages with established male leadership and female submission in home and church have appeared to be as contrived and ineffective as they are, there remains only one way out.  Those statements are clearly in the Bible.  Consequently, they must be considered culturally bound and, therefore, erroneous.  The Bible is consistent and clear from beginning to end in presenting the equality of the man and woman who are both created in His image alongside the unique function of each in God's plan for accomplishing His purposes.  Just because the divine mandate does not appear normative to those whose concept of Jesus through their own personal experiences does not agree with the clear affirmations of Scripture does not negate Scripture!  Neo-orthodox thinkers, from their own perspectives, cannot accept such statements as normative since the Jesus of their experience does not agree with those affirmations.

Of course, the Christ of someone's experience may differ slightly or markedly from the Jesus of the Bible.  Who will tell us which is the real Jesus?  Obviously, there could be many Jesuses, almost as many as those who claim to be His followers.  But if there is no standard of judgment, then you have worked your way into a labyrinth from which there is no exit. 

Did the Southern Baptist Convention deny the importance of experience in adopting the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 ?  Not in a million millennia!  To the contrary, the document speaks lucidly of the necessity of regeneration (the new birth), of walking with God through the Holy Spirit, and of the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Here is what is said about the necessity of experience.

Article IV.  Salvation

    Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer.  In its broadest sense salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification.  There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

    A.  Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God's grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus.  It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God in faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace. Repentance is a genuine turning from sin toward God.  Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Saviour.

    B.  Justification is God's gracious and full acquittal upon principles of His righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ.  Justification brings the believer unto a relationship of peace and favor with God.

    C.  Sanctification is the experience, beginning in regeneration, by which the believer is set apart to God's purposes, and is enabled to progress toward moral and spiritual maturity through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in him.  Growth in grace should continue throughout the regenerate person's life.

    D.  Glorification is the culmination of salvation and is the final blessed and abiding state of the redeemed.

What the Convention did recognize is that whenever you speak of Jesus, it has to be not just any Jesus, but only the Jesus of the Bible.  When you speak of religious experience, it cannot be just any religious experience (however noble), it must be coming to God as prescribed in the Bible.  Furthermore, the validity of all religious experiences must be judged by the criterion of Scripture.  Should you seek an experience with God?  Yes, you must.  But the experience is valid only if it is in adherence with and not contrary to the clear teachings of the Bible. 

Another peculiar aspect of the allegation that the Southern Baptist Convention has exalted the Bible at the cost of Christ is the pragmatic facet.  A comparison of the preaching of the better known preachers in the Southern Baptist Convention (and these are typical of most others) with those in the various neo-orthodox movements (often identified as moderates) will show that the people accused of enthroning the Bible over Christ are the very ones who preach Christ most aggressively.  Comparative evangelistic and missionary statistics show the results.  The comparison becomes even more dramatic if the various neo-orthodox Baptist seminaries and university Divinity Schools are placed over against the six Southern Baptist Convention seminaries.  Now, according to Jesus, one may know the nature of the tree through an examination of its fruit,

    Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?  Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Therefore by their fruits you will know them (Matthew 7:15-20).

Those who most aggressively evangelize and missionize concerning the Jesus of the Bible are more likely to be the ones who most highly exalt Christ.  Aggressive evangelism and the hot-hearted preaching of Jesus the Christ are not the sort of things found very often in neo-orthodox churches, seminaries, or divinity schools.

The Challenge of Jesus

Buy why wrangle any further about this matter?  Moderates (Southern Baptists who have embraced tenets of neo-orthodoxy) have appealed to Jesus and to Jesus I invite you to go!  What did Jesus have to say concerning this whole debate?

In John 5, Jesus Himself discusses the witness of the Scriptures.  In verse 39, Jesus says to His Jewish hearers, "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me."  Here Jesus clearly claims that in Scripture you find the definitive explanation of who Jesus is.

Jesus takes up the theme again in verses 45-47.  "Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you–Moses, in whom you trust.  For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me.  But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?"  Here you may be astonished to discover that Jesus equates believing the writings of Moses with believing Him!  This is a strong avowal.  But in truth you should not be surprised.  Jesus viewed the five books of Moses as the very Word of God, the word that testified to Him.  To disbelieve any part of Scripture is, according to Jesus, to disbelieve Him.

In Luke 11:28, the words of Jesus on this subject appear again.  "More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it."  Here Jesus pronounces blessings on those who observe the Word of God.  In Luke 24:25, Jesus rebukes the Emmaus disciples saying, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken."  Let the record show that it is not I who identified one as a fool who fails to believe all the prophets.  The One who said that is Jesus, the compassionate, loving One, Who indeed loves us enough to tell us the truth.

Perhaps the reason Jesus took such a view was articulated again by Him in Matthew 5:17 and 18, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled."  This statement of Jesus provides dramatic testimony to His own view of the accuracy and reliability of Scripture.

My brothers and sisters, in the final analysis, this is not a debate about the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, or the forthcoming neo-orthodox Baptist Convention of the Americas.  It is not even a debate about the Baptist Faith & Message.  Jesus summed it up in the simplest of terms when He said, "Why do you call Me Lord and do not the things I say?" (Luke 6:46).  It is in the final analysis a question of Lordship.  Are the fertile minds of men that produce all sorts of varying and often contradictory religious experiences to be made Lord?  Or is Jesus Lord?  If Jesus is Lord, then why not do the things He says?


The controversy of the past twenty years has featured media popularization of the terms "moderate" and "conservative."  However serviceable those terms may be to the media, "moderate" is not helpful as a theological description.  In this booklet I have employed the word "neo-orthodox" as synonymous with "moderate" since it provides more accurate theological identification.  The classical liberalism of the "enlightenment" viewed the Bible as primarily a concoction of myth and legend with quaint and sometimes moving religious testimony.  However, classical liberalism almost always rejected the idea that the Bible represented actual revelation of God even in those instances when biblical authors achieved noble moral insights.  Classical liberalism had a rationalistic baby (God does not act supernaturally in history) in an anti-supernatural bath (everything that exists has to be rationally intelligible and explicable to man).

Swiss theologian Karl Barth and others saw that such a position was philosophically suspect, theologically anemic, morally ineffective, and practically useless.  As a result they tossed out the rationalistic baby instead of the anti-supernatural bath.  This new view became known as neo-orthodoxy or the new "orthodoxy."  In a sense it was not very new, and it certainly was never orthodox.  As neo-orthodoxy reflected on the Bible, the anti-supernatural bias was in part retained.  Sinful, blundering men wrote merely human religious testimony, which sometimes reflected inspired insight that could actually be said to be the Word of God.  Much of the Bible was still saga (to use Barth's term), myth, and legend, but in some of the Bible God spoke and much of it could become the Word of God for the reader if it evoked a situation in which, through the reading, the reader encountered God.  The important note here is that the Bible was inspired only in some of its utterances and humans were left "free" to hear or not to hear God's Word in various parts of the Bible.  In the modern era with the concept of the church in serious decline, these decisions about what was and what was not the "word of God" were pretty much left up to the individual to decide (existentialism).  In postmodern society, the community (by whatever definition) makes a decision from a corporate viewpoint (post-modernism).

If one should object that this approach did not make good sense because different individuals or communities might arrive at different or even contradictory conclusions, the critic was silenced with the claim that "experiencing God" as a result of the "penny dropping" during the reading of the Bible was all that was important.  If this experience made no sense to others, contradicted the experiences of some, or even contradicted the Bible itself, it made no difference.  Neo-orthodoxy had thrown out the rationalistic baby instead of the anti-supernatural bath so that it was no longer necessary for views to be logical or make sense. 

Adopting this approach to the Bible has the benefit of enabling the interpreter to declare, as messenger Sisemore surely says, that "The Bible is the Word of God" while at the same time rejecting any portion of the Bible that the individual or community interpreter does not consider to be true.  Since, for example, contemporary political correctness and aesthetic sensibilities are offended at Paul's emphasis on equality of persons but subordination of offices (women and men are equal in essence, but men are the responsible spiritual leaders in home and church) can be dismissed.  Either Paul was "culture bound" so that what he said was applicable only to a certain situation or else as Rudolf Bultmann, a neo-orthodox scholar of greater integrity, would say, Paul was just wrong.  Either way, human experience and thought decide what is or is not to be considered true in the Bible.  That is the essence of neo-orthodoxy.  This position is advocated by most of the current leadership of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the Alliance of Baptists, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Thus, I refer to moderates as those of neo-orthodox persuasion, believing that human experience and thought sit in judgment of the Bible.  Against this position conservatives argue for the necessity of an experience with Christ, but such experience must not violate the boundaries of Scripture.

Neo-orthodox theologians simply have an inadequate view of the work of the Holy Spirit.  They reason that since the Bible was penned by humans, and everything a human touches is marred by human fallibility, error, and mistake, then the Bible must by definition be fallible and exhibit both error and mistake.  Emil Brunner, another well-known neo-orthodox theologian, compared the Bible to a "record" of a symphony.  Prior to the age of the laser technology the "record" of say Beethoven's Fifth was preserved on plastic.  When a needle was dragged through the plastic grooves, one could hear the music of Beethoven's Fifth with sufficient accuracy to recognize the symphony but also with distortion resulting from the drag of the needle on the plastic.  In Brunner's analogy the symphony is equivalent to God's Word, the plastic record is the "record of revelation" imperfectly transcribed, and heard with the distortion of the human needle.  If humans touch it, it must have distortion.

But such a position betrays a misunderstanding of the work of the Holy Spirit.  For example, when Christ returns the Holy Spirit will complete the sanctification and glorification of believers.  Though still human, they, as glorified humans, will nevermore sin.  Jesus, too, was fully human; yet because he was conceived in the womb of Mary by the miraculous act of the Holy Spirit, He was born without a sin nature and did not sin.  By similar miracle, Bible-believing Christians have always insisted that fallible men wrote infallible truth, and errant men wrote inerrant truth, kept from error by an act of the Holy Spirit ("Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit"–2 Peter 1:20-21).  Thus, the Bible has preserved for us the perfectly reliable and totally accurate revelation of God.  Being a fallen human guarantees that sin will happen, but being human does not mean that the Spirit of God does not have the power and ability to speak inerrantly through humans.


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