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1961 controversy over ‘The Message of Genesis’ gets Baptist historians’ reflections

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) — One of the catalysts of the Conservative Resurgence — the Elliott controversy — was examined by three Southern Baptist historians in a panel discussion Sept. 10 at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The controversy erupted at Midwestern in 1961 when Ralph Elliott, the chair of the Old Testament department, authored a book published by Broadman Press titled “The Message of Genesis.”

Elliott used a historical-critical method of interpretation to examine the first book of the Bible, arguing that it was not literal history, but that it could be religious truth nonetheless. Elliott assumed multiple authors for Genesis and concluded it was full of “symbolic stories” not to be taken as “literally true,” such as: Adam and Eve were not actual historical figures, the flood was local, and Abraham did not actually hear the voice of God commanding him to sacrifice Isaac.

Featured in the panel discussion were Greg Wills, dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s school of theology; John Mark Yeats, pastor of Normandale Baptist Church in Fort Worth and a former church history faculty member at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Michael McMullen, professor of church history at MBTS. Jason Allen, Midwestern’s president, was the moderator.

Yeats described Elliott’s book as “a classic, liberal approach” which held that “the Scriptures themselves contain good, moral truth.”

What I think is more shocking,” Yeats said, “is that Elliott writes later that this was consistent amongst all our seminaries. This is what all departments were teaching and how pastors were being trained; you teach your people simple moral truths. Whether it’s historical, real or not, that doesn’t matter.”

The outcry in Baptist life was swift and widespread, exemplified by Texas pastor K. Owen White’s widely read essay, “Death in the Pot.”

“The book in question is ‘poison,'” White wrote. “This sort of rationalistic criticism can lead only to further confusion, unbelief, deterioration, and ultimate disintegration as a great New Testament denomination. It has happened to other denominations; it can happen to us! Modernism is insidious, dangerous, and destructive.”

Leading up to the SBC annual meeting in 1962, The Message of Genesis controversy led conservatives who agreed with White to attempt to codify traditional Baptist doctrine in what would become the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) of 1963. The new confession was intended to reflect the beliefs of churches in the convention and to tighten the accountability standards regarding the inerrancy of Scripture at the seminaries and SBC institutions.

Although messengers were nearly unanimous in adopting the new BF&M and it soothed conservatives in the pews, the panelists said it gave wordsmithing moderates an out. The first line calls the Bible “the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man.” The statement probably would not raise many eyebrows in conservative churches today, but it can be interpreted very differently. Its replacement line in the BF&M 2000 says the Bible itself is “God’s revelation of Himself to man,” and not just the record of the revelation. In another example, the final line of that section in the 1963 document reads, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”

“The question is what kind of Jesus do you believe in and what kind of Bible do you end up with?” McMullen said. “Moderates approach Scripture in a way that looks like they’re trying to preserve doctrine and belief in the Bible while undermining it completely.”

“You can’t not have a historical Adam,” Allen said, “and still have a theologically sound Gospel.”

“You can’t have independent pieces with some being true and some not,” echoed Yeats. “Elliott thought you could.”

Much to his credit, Ellott shunned the wordplay tactics of many of his academic colleagues and didn’t couch heterodoxy in orthodox language. Though he eventually resigned under pressure from Midwestern, it was not for heresy, but because he refused to stop a new edition of his book from being published and proudly stood by it.

In his 1996 book, “The Genesis Controversy,” Elliott wrote that no one else had the integrity and nerve to be open about it. He called it “doublespeak” and said that many who believe as he did sought to hide their theology.

“That bothered him, and rightly so,” Wills said. “There was a lot of duplicity there…. If all the seminaries communicated what they truly believed, they would have all been shut down within a year.”

“Doublespeak has become an insidious disease within Southern Baptist life …” Elliott wrote. “Often this was done [in Southern Baptist seminaries] with an eye and ear for the ‘gallery’ and how much the ‘church trade’ would bear. Professors and students learned to couch their beliefs in acceptable terminology and in holy jargon so that although thinking one thing, the speaker calculated so as to cause the hearer to affirm something else.”

Elliott went on to write that during the controversy, a liberal seminary colleague counseled him that his troubles stemmed from now knowing “how to communicate.”

“What he meant was that I did not know how to doublespeak,” Elliott wrote.

Though the Elliott-Genesis controversy occurred more than 50 years ago, Yeats said its lessons should not be ignored today.

“The battle for the inerrancy of Scripture is never over,” Yeats said. “There’s always a creeping question that is always seeking to destroy our confidence in the Word of God.”
Brian Koonce is a writer for The Pathway (mbcpathway.com), newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.

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