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ANALYSIS: Even these Texans noted problems in the religion dept. years ago

DALLAS (BP)–Long ago, there were problems in how at least one Texas Baptist university — Baylor, which now has its own seminary — presents the Christian faith to its students.

The problems were cited by Daniel Vestal, now coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a denomination-like group formed in opposition to the Southern Baptist Convention, and Joel Gregory, former pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, who has joined a recent CBF-related speaking tour across Texas.

Vestal took note of theological problems at Baylor in a 1980 sermon when he was pastor of First Baptist Church, Midland, Texas; Gregory did so in his 1994 book, “Too Great a Temptation.”

Vestal, recounting his experience at Baylor, preached in a sermon titled, “The Danger of Error,” on May 11, 1980, “Another crisis came after I had graduated from college and was doing graduate study in religion. I suddenly realized that what I had always believed, been taught and even preached was drastically different from what I was now hearing, reading and hearing discussed.

“I had always believed Adam and Eve were the first man and woman created in a literal garden. Now I was told to question that, and not by atheists but by trained people smarter than I.

“I had always believed the children of Israel had left Egypt because the Red Sea opened. Now I was told to question that. The story of Jonah, Abraham’s offering of Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah were all questioned. The nature miracles of the New Testament were suspect; the demoniac possessions were only psychological. And the early church created oral tradition that gave us a fallible New Testament.

“If it hadn’t been for some godly professors and strong parents and Christian friends, I could have fallen into error,” Vestal said in “The Danger of Error,” preached on May 11, 1980.

Gregory, twice a graduate of Baylor University, recounts in his book being shocked as a 17-year-old freshman religion and Greek major at Baylor in 1966 when he was told by some of his professors that the Bible was not inspired in any traditional sense. “They would stand before fresh-faced kids just out of their last Baptist youth camp the summer before and declare that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible, that there were two Isaiahs, and that the gospels were a collection of sayings, not all of which came from Jesus” (251ff).

Gregory, who earned his undergraduate degree and later his doctorate from Baylor, writes that he “had a sense that not all the folks back home knew this was going on at Baylor.”

This other “stream in Southern Baptist life that had grown up in post-War America” — as manifested at Baylor — “would not even have been so discomforting if a rational, conservative alternative had been presented as well,” Gregory writes.

“Instead, the kind of faith that nurtured most Baylor students until they went to university was openly lampooned. The professors in the department of religion, whom I consider friends to this day, considered it their calling to abolish the juvenile faith of Baptist teenagers and replace it with a more durable model born at the university.” Gregory comments that “the same profs I had met as an undergraduate seemed less militant about reforming Baptist opinions at the doctoral level.”

Divorced and remarried within two years after his resignation from First Baptist, Dallas, and no longer in the ministry, Gregory explains in his book how it happened that a conservative denomination like the SBC became infected with the popular, but unorthodox theology of the day.

From the “grand consensus” Southern Baptists previously had on the fundamentals of the faith, Gregory writes that everything changed following World War II when the influence of “a German layperson named Rudolph Bultmann” almost single handedly destroyed “the consensus of America’s largest non-Catholic denomination” (217ff), the SBC. Gregory explains that Bultmann and his followers “considered the 20th century church unable to accept a miraculous Christianity.”

Gregory surveys how the first generation of Southern Baptists began to imbibe unorthodox Bultmannian theology from “the prestigious divinity schools of the northeastern United States” after World War II. These included professors and students of Southern Baptist seminaries who came back to teach the next group of naive young Southern Baptists, who Gregory says “saw no midpoint between the faith of [their] home church[es] and the scholarly consensus” of Bultmannian theology and who “could no longer embrace the simple Biblicism of [their] Southern roots.”

This next generation of Southern Baptists then started teaching in the seminaries, raising still another generation of Southern Baptist professors on the same theology, and the cycle was perpetuated to the point that “a major conflict developed between the biblical faith represented in the Southern pews and the [higher] criticism in the seminaries.”

Gregory writes that “by the sixties, Baptist pastors awakened to the invasion of their seminaries by liberals. The denominational establishment, including its executives in Nashville and its presidents elected annually, simply wanted it all to go away for the sake of ‘missions and evangelism.’ They wanted millions of Baptists to pretend that a consensus continued that was really no longer there, at least not in the seminaries.”

So goes the story of the “overt theological liberalism in the department of religion at my alma mater” by Gregory, who warns in his book of the “equally great danger of mindless fundamentalism.”

Gregory writes that he still believes in “the historic Christian faith,” which he portrays as the conservative balance between two extremes: that “grand consensus” on the fundamentals that characterized the SBC for the first hundred years of its history when “the Bible was a perfect book” and the “orthodoxy of historic Christianity.”
Couric is a freelance writer in Fort Worth.

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  • Dave Couric