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call for renewed study of Baptist history

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–Southern Baptists are in danger of losing the Gospel itself if they continue the infighting that has characterized the convention in recent years, Union University President David S. Dockery said Feb. 16.

“It is time to move from controversy and confusion to a new consensus and renewed commitment to cooperation,” Dockery said. “We need to take a step back not just to commit ourselves afresh to missions and evangelism, as important as that is. We need to commit ourselves foremost to the Gospel, the message of missions and evangelism, the message that is found only in Jesus Christ and His atoning death for sinners.”

In his address at the Feb. 15-17 Baptist Identity Conference at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., Dockery traced the history of Southern Baptists to show that they have never been a doctrinally uniform group but rather one committed to the authority of Scripture and cooperation in reaching the world with the Gospel.

Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., addressed similar concerns in his message at the conference. He advocated a retrieval of Baptist heritage as a means of renewal for the convention today.

“We will not meet tomorrow’s challenge by forgetting yesterday’s dilemma,” George said. “But neither will we win tomorrow’s struggles by fighting yesterday’s battles.”

While a Southern Baptist identity was easy to recognize in past decades, Dockery said that’s not the case today. Even before the Conservative Resurgence in the convention that began in the late 1970s, “the intactness had started to unravel in the past 30 years” due to such developments as multiple Bible translations, the impact of para-church groups, a diversity of music, varied worship patterns and heroes outside the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Today Southern Baptists seem to be a gathering of loosely connected — if not balkanized — groups,” Dockery said.

This balkanization, often fueled by differences over secondary theological issues, could re-ignite a battle, Dockery said, in which those engaged are “prone to concentrate on the frustrations or disappointments, while never thinking of the ultimate issues or implications for which the battle is being fought.”

“The ultimate danger to the Gospel lies not in the nuances of our differences, but in the rising tides of liberalism, neo-paganism and postmodernism that threaten to swamp Southern Baptist identity in cultural accommodation,” the university president added.

To battle these threats, Dockery called for Southern Baptists to become more familiar with their heritage.

“By and large we don’t know our heritage, our history, our theological identity,” he said. “We don’t know Furman, Manly, Broadus, Johnson, Frost, Mullins, Carroll, Conner, Moon or Armstrong. We hardly know Lee, Rogers, Hobbs and Criswell.”

Dockery also challenged Southern Baptists to recommit themselves to the Gospel, adding that he did not “hold out doctrinal uniformity as a goal” but hoped for “renewed commitments to the inspiration, truthfulness and authority of Scripture, with an accompanying commitment to a hermeneutic of acceptance over [and] against a hermeneutic of suspicion, as well as a re-establishment and reaffirmation of the Gospel center.”

George argued that a return to Baptist teachings and beliefs of the past “will help us deal constructively with the issues and controversies we face today…. This will help us to place in perspective some of the questions that still generate more heat than light within our own Southern Baptist fellowship.”

For example, George raised the question of whether Baptists are creedal people. He said Baptists have never advocated creedalism, in that they have always been ardent supporters of religious liberty and have never elevated any human-created statement above Scripture.

“Baptists have never canonized any of their confessions, but rather have held them all to be revisable in the light of the Bible, God’s infallible, unchanging revelation,” George said.

But a minority of Baptists has historically believed that creeds and confessions are useful statements of faith.

“Still, for all their value, confessions must be used with great wisdom and care,” George said. “Confessionalism — like creedalism and traditionalism — can stultify and choke, as well as undergird and defend.

“When matters of secondary and tertiary importance are elevated to a level of primary significance and placed right next to the doctrine of the Trinity or justification by faith alone, then we are veering away from orthodoxy to orthodoxism, from tradition … to traditionalism,” George added. “Retrieval can lead to reversal as well as to renewal. If the Baptist Faith and Message becomes a grab bag for every problem or issue that comes onto the horizon, then it will cease to be a consensual statement of Baptist conviction.”

George also addressed the question of whether Baptists are Calvinists.

“Historically and empirically, the answer to this question is, some are and some aren’t,” he said. “And it has been this way among Baptists for nearly 400 years.”

George urged caution for both those who are Calvinistic in their theology and those who reject Calvinism. He said Baptists have something to learn both from John Calvin and from John Wesley.

“We need not kill one another over such issues today,” George said. “This is a family discussion, and it need not be a source of division and acrimony among us.”

George further suggested that the term “Calvinism” be banished from discussions and debates.

“It has become the new ‘N’ word for some and an unseemly badge of pride for others,” he said. “It does us no good…. Let us confess freely and humbly that none of us understands completely how divine sovereignty and human responsibility coalesce in the grace-wrought acts of repentance and faith. Let us talk about these matters and yes, let us seek to persuade one another on these matters. But let this be done with gentleness and respect.”

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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