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Carson-Newman to honor disputed author Ralph Elliott

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The man whose view of biblical authority triggered an outcry among conservative Southern Baptists is being honored by Carson-Newman College as its 2005-06 distinguished alumnus.

Ralph Elliott, now living in Rochester, N.Y., will receive the award next April. He is a 1949 graduate of Carson-Newman, which is affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

After teaching Hebrew at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Elliott was enlisted in 1958 as one of the first faculty members of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where he taught Old Testament. In his book “The Message of Genesis” published by Broadman Press imprint of the Baptist Sunday School Board in 1961, he denied the historicity of Adam and Eve, rejected the Genesis flood as worldwide and asserted that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by natural causes.

How Elliott’s legacy is viewed depends on whom you ask, but conservative, moderate and liberal sympathizers agree that his first book moved the debate over scriptural integrity to a national level in the Southern Baptist Convention.

In a booklet widely distributed by those opposed to the SBC’s current leadership, titled “The Takeover in the Southern Baptist Convention,” editor Rob James wrote of the “unexpected furor” surrounding Elliott’s work which brought the “inerrancy issue” to the forefront. “It was not a radical work, nor was it intended to be,” James, a longtime professor at the University of Richmond, stated.

“It was a simple, straightforward survey and theological interpretation of Genesis. Elliott said Genesis was written by a number of different inspired writers, rather than following the traditional view that Moses wrote it,” James explained, and Elliott held that “the first eleven chapters of Genesis were divinely intended as a symbolic account rather than as literal history.”

Millard Berquist, then-president of Midwestern Seminary, called Elliott’s manuscript “one of the finest pieces of biblical scholarship produced by Southern Baptists.” Today’s MBTS president, R. Philip Roberts, however, finds it more accurate to describe Elliott’s work as “Midwestern’s contribution to the controversy” that prompted the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement. Later, a more concise expression of confidence in the Word of God occurred with the 2000 BF&M revision, Roberts added.

Baptist historian Jerry Sutton stated in his book, “The Baptist Reformation,” that the emerging conservative reformation might have been stopped if Midwestern and trustees of the former Sunday School Board had concluded Elliott’s writings were “incompatible with Southern Baptists’ doctrinal confession,” while also acknowledging other theological problems.

Ultimately, Elliott was fired for insubordination when he refused trustee demands that he not republish the work that had brought protest to both Midwestern and the Sunday School Board. He went on to pastor American Baptist churches and serve in various educational administrative positions with schools of that denomination.

Former Carson-Newman President Cordell Maddox, in an announcement circulated about Elliott’s selection as a distinguished alumnus, said he is “an outstanding graduate who has served in many important positions of leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention and American Baptist Convention.”

Walter B. Shurden of Mercer University’s faculty and a former Carson-Newman faculty member, stated, “Never encumbered by ambition, status or security, Dr. Elliott has set an example for all Baptists by his quiet courage, a courage that refused to permit political tides to silence his convictions about the truth of Holy Scripture as he interpreted it.”

Former Midwestern Seminary trustee Roger “Sing” Oldham, pastor of First Baptist Church in Martin, Tenn., called the selection of Elliott “disappointing, but not surprising” in light of other concerns he has expressed regarding Carson-Newman College.

“I don’t know the criteria upon which he was chosen and it could be that he has had a conversion back to radical fidelity to the Scripture — in which case this could be a positive thing — but based on what I know of him it is disappointing.”

In the Carson-Newman announcement circulated to alumni, Amy S. Reed, associate director of alumni relations, relayed the results of the 2005-06 Alumni Awards Selections Committee and stated that the action was approved by the board of trustees.

C-N alumni relations director David Buchanan declined to name members of the selection committee and referred calls to the public relations director who was unavailable. A committee of alumni and college representatives screen nominations from alumni, faculty, administration and staff, alumni chapters or friends of the school before making the selection that is forwarded to trustees for approval.

Elliott will join 133 alumni or friends of Carson-Newman College who “through their achievements in a profession, human service or religious endeavors or through faithful service to the college, have brought honor and distinction” to the school, according to the website at www.cn.edu. Other notable C-N distinguished alumni are Dal Shealy, former CEO of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the late Homer Lindsay, longtime pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla.

Located in Jefferson City, Tenn., Carson-Newman College reports an enrollment of approximately 2,200 students. The current president is James S. Netherton. The school was founded in 1851 as a seminary to offer educational opportunities to Baptists in the region, with a name change some 30 years later that broadened the educational opportunities it offered.

Carson-Newman College, with a 33-member board of trustees, is one of four Christian education institutions affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. According to Oldham, 14 of the CNC trustees are from the 26 churches in the Tennessee Baptist Convention that openly identify with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. By comparison, eight of the 38 Belmont trustees, one of the 23 Harrison-Chilhowee trustees and none of the 36 Union University trustees are from CBF churches in Tennessee.

With Belmont University deciding not to remain an affiliate institution of Tennessee convention, messengers to the annual meeting may allocate to Carson-Newman and Union University a half million dollars each from the reallocation of $2.3 million in Belmont funding.

TBC President Roger Freeman told the convention’s Baptist & Reflector newsjournal, “It is right and appropriate for a large portion of these mission funds to go to Union and Carson-Newman, Christian institutions which are seeking to strengthen their commitment to Baptist identity in biblical beliefs, Baptist leadership, and Cooperative Program support.”

Todd Stinnett, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Morristown, Tenn., not far from the Carson-Newman campus, said the selection of Elliott as a distinguished alumnus is pertinent to upcoming state convention’s annual meeting. He noted in an online commentary for Concerned Tennessee Baptists (www.concerned tnbap.com) that the Tennessee convention’s education committee report offered assurance that each member of the religion faculty of Carson-Newman believes the Bible to have God as its author, salvation as its end, and truth without any mixture of error for its matter, quoting from the Baptist Faith and Message.

In spite of Carson-Newman’s pledge that “every student leaves the classroom with a strong faith in the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible,” as Stinnett quoted from the report, he questions why the college would want to honor someone like Elliott. “One would think that Carson-Newman would want to honor someone who has spent his career defending the Bible’s inerrancy and historicity, but with the selection of Dr. Elliott for this most distinguished award they have done just the opposite.”

Stinnett added, “It appears as though Carson-Newman is attempting to represent themselves one way to TBC messengers, while acting in a completely different manner towards alumni, faculty, and other friends of the school.” He called on messengers to pray about the school’s relationship with the state convention and prepare to ask “some difficult questions of the school’s leadership.”

“As far as his being representative of what Southern Baptists were, are and will be in the near future, I do not think there would be anyone who would be less likely to have been chosen than Ralph Elliott,” Oldham added. “The fact that they chose him says an awful lot about where they are. If they think his contributions to biblical scholarship are laudatory then whoever the selection committee is and the approval committee among the trustees are clearly out of touch with who Southern Baptists and Tennessee Baptists are.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter