SAN DIEGO (BP) — When Richard Melick joined the Evangelical Theological Society in 1975, he only knew of two other Southern Baptists who were involved in the group.
“In contrast, today you can’t walk down the hall [at an ETS meeting] without seeing Southern Baptists everywhere,” Melick, distinguished professor of New Testament studies at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press. “And I think that’s a good thing. Both university and seminary professors are very involved.”
Southern Baptists’ transition from a small minority in ETS to a leading group within the world’s largest society of evangelical scholars is both a result of the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative resurgence and part of a larger trend of Southern Baptists participating in the broader evangelical world, Melick and others said.
At ETS’ 66th annual meeting in San Diego Nov. 19-21, about 15 percent of the 612 presentations were delivered by Southern Baptist seminary representatives, with additional presentations by representatives of other SBC entities and professors from colleges and universities affiliated with state Baptist conventions.
ETS has 4,400 members, all of whom pledge their agreement with the statement, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”
Though the society includes associate and student members without voting privileges, full members typically are seminary and college professors and pastors who hold an advanced theological degree beyond the master of divinity.
Each year’s annual meeting is centered on a theme but includes sessions covering a broad array of topics, including biblical studies, systematic theology, ethics and church history. This year’s theme was “ecclesiology,” a term referencing the study of the church. Smaller regional meetings are held annually throughout the country.
When Southern Baptists were absent
One reason Southern Baptist seminary professors did not join ETS during Melick’s early days in the society — when he taught at conservative Christian schools not affiliated with the SBC — was that many of them did not agree with the required affirmation of biblical inerrancy. Beyond that, even seminary professors who believed the Bible was inerrant saw little need to engage with the broader evangelical world, Melick said.
He remembers attending a conference in the 1970s sponsored by the six Southern Baptist seminary presidents where noted theologians J.I. Packer, author of “Knowing God,” and Millard Erickson, author of a popular systematic theology, spoke. The response of Melick’s Southern Baptist friends was telling.
“I remember a lot of my friends in Southern Baptist circles saying, ‘Why are they brining in no-name people to lead these conferences?’ when in fact they were the leading spokespersons in the evangelical world,” Melick said.
Former ETS president Robert Yarbrough, a conservative Presbyterian who grew up Southern Baptist, has a similar recollection of Southern Baptists’ distaste for interacting with other evangelicals. As a graduate student at Wheaton College in the early 1980s, Yarbrough saw advertisements for a lecture to be delivered by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Glenn Hinson titled “Why Southern Baptists Are Not Evangelicals.” Christian Life Commission executive secretary Foy Valentine similarly quipped that Southern Baptists were not evangelicals because “evangelical” was a “Yankee word.”
Yarbrough drifted away from the SBC in part because he grew in his Christian faith from reading books by evangelicals that Southern Baptist leaders deemed insignificant.
Deepening ‘in the faith’
“But somewhere along the line, lots of SBC people started to wake up to the need to deepen in the faith,” Yarbrough, professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, told BP, noting that Southern Baptists began to network with other evangelicals at that point.
Craig Blaising, provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and another former ETS president, cited the SBC’s conservative resurgence as the beginning of Southern Baptists’ awakening to the broader evangelical world — including ETS.
“The 1990s is when you saw a strong emphasis on biblical inerrancy coming into the seminaries, and with that came faculty who affirmed and believed in biblical inerrancy,” Blaising told BP. “… Then you began to see a greater involvement in the Evangelical Theological Society.”
Blaising and Melick remember the 1983 ETS annual meeting at Criswell College in Dallas as a key moment for Southern Baptist involvement. That year the society requested the resignation from its membership of Robert Gundry, a New Testament professor at Westmont College who published a Bible commentary arguing that Matthew included some non-historical elements in his account of Jesus’ birth. Critics argued that the ETS affirmation of inerrancy precluded a member from asserting factual inaccuracies in a Gospel.
Southern Baptists attended ETS meeting that year in perhaps record numbers because their own struggle to defend inerrancy within the SBC paralleled the struggle ETS was facing. Melick recalls Paige Patterson, then-president of Criswell College, expressing his concern about Gundry to the society.
“I remember Paige [Patterson] saying publicly, If ETS does not vote against Robert Gundry’s commentary or if Gundry does not renounce it, what am I going to say to my constituency that is fighting for inerrancy? We need your help to affirm what it really means,” Melick recounted. “That was the first time I remember seeing more Southern Baptists involved.”
As Patterson and others succeeded in their quest to make belief in inerrancy a condition of employment at SBC seminaries, new faculty members “found a very comfortable home” at ETS for scholarly dialogue and collaboration, Melick said.
Blaising added that the membership of ETS became a de facto pool of qualified faculty members for Southern Baptist seminaries as they moved in a conservative direction.
“It wasn’t the case that [seminaries] went to ETS per se to look for” faculty members, Blaising said. “What they began to do was to look for faculty … who affirmed biblical authority and biblical inerrancy who were excellent in their fields, and those people almost inevitably were [ETS] members.”
Along with an influx of seminary faculty who were active in ETS came a new willingness among Southern Baptists to partner with likeminded evangelicals from other denominations in Kingdom endeavors.
Yarbrough, the Presbyterian former ETS president, said Southern Baptists have become welcome colleagues in the society and have realized that interdenominational cooperation — when it does not require the compromise of Baptist principles — is helpful for fulfilling the Great Commission. Yarbrough said he has “open affection” for many Southern Baptist scholars and works with Southern Baptists regularly, including a recent speaking engagement at California Baptist University.
“People in the Southern Baptist Convention, for the sake of their highest ideal, which is taking Christ to the world …, need to work together with the whole church to get that done,” Yarbrough said.
The first Southern Baptist seminary professor to serve as ETS president was the late L. Russ Bush of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1994. He was followed by John Sailhamer, then of Southeastern, in 2000; Blaising in 2005; Bruce Ware, professor of Christian theology at Southern, in 2009; Eugene Merrill, distinguished professor of Old Testament interpretation at Southern, in 2010; and Tom Schreiner, a New Testament professor at Southern, this year.
The society’s quarterly publication, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, is edited by a Southern Baptist, Andreas Köstenberger of Southeastern Seminary.
“Many of the articles published in the Journal are good, solid pieces of scholarship that constructively set forth academically excellent and spiritually nurturing interpretations of biblical passages or explorations of theological doctrines,” Köstenberger told BP in written comments.
Köstenberger added that Southern Baptists like Ware “were at the forefront of speaking out against” a doctrinal error within ETS known as open theism, which asserts that God does not have exhaustive knowledge of the future. Votes to expel two open theists from ETS in 2003 fell short of the required two-thirds majority but signaled that many members of the society regarded open theism as incompatible with inerrancy.
Southern Baptists were also instrumental in hiring the first fulltime ETS director in 2009, who works from the ETS office housed at Southern Seminary.
It has “been really healthy for us,” Melick said of Southern Baptists, “to interface with other evangelicals who affirm inerrancy. The different perspectives they bring have helped us to see the doctrine in a holistic way.”