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FIRST-PERSON: Measuring the Resurgence after 35 years

NASHVILLE (BP) — I remember traveling to Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings during key battleground years of the Conservative Resurgence. In New Orleans, I rode a riverboat. In San Antonio, I visited the Alamo. And in Houston, I went to a water park and an Astros game. It’s not that I was apathetic and skipped the sessions. I was just a child who knew nothing about Baptist life tagging along on a family trip.

With the beginning of the Resurgence now 35 years past, there are countless Southern Baptists like me who are too young to remember the struggle to make belief in the Bible’s inerrancy a bedrock conviction of all convention entities. On this anniversary, let’s recap some of the tangible differences that the Conservative Resurgence made, thankful for the courageous Baptists who struggled a generation ago:

— Thanks to the Conservative Resurgence, the SBC defends unborn life. Not so before. A 1971 convention resolution advocated “legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Following the Supreme Court’s infamous Roe v. Wade decision two years later, a Baptist Press article cheerfully announced, “The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision that overturned a Texas law which denied a woman the right of abortion except to save her life, has advanced the cause of religious liberty, human equality and justice.” You won’t find such celebrations of abortion in BP today, and SBC resolutions consistently decry the stamping out of unborn life.

— Thanks to the Resurgence, we can trust the orthodoxy of books published by our denominational publishing house, LifeWay Christian Resources. But Southern Baptists have not always enjoyed such trust. For example, a 1969 commentary on Genesis published by the Baptist Sunday School Board (LifeWay’s predecessor organization) stated that factual errors in Genesis cause “occasional embarrassment.” Regarding Noah’s flood, the commentary argued, “To imagine the world covered by water to a depth of five miles, or that Noah could have gathered pairs of all the animals from all over the world in the time mentioned, or housed them in the ark, calls for belief beyond reason.”

— Thanks to the Conservative Resurgence, ministry students at Southern Baptist seminaries study Greek and Hebrew in order to understand the Bible in its original languages. After Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary came under conservative control, a master of divinity track that required only a two-hour language appreciation course was abolished, replaced with a minimum requirement of one semester each of Greek and Hebrew. Today the minimum amount of language study for an M.Div. student at Southwestern is a full year of each language.

Similarly at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a student could earn the base pastoral degree in 1959 without completing any Greek or Hebrew classes. President Olin Binkley wrote that increasing the requirements “would add considerably to the strain upon at least a few of the students and upon the teachers of the Biblical languages.” After Paige Patterson became president of Southeastern, a note was added to the catalog that “students preparing for pastoral ministry, or for any Christian vocation that includes an emphasis upon the regular exposition of God’s Word” should “begin course work in the biblical languages during their first year.” Today Southeastern’s M.Div. curriculum includes a full year each of Hebrew and Greek. There may be exceptions, but in general the Resurgence seems to have increased Southern Baptist pastors’ conversance with biblical languages.

— Thanks to the Resurgence, much Southern Baptist preaching is expository. I have attended enough SBC annual meetings and Pastors’ Conferences to know that most preachers there read a Bible passage, explain what it means and apply it to modern life. I have also attended enough moderate Baptist meetings as a correspondent for Baptist Press to know that many preachers there do not follow the same pattern, opting instead for narrative preaching or a series of meditations. Of course, there are exceptions. One of the best illustrations I’ve ever heard of a believer’s union with Christ was given by a preacher at a moderate Baptist meeting. But by and large, the difference is obvious between preaching at the SBC and preaching at meetings led by those who formerly controlled the convention.

— Thanks to the Resurgence, Southern Baptist seminary students study theology textbooks that teach the inerrancy of Scripture and develop a system of doctrine based on the Bible — books like the systematic theologies of Millard Erickson and Wayne Grudem. In contrast, in the 1980s one Southern Baptist Theological Seminary theology professor assigned students to read Paul Tillich’s systematic theology — a book that dismisses a traditional Christian reading of the Bible and attempts to correlate Christian doctrines with existential philosophy. Some evangelicals regard Tillich’s theology as a form of pantheism or even atheism.

— Thanks to the Resurgence, the SBC has leaders who support traditional marriage. On the other hand, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship — a group composed largely of those who opposed the conservative movement in the SBC — refuses take a firm stand, maintaining a policy of not issuing “‘official’ positions on homosexuality,” according to the CBF website. At times though, the CBF appears to accept gay marriage, as when it co-sponsored a 2012 conference on “Sexuality & Covenant,” where some speakers spoke of homosexuality as normative. A CBF leader in Arkansas, Judge Wendell Griffen, performed same-sex weddings earlier this year when gay marriage was ruled legal in his state. Clearly, many moderate Baptists defend traditional sexual morality but their willingness to have in leadership those who deviate from the traditional view shows where the SBC might have ended up.

The monumental battles may be finished. But Southern Baptists like me, who weren’t around 35 years ago, can still measure the Conservative Resurgence’s effects. To do so makes us stop and say thank you to all who worked to change the direction of our convention.
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Previous BP coverage of the Conservative Resurgence 35th anniversary includes: “Adrian Rogers, ‘rising star of Memphis,’ elected 35 years ago” by David Roach and “FIRST-PERSON: From Adrian Rogers to Millennials who count the cost” by Andrew Walker.

Information on Southeastern Seminary drawn from Olin T. Binkley letter to J. Hardee Kennedy, 12/18/1959, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary Institutional Records, Archives and Special Collections, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.; and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary Course Catalog, 1994, Archives and Special Collections, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.