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Garth Pybas, a framer of ’63 BF&M as Bible affirmation, dies at 91

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Garth Pybas, one of the last surviving members of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message committee and a former president of what is now the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists, died Nov. 20 in Fort Smith, Ark. He was 91.

Pybas was among 24 Southern Baptist leaders chosen in 1962 for the committee led by then-SBC President Herschel Hobbs to reevaluate and suggest changes to the convention’s faith statement from 1925. Changes to that statement, which took into account the rising tide of higher criticism and challenges to the historicity of the Genesis account of creation in Ralph Elliot’s “The Message of Genesis,” resulted in the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message.

Elliot’s book, published by Broadman Press, then the publishing arm of the SBC’s Sunday School Board, was the subject of controversy at the 1962 Southern Baptist Convention in San Francisco. Elliot, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., claimed in the book that mythology had influenced much of the early portions of Genesis.

Baptist Press interviewed Pybas in 1999 and 2002, chronicling the elder Baptist statesman’s opinions on the original intent of the 1963 faith statement, as well as his opinions on subsequent additions to the document, such as the 1998 amendment on the family. Pybas said in 2003 that changes were made to the Baptist Faith and Message in order to strengthen Southern Baptists’ views on Scripture.

Pybas, a native of Washington, Okla., was ordained to the ministry by W.A. Criswell, then pastor of the First Baptist Church in Chickasha, Okla., in 1938. He was a chaplain in the South Pacific during World War II. He remained in Japan after the war with occupation forces and was among the first American ministers to preach in a Japanese church. He later served as pastor to churches in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois.

Pybas was secretary of evangelism and brotherhood for the Kansas-Nebraska convention from 1965-69 and participated in the World Congress on Evangelism in West Berlin with Billy Graham in 1967. Pybas also held numerous evangelistic campaigns throughout the United States.

He was a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan.

A subcommittee of Hobbs, Pybas, Nane Starnes of North Carolina, James H. Landes of Texas, V.C. Kruschwitz of Kentucky and C.Z. Holland of Arkansas recommend revising the article on Scripture to include the phrase, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”

“Elliott said a lot of [Genesis miracles] were just fairy tales, myths,” Pybas told Baptist Press in 2002. “And yet Jesus quoted them. Well, Jesus, the divine Son of God, had to know. I don’t think he’d have quoted something that wasn’t true. And that’s why Dr. Hobbs suggested putting it in there.”

David Nelson, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., said that although he knew Pybas only for a short time, he had much admiration for him. Nelson interviewed Pybas for an oral history project.

“As a chaplain in the Pacific in World War II, as a pastor in a pioneer area of the U.S. and as a contributor to the SBC at a crucial time during the controversy in the 1960s, he was a man of conviction and compassion,” Nelson said.

Nelson also said that though Pybas and others were accused of inserting “neo-orthodox language” into the Baptist Faith and Message, Pybas always recalled things differently. Nelson said Pybas told him the phrase about Jesus being “the criterion by which Scripture is interpreted” and an additional phrase about the Bible being “the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man” were not intended to elevate the ideas of soul competency, freedom of interpretation and the priesthood of believers above the Bible. Instead, they were intended to claim consistency between the teachings of Jesus and other portions of Scripture, Nelson said.

“In a context where some scholars were denying the historicity of accounts like the opening chapters of Genesis, the committee wanted to affirm, unequivocally, that we were bound to read the Scriptures just as Jesus did. Since Jesus affirmed the creation account and other accounts, like that of Jonah, we were to accept the truthfulness of such accounts as well,” Nelson said.

“Pybas denied that there was any discussion of etching a neo-orthodox meaning into Article 1 [on Scripture],” Nelson said. “But it is true that some have read Article 1 through a ‘neo-orthodox’ lens. That is, they wish to depart from the orthodox location of divine inspiration in the text itself, and they wish to speak of inspiration as something that occurs when one reads the Bible and has an encounter with Christ. In this way, the Bible isn’t actually revelation; in such a view, it is only a record of that revelation.”

Malcolm Yarnell, director of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Center for Theological Research in Fort Worth, Texas, said the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message was an effort to reaffirm Christianity’s supernatural origin and history, as the preface to the faith statement declares. Yarnell also said he did not believe the insertion of neo-orthodox language in the article on Scripture was intentional.

“The point is perhaps not so much what the mind of the committee was with regard to Article 1,” Yarnell said, “but how it was subsequently interpreted by liberal and neo-orthodox theologians within the convention. These theologians read the 1963 statement, ‘The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ,’ in a neo-orthodox way, even if that was not the committee’s original intent. It was important, therefore, in 2000, to remove any implication of neo-orthodoxy.”

Greg Wills, professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said most Southern Baptists, and perhaps even “most on the revision committee,” did not understand the implications of the two revisions in the article on Scripture. “Conservatives understood them as consistent with the traditional view of inspiration. But progressives understood them to include the more neo-orthodox view of Scripture,” Wills said.

That impulse by progressives to declare the Bible a “record of revelation” meant that “God revealed Himself in certain historical events, but that the words of Scripture were merely the human record and interpretation of that revelation –- Scripture itself was not the revelation itself,” Wills said.

“The new language asserting that the criterion of interpretation is Jesus Christ served a similar function [for the progressives] -– it separated the historical revelation event, the incarnation of the Son of God, from the Scriptures. In this view, Jesus was the revelation and the Scripture was merely the human record and interpretation of that revelation,” Wills said.

In addition to the article on Scripture which was interpreted by some to be neo-orthodox, a statement in the preface, added at Hobb’s request, actually created a loophole for more moderate interpreters of Scripture, Yarnell said.

“Hobbs added a statement in the preface that even E.Y. Mullins did not deem wise to add to a confession,” Yarnell said, “that ‘Baptists emphasize the soul’s competency before God, freedom in religion, and the priesthood of the believer.’ Hobbs’ statement caused some debate in 2000 when the statement was dropped. One can only surmise as to why the 2000 committee originally dropped the statement. However, in its 1963 form, the statement seemed to undermine the authority of a convention’s confession. Indeed, some denominational employees argued in the 1980s and 1990s that this exact statement enabled them to personally disagree with the confession while yet signing it.”

Yarnell said the committee that was formed to revise the faith statement again in 2000, added the concepts of soul competency and priesthood back into the preface “under pressure immediately prior to the convention,” but “with the clarification that these concepts did not encourage unrestrained individualism.” The preface to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 now reads, “We honor the principles of soul competency and the priesthood of believers, affirming together both our liberty in Christ and our accountability to each other under the Word of God.”

“The 2000 statement preserves the church and the convention from the acids of modern self-sufficiency and shows a more realistic understanding of historic Baptist theology,” Yarnell said.

Since then, however, critics have charged that those who wrote the 2000 faith statement, in which the phrase about Jesus being the criterion for scriptural interpretation was removed, had elevated Scripture above God. Pybas rejected any notion that Southern Baptists had succumbed to “bibliolatry” in 2002. Southern Baptist leaders in 2000, as in 1963, desired to clarify biblical truth for a changing culture, Pybas said. He also noted that his peers never intended the 1963 statement to be the final chapter on Baptist beliefs.

“What did they worship before 1963?” Pybas asked rhetorically in 2002, alluding to the 1925 statement which did not include Hobbs’ language either. “It was never, never, that I can find, in any Baptist statement before it was put in [in 1963]…. We only faced the problems that existed in the convention at that time.”

“Are they insinuating that the 10 million Southern Baptists that existed [before 1963] worshiped the Bible instead of Christ? Are they insinuating … that all of those before we put that in there worshiped the Bible? That is ridiculous,” Pybas said in 2002.

Nelson said that, like the 1963 faith statement, the 2000 faith statement was drafted in a particular context. While it affirms core biblical beliefs, he said it also speaks to the times in which it was drafted. He said Southern Baptists may consider changes to the document in the future, if changes in culture and the religious climate warrant.

“Our Baptist forebears, including the Anabaptists and the English Baptists, made use of confessions to the good end that they defended the faith and handed down the Christian faith from one generation to another. Faithful Baptists in the future should be prepared to do the same with clarity and charity,” Nelson said.

“A sound confession of faith is an essential bulwark against error,” Wills said. “But it is insufficient. Sound churches must be faithful stewards of the Gospel and of Gospel institutions, appointing sound leaders and keeping them accountable to the divinely inspired and inerrant Scripture.”

That was the goal of the 1963 statement, Pybas told Baptist Press in 1999. “I was there, and we believed the Bible then and we still believe it today. If we do not believe that men are lost and that God placed that Great Commission on us to be concerned for lost souls, then our denomination is done for.

“We believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, but some say we believe in idolatry and worship the Bible. I don’t know of one Southern Baptist who worships the Bible, but we either believe it or we don’t. If we don’t, we’re in trouble,” Pybas said.

“When you question the Bible, it kills evangelism in your church and you lose your concern for missions.”

“We’re the real mainstream Baptists and we’re going to continue straight on down the road we have been on,” Pybas said in 1999. “I believe in our national and state conventions. Now, that doesn’t mean I always agree with everyone else about everything, but I still feel like we’re doing what God wants us to do.”

Pybas’ funeral was held Nov. 24 at Southern Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.

He is survived by his wife Doris; two daughters, Janet Leiner and Carol Helmbacher, both of Fort Smith, Ark.; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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