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Mohler: SBC controversy reflects core beliefs about truth, liberty

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The overarching issue that divides Southern Baptist moderates and conservatives is divergent understandings of Baptist identity, R. Albert Mohler Jr. told a group of conferees at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Mohler, president of the Louisville, Ky., seminary, spoke on the issue of Southern Baptist identity in the opening address of “Southern Baptists in the New Millennium: Identity, Orthodoxy, and Cooperation.”

The SBC controversy is rooted in an argument over Baptist history and what role that history should play in the modern church, Mohler said in addressing the Feb. 26-28 conference on the SBC’s identity and history.

“Here moderates and conservatives have different understandings of its binding authority on Baptists present, or certainly which aspects of Baptist history are to be given deferential treatment over others and greater authority.”

The Southern Baptist controversy, at the most fundamental level, has been over core beliefs and the basic vision for — or worldview of — the convention, Mohler said, with many conservatives and moderates having stood on opposite sides of moral issues such as abortion as well as theological issues such as inerrancy and other core doctrinal beliefs.

The differing parties could be divided into two camps: the truth party and the liberty party, Mohler said. The truth party emphasizes the authority of Scripture and its inerrancy, while the liberty party focuses on personal autonomy. These are the theological underpinnings of the two sides’ differing views of Baptist identity, he said.

“The truth party, to speak mostly of conservatives, spoke very clearly that what was threatened was truth,” he said. “And that truth [is] the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and those truths are non-negotiable and essential.

“The liberty party argued that what was most threatened was Baptist liberty.”

The controversy as it stands today had its beginnings in 1920 in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy and the framing of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message statement of SBC beliefs. It escalated in the 1963 revision of the BFM and the failure of a satisfactory resolution of the Broadman Bible Commentary, then with the election of Adrian Rogers as president of the SBC in 1979.

The differences between the two groups have grown even greater in the past two decades after conservatives regained leadership in the convention, Mohler said.

“The truth and the liberty party are divided by this basic vision, a vision of what the denomination is, what its history represents, what its opportunities are, how its polity is to be organized, what its ethos is to be, what kind of symbols it is to champion and prize.

“The distance between the two parties is more dramatic now, but the seeds of the present reality were sown in the 1920s, I will argue, in the controversy over supernaturalism. They were scattered during the war years, watered during the 1960s and ’70s, and they matured during the last two decades of the 20th century.”

The Southern Baptist controversy is much deeper than some would believe, Mohler said, noting that by the 1990s crises of theology, authority, confessionalism, polity and culture existed along with identity in the SBC.

These factors remain in dividing conservatives and moderates and have been profoundly manifested in recent revisions of the Baptist Faith and Message. Revisions in 1998 — the adoption of the family amendment — and last year displayed publicly the confessional differences between the two sides, he said.

The most troubling threat to emerge from these recent debates is that of theological minimalism, a threat that is being perpetrated by both sides, Mohler said.

It is dangerous for members of either camp to “say, ‘Let’s get it down to this.’ That reductionism I would argue is the continuing source of theological crisis and identity,” Mohler said. “Among the moderates, this theological minimalism is most often by intention. Among conservatives, it’s largely by the temptation of pragmatism and the sublimation of virtually all theological issues to operational concerns.”

Bound up in the SBC identity crisis, Mohler said, is a tribal element unique to Southern Baptists. Many are Baptists simply because they have always been Baptists. He said it is a common thread on both sides of the debate.

Mohler said the debate boils down to which element Southern Baptists view as of primary relevance in defining the denominational vision.

“The tribal dimension is not to be denied,” he said. “The issue of debate [is] … whether there is an essential and non-negotiable aspect to identity. And the question comes down to whether the tribal issues are accountable to the theology or the theology to the tribal ethos.”

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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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