News Articles

Report clarifies views of Scripture held by Southern Baptists, Catholics

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Five years of study by a joint panel of Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics has found that while both groups share a deep appreciation for Scripture, they hold vastly different beliefs on foundational issues of the Bible’s nature, authority and role in the Christian faith.
A report released in September details the findings of the five-year “conversation” regarding Scripture between eight Southern Baptist leaders — under the auspices of the North American Mission Board’s interfaith evangelism team — and eight representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Phil Roberts, former interfaith evangelism director for NAMB and leader of the Southern Baptist delegation to the conversations, said the goal of the talks from the Southern Baptist perspective was simply to help Southern Baptists and Catholics understand each other better.
“The idea was for us to understand some of the nuanced uses of the Bible and their variant position on the authority of Scripture, so that we can both appreciate and differentiate how Catholics use the Bible versus how Southern Baptists use the Bible,” Roberts said.
The group met at both Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist institutions, sharing their different perspectives and studying a variety of theological documents from both traditions.
The report is based largely on outlining the different definitions Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics apply to such terms as revelation, Word of God, inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility and canon.
Revelation to Southern Baptists, for instance, refers primarily to the written revelation of Scripture. Roman Catholics, meanwhile, point to Jesus Christ as the revelation of God, with both Scripture and church tradition bearing witness to that revelation.
“Words mean different things to different people, and never is that more true than in the theological realm,” said Roberts, currently vice president for strategic cities strategies at NAMB. “When I say theological authority, I mean the Bible. When a Catholic says theological authority, he’s thinking the Bible as interpreted by the [Roman Catholic] church and by tradition. And that’s why when we deal with these words and these issues we really need some clarification.”
But while differences in the infallibility of the Scriptures and infallibility of the church and its leaders have been well understood, Roberts said one of the areas where he saw a growing gulf between the groups was in the area of basic scriptural interpretation. Over the past 50 years, he said, the Roman Catholic Church has come to increasingly embrace the historical-critical method of scriptural interpretation, while Southern Baptists have moved away from the approach. The method looks to various sources to discover the meaning of Scripture apart from a commitment to biblical inerrancy.
The implied historicity of biblical events also was an issue, Roberts said. Southern Baptists, the report states, generally view events as historical that are “clearly intended by the sacred authors to be taken as such.”
“The Catholic Church would not necessarily take these positions,” Roberts said. “They would be much more open principally to saying things like the story of Jonah or of Adam and Eve were not literal events.”
Paige Patterson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and another member of the panel, said the report should help Southern Baptists interpret Roman Catholic statements more effectively in any future discussions.
“I believe that probably all of our Southern Baptist participants in the dialogue are better able to assess how much weight should be given to Roman Catholic statements appearing from various groups,” said Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. “One thing that I think has become crystal clear in the process of the dialogue is that no ecumenical hopes would be in order.”
Patterson noted, however, that the conversations did demonstrate that “it is possible for people working from rather radically different conclusions to sit down together in a hospitable and charitable way and learn from one another.”
“While being more convinced than ever before that the divide between us is unbridgeable short of a major change in the doctrine of one group or the other, it remains possible to learn from one another and to discuss our understandings of truth without resorting to either Catholic-bashing or Baptist-bashing,” Patterson said.
Roberts said while other conversations between Southern Baptists and Catholics have taken place in the past, the conversations on the nature of Scripture were the first to include key conservative leaders in the convention. As such, he said they reflected a new approach to the process and issues involved.
Other participants included R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Mark Coppenger, former president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, Ala.; Mark Dever, pastor of Capital Hill Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.; Bill Gordon, an interfaith evangelism associate for NAMB; and Don Kammerdiener, executive vice president of the International Mission Board.
Areas to be tackled in future discussions include salvation, evangelism and mission, and religious liberty, although a timetable for those discussions has not yet been developed.
“It took us five years to do what we thought we could do in one year,” said Gordon. “I think that’s indicative of the major differences that exist between us — even on Scripture, which is one of the doctrinal areas where we tend to have more agreement than disagreement.”
(A NAMB interfaith evangelism bulletin on Roman Catholicism, revised by Gordon last year, is available through LifeWay Christian Services, 1-800-448-8032.)

    About the Author

  • James Dotson