|Memories of The Way We Were|
|Issue: 45 Page No: 25 Updated: 12/27/2010 10:00 AM|
|Author:||Jeph Holloway , Fisher Humphreys|
A few years ago a colleague and I were sitting in the faculty lounge of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He made the interesting point that those now in control of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) faced something of a dilemma. How could a campaign that touted itself as restorationist (“the Conservative Resurgence”) call for any significant changes in The Baptist Faith & Message? It would be an odd thing for a movement claiming to be the true heir of Baptist heritage and identity to call for any drastic changes in the theological framework of the SBC. Such changes would indicate not restoration, but innovation.
Do changes in The Baptist Faith & Message indicate a significant shift in the theological perspective and character of the Southern Baptist Convention? Do changes in how The Baptist Faith & Message is used mark a transition in terms of what it means to be Southern Baptist? Has the altered course set by SBC leadership meant a loss or retrieval of historic Baptist principles and beliefs? Fisher Humphreys’ recent book, The Way We Were: How Southern Baptist Theology Has Changed And What It Means To Us All, substantively argues that since controversy in the SBC became overt in 1979, significant changes have occurred in the Convention and that Southern Baptists will never again be “exactly the people they were before.”
Humphreys offers a unique approach to interpreting the controversy that has dominated Southern Baptist life for the last twenty-plus years. While appreciative of other efforts at interpreting the controversy, he provides an explicitly theological interpretation that is still sensitive to the complexity of a situation that includes strong personal, sociological, and political dynamics. Certainly the controversy has been “about political power, both inside and outside the Convention, but it was not about political power alone” (6). Humphreys takes at face value the contention of new leadership in the SBC that their concerns have been and are theological in character. He will argue, however, that the theological direction in which the new Convention leadership has steered Southern Baptists leaves significant theological principles basic to Southern Baptist identity and heritage at great risk.
The structure of Humphreys’ work is important to his argument. The first of three parts describes what he calls the “Majority Tradition,” those beliefs Baptists share with all Christians (e.g., the Triune God, who created the world, has been made known through the Son, who for the sake of redeeming a fallen world suffered, died, and rose again), and those beliefs Baptists share with other Protestants (e.g., sola Scriptura, justification by grace alone through faith alone, the priesthood of all believers). There is also, however, a “Majority Tradition” of distinctively Baptist beliefs. Anyone familiar with the origins and history of Baptists will recognize the “Majority” Baptist tradition Humphreys presents: believer’s baptism, baptism by immersion, a believers church ecclesiology, the local autonomy of the church, a congregational form of church governance, the importance of voluntary cooperation among congregations for the sake of common mission efforts, the separation of church and state, and a fierce resistance to creedalism. Humphreys also notes beliefs Baptists share with other “Revivalist” Christians. With many other Christians Baptists emphasize the necessity of personal salvation, the blessing of assurance of salvation, and the priority of evangelism and missions in the church’s ministry.
Someone once described the Christians at Corinth as those who defined themselves solely in terms of how they differed from one another, rather than in light of what they held in common. Humphreys provides a more balanced account of what it has meant to be Baptist by reminding us of both what Baptist have uniquely held and of what we share with all Christians. We have believed, though, that those convictions uniquely held by Baptists are vital, faithful, and essential for our witness to the world as well as to other Christians. Some of those convictions, Humphreys says, are in danger of tragic displacement. How so?
The second part of The Way We Were analyzes six “Minority Traditions.” Along with the core beliefs held by the majority of Baptists, six clusters of beliefs held by visible minorities in the Convention have been present in different measures and at different times, representing competing agendas in the life and history of Southern Baptists. Anabaptist traditions, Calvinistic teachings, Landmarkism, the Deeper Life movement, Fundamentalism, and Progressivism have all been represented at some level in Southern Baptist life. According to Humphreys’ analysis, of these six minority traditions, Fundamentalism has made a successful move from being one strand among many, to being the controlling force of Southern Baptist life and thought. With its three central convictions of militant opposition to liberalism, the inerrancy of biblical autographs, and dispensational premillennialism, Fundamentalism has explicitly challenged some of the other minority traditions (e.g., Progressivism’s views on women in ministry and the critical study of the Bible). More problematically, Humphreys argues in the third part of the book, the ascendancy of Fundamentalism in the Convention has occasioned the loss of several Majority traditions that have been basic to Southern Baptist identity. Citing explicit statements from current Convention leadership, significant figures leading the “Conservative Resurgence,” and the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, Humphreys indicates that the priesthood of all believers, congregational decision-making, separation of church and state, and resistance to creedalism have been at least radically modified if not completely lost in terms of the power of these beliefs to shape Southern Baptist life. In their place, Humphreys believes, greater emphasis will be given to the central convictions of Fundamentalism along with less room given for competing Minority traditions such as Anabaptist and progressive beliefs.
Humphreys says that for him this story of a changed Southern Baptist Convention is “one of profound sadness.” Yet, he recognizes that the new leadership of the Convention views the change in course as necessary and proper. Paraphrasing a question from the 1980 Reagan/Carter presidential debate, Humphreys asks Southern Baptists to decide the issue for themselves: “Are you better off now than you were before 1979?”
The recent actions of the International Mission Board of the SBC might help to answer Humphreys’s question. Due to a change in policy, the IMB now requires all of its missionaries to affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, even those missionaries who had been previously approved and appointed to the mission field under previous conditions entered into willingly by all parties. To date, approximately 77 missionaries have left the mission field due to issues related to the change in policy, either through termination, resignation, or early retirement. One couple terminated by the IMB explained their refusal to sign the 2000 BF & M in terms that echo Humphreys’s account of the changes in the SBC: “Those who hold the power now would say they have returned Southern Baptists to their conservative theological roots and reversed the trend toward secularism. In reality, they have implemented a theologically coercive policy mandating conformity and substituted civil religion for the prophetic role of a Baptist church in society.”
The actions of the IMB particularly demonstrate “how Southern Baptist theology has changed and what it means to us all.” While the origins of the SBC are complicated and morally ambiguous, one issue related to central Baptist convictions played a considerable role in the formation of the new Convention. Baptist churches in the South were outraged that mission agencies would take their money and yet refuse to appoint missionaries from those same churches. A new Baptist convention of churches was formed that would respect the local autonomy of the church, appreciate a diversity based on the priesthood of all believers, and still cooperate on the vital concern of missions.
The SBC appears to have come full circle: eager for financial support from the local Baptist church, but willing even to rescind the recommendation of a local church of a missionary, if that missionary does not affirm a revised Baptist Faith & Message. That the IMB would revoke the appointments of missionaries who had long ago been sent by local churches that sacrificially support missions is one clear example of “how Southern Baptist theology has changed and what it means to us all.” In 1845 similar actions led to the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention. How ironic that a movement that has presented itself as the true heir to Southern Baptist heritage and identity would violate the very principles that led to the Convention’s formation and served it so well — at least until 1979. Fisher Humphreys’ The Way We Were is a helpful account of the theological developments in the SBC that drive this irony. All who are concerned about what has happened to a core set of convictions that for so long sustained the common efforts of Southern Baptists can profit from this work.
Cite This Page:
Holloway, Jeph , Humphreys, Fisher. "Memories of The Way We Were" ChristianEthicsToday.
The Christian Ethics Today Foundation. Summer 2003 (Issue 45 Page 25)