Why can’t Southern Baptists just get along?

Why can’t Southern Baptists just get along? July 8, 2012

I’m not a Southern Baptist and never have been one. But you can’t be a Baptist in North America and especially in the South and not feel the tension emanating from that denomination. Even non-Baptists feel it. The “Baptist wars” (almost exclusively a reference to the thirty plus years battles among SBCers) get reported on even in the secular press.

I’ve been an observer of the Baptist wars for years. For the past thirteen years most of my students and many of my colleagues grew up SBC. As I’ve mentioned here before, one of my theological mentors (in my doctoral studies and afterwards) was a leading SBC theologian (moderate John Newport).

I have long predicted that once the conservatives consolidate their control of SBC institutions they will turn on each other with the same vitriol and venom they turned on the so-called “liberals” in SBC seminaries in the 1970s through the 1990s. (I put “liberals” in scare quotes to indicate that I still don’t know of a single SBC seminary professor who was truly liberal in any historical-theological meaning of the word. Not one, for example, appears in Gary Dorrien’s massive three volume history of liberal theology in America! One conservative told me he knew of a theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who denied the virgin birth but he wouldn’t tell me the professor’s name. So, to this day, I have my doubts. John Newport told me in 1979 and many times afterwards that the “take over” was not really about doctrine or theology but about people who felt like “outsiders” wanting power and control.)

Recently a leading Southern Baptist pastor has gone on the attack against fellow conservative Southern Baptists. He says (at his blog) there is “room” in the SBC for all of them, but his rhetoric makes one wonder what he really thinks.

The SBC pastor/blogger in question is Wade Burleson and his questionable post is at www.wadeburleson.org/2012/07/early-london-baptists-and-today-sbc.html

(I apologize that I still have not found the way to turn URLs into live hyperlinks; just copy and paste it into your browser.  Don’t take my word for what he says there; read it yourself. I think you’ll find the final paragraph shocking. I do.)

Burleson seems to want his readers to believe that all early Baptists were Calvinists. Well, that’s simply factually wrong. But he appeals to the 1644 London Confession as if it expressed the theology of all early Baptists. Lumpkin, in his authoritative Baptist Confessions of Faith, includes it under “Early English Baptist Associational Confessions.” In other words, like all Baptist confessions, it expressed the consensus of a group of Baptist congregations. It was not like the Westminister Confession of Faith (for Presbyterians) or the Augsburg Confession (for Lutherans). Those expressed the doctrinal standard for all Presbyterians in a national (the UK and Germany) and became binding on all Presbyterians and Lutherans world wide. (Candidates for ordination must swear allegiance to them.)

Like all Baptist confessional statements, the 1644 London Confession was a statement meant to explain the consensus of beliefs of a particular group of Baptist congregations to outsiders. Yes, like many others, it became an instrument of doctrinal accountability over time–for a particular group of Baptists.

What Burleson doesn’t make sufficiently clear is that this statement was largely based on Mennonite statements of faith (Fuller Seminary professor Glen Stassen has demonstrated that in several articles), especially Menno Simons’ Foundations book. Burleson wants to drive a wedge between Anabaptists and Baptists, something Particular Baptists in England came to do to protect themselves from persecution and because they adopted Separatist Puritan views on God’s sovereignty–something foreign to their Anabaptist forebears.

(Glen Stassen, professor of ethics at Fuller Seminary, has proven direct reliance of the 1644 London Confession on Mennos Simons’ book The Foundation of Christian Doctrine. See “Opening Menno Simons’s Foundation-Book and Finding the Father of Baptist Origins alongside the Mother–Calvinist Congregationalism” in Baptist History and Heritage Spring, 1998 pp. 34-54. Burleson is clearly wrong to deny even early London Baptists’ Anabaptist roots.)

Also not made sufficiently clear in Burleson’s post is that during the same time the 1644 London Confession was being written and promulgated, there were older, “General Baptist” congregations in and around London that did NOT endorse that statement because of its Calvinism. In fact, there were Baptist statements of faith before the 1644 London Confession. Why doesn’t Burleson mention them? The first one was the “Short Confession of Faith in XX Articles” by John Smyth in 1609. Burleson complains that some Southern Baptists are denying original sin. (I can only guess who he means, but the authors of the previously here discussed statement about the traditional Southern Baptist doctrine of salvation did NOT, in fact, deny original sin.) John Smyth DID deny original sin: “(5) That there is no original sin….” (Lumpkin, p. 100) That doesn’t make denial of original sin “okay” but it ought at least to be noted in any attempt to trace the history of Baptist doctrinal statements!

Furthermore, Thomas Helwys, the other original founder of the Baptist tradition (as it emerged out of Puritanism and Anabaptism in Holland and England) also wrote a Baptist confessional statement. His was in 1610 (thirty plus years before the 1644 London Confession) and it too denied original sin: “none of [Adam’s] posterity…are guilty, sinful, or born in original sin.” (Lumpkin, 103).

Again, just because Smyth and Helwys said it doesn’t make it right or even typical of “right Baptist belief.” My only point is that it would SEEM worthy of mentioning in any diatribe against fellow Baptists ON THE GROUNDS THAT they supposedly go entirely against all of Baptist tradition with regard to original sin.

Now, earlier here I criticized the statement of some Southern Baptists about the “traditional Southern Baptist” view of salvation because it seemed to open the door to semi-Pelagianism. But my criticism was not that semi-Pelagianism has not been part of the Baptist tradition. My criticism was that it is not “the traditional Baptist [or even Southern Baptist]” view of salvation. And it is technically a heresy (in the Great Tradition of Christian teaching). And, of course, most importantly, it is unbiblical.

But I did not accuse them of “flirting with pelagianism” [sic] let alone “flouting [sic] humanism” as Burleson seems to do. (If he’s not talking about them, I don’t know whom he is talking about.)

Here is how Burleson ends his post: “There’s room in the SBC for Baptists who flirt with pelagianism and flout humanism. However, let it not be said they are either historic or traditional in their soteriological and theological views. They are neither.”

“Flout humanism?” (I assume he meant “flaunt” humanism? But even that would be a misuse of language.) I seriously doubt there are any SBCers who flout or flaunt humanism (in the sense Burleson seems to mean). C’mon. Get real. Get civil. (And use words correctly.)

This kind of venomous attack on fellow Christians, God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians, is so uncalled for, so out of line, so indecent and uncivil that it demands censure.

UNLESS, of course, he’s talking about unitarians or atheists or agnostics. In the SBC? I doubt it. I think he’s talking about Arminians or those who don’t call themselves Arminians but, for all practical purposes, are.

The only picture at his post of anyone he might mean is of Paige Patterson whom he criticizes for claiming Baptist roots in Anabaptism. And, of course, Paige is an Arminian who doesn’t call himself one. (I call him one because he denies the U, the L and the I of TULIP which are the three great issues separating Calvinism from Arminianism.)

Burleson also criticizes those who claim Baptist roots in the Anabaptist tradition–on the basis that the 1644 London Baptist Confession and its formulators deny being “Anabaptist.” As I said earlier, however, Glen Stassen and William Estep, among others, have demonstrated quite conclusively strong influence of Mennonites on early Baptists. Yes, the London Baptists were correct to deny being “Anabaptist,” but it is also incorrect to deny Anabaptist roots of the Baptist tradition or Anabaptist influence on the early London Baptists.

But my main point here is to ask why Southern Baptists can’t get along? I’m not surprised, however, that they, the conservatives who took control of the SBC often using scare tactics and venomous, even unchristian, attacks on fellow Southern Baptists are now turning on each other. Is there something in SBC DNA that makes this inevitable? No, I don’t think so. Over the years there have been long periods of relative peace in spite of diversity (e.g., between Calvinists and non-Calvinists) within the SBC. It’s not SBC DNA that’s the problem, it’s fundamentalism.

Here I speak not of fundamentalism in the early, ordinary, garden-variety sense of Protestant orthodoxy–belief in the five or six or seven “fundamentals of the faith.” Here, by “fundamentalism,” I speak of the religious ethos that entered into evangelical Protestant Christianity with the likes of William Bell Riley and J. Frank Norris–the northern and southern partners of aggressive, separatistic fundamentalism that added premillennialism to the list of fundamentals of Christian faith and questioned the very salvation of people who didn’t agree with them on that and much else that has always been secondary doctrine at most. Not that all fundamentalists did or do that particular thing. Some have been and are amillennialists. The one doctrine is not the point. The point is the felt need, the compulsion, to use the rhetoric of exclusion (often couched in some “nice talk”) to marginalize people who disagree with you about secondary and tertiary matters of faith–often misrepresenting their beliefs to cause people to fear them.

Fundamentalism reared its ugly head when some conservative evangelicals reacted to open theism by labeling it “Socinianism.” It reared its ugly head when some conservative evangelicals called SBC seminary professors a “cancer.” It reared its ugly head when some (notably Harold Lindsell) argued that anyone who is not an inerrantist is not an evangelical (something even Carl Henry disputed). It rears its ugly head when people accuse fellow conservative Christians of “flouting humanism” (when what is clearly meant is not “Christian humanism” in the sense in which I described it here earlier).

No, my friends, the problem is not SBC DNA. The problem is fundamentalism–as a spirit of division, of exclusion, of theological narrowness (not as an emphasis on generous orthodox).

I don’t accuse any person, certainly not Wade Burleson, of being a fundamentalist. But even people who aren’t can sometimes express themselves in ways that are. I may have been guilty of it myself and, if so I apologize and repent. It’s a problem swimming around in American evangelical Christianity (that even sometimes appears in liberal circles!). We need to eschew it, repent of it and back away from it. And we need to lovingly expose it wherever we see it.

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