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Conservatives, Moderates and the Current State of Baptist Affairs: Is a Future Reconciliation Possible?

The SBC blogosphere is currently buzzing with talk about the potential for a future reconciliation between conservative Southern Baptists and some moderates. This is not really that surprising: the idea of reconciliation resurfaces from time to time, typically advocated by those who were either too young to participate in the SBC Controversy or those who were largely uninvolved during all the "Baptist battles." As expected, the idea is usually dismissed. But when the suggestion of a possible reconciliation comes from a longtime Southern Baptist scholar and is posted on a popular weblog, the conversation understandably moves to a whole new level.

Last week, Ben Cole posted a transcript of a recent First Things article written by Dr. Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. In the article, entitled "Southern Baptists after the Revolution," Dr. George weighs in on the significance of the recent Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro. The part of the article that has generated the most attention is Dr. George's discussion of a loose-knit alliance that either contributed to or may provide ongoing support for Dr. Frank Page's convention presidency. The list is, for the most part, simple common sense; anyone who regularly reads Baptist blogs is aware of a loose-knit alliance between some members of the various "niches" present in contemporary SBC life. But the list takes a surprising turn by including "younger moderates" as a potential part of this coalition. This conclusion understandably led to a great deal of online discussion, especially at SBC Outpost, where blog proprieter Marty Duren managed to post Dr. George's further elaboration on the inclusion of the younger moderates in his original First Things piece.

So who are these younger moderates, and is there really any hope for a future reconciliation? The younger moderates, as Dr. George pointed out in his article, include a generation of younger theologians and historians who have distanced themselves from many of the older moderate scholars. The older generation of scholars, many of whom were on seminary or college faculties in the 1980's, often put forth a vision of Baptist identity that is strongly influenced by Enlightenment philosophy and classical liberalism. Doctrines like soul competency and the priesthood of all believers are interpreted to mean that a Baptist's individual convictions should never be bound by a confession of faith. In fact, most older moderates equate confessionalism with what they call "creedalism," or the elevation of written statements to a level equal to or above Scripture. Many of these older moderates boil down Baptist identity to personal freedom and autonomy, all the time ignoring or redefining bona fide Baptist distinctives such as believer's baptism by immersion and regenerate church membership. Many of the moderate scholars, especially at Southern and Southeastern Seminaries, also held to heterodox doctrines such as inclusivism, egalitarianism and biblical errancy. Some even rejected historic Christian beliefs like the exclusivity of Christ, biblical miracles and the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

It should be noted that the younger moderates have not challenged the older moderates on anything except their view of Baptist identity. Younger moderates, many of whom helped draft the 1997 document "Re-Envisioning Baptist Identity" (popularly called the "Baptist Manifesto")[1], claim that older moderates have emphasized autonomy and freedom at the expense of the wider believing community. Younger moderates desire to reassert the role of the local church in the believer's life. Many of them also want to revisit such issues as church covenants, church discipline, discipleship and confessional theology. Conservatives can agree with the younger moderates in both their critique of the older moderates and their return to an emphasis on many of these issues. But we must also understand that younger moderates define most of these issues in ways that most Southern Baptists cannot accept.

We must be clear about one: younger moderates are still theological progressives. Many of them identify with a theological movement known as Postliberalism, which is not the same thing as conservative evangelicalism. The following is a partial list of the common convictions of many of the younger moderates:

 1. Very few, if any, hold to the inerrancy of Scripture.

 2. All are committed to an egalitarian view of gender roles.

 3. Most oembrace a post-foundational epistemology, denying that there are unchanging  truths that all Christians everywhere must hold to. They tend to argue that the  community creates doctrine, rather than the community recognizing pre-existing,  biblical doctrine.

 4. Most promote a form of classical ecumenism that most conservatives rightly reject.

 5. Many embrace mystical forms of spirituality that derive from Catholic and  Orthodox theological sources.

 6. Some are involved in the left-wing of the Emerging Church movement, which is a place most Southern Baptists will not go.

 7. A number are pacifists, a position most Southern Baptists reject as both unbiblical and irresponsible.

 8. All are critical of the Southern Baptist Convention–theologically, culturally  and politically.

This list should make it clear that younger moderates may indeed be critics of their forebears, but they are still moderates. While we can appreciate their diagnosis of the moderate virus, the cure they offer is only a different strain of the same bug.

So is there any hope for a future reconciliation between conservatives and the younger moderates? There may be some fruitful scholarly collaboration in the future, but denominational reconcilation is highly unlikely because one side or the other must abandon their beliefs. If the rising generation of conservatives abandon traditional Baptist distinctives and mainstream evangelical views of Scripture and salvation, then it is very possible that a future reconcilation could occur. But as what cost? By the same token, if younger moderates move further away from their predecessors and embrace a traditional view of Baptist identity and theology, then reconciliation would not only be possible but desirable. But I am not holding my breath.

With all due respect to Dr. George (who certainly deserves much respect), there will be no future reconcilation. Not unless conservatives become moderates or younger moderates become conservatives. At this point in Baptist history, the divide is too wide. And make no mistake about it; it's a healthy, needed, appropriate divide.

We wish the younger moderates well in their ongoing attack on the moderate status quo, but we stop short of inviting them back to the SBC table. Younger moderates are still moderates, and to attempt a reconciliation would be an insult to both their cherished beliefs and ours.

[1]. For the text of this document, see  "Re-Envisioning Baptist Identity: A Manifesto for Baptist Communities in North America," Perspectives in Religious Studies 24:3 (Fall 1997), pp. 303-310. For a critique of the document from the perspective of an "older" moderate thinker, see Walter Shurden's article "The Baptist Identity and the Baptist Manifesto," Perspectives in Religious Studies 25:4 (Winter 1998), pp. 321-340 [available online here]. 

An August Anniversary at the End of July

Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of James P. Boyce’s delivery of his inaugural address at Furman University, Three Changes in Theological Institutions. We would do well to remember this occasion, because it was one of the most significant events in the history of Baptist higher education.

The changes Boyce proposed to Baptist theological education were monumental. They helped Southern Baptists see the need to provide education for ministers of every educational background, realize the necessity of thoroughly educating aspiring students to be the ministerial educators of the next generation, and ensure the theological integrity of their first seminary through the use of a confession.

In honor of this august anniversary, I ask you to consider this short section from Boyce’s address.

The scriptural qualifications of the ministry do, indeed, involve the idea of knowledge, but that knowledge is not of the sciences, nor of philosophy, nor of the languages, but of God and of His plan of salvation. He who has not this knowledge, though he be learned in all the learning of the schools, is incapable of preaching the word of God. But he who knows it, not superficially, not merely in those plain and simple declarations known to every believing reader, but in its power, as revealed in its precious and sanctifying doctrines, is fitted to bring forth out of his treasury things new and old, and is a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, although he may speak to his hearers in uncouth words or in manifest ignorance of all the sciences. The one belongs to the class of educated Ministers, the other to the Ministry of educated men, and the two things are essentially different.Boyce, James P. An Inaugural Address, Delivered before the Board of Trustees of the Furman University (Greenville, SC: C. J. Elford’s Book and Job Press, 1856), 13.

Join with us today in remembering this important piece of Baptist history, for as John A. Broadus reminds us, “This address by Professor Boyce proved to be epoch-making in the history of theological education among Southern Baptists.”Broadus, John A. Memoir of James Petigru Boyce (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), 142. Take time out of your schedule to read this monumental address today.