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Are Southern Baptists Evangelicals? Part 1: Evangelicalism Defined

We are not evangelicals. That’s a Yankee word. They want to claim us because we are big and successful and growing every year. But we have our own traditions, our own hymns, and more students in our seminaries than they have in all of theirs put together [1].

Several weeks ago I posted on the topic of “Are Southern Baptists Fundamentalists?” My argument was that when Fundamentalism is properly defined the answer is an unequivocal “no.” I am not sure I convinced very many people (this is one of those topics people tend to already have firm opinions about), but both Fundamentalism and SBC leadership had been misrepresented enough in cyberspace that I felt it necessary to address the issue. In this post I want to take up the somewhat related question of whether or not Southern Baptists are Evangelicals. This question, surprisingly enough, is a bit thornier than the question about Fundamentalism.

It should be noted that others have taken up this question in both scholarly and popular forums. In a 1983 volume entitled Are Southern Baptist Evangelicals?, Baptist scholars James Leo Garrett, James Tull and Glenn Hinson weighed in on this important question. There answers, though somewhat more nuanced than my summary, more or less boiled down to “yes,” “no” and “maybe,” respectively. Ten years later David Dockery edited a second volume entitled Southern Baptists and American Evangelicals. The contributors to this second book included Southern Baptist scholars, moderate/liberal Baptist scholars and Evangelical scholars. The results were mixed, but it was clear that many of the Southern Baptist scholars saw themselves as more similar to Evangelicals (at least the conservative ones) than not.

In 2002, historian Barry Hankins authored Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture. Hankins challenged the claim that Southern Baptist conservatives are Fundamentalists, arguing instead that many leading Southern Baptist intellectuals were significantly influenced by northern Evangelicalism. Without dismissing the role of theology and denominational politics, Dr. Hankins argued that the SBC conservatives found unity in their conservative posture in America’s Culture War, which northern Evangelicals were engaged in long before most Southern Baptists. Dr. Hankins’ book continues to generate significant discussion (and controversy) among both conservative and progressive Baptist scholars. Finally, in the summer 2006 issue of the The Tie: Southern Seminary Magazine, Russell Moore addressed this question in a short article entitled “Why I’m a Happy ‘Evangelical’.” Dr. Moore essentially argues that the answer to this question depends upon what means by the term “Evangelical.”

I agree with Dr. Moore that part of the problem with this question is that the word “Evangelical” means many different things, depending upon context. This definitional ambiguity is a major reason that the first two books mentioned above are marked by so many contrasting opinions on the issue. It’s also the reason that Foy Valentine, the former head of the SBC Christian Life Commission who was quoted at the beginning of this post, was so reluctant to identify Southern Baptists as Evangelicals.

There are at least four different ways of defining the word “Evangelical.” Some define the word historically. From an historical standpoint, to be called an “Evangelical” means one of three things, depending upon context. In Continental Europe, the word “Evangelical” has been virtually synonymous with the word “Protestant” since the Reformation era. In North America and Britain, an “Evangelical” is typically assumed to be a theologically-conservative, missionary Protestant whose faith is in continuity with the so-called “Great Awakenings” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Also in North America, “Evangelical” often means specifically a post-World War II conservative Protestant who is fundamental in theology but, unlike Fundamentalism proper, does not take a strict separatist stance toward mainline denominations or the wider culture.

A second way to define the word “Evangelical” is sociologically. An Evangelical is one who identifies with the post-World War II, post-Fundamentalist para-church movement among conservative Protestants. The Evangelical (or “Neo-evangelical,” or “New Evangelical,” or "northern Evangelical”) movement is comprised of the people who cluster around a number of schools, missionary agencies and other ministries. Notable early examples included Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary, World Vision, Campus Crusade for Christ and the National Association of Evangelicals. The most prominent leader of this loose-knit movement has traditionally been Billy Graham, and it has been suggested by more than one person that the way you distinguished an Evangelical from a Fundamentalist or Liberal is by their answer to the question, “What do you think about Billy Graham?”

A third way to define the word “Evangelical” is pejoratively. This use of the word is common in secular journalism and secular/liberal historical works. In this understanding, an Evangelical is basically the same thing as a Fundamentalist, and neither is considered a good thing. In fact, some consider the term “Evangelical” to simply be a more culturally-sensitive designation used by old-fashioned Fundamentalists. It was once remarked that an Evangelical was simply “a Fundamentalist with a Ph.D.” Both Fundamentalists and Evangelicals argue that this is a gross oversimplification. A related use of the pejorative approach equates Evangelicalism with conservative politics. Though there is little doubt that most Evangelicals are indeed political conservatives, this use of the term is most common among those who despise both, hence grouping them together uncritically. Regardless of how it is nuanced, pejorative definitions persist among those hostile to conservative Protestants (or cultural mores) of any stripe.

A final way to define the word “Evangelical” is theologically. This method of definition is most common among theologians, and has resulted in no little controversy over the last thirty years or so. David Bebbington, who incidentally is an historian, has provided the most popular scholarly theological definition by noting that an Evangelical is marked by four convictions: conversionism (a belief in the new birth), activism (which includes both evangelism and social action), Biblicism (a high view of Scripture, often inerrancy among the most conservative) and crucicentrism (an emphasis on the substitutionary atonement of Christ). An obvious aspect of this type of definition is its broadness. Evangelicals, if defined primarily by their belief, can be found in any denomination or group, including Catholicism and Orthodoxy. These categories are also broad enough that they allow for a spectrum of interpretation, which is the reason so many Evangelicals are now fighting over doctrines like Biblical inspiration, gender roles, God’s omniscience, the fate of those who have never heard the gospel and the nature of Hell.

It should be clear that these categories often overlap. For instance, most good historians combine elements of all but the pejorative definition of Evangelicalism. The same goes for many sociologists and theologians.

So are Southern Baptists a part of this socio-theological movement called Evangelicalism? That depends upon what one means by “part of.” In the current debates within Evangelicalism, one of the problems is that some consider themselves Evangelicals because of where they teach and to whom they give their money (say, Fuller Seminary and World Vision) while others believe one must believe certain doctrines to be a “real” Evangelical (say, inerrancy and a complimentarian understanding of gender roles). These two groups find their Evangelicalism in different places, so they often talk past each other.

Southern Baptists and ex-Southern Baptists have been right in the middle of these debates. Many observers note that there is an “Evangelical Left” and an “Evangelical Right,” with a few individuals and institutions trying to bridge the gap. Many Southern Baptists are perfectly comfortable in the Evangelical Right. The Evangelical Theological Society, of which a large number of Southern Baptist scholars are members (several have even served as president of the ETS), is currently controlled by the Evangelical Right. Several seminaries are populated with scholars who openly identify with the Evangelical Right. Southern and Southeastern seminaries each have faculty members who were once part of Neo-evangelical culture but who have gravitated to the Southern Baptist Convention. A number of Southern Baptist scholars are involved in the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, one of the most prominent Evangelical Right organizations. SBC scholars like Albert Mohler, Richard Land, David Dockery and Timothy George have been involved in a number of Neo-evangelical initiatives, all the while remaining committed to the Southern Baptist Convention. I have even heard some argue that the Evangelical Right is “Right” because of the influx of individual Southern Baptists into Neo-evangelical life.

Some moderate and ex-Southern Baptists have been involved in the Evangelical Left. A number of former SBC seminary professors have taught at schools like Fuller Seminary and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. Moderates have also started several seminaries and divinity schools, some of which identify with the Evangelical Left. The George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University is one of the leading seminaries of the Evangelical Left, and current and former Truett scholars like Roger Olsen and Stanley Grenz are among the most influential theologians of this wing of Evangelicalism. Clark Pinnock, who is perhaps the “elder statesmen” of the Evangelical Left, once taught at New Orleans Seminary, where he influenced a number of conservative students to become involved in trying to bring about theological renewal within the SBC. These former Pinnock students comprised many of the early leaders of the Conservative Resurgence. Many moderates in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have expressed interest in the Emerging Church movements, some of which openly identify with Evangelicalism’s left wing. And moderates have long supported Evangelical social ministries, many of which have strong connections to the Evangelical Left.

There is little doubt that Southern Baptists of every persuasion are involved in Neo-evangelical culture, but if that culture is the sine qua non of Evangelicalism, I think the case can be made that Southern Baptists are not Evangelicals. Whatever involvement individual Baptists may have, from an historical standpoint Southern Baptists are latecomers to Evangelical life. Sociologically, the SBC is still not formally affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals or any other explicitly Neo-evangelical group. The Evangelical seminaries have proportionately very few Southern Baptists on their faculties. Even the theological connections between the two groups are limited. The explicit involvement some Southern Baptists do have in Evangelical life is normally limited to only the conservative branch of the movement. Even more important, Neo-evangelicalism is a decidedly non-denominational (some would argue anti-denominational) movement, the “right-wing” of the ecumenical movement. Southern Baptists have always taken their unique identity seriously, resulting in a great deal of caution toward any movement that downplays denominational distinctives.

It is perhaps best to think of the Southern Baptist relationship to Evangelicalism as a cluster of alliances with some conservative branches within the Evangelical family tree, but not wholehearted participation or even endorsement of the wider movement. Southern Baptists value their own identity too much to formally align themselves with other groups, even conservative ones. Southern Baptists have much in common with many Neo-evangelicals, but if the formal movement is the essence of what it is to be an Evangelical, then one is hard-pressed to prove that Southern Baptists are Evangelicals.

Sociologically, historically and theologically Southern Baptists are only tangentially Evangelicals, if by “Evangelical” one means the Neo-evangelical movement; if this is the gist of Evangelicalism, then Foy Valentine was more or less correct 30 years ago. But things are never that simple. I believe there is another sense in which Southern Baptists could be called Evangelicals, one that is related to the formal movement without being defined (and hence confined) by it. Lord willing, I will attempt flesh this idea out in a second post on this topic.

[1]Foy Valentine, quoted by Kenneth L. Woodward in “Born Again! The Year of the Evangelicals” in Newsweek 88 (October 25, 1976), p. 76.