Benefits of the Controversy

Benefits of the Controversy

Tom Ascol Every age of church history has seen controversy. Every Christian group that has survived very long has had to endure the trials of disagreements and internal contentions. It is inevitable. Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble,” and “offenses must come.” The inevitability of controversy, however, does not make it any less distasteful. No true Christian enjoys it. Yet, along with the perils, there is always some value to be extracted from religious disputes. This is certainly true in the struggle which attended Southern Baptist life over the last 14 years.

The October issue of the Baptist History and Heritage, the official publication of the Southern Baptist Convention Historical Commission, took a creative assessment of the recent SBC controversy. An editorial and two articles addressed the question, “The Southern Baptist Convention, 1979-1993: What Happened and Why?” One of the articles was written by Richard Land, as a representative of the conservative perspective. Stan Hastey, representing the moderate view, wrote the other article. Each was followed by a response from the other side.

The articles confirm a number of conclusions which many have already reached about the controversy. First and most obvious, the controversy has been driven, on the conservative side, by genuine theological concerns. For the first several years the conservatives’ claim that they were contending for the inerrancy Scripture was regarded as dubious by many moderates. As the 1987 Peace Committee Report asserted, however, the main issue is theological.

Second, the controversy has been overtly political. The conservative strategy from the outset was to gain the presidency of the convention. Specific, open campaign efforts were begun to elect presidential candidates who would in turn make conservative appointments. The increased politicization of this process disillusioned many.

Third, zealous excesses on all sides have too often resulted in sins of speech and conduct. The sins that result from controversy are sometimes worse than the sins which made it necessary. As one old Puritan put it, “The temptations that come with controversy are more dangerous than those of wine and women.” Sadly, this truth has been illustrated often over the last 14 years.

Regardless of how one assesses the controversy which has resulted in a conservative resurgence in leadership, there is one significant benefit which is not apparent on the surface. When all is said and done, however, it may ultimately prove to be the most valuable consequence of all. What I am referring to is the renewed interest in our Southern Baptist heritage. Both conservatives and moderates have appealed to our history in order to justify their positions.

Charges and counter charges of forsaking our heritage have been lodged by spokesmen from both sides. Now, this is a healthy development. Not that there is anything inherently good in swapping accusations. Rather, what is beneficial is that faithfulness to our Baptist heritage is judged important enough to use as an argument for one’s convictions. Once this practice is accepted, the task of bringing that heritage to light becomes vitally important.

Until recently, the clearly reformed dimensions of our Southern Baptist past have been largely overlooked and ignored. This, however, is changing. Take, for example, the articles cited above from Baptist History and Heritage. Writing for the conservative perspective, Dr. Richard Land, Executive Director-Treasurer of the Christian Life Commission, quotes Sydney Ahlstrom when he notes, “This Southern Baptist tradition, pre-dating the convention by at least half a century, `was distinctly Reformed, a modified version of Westminster.’”[1] Furthermore, Land claims that the Abstract of Principles of Southern Seminary “testifies to an impressive body of theological consensus among Southern Baptists in the period from 1859 to 1874.”[2]

Even more striking is Bill Leonard’s response. He criticizes Land’s use of Boyce, Broadus, Manly, Jr. et al as representatives of a high view of biblical inerrancy. Acknowledging that the SBC has “nineteenth-century Calvinist-Reformed roots,” Leonard writes,

The people he [Land] cites as paragons of inerrancy could not separate their doctrine of Scripture from their Reformed theology. That included such dogmas as limited atonement, unconditional election, and irresistible grace, doctrines which may create serious problems for consensus among the highly Arminianized (though inerrantist) segment of his “grass-roots” constituency. How can one tout the inerrantist quotes from the founders and ignore the rest of their Reformed theology? For them, it was surely a package deal.”[3]

Both Land and Leonard are right. The distinctively reformed heritage of the Southern Baptist Convention is easily observed in the writings of the founders. It was indeed their reformed theology which informed their view of scripture. That God sovereignly superintended (through inspiration) the writings of fully responsible men presents no difficulty to those who already recognize the absolute sovereignty of God and the absolute responsibility of man in salvation. In fact, the reformed perspective is best suited to maintain a consistent appreciation of the tension between the Bible’s genuine diviness and humaness.

It is tremendously encouraging to see both conservatives and moderates acknowledging the theological rock whence we are hewn. The Southern Baptist Convention, with all of its great missionary endeavors, theological institutions, benevolent efforts and social concerns, traces its roots back to and finds them firmly planted in the doctrines of grace.

The celebration of our theological heritage is not at all a denigration of Scripture. Tradition, no matter how glorious, never takes precedence over the written Word of God. Our burden for theological renewal should not be misconstrued as a desire to return to the 19th century. Nor are we calling for a return to the views of our forefathers simply because they are our forefathers. Rather, we celebrate our heritage with the conviction that, on the key themes of our faith, the understanding of the founders was scripturally accurate. And, as we have often asserted, if it was true in the 19th century, it is true today, because truth does not change.

The rediscovery of historic Southern Baptist principles is a great benefit of the inerrancy controversy. May these principles once again become widely known, and may they stoke the fires of a reformation which is born directly out of the Spirit-illumined teachings of God’s Word. Anything less will be a denial of our heritage.