Inerrancy was Really the Issue

The weeks prior to the recent meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention saw a strange phenomenon that surrounded the controversy over Paige Patterson. Everyone seemed willing to pitch in and pile on. Molly Marshall smelled blood in the water and made her comments about the Conservative Resurgence as a guise for maintaining male domination of the theological world. Brian McClaren entered the picture with a renewed criticism of the unhealthy authoritarianism and narrowness that undergirds the spirit that seems to need an infallible authority. Others have revisited the CR with suspicions that misogyny always lay behind the quest, while the prized Elysium of political control always overshadowed the effort. Certainly personal power and prestige must be the true driving motivation for such a disruptive and challenging movement. Now, so they say, all of these motives have been revealed and have turned on their original propagators with ironical justice.

Neither astute observation nor secret knowledge are needed to discern that in every good movement inferior motives may be found in the most sincerely motivated. Also, regrettable actors may be found to hang out among those with the purest vision of the purpose. When these corrupting factors appear, it is necessary to step back and look at the movement with that initial unjaundiced perception that something very important was being pressed out of its place. We need to renew the awareness we had then that a deep trouble flavored influential centers of thought. To paraphrase Harold Hill, either we were closing our eyes to a situation we did not wish to acknowledge, or we were unaware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the growing propensity to minimize the infallible certainty of the Bible, the book of divine revelation. It was not an innocuous matter, and somebody had to do something.

In the fall of 1964, I entered college at a Baptist school. That was the year following the adoption of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message. The Elliott Controversy over his book The Message of Genesis had occurred during my high school days and I remember that my pastor became exercised about the convention struggle and preached some messages on the inspiration of Scripture. He was for it. A couple of men in the Bible department at college seemed disturbed over this issue in an opposite direction, expressing fear that the Baptist tradition of the right of private interpretation and liberty of conscience was being threatened by certain radicals. During our religious emphasis week, John Claypool came to speak. When asked a question about evil in the world, he responded that the only reason he could see for its continued existence was that God still hoped for the redemption of the devil. A high-school friend who attended a Methodist college said he heard that we had a real conservative visit the campus who believed that there was a devil.

When I went to seminary beginning in 1968, the convention soon became embroiled in the Broadman Commentary Controversy. Volume 1 was under fire. It was only an example, however, of a spirit and critical assumption present in every volume. Writers of the introductory articles caricatured plenary verbal inspiration as a mechanical dictation theory and dismissed the viability of inerrancy. Portions of the interpretive part rejected the importance of historical accuracy, questioned the scientific worldview, looked askance at the ethics implied in Old Testament law, and sought to retain a religious message that could be discerned beyond the immaturity and erroneous structure of the text. Surprisingly, some professors defended the commentary and looked with perplexity at Gwin Turner, the California pastor who had the audacity to call for the withdrawal of the commentary and that it be rewritten “with due consideration to the conservative viewpoint.” One of my professors said flatly on Paul’s view of the potter and the clay that “Paul was wrong; we are not clay pots.”

The issue of inerrancy was being discussed in evangelical culture at large by such men as Kenneth Kantzer, Carl Henry (conveniently classified as an Aristotelian for his logical argumentation), Bernard Ramm, Harold Lindsell and others. I had become a part of a group of Mississippians who attended the school who often went to get coffee and doughnuts and talk theology. The topic of conversation usually was the relation between inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy, and hermeneutics. All of us heard the claim that inerrancy was not the Baptist view of Scripture but had been superimposed on modern evangelicalism by the rationalism of the nineteenth-century Princeton theologians, especially B. B. Warfield. In our generation, so they said, Carl Henry had given currency to that scheme of thought. We also shared stories of college friends who entered troubled theological waters through professors who, through a variety of schemes, softened their commitment to the pervasive and absolute authority of Scripture.

Russ Bush was a part of this ongoing conversation. He and I discussed at that time doing a serious historical investigation of Baptist writings about Scripture (if we were ever so situated to be able to pull it off) so that we could know if Baptists had indeed been unconcerned about inspiration and infallibility. Was it true that their promotion of liberty of conscience and the necessity of personal experience excluded concern about having an infallible, revealed authority to guide conscience and test experience? We suspected that infallibility made more sense for the “People of the Book,” and we had been taught that by our pastors, and we did not see how Baptists could have survived if they were unconcerned about clear and final written authority, but we did not know what the historical documents would show. I became so concerned about this in one of my classes (Systematic Theology), that the professor assigned me a day to advocate for inerrancy as an alternative to the class view. I went to Russ’s apartment on campus early in the evening and we spent about eight hours reading, talking, interacting, analyzing, and formulating using volume one of the Broadman Commentary and William Hull’s article “Shall We Call the Bible Infallible?’ as foils. The gracious professor gave me virtually the entire class period at our next meeting to set forth the position.

The next five years included even more detailed and deeper discussions of this issue and forced a greater awareness as to the pervasive influence of non-inerrantists in key positions, saw a growing boldness on their part in disclaiming the necessity of infallibility, and gave greater clarity as to how many and serious were the consequences of throwing aside that conviction. When I went to teach at Southwestern in January 1976, Russ already was situated as a faculty member. Virtually immediately we resolved to give attention to our earlier proposal to give thorough study both historically and theologically to the issue of inerrancy in Baptist thought.

Sometime in January 1979 we turned in the manuscript for Baptists and the Bible to Moody Press. One day in April, Russ came into my office, closed the door, and began to describe to me what he had just learned from his friend, Paige Patterson, about plans to raise the consciousness of Southern Baptists to the potential doctrinal downgrade that faced the Convention over the issue of inerrancy and to seek a resolution of the growing problem. For the successful execution of this plan, it would take widespread conviction that this doctrinal issue was indeed a vital threat, commitment to see the issue through over a long term, cooperation among people who were diverse in other ways, and a willingness to be squashed by the power structure of the Convention.

I soon met Paige and taught one evening at Criswell Center for Biblical Studies where I learned more about how the plan could be executed through the existing Convention structure. I was impressed with his clarity of thought, his optimistic outlook, and his commitment to exhaust his life and sacrifice his future in an effort to reclaim a commitment to inerrancy as fundamental to the Southern Baptist message and mission. With no assurance that the effort would result in any effect other than his relegation to the status of persona non grata, he wrote, he preached, he organized, he debated. He could not be a whiner or indulge sensitivities about who offended him or misrepresented him or sought his demise, for he knew the territory. Inerrancy was the issue, not personal popularity, ascension of power, oppression of women, or defeat of enemies. Everyone would profit from a confidence settled immovably on the written revelation. We all would seek to minister, grow in grace, and relate to one another under the same authority.

I have no way of knowing how accurate the variety of accusations against Paige were; God knows and he will make all things clear on the day he judges the secrets of men’s hearts. But one thing is crystal clear to those (including the ones who felt that they had to get out) who were active in Southern Baptist work and churches before the CR, a great change has taken place. Our observation, and lament, of “How the mighty have fallen” must be set in the context of a realization of the spiritual benefits that came to us all because he knew that inerrancy was the issue and he threw himself into an unknown future on the strength of saying, “The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever” (Psalm 119:160).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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