Is there such a thing as “the Baptist belief”?

September 30, 2012



San Francisco, California, 1962

HERSCHEL H. HOBBS (d.) served two terms, from 1961 to 1963, as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Considered one of the most influential Southern Baptists of the 20th Century, Hobbs chaired the committee that wrote the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message Statement. A prolific author, Hobbs was the longtime pastor of the First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City from 1949 to 1972. Hobbs was born Oct. 24, 1907, and died at 88 years of age.



The voice is reportedly that of Premier Nikita Khrushchev.  “Our rocket has passed the moon.  It is nearing the sun, and we have not discovered God.  We have turned lights out in heaven that no man will be able to put on again.  We are breaking the yoke of the Gospel, the opiate of the masses.  Let us go forth and Christ shall be relegated to mythology.”

Do these words frighten you?  They should.  For they are not the words of the Number One Communist alone.  They are the words of a godless materialism which permeates every segment of our society, a materialism which denies God, turns out lights in heaven, denudes the Gospel of its power, and seeks to relegate Christ to the realm of mythology.  They are the words of crisis.

Our world lives in a state of crisis.  It is the crisis produced by the contending forces of godlessness and God.  It erupts in many realms of life:  political, economic, moral, and social.  But it is basically a spiritual crisis.  It is theological.  It is Christological.  Jesus referred to it when He said, “Now is the judgment of this world:  now is the prince of this world cast out.  And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:31-32).  Literally, “Now is the crisis of this world system . . . ”

In a very real sense every age is one of crisis as this world system is brought face to face with Christ.  But the issues are more sharply drawn in some generations than in others.  Ours is such an age.

What shall we say to this challenge?  Do the forces of Christianity have the answer?  To say that they do not would be to deny the power of the Gospel, to quit the field of battle in disastrous defeat.  Let this never be said of this generation.  For we do have the answer! Why, then, does this world system continue to defy, or, what is worse, to ignore us as it drives on in relentless conquest?

The apostle Paul gives us the answer.  “For if the trumpet given an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (I Cor. 14:8).  The present-day religious scene finds too many Gospel trumpets giving forth an uncertain sound.  Until this world system is confronted with the full stature and station of Christ, it will continue to stumble on its way toward darkness and oblivion.  Only when the forces of Christ seize the crisis and transform it into a conquest, shall Christ be permitted to come to grips with or close in conflict with the powers which defy Him and His right to reign in the hearts of men.

It is quite evident that present-day Christianity as a whole has not given the answer to the challenge which has been thrown down before our God.  But somewhere God has a people which can and must give the answer.  God has not left Himself without a witness.  I would challenge Southern Baptists to be that witness.  To do so we must blow with a certain sound the trumpet of the Gospel of Christ.  We must raise an ensign about which may rally all who love the Lord Jesus Christ sincerely.

This does not mean ecumenicity! It means that each entity of the forces of Christ in its own way, and bound together by no bond save an unswerving love for Christ and an unfailing loyalty to His Word, shall march forth to confront this world system with Christ’s claims until the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ.

Why is Christianity so important in this crisis?  To answer this question we must go back almost two hundred years to the rise of modern liberalism as it broke away from the conservative theology of the Reformation.  In its extreme form this school of thought applied the rules of an exact but infant science to the basic elements of the Christian religion.  Every tenet of its faith was put under the microscope of a humanistic philosophy which made man’s intellect the measure of all things.  That which did not conform to its preconceived standards was rejected from religious truth.  The Bible was emasculated.  Biblical supernaturalism was cast aside as the super-hailed before the bar of pure reason.  Some went so far as to deny that Jesus Christ ever lived, making Him the figment of the imagination of a learned Jew named Paul.

Let it be noted at this point that the Christian forces prior to the nineteenth century also failed to speak with challenge to its world system.  Scholastic Protestantism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was orthodox enough, but it was dead.  Present-day Christianity should take its cue from this experience.  It is desirable to be orthodox.  But it must be an orthodoxy which is aware of and relevant to the needs of its time.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century liberalism was firmly established on American shores.  Here it largely took the form of seeking to interpret the Biblical record in terms of pure reason, science, and historical criticism of the Scriptures.  It reached its extreme form in Modernism which ruled out the supernatural in favor of religious humanism or theistic naturalism.

Quite naturally American liberalism did not proceed without a struggle.  Its conflict with theological conservatism reached a climax in the 1920’s in the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy.  From this conflict Modernism emerged with a claim of victory.

How may we analyze this theological struggle?  Obviously three elements were involved:  physical science, philosophy, and the Christian religion.  Now each of these is a legitimate field of inquiry, and is related to man’s total experience.  Physical science deals with demonstrable facts and investigative theories in nature.  It is concerned with cause and effect in the continuity of natural truth.  Philosophy is concerned with the data produced by physical science and experience.  It seeks to relate the whole to a single principle which will explain the universe in its component parts.  The Christian religion, on the other hand, is concerned with man’s quest after God and His redemptive will and work.  It involves the establishing of a personal communion between an infinite, holy God and a finite, sinful man.  In short, science deals with causality, philosophy with rationality, and religion with personality.

Now there need be no conflict between these three areas of man’s experience.  They pursue different tasks, but they seek the same goal, truth.  Each has its own basis of authority, method of procedure, criteria for evaluating truth, and means of drawing its conclusions with regard to Reality.  Each is autonomous within its own realm.  There is no conflict between truth as derived from science, philosophy, or religion.  For all is of God.  Conflicts in interpretation may appear at a given point in the quest after truth.  But when each has done its full work they will be resolved in God who is all in all.

The conflict comes when either seeks to impose its autonomy on the other.  This is not to say that “ne’er the twain shall meet.”  The Christian religion is not irrational.  Nor is physical science unconcerned with personality.  Philosophy is entwined in both.  But when either of these seeks to become the final authority in the other realms, conflict is inevitable.

A classic example of this is religion’s effort to deny the discovery of Galileo that the universe is heliocentric rather than geocentric.  Religion should never pose as the final authority in physical science.

Now if this be true in the one case, it should be true in the others.  Of course, religion may become the field of inquiry for both science and philosophy.  But neither should demand that religion forsake its own autonomy to adapt itself to theirs.  It is at this point that the Christian religion has suffered the most.  Its right has been challenged to speak authoritatively in its own realm to a world system which bows at the altars of physical science and pure reason.

We have seen that the roots of modern liberalism stem from the invasion of the realm of the Christian religion by physical science and philosophy.  And the first attack was upon the Christian religion’s source of authority, the Bible.  Now the Bible has nothing to fear from either science or philosophy.  But its interpreters should insist upon its authority in the realm of religion.  This authority is neither legal nor mechanical.  It is spiritual and experiential.  The Bible is authoritative in the Christian religion because its message is authenticated as it meets and satisfies the deepest needs of the human soul.  In this realm neither science nor philosophy is qualified to speak the final word.

The Bible is not afraid of historical criticism.  It was wrought out in history.  It has stood the legitimate tests of the criteria of authentic history.  Neither does the Bible fear the research of science.  There is no proved fact or tenable theory in the realm of science which does not find a compatible atmosphere in the pages of the Holy Scriptures.  The Bible need have no fear from comparative religion.  In literary criticism it is axiomatic that in multiple accounts of the same event the simplest account is the most reliable.  Applying this simply rule to the related accounts among ancient peoples of the creation and the flood, it will be seen that the simpler Biblical accounts relate to Jehovah that which other accounts describe in a pagan religious atmosphere.

No, the Bible fears neither science nor philosophy except as they seek to impose upon it their autonomy.  To deny the supernatural in the Bible is for science and philosophy to say dogmatically what God can or cannot do because it does not submit to their standard of authority.  This is neither scientific nor philosophical.  For science to discount the miraculous on the basis that it is contrary to natural law is for it to conclude that it knows all of the laws of nature.  This denies the very basis upon which scientific inquiry proceeds.  And physical science in the last twenty-five years has uncovered too many natural laws hitherto unknown to man, for it to declare arbitrarily by what laws God can or cannot work.  It would be far more scientific to say that neither science nor philosophy has a criterion by which to judge the supernatural.  Such a judgment belongs to the autonomy of religion.

This same principle applies in the realm of Christology.  Neither science nor philosophy is qualified to say how God can invade history to work out His redemptive purpose, the method He must employ, and the means whereby He would authenticate the unique deity of the Son of God.  This involves the virgin birth, vicarious death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus.  Had this simple “ground rule” been observed theology would have been spared much needless conflict.

At this point let us return to our sketch of liberalism.  Modernism’s claim to victory was short-lived.  For the depression of the 1930’s and the war of the 1940’s produced what was called a group of “chastened liberals.”  Conclusively man was not the measure of all things.  The shallow optimism of liberalism was engulfed in a death dealing pessimism.  Man revealed himself as the helpless, sinful creature that he was.  Modernism was forced to retreat from its extreme theological liberalism to seek a more realistic base of operations.  And chief among those who called for the retreat were Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Nicbuhr.  It was a call back to a Bible-centered theology.  This resultant theology is called Neo-Orthodoxy.  It is the theologian’s effort to deal with the dilemma of liberalism.  The term “Neo-Orthodoxy” indicates that it is an effort to return to the conservative orthodoxy of the Reformation.

Neo-Orthodoxy bases its position on a Bible-centered theology, the transcendence of God, the sinfulness of man, and God’s redemptive purpose and work through Jesus Christ.  But Barth and his colleagues rendered a decided service to the cause of theology by calling extreme liberalism back to the Bible as its center.  The present problem is that liberalism did not fully respond.  For Neo-Orthodoxy is orthodoxy with a difference.  It is the half-way point between the conservative theology of the Reformation and the extremes of modern liberal theology.

The following analysis will not be accepted by many Neo-Orthodox theologians.  There are varying positions within this field.  But it does touch generally upon its salient points.

Neo-Orthodoxy in its extreme form makes its claim to orthodoxy, but is it a valid claim?  It avows to be a Bible-centered theology.  But it still tends to make the Bible subservient to the autonomy of physical science.  It speaks of the transcendence of God.  But it insists that the supernatural shall be subject to a natural interpretation.  It sees man as a sinful creature.  Yet it poses the intellect of man as the final judge in the operations of God.  It holds that God has invaded history for His redemptive work.  But it interprets this invasion and work in terms contrary to the teachings of the New Testament, both linguistic and historical.  Where it cannot explain these events in terms of natural law, it employs existentialism to resolve the problem between eternal truth and historic phenomenon.  The result is called “faith,” by which it means that some elements reach beyond understanding.  But in the overall it is a faith which is subservient to knowledge.  And this denies the very meaning of faith.

The current addition to this theology is known as Bultmannism, which has been aptly described as Neo-Orthodoxy’s relapse into liberalism.  Thereby is introduced into the language of theology the “myth” theory to explain the supernatural.  That which does not adapt itself to natural law is interpreted as not belonging to the realm of history in its commonly accepted sense.  It is a historic truth, but not history, designed to teach a theological truth.  Thus, for instance, the so-called “myths” of creation and the miracles of Jesus are not the history of the events but interpretations thereof.  The virgin birth of Jesus is not a virgin birth at all.  It simply means that God has invaded history for the purpose of redemption.  The resurrection of Jesus simply means that His spirit survives death.

Suffice to say that Bultmann has not said the last word in this matter.  A welcomed trend in theology is back toward the center.  Even some of Bultmann’s own students are endeavoring to correct his extremes.

Admittedly such a theology is an effort to satisfy the “modern mind.”  But in satisfying the “modern mind” does it meet the needs of the eternal soul?  It tends to remove the mystery from religion.  It is open to question as to whether or not such a theology satisfies the “modern mind.”

If the “modern mind” analyzes such a theology it is left with more questions than answers.  How else could God reveal Himself through His Son than through a virgin birth?  When science itself lives on faith in the unknown, how can it deny such a faith to others?  If science does not know all of God’s laws, who is to say that the supernatural must conform to the natural?  In what way is the survival of Jesus’ spirit after death different from those of Buddha, Modhammed, or Gandhi?  And if it is not different, how does one explain the power of the Christian movement in history?  Can the “modern mind” leave these and other questions unanswered?  There is an answer to each of them.  But such a theology is incapable of giving it.

This brings us back to our original proposition.  There is an answer to every problem of the “modern mind.”  Some of the answers are to be found in physical science and philosophy.  But not all.  When they have said their final word, the most fundamental questions of life remain.  And their answers are to be found in the realm of religion, specifically the Christian religion.

Where do Southern Baptists stand in relation to the theological conflict that has characterized the modern era?  They were scarcely touched in the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy.  This is explained by the fact that in its midst Southern Baptists firmly positionized themselves in the conservative role which has always characterized their theology.  In 1924 when the battle raged the fiercest, Southern Baptists appointed a committee to study the matter.  This committee was composed of some of their ablest theologians whose chairman was E. Y. Mullins.  In 1925 the committee made its report.  In its preamble were the following words.  “The present occasion for the reaffirmation of Christian fundamentals is the prevalence of naturalism in the modern theology and preaching of religion.  Christianity is supernatural in its origin and history.  We repudiate every theology of religion which denies the supernatural elements of our theology of religion which denies the supernatural elements of our faith.”  The committee’s report was adopted as “a statement” of “The Baptist Faith and Message.”  And for the time being the issue was settled.

The rise of Neo-Orthodoxy received scant notice from Southern Baptists.  But in recent years a few of their theologians have recognized the contribution which it seeks to make to the theological scene.  There have been some efforts to adjust Southern Baptist faith to its position.  From time to time these efforts have produced expressed concern among many Southern Baptists.

The question which I would raise is as to whether or not Southern Baptists’ greatest contribution to the present theological dilemma lies in this direction.  Neo-Orthodoxy is the product of a return from the extremes of modern liberalism toward a Bible-centered theology.  We have seen that it stopped at the half-way mark.  Is not the role of Southern Baptist theologians that of saying, “Here is a people who never left the Bible as the center of its theology.  In the light of the failure of present-day Christianity to speak effectively to modern man, we invite you to re-examine your position.  Let us pursue truth together, but let us do so within the full autonomy of the Christian religion.  With the Bible alone as the center of our theology, recognizing that God is both transcendent and immanent in His universe, that man is a sinner lost from God and unable by his own powers to comprehend or effect a reconciliation with God, let us go forth to proclaim that God in the person of Jesus Christ has invaded history in a manner clearly set forth in the New Testament to redeem both man and His universe to Himself.”

Will such a call be heeded?  Southern Baptists can only call and wait and hope.  But even so, let them resolve to be God’s witness in this crisis hour.  Someone has said that Southern Baptists are God’s last hope in this generation.  They have not so proclaimed themselves.  But if they are, let them be worthy of the mantle which such a declaration offers to them.  If so, as I see it they must first resolve any problems within their own theological position.  Four things I would suggest.

Southern Baptists must reaffirm both in faith and practice their time-honored belief in the priesthood of all believers.  Obviously this involves the responsibility of witnessing to what they believe.  But our concern at this point is with the privilege of determining what they believe.  In this light the priesthood of all believers simply means that every believer has the right and responsibility to read and interpret the Bible as he is led of the Holy Spirit.

It is not likely that Southern Baptists will knowingly and willingly relinquish this cherished principle.  But in their zeal for the faith they could unwittingly do so.  For this article of their faith does not mean that every believer has the right to interpret the Scriptures as I think that he should.  In recent days of theological disturbance one editor has suggested that perhaps Southern Baptists need a creed.  As in the days of Doctor J. B. Grambrell, Southern Baptists were not willing, nor are they now, to wear a blind bridle, so today I do not believe that they are ready to wear a theological straight jacket.

Now this principle does not mean that, like the cowboy, Southern Baptists should mount their theological horses and ride off in all directions.  Each Southern Baptist is to interpret the Scriptures as he is led by the Holy Spirit. He must be certain that he is not led by some other spirit.  God is not the author of confusion.  Nor does the Holy Spirit deny Himself.  The unity of Southern Baptist theology and faith for one hundred and seventeen years would indicate that the Holy Spirit has led in their scriptural interpretation.  They must continue to let Him do so.  Any personal interpretation that tends to depart radically from their historic position should be carefully evaluated.  For the priesthood of believers involves not only privilege but responsibility.

Again, Southern Baptists must recognize and practice the principle of unity in diversity.  The unity within the faith of Southern Baptists is a modern theological miracle.  With no creed to bind them yet they have remained remarkably one in their basic body of beliefs.  This has been due largely to two things:  their restricted geographical location and their insistence upon the New Testament as their final rule of faith and practice.

It is natural, however, that their principle of the priesthood of believers would also result in varying differences in interpretation.  The marvel is not that these differences are so many but so few.  For the most part they have been sectional, although this is not always true.  An analysis shows that there are also decided differences within given sections of the Convention’s territory.  When the Southern Baptist Convention extended beyond its traditional boundaries to become truly a national convention, its constituents encountered many different modes of theological thought.  This has served to enlarge the field of differences.

Is there such a thing as “the Baptist belief?”  For the past year it has been my privilege to write upon request a little column which we have chosen to call “Baptist Beliefs.”  Some time ago one of our editors received a letter asking if this was “the Baptist belief.”  The editor wisely replied that it was not.  Even though written by the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, it was but one Baptist’s effort to state what he believed.  And though this statement of the subjects treated probably approximated what is believed about them by most Southern Baptists, it was not intended to be a statement of “The Baptist belief.”

To be continued. Part 2 next Sunday.

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dr. james willingham

What a farce Nikita K. was. A friend from Scotland who ran a bookstore here in NC told me some 30 years ago that he and a group of friends had been praying for the leaders of the Soviet Union to be converted. A fellow who escaped from Russia told of a day in the Ural Mountains, when Nikita showed up at a small Baptist church, requesting baptism. I do not know the truth of this.

However, I did have the privilege of the General War (the title of the man who would have directed at nuclear war against the United States tell about his conversion in a Baptist Church near Lincolnton, NC about 10 years ago. I still have the video of his testimony. It was quite impressive to see him in his full uniform and hear his testimony about how he was in a helicopter that was shot of the sky in Afghanstan and he called on God during the crash, asking for help to survive and for knowledge of the God, if there was one…That led to his conversion. I remember praying for the end of Apartheid in South Africa as I have for the end of racism in America. For 39 years I have been praying for a Third Great Awakening, one in which every soul on earth is won to Christ by persuasion and which continues for a thousand generations and reaches millions of planets, should mankind reach the stars.

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