Is there such a thing “the Baptist Belief”? — part II

October 7, 2012

(cont’d. from Sunday, Sept. 30)



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.


When one speaks of “Baptist doctrine” he is usually understood.  There are Baptist Confessions of Faith.  Southern Baptist seminaries have their Abstracts of Principles.  The Convention itself adopted a statement of “The Baptist Faith and Message.”  But none of these is a creedal statement binding upon all Southern Baptists.  They still hold to the priesthood of believers which extends to every Baptist both the privilege and responsibility of interpreting the Scriptures for himself.

What, then, is the cohesive force which holds Southern Baptists together doctrinally?  It is their time honored principle of unity in diversity.  This does not mean doctrinal indifference nor a theological hodge-podge.  It means that each Southern Baptist extends Christian charity to those with whom he differs.  It means that he recognizes the integrity of those with whom he honestly disagrees.  By this principle Southern Baptists have been agreeable in their disagreements.  They have resolved their differences in the greater unity of purpose as stated in their Constitution of “eliciting, combining and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the Gospel.”  It is thus that Southern Baptists have and will continue to preserve their unity and strength.

It should be remembered, however, that this principle of unity in diversity imposes upon every Southern Baptist a sacred trust.  The emphasis should be placed upon “unity,” not “diversity.”  Liberty is no excuse for license.  The greater body of Southern Baptists have always been a conservative people not given to extreme positions in theology either on one side or on the other.  They have been, so to speak, a middle-of-the-road people.  At given times the theological road has turned either to the right or to the left.  But Southern Baptists have remained in the middle of the road.  No Southern Baptist is justified in disturbing the fellowship by seeing how near to the edge of the pavement on either side he can come and still remain on the road.  A common road sign is applicable here.  “Danger!  Soft Shoulders!”  Nor should Southern Baptists seek to widen the middle beyond reasonable proportions.  If they get out of their lane they may have a head-on collision with strange theological traffic headed in the other direction.

In their differences Southern Baptists must heed the injunction of the apostle Paul to speak “the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).  But they must speak the truth as God gives them to see it.  For Paul also enjoins, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8).  But before they apply their anathemas let them heed the words of the author of Hebrews.  “Wherefore lift up the hands that hang down, and the feeble knees; and make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed” (12:12-13).

Still further, Southern Baptists must place a greater emphasis upon teaching and training its constituency.  Defend the faith they must.  But defense is not enough.  For in the last analysis each Southern Baptist determines his personal faith for himself.

Obviously this emphasis imposes a great responsibility upon each church and pastor.  By its very polity the denomination must wait upon the churches.  And the churches look to their pastors for leadership.

The pastor has not discharged his responsibility merely by becoming a defender of the faith.  The shepherd must not only defend but fee his sheep.  He should guard them from predatory animals.  But he may gather them in the fold and stand guard over them only to find that they have perished from starvation.

This can happen to spiritual sheep as well.  In every theological crisis which has swept through the ranks of Southern Baptists, many were carried away because they “believed the Bible,” but knew little about what the Bible taught.  Doctrinal conviction and understanding among the rank and file of present-day Southern Baptists leave much to be desired.

Southern Baptists do not live in a theological vacuum.  Through the mass media of radio, television, and the printing press, to say nothing about daily personal contacts, they are exposed to varied theological positions.  The pastor cannot be everywhere at the same time to stand guard over them.  They only reasonable procedure is so to teach them that they may read and discern for themselves, and not be carried about by every wind of doctrine.  This can be done by utilizing the various media of teaching and training provided by the denomination through the churches.  The greatest need in Southern Baptist pulpits is a wave of expository preaching.  When the sheep look up they should be fed.

Furthermore, Southern Baptists look to their colleges and seminaries to play a major role in meeting this crisis of our age.  From time to time concern is manifested in this regard.  Like any other Southern Baptist or state Baptist institution their schools are not above criticism.  Nor should they be discouraged by it.  They should fear more if they were ignored.  This concern indicates that Southern Baptists realize the vital role of these educational institutions in the life of the denomination.  They have seen the departure of many denominations from their historic faith begin in their colleges and seminaries.  They have a right to be concerned.

But this concern should be expressed in love, not vindictiveness.  To do otherwise only serves to defeat a well intended purpose as it creates a gulf between the churches and their schools.  Nor should a particular problem be generalized so to throw a blanket of suspicion about the entire educational family.

The schools themselves are not without concern when problems arise.  During the past year it has been my privilege, in response to invitations from the presidents, to meet with the faculties of all of our seminaries.  In respective cases we have spent from two and one half to four and one half hours discussing their problems.  I have found them to be concerned deeply about their relation to the denomination and the internal matters which affect them.

Out of these discussions have come four convictions.  First, this generation of seminary professors is equal in fact or in potential to any in Southern Baptist history.  Second, these men and women are aware of their responsibility and the trust placed in them by their denomination.  But they hunger for understanding and help by the denomination as they discharge this responsibility.  Third, they respond favorably to any interest shown in their problems.  Without exception they have expressed appreciation that the president of the Convention would take time out of a busy schedule to consider with them their problems.  Fourth, these people are worthy of our trust and understanding.  The vast majority of them, largely unnoticed by the denomination, are teaching and training their students in a way to gladden the heart of every Southern Baptist.  I am not unaware of those areas in which problems have arisen or could arise.  But these should be dealt with in particular, not in mass.

The ratio of such problems is no greater now than in past years.  When I entered the seminary thirty years ago Southern Baptists had two seminaries and one Bible Institute whose combined faculties would scarcely exceed that of one of our larger seminaries now.  Now they maintain six full-fledged seminaries whose faculty members exceed many times those of former years.  Southern Baptists had problems thirty years ago.  They have them now.  So long as God chooses to work through human personality they shall continue to have problems.  But they are an evidence of life, not death.  Southern Baptists should deal with them in such fashion as to make them the occasion of growth, not dearth and death.

Three affirmations I would make.  These are not the affirmations of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Nor are they those of its president speaking ex cathedra. They are the affirmations of one Southern Baptist as he views the current theological scene in our denomination.

First, Southern Baptists have a basic philosophy of theological education.  It is not to teach theology for theology’s sake.  Rather it is to teach, train, and equip men and women for the purpose of providing a Bible-centered and informed leadership for Southern Baptist churches and institutions.  Any program of theological education which proposes to do otherwise is to depart from the purpose of those who established and continue to maintain their seminaries.

This does not mean that they expect their seminaries to ignore current trends in theological thought.  Theological thought is never static.  Any graduate of Southern Baptist seminaries should be thoroughly at home in this atmosphere.  But he should be so grounded in the historical and grammatical elements of the Bible, and so orientated in the current theological scene, as to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff as he shepherds his flock.

Such a result involves not only the contents of instruction but the method of instruction.  Someone has described some of the current methods of teaching as the “shock” method designed to produce thought.  This method may be used beneficially in theological education as in psychological therapy.  But it should ever be remembered that the difference between shock therapy and an electrocution is the skill of the technician and the amount of electricity applied.

Second, Southern Baptists expect the administrations, trustees, and faculties of their seminaries to insure that this underlying philosophy of theological education is brought to a full fruition in the products thereof.  They are the repositories of a sacred trust which must be carried out.

The original framers of the Constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention wisely provided that the Convention shall not violate the charters of its institutions.  This provision places a heavier responsibility upon the elected personnel of these institutions.  The problems which invariably will arise should be dealt with by them cooperatively, courageously, patiently, prayerfully, and realistically.

The position of a trustee of a theological seminary is most vital.  If ever one should be as wise as a serpent, as harmless as a dove, and as courageous as a lion, he should.  He is a steward of eternal verities.  He is the link between the denomination and its centers of theological training.  Often there swirl about him conflicting streams of thought.  And out of these swirling eddies he must help to chart the course of the ship which bears precious cargo indeed.  He is deserving of the prayers of his denomination which he endeavors to serve.

One of the most vital functions of his office is to help to preserve within the teaching process the delicate balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility.  And in this he must have the full cooperation of the administration and the faculty.

Southern Baptists, on the one hand, should never deny to their seminaries the right of academic freedom.  To do so would be to stifle the very genius of theological investigation and interpretation.  On the other hand, they should never cease to require academic responsibility.  Responsibility without freedom or freedom without responsibility is a misnomer.  There cannot be the one without the other.  God made man free, but He also made him responsible.  Indeed, for freedom to serve its purpose it must be balanced by responsibility.  A river flowing within its banks is free to carry the cargoes of commerce or to turn mighty turbines.  But once it spreads beyond its banks it becomes a destructive deluge.  In violating its responsibility it destroys its freedom.

Theological thought is like that.  Southern Baptists grant to their theologians freedom of investigation and thought.  Indeed, they expect them to think ahead of them.  But they expect them to think down the road by which they may follow, not in the by-paths which lead to theological confusion.  They ask only that they not get so far ahead that they cannot follow, nor speak in terms that they do not understand.

Southern Baptist seminaries must enjoy the confidence of their people if they are to serve them.  To lose it would be to fail in their purpose.  If Southern Baptists are to continue to blow the trumpet of God with a certain sound, it must be heard most loudly and clearly in their seminaries.  For if not, who shall prepare to the battle?

Third, for Southern Baptists to fulfill their purpose they must retain their theological distinctiveness.  Southern Baptists have enjoyed the blessings of God.  But prosperity has its perils.  One of their greatest perils at the moment is the growing desire to fit in rather than to stand out.  There is something about frugal fare that strengthens.  Luxury, on the other hand, tends to enervate.

Israel, flushed with the thrill of a God-given destiny, said, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8).  But settled in the land of milk and honey they demanded of God’s leader, Samuel, “Nay; but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations . . . . ” (I Sam. 8:19-20).  God told His prophet to grant their request, saying, “. . . for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them” (8:7).  In their desire to fit in they ceased to stand out.  Thus they took the first step that led to the hour when Jesus said to them, “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” (Matt. 21:42).

This must not happen to Southern Baptists!  They must continue to stand out.  This is not theological snobbery but theological conviction!

Recently Doctor Hans Hofmann, a Harvard theologian and a native of Switzerland, stated that a new kind of theology is emerging in the United States.  He says that orthodoxy, liberalism, and neo-orthodoxy will be discarded when this new theology takes hold.  This new theology, says Doctor Hofmann, will emerge at the grass roots level in the churches.  He state further that one concern of this theology will be whether or not God is being revealed, glorified, and enjoyed.

I quote approvingly another’s comments.  “If this new theology does develop it will be simply because present day theologians have abandoned the grass roots of our religious bodies and are spending their own time in theological discussion among themselves and criticizing the Bible from a textual standpoint. While the theological world is putting great stress upon scholasticism and concern for the educated few, the masses making up the churches are overlooked . . . . If liberalism and neo-orthodoxy become the ‘norm’ among Southern Baptists, we can see easily how Professor Hofmann’s predication could come true.”  The same may be said should the “norm” be an extreme form of Fundamentalism.

The words of Doctor Hofmann may well be a challenge to Southern Baptists.  I would summon this Convention to accept that challenge!  This does not mean that it shall forsake theological education.  It means that with definiteness of purpose Southern Baptists shall support it with renewed fervor and strength.

Someone is going to shape and guide this new theology. And Southern Baptists are best fitted to do so.  They are a “grass roots” people.  Their success is due largely to the response given by the “grass roots” to the Gospel as Southern Baptists preach it.  If Southern Baptists forsake their conservatively, middle-of-the-road interpretation of the gospel, the “grass roots” wills eek elsewhere for spiritual food and guidance.  And Southern Baptists as such largely will have lost their reason for being.

This is not a call for retreat but for advance.  It is not a plea to discard the intellect, but to employ it in giving to this age a theology which speaks to both the minds and the hearts of men.  The “modern mind” is not without a soul.  Whether a man be a Doctor of Philosophy or follows a plow his basic spiritual needs are the same.  Southern Baptists cannot say that they have fulfilled their destiny until they have spoken to both.

In such an endeavor Southern Baptists must look to their colleges and seminaries for guidance.  I am certain that such will be forthcoming.  To do so will call for the greatest intellectual endeavor.  It is much more demanding intellectually to blaze a new trail than to follow a beaten path.  To create a new theological vocabulary, if such is needed, calls for more ingenuity than to repeat with strange and uncertain sounds the recently coined phraseology of other theological traditions.  Southern Baptists’ greatest need in this regard is not a new vocabulary, but an understanding of the vocabulary which they now have.  Southern Baptist theologians must employ every tool of investigation and research to prepare a highway of truth through the present-day theological wilderness.

This is not to say that Southern Baptists will forsake their traditional theological position.  They must rather keep pace with the changing scene to interpret and declare it in terms that will find a ready response in the hearts of all men.  The last word has not been said regarding the revelation of God.  The revelation is complete.  But man’s understanding of it may become ever larger as it is unfolded to him by the Holy Spirit.

Conclusions in research must be based on the autonomy of the Christian religion.  The Old Testament must be interpreted in the light of the New Testament.  Jesus Christ Himself is the final criterion of truth.  The New Testament records of His person and work are their own best interpreter.

Southern Baptists will do well to heed the words of the apostle Paul.  Literally rendered he says, “Beware lest any man take you away as spoils of war through philosophy, even empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic elements of the cosmos, and not according to Christ.  For in him is continuously and abidingly at home all the attributes of deity, the state of being God in bodily form” (Col. 2:8-9, author’s translation).  In short, Southern Baptists must judge their philosophy, and science, according to Christ, and not Christ according to philosophy and science.

Yes, this is an age of crisis.  But Southern Baptists are not afraid of crises.  They were born in a crisis.  Their history reveals that they have passed through seven major crises.  And Southern Baptists emerged from each stronger and more resolute than ever before.  They have always turned a crisis into a conquest.  God grant that they shall do so now!

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dr. james willingham

Southern Baptists preserve their unity in diversity, and their diversity in unity. If they are not free to argue, they are not free at all. Arguing just means that they are alive. Crises make the individual, the organization, the church, the nation, whatever.

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