Dockery at Norton Lectures: Southern Baptists and evangelicals can learn from each other

Communications Staff — April 10, 2018

Evangelicals and Southern Baptists are similar but distinct movements in conservative Christianity. Despite their differences, the two groups can remain complementary forces in the advance of the gospel, said David W. Dockery during the 2018 Norton Lectures at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, March 27-28. Both groups need to listen, eliminate stereotypes of the other, and work together and co-laborers for the growth of the kingdom, Dockery said.

“If we are willing to put aside our differences, we can mutually benefit and learn from one another,” he said.

Evangelicalism has primarily functioned as a parachurch organism marked by its transdenominational character, argued Dockery, president of Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, and a former Southern Seminary faculty member. During the series of revivals during American history, from George Whitfield to Billy Graham — evangelicalism functioned without a developed ecclesiology, leading to inefficient church structures. Because of this, denominations remain important, Dockery said, because Christianity needs structures to survive. Duplicated effort, funding challenges, and mixed loyalties can hold the church back.

“While denominationalism may seem to be in decline, denominations still matter,” Dockery said. “If we focus too much on structure we’ll end up on one side of the ditch, but if we focus too much on the Spirit, we will move toward an amorphous, shapeless kind of Christianity.”

Evangelicalism is entrepreneurial in spirit and marked by a transdenominational character, according to Dockery. It provided the alternative to Christian fundamentalist separationism in the late evangelist Billy Graham, who gave the evangelical movement its open-hearted posture.

Historically, the evangelical movement emerged out of the fallout from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the early 20th century. In 1919, W.B. Riley — one of the heroes of the fundamentalist movement — argued that fundamentalists should emphasize more than doctrinal conviction. They also should also prioritize separation, he said. In response, evangelicalism pushed for ecumenism and non-separationism. The most obvious practitioner of this was Graham, whom fundamentalists rejected as apostate. Graham’s theological fidelity (contrary to liberalism) and ecumenical spirit (contrary to fundamentalism) light the way of the church forward.

“What is needed is a biblical orthodoxy, a historical Christianity, a faithful, intercultural, transcontinental, and intergenerational evangelicalism. Such a big-tent vision needs wisdom to avoid unintentionally moving in the direction of an unhealthy inclusivism or heterodoxical universalism,” he said. “Evangelicals need to prioritize their calling as servants, as agents of reconciliation in a world characterized by fragmentation.”

While the Southern Baptist Convention has long exemplified structural efficiency, its theological legacy has been up and down. It was founded on firm convictions regarding the infallible truth of Scripture, but veered away from that before the ship was righted in the second half of the 20th century. In his lectures, Dockery described the history of the Southern Baptist Convention and biblical authority, tracing the changes in understanding of the doctrine of Scripture from the 19th century to the present.

“For nearly 60 years, the SBC has lived with public controversy, regarding issues related to biblical authority, theological challenges, and denominational polity,” Dockery said.

The thinkers and shapers of the early Southern Baptist Convention claimed the Bible as truth without error. Re-affirming biblical authority, Basil Manly Jr. claimed in The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration, “An uninspired Bible would furnish no infallible standard of thought, no authoritative rule for obedience, and no ground of confidence for everlasting hope.”

The SBC entered second half of 20th century as a unified and efficiently run denomination, Dockery said, but the years between 1954 and 1979 brought controversy and questioning of the authority of Scripture from thinkers who emphasized the element of human authorship in the Bible. In 1979, a movement in the SBC called for a return to Manly’s position on biblical authority.

Decades of discussion and controversy culminated in a firm stance on biblical authority in 1993, when R. Albert Mohler Jr. was elected president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “He was elected with a commitment to the inerrancy and authority of Scripture and a commitment to the importance of the Abstract of Principles,” Dockery said. In light of its own theological reformation, the efficiency of the Southern Baptist Convention can go hand-in-hand with the open-handed evangelical movement that inherited the theological legacy of the Protestant Reformation.

Two of the touchstones of Southern Baptist life emerged at the same annual meeting in 1925 — the Cooperative Program, a funding strategy which unifies SBC giving efforts to efficiently send missionaries around the world, and the Baptist Faith and Message, which is the confessional document of the convention, since updated in 2000. Evangelicals can benefit from the ecclesiological efficiency and denominational distinctiveness of Southern Baptists, while Southern Baptists can benefit from the outward posture of transdenominational evangelicalism. Dockery believes the two movements can be fruitful “dialogue partners.”

“The SBC has clearly decided that the truthfulness of the Bible cannot be ignored, de-emphasized, or eliminated from the discussion,” Dockery said. “Together, Southern Baptist evangelicals, with Southern Seminary leading the way, can help churches enable and educate leaders, enhance worship in order to bring about renewal across the country and around the globe.”

Dockery dedicated his 2018 Norton lecture series to Mohler, who celebrates the 25th anniversary of his election as the ninth president of Southern Seminary this year.

While the Southern Baptist Convention has long exemplified structural efficiency, its theological legacy during the 20th century was up and down. It was founded on firm convictions regarding the infallible truth of Scripture, but veered away from that before the ship was righted in the second half of the 20th century through the Conservative Resurgence. In his lectures, Dockery described the history of the Southern Baptist Convention and biblical authority, tracing the changes in understanding of the doctrine of Scripture from the 19th century to the present.

“The SBC has clearly decided that the truthfulness of the Bible cannot be ignored, de-emphasized, or eliminated from the discussion,” Dockery said. “Together, Southern Baptist evangelicals, with Southern Seminary leading the way, can help churches enable and educate leaders, enhance worship in order to bring about renewal across the country and around the globe.”

The two movements — the Southern Baptist Convention and broader evangelicalism — can cooperate for the growth of the kingdom, he said. Dockery has lived out the balance between the Southern Baptist Convention and evangelicalism in his own academic career, having participated extensively in both Baptist institutions and the evangelical guild. He has previously served as a faculty member at Southern Seminary, the flagship seminary of the SBC, and is currently president of Trinity International University, a flagship institution of the evangelical world. He is also the president of the Evangelical Theological Society and has served on numerous Southern Baptist committees.

“Can you be Southern Baptist and an evangelical? My life says yes,” Dockery said. “[I’ve had] one foot in Southern Baptist life and one foot in the evangelical world, and [I am] comfortable in both places.”

Dockery dedicated his 2018 Norton lecture series to Mohler, who celebrates the 25th anniversary of his election as the ninth president of Southern Seminary this year.

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