Reformation in SBC must continue, new book by SBTS professor argues

Communications Staff — December 7, 2005

Is reformation in the Southern Baptist Convention complete?

Though the denomination in the past 25 years has witnessed an Egypt to Canaan transformation with a full embrace of the inerrancy of Scripture, the author of a new book argues that the denomination must now build a doctrinal superstructure on the foundation of inerrancy.

Baptist historian Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues in “Ready for Reformation? Bringing Authentic Reform to Southern Baptist Churches” that the SBC’s turnaround is, in many ways, just beginning.

“Overall, while recovery has been substantial, the work is not yet done,” Nettles writes. “Inerrancy now rules the consciences of a vast majority of local church pastors, and in a much better informed way, and inerrantists seem well-entrenched in leadership positions at seminaries, mission boards, and other strategic agencies and organizations. Inerrantists are everywhere.”

With the doctrine of inerrancy firmly in place, Nettles notes several dangers that threaten to circumvent reformation. Biblical reformation is not something that takes place at a moment in time and then stops, he writes; reformation must be an ongoing reality in the life of any Christian, church, or denomination.

While asserting that inerrancy is foundational for a genuine reformation, Nettles argues, Southern Baptists must now teach and live out the doctrinal content of an inerrant Bible.

“The task of reclaiming is not complete,” he writes. “If only the acceptance of the divine authority of the deposit (the Scriptures) gains adherence but the content of the treasure itself lies dormant, the recovery is a sham. The formal principle without the material principle does not make a reformation.

“For recovery or reformation to be full, the content of the revelation must also be rediscovered and proclaimed. [R]enewed attention to a sweeping historic confessional theology will inspire broader and deeper apprehension of truth and more love for God and the brethren.”

Historically, Baptists have developed their practice of biblical authority in light of the regulative principle, Nettles points out. The regulative principle asserts that God has revealed in Scripture what is to be believed and how believers must worship Him, thus Christians have no warrant to go beyond what God has revealed in belief and worship, Nettles writes.

Though the SBC has recovered inerrancy, a rediscovery of the regulative principle is foundational if reformation is to continue and not bottom out on the shoals of pragmatism, he writes.

Nettles sets forth nine tracks upon which the Southern Baptist reformation must move forward:

· Baptists must remember the depths to which they had sunk before the conservative resurgence. The denomination must not fall into a lethargic holding pattern of premature satisfaction, Nettles writes. The SBC must remember that the church is to be always bringing itself into line with Scripture, he writes.

· Baptists must hold fast in teaching and living out their confession of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. He shows how Baptists have been a confessional people since their beginning at the outset of the 17th century.

· Baptists must build their churches with doctrinally-informed expository preaching as the cornerstone, he writes. Nettles warns that the embrace of inerrancy does not necessarily guarantee biblical preaching.

· Baptists must recover the work of evangelism that is biblically authentic. Nettles spends two chapters showing the dangers of pragmatic, formulaic approaches to evangelism and calls for the proclamation of a full-orbed message that exposes in sinners the depth and terminal nature of their illness and sets forth the healing balm of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. A fully-biblical approach to evangelism will produce regenerate church members, Nettles points out, a critical Baptist doctrine that is undermined by formulaic approaches to evangelism that offer cheap grace.

· Baptists must recapture the complementarity of Law and Gospel. That is, Baptists must return to preaching the Law to show sinners their ruined state and drive them to Christ, Nettles writes. Once the Law exposes their sinfulness, ministers must set forth the Gospel as the healing balm, he argues. There is a fundamental relationship between Law and Gospel, and this relationship must be part of our preaching and teaching, he writes. Nettles demonstrates that Baptists throughout their history have preached with a careful articulation of both.

· Baptists must recover a grace-centered theology, he writes. Nettles calls Baptists to return to the biblical message that salvation is completely a sovereign work of God that involves all three persons of the Trinity.

· Baptists must, in their proclamation and teaching, clearly articulate a fully Trinitarian doctrine of divine revelation and salvation. A major aspect of this, Nettles writes, is a commitment to a Christ-centered hermeneutic—interpreting the entire Bible in terms of redemption that consummates in Christ Himself, Nettles writes.

· Baptists must build their doctrine of the church upon the whole witness of Scripture. Nettles calls on Baptists to return to their foundational principle of regenerate church membership that includes biblically-ordained elders to teach and lead along with church discipline to uphold a biblical standard of holiness within the body.

· Baptists must recover a theology that will allow them to develop a comprehensive Christian worldview, not only philosophically, but in personal spirituality. Contemporary Baptists must have their minds renewed by Scripture and be equipped to view all of life through its lens, Nettles writes.

Nettles reminds Southern Baptists that a de-emphasis of biblical doctrine and related practical concerns accelerated the denomination’s decent toward liberalism in the mid-1960s. It is a healthy thing for a denomination to discuss biblical doctrine, he writes.

“A reintroduction of many of these (biblical) ideas and the healthy discussions attached to them might frighten some as a harbinger of division,” he writes. “In reality, sober involvement with these issues holds promise for greater purity of fellowship and purpose and promotes a stronger, more singular witness to the world.”

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