SBC must build on “second chance” for healthy future, Mohler says

Communications Staff — April 20, 2004

The conservative resurgence gave the Southern Baptist Convention a second chance at establishing biblical orthodoxy but did not guarantee the denomination a healthy future, R. Albert Mohler Jr. said in the keynote address at a conference on Baptist identity April 6 at Union University.

Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, addressed the conference theme “Baptist Identity: Is There a Future?” He said the denomination must now take the next step and build upon the conservative resurgence.

“We must understand that the SBC was given in this conservative resurgence a second chance, not a guaranteed future,” Mohler said. “It (the SBC) was not given a continued pass from history nor from the theological debates of the future. Rather, it was given a second chance to establish again a comprehensive, full appropriation of Christian orthodoxy.”

This includes understanding and confessing all the key doctrines that Christians throughout church history have believed, he said. Mohler warned that a fear of doctrine could lead the denomination in the direction of the current mainline denominations, many of which have embraced such ideas as the ordination of homosexuals.

“We live in a day that is allergic to theology and irritated by doctrine,” he said. “If Southern Baptists find themselves irritated by doctrine, we will find ourselves with mainline Protestants, only delayed. Issues (ranging) from open theism to universalism and inclusivism, to the compromise of justification by faith, all these point to the fact that tectonic plates are shifting under the theological landscape.

“Southern Baptists must embrace the challenge of confronting these issues not merely defensively, but rather, as a process of using contemporary debates on present issues to frame a theological reality that is in constant conversation with the apostles, with the (church) fathers, with the reformers, with the evangelicals.”

Another component needed for a healthy future is for the SBC to return to a robust confessionalism, he said. Mohler distinguished between “thin” and “thick” confessionalism. He defined “thin” as a type of confessionalism that views confessing the faith as merely a rote exercise.

Mohler urged Southern Baptists toward a “thick confessionalism” that views confessing truths of Scripture as both a privilege and a matter of accountability.

“Thick (confessionalism) understands it is not merely a requirement, it is a privilege to say, ‘I stand on these truths with this covenanted community and as a matter of mutual accountability before God and under the authority of Scripture we join together to hold ourselves accountable to the regulative function of a confession of faith that points us, as a matter of accountability, to our responsibility in this age to confess the faith in a way that is in a constant conversation with those who have come before,’” Mohler said.

Mohler said a recovery of Baptist principles is also needed. Southern Baptists must return to the historic Baptist understanding of the church that is built upon an uncompromising commitment to regenerate church membership and believer’s baptism.

Southern Baptists must also rediscover what Mohler called “the discipline of theological triage.” Like doctors in an emergency room, Southern Baptists must direct their energy toward issues that are most critical and faith-threatening, he said.

“First order” issues—those that separate Christians from non-Christians such as belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ— are the most critical and must receive immediate attention, Mohler said.

He said “second order” issues such as infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism are important and will separate Christians along denominational lines but are to be treated as debates among believers.

“Third order” issues are disagreements on peripheral matters such as the timing of the millennium. They should lead to discussion, not division, Mohler said.

Southern Baptists must devote more attention to first order issues than third, though the reverse is often true, Mohler said.

“Without the discipline of theological triage we are constantly at risk of confusing third order issues with first order issues,” he said. “That is the original besetting sin of fundamentalism. But, at the same time, we are at risk of mistaking first order issues for third order issues. That is the besetting sin of liberalism. Keeping our equilibrium requires that the triage be clear, self-conscious, articulated, and accountable.

“Most of our time is spent, unfortunately, on dealing with tertiary and secondary issues when we should be getting to the primary issues, when those are under attack.”

Southern Baptists may have won the debate on the inerrancy of Scripture, but they must build a doctrinal and confessional superstructure upon it, he said.

“The inerrancy debate then is understood as necessary but not sufficient ground for the Southern Baptist future,” he said.

“Time will tell whether or not Southern Baptists in the conservative resurgence, in their second chance, were faithful to assume the responsibility in this present hour or whether or not the inerrancy debate becomes just a footnote—and a eccentric footnote at that—in American denominational history.”

In addition to theological issues, Mohler said the denomination must also prepare to meet organizational, cultural, and financial challenges. Ultimately, neither SBC executives and agencies nor state conventions will decide how all the challenges for denominational health and survival will be met. Local churches will have the final say, he said.

“That decision will ultimately be made by the churches, and the churches will point us to the future,” Mohler said.

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