Southern journal examines reasons behind conservative resurgence

Communications Staff — May 23, 2003

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The Southern Baptist conservative resurgence has been driven foremost by a deep concern for faithfulness to scriptural teaching and is not a reaction to increasingly secularized culture, writers in the spring issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology assert.

The issue, a publication of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, focuses on “Theology, Culture, and the SBC,” and interacts with Barry Hankins’ recent book, “Uneasy in Babylon.”

Thomas R. Schreiner, professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary, contends that many of the issues addressed by Southern Baptist conservatives have cultural ramifications, but are fundamentally theological.

“[Hankins] rightly points out that many of the theological issues that took center stage also have cultural ramifications,” Schreiner writes. “But this is scarcely surprising. Faithfulness to the teaching of Scripture demands that we declare in public the teaching of Scripture that is contravened in our age and time.”

Schreiner, though, argues that a merely cultural explanation of the conservative resurgence does not fully explain why conservatives have raised certain issues.

“We emphasize inerrancy and the necessity of personal faith in Christ to be saved because many in the theological community deny these truths,” he writes.

Schreiner is one of four Southern Seminary faculty members who interact with “Uneasy in Babylon.” The others are seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr., and professors Gregory A. Wills and Russell D. Moore.

Hankins, associate professor of history and church-state relations at Baylor University, offers a response to the Southern faculty.

The writers contend that the Southern Baptist conflict centered on the issue of biblical authority. Moore, assistant professor of Christian theology, says that Hankins miscalculates the extent to which cultural phenomena drove the conservative resurgence.

“Contrary to Hankins’ thesis, conservatives did not rally Southern Baptists around inerrancy in order to fight a battle against abortion, the sexual revolution, feminism or any other cultural phenomenon,” Moore writes.

“Instead these issues crystallized the debate over larger theological and missiological questions of biblical authority, the Great Commission, and the prophetic role of the church in protecting those the culture deems not worthy of life.”

Conservatives are most concerned with the advance of the Word of God, Moore argues.

“Baptist conservatives know they will not find Jerusalem in an idyllic southern culture or in a Republican White House or in a less profane Hollywood,” he writes. “They must seek to hold back the cultural darkness, but they know they will find a New Jerusalem only in the Kingdom of Christ — a Kingdom that is seen even now in the advance of the Gospel around the world.”

Wills, associate professor of church history, says that theological conviction has driven conservatives to confront liberalism in the seminaries for decades. The resurgence of the 1980s was grounded in conservative activity from decades earlier.

“Conservatives believed that the denomination was drifting from orthodoxy,” Wills writes. “Although they raised some accusations against other denominational agencies, the seminaries were the main targets. Many aspects of the post-1979 campaign to expunge liberalism from the seminaries arose from the denominational experiences in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Echoing Moore in his critique of Hankins, Wills contends that conservatives “were not seeking a platform for countercultural political endeavors but an orthodox foundation for advancing the faithfulness of Southern Baptists in fulfilling the divinely ordained mission of the church.”
But Hankins argues that Moore and Wills misunderstand the thesis of “Uneasy in Babylon.”

“Rather than attempting to show that theology is subservient to culture war, I intended to argue that the two are so closely related that a failure to understand one is a failure to understand the other,” Hankins writes. “What Moore and Wills have done is set in opposition the two parts of my interpretation of Southern Baptist conservatives. I do not see these two as oppositional.”

Parties from both sides of the dispute, according to Hankins, tend toward reductionism in labeling the causes of the conservative resurgence. While conservatives often credit the movement wholly to theology, moderates tend to discount theological causes altogether.

“While abortion and the other issues I have covered in ‘Uneasy in Babylon’ are theological in one sense, the public and cultural impact of these issues heightened the perceived need to shore up the theology of the denomination, and the cultural component also helped convince rank-and-file Southern Baptists that something needed to be done.”

However, Mohler argues that the Southern Baptist controversy has fundamentally theological roots extending back to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s. Over the past 80 years, theological trends have polarized Southern Baptists into two distinct parties, Mohler writes.

The “’Truth Party’ insists that Baptist doctrine and polity are inescapably attached to a prior affirmation of biblical truth, to a clear understanding of biblical authority, and an affirmation of revealed truth as demanding our belief in certain doctrinal essentials,” Mohler writes.

The “Liberty Party,” on the other hand, “is established upon an aggressive assertion of individual rights to interpretation, theological formulation, and experience.”

Mohler concludes, “The defining issues are now before us. The Southern Baptist crisis now comes down to the urgent issue of conviction, confession, and cooperation. The question now presented to the Southern Baptist Convention demands an answer: Will we stand upon the absolute truthfulness and full authority of Holy Scripture?”

The journal also includes 20 book reviews, a sermon on women in the pastorate by Mark Coppenger, pastor of Evanston Baptist Church in Illinois, and an essay on the life and legacy of Herschel Hobbs by Union University President David Dockery.

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