“The influence of confessions of faith has been largely dependent upon the use which has been made of them,” stated James E. Carter in his review of confessions of faith for the Baptist History and Heritage series. Three years after messengers overwhelmingly approved the 2000 revision to the Baptist Faith and Message, nearly two-thirds of state conventions have affirmed the revised doctrinal statement and all Southern Baptist entities are operating with those guidelines in mind.
The first two Southern Baptist doctrinal statements were written to deal with controversies arising out of the seminaries. The 1925 statement failed to satisfy the anti-evolution sentiment voiced by a strong segment of the Convention much like the 1963 statement failed to satisfy Southern Baptists concerned that many seminary professors were teaching outside the mainstream of Southern Baptist life.
1963 statement keeps profs under the radar
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Charles S. Kelley observed that in the days surrounding the 1963 statement professors and publishers were introducing a new perspective intentionally in a very subtle way to keep it under the radar of most Southern Baptists. In his convocation address in the fall of 2000, Kelley said, “Language was being given one meaning in many SBC classrooms, but a different meaning in the churches.”
He quoted from former Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Ralph Elliott’s reflection of the earliest years of controversy in a book titled The Genesis Controversy. Elliott wrote that “professors and students learned to couch their beliefs in acceptable terminology and in holy jargon so that although thinking one thing, the speaker calculated so as to cause the hearer to affirm something else.”
Kelley asked, “How could the advocates of the new theology affirm the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message statement which, quoting directly from the 1925 statement, said the Bible has ‘God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter?'”
He concluded, “Obviously something must have been added to this historic language in 1963 that opened the door for a dramatically different theology to enter Southern Baptist life. It became apparent over the years that rather than serving as the expected course correction for the inroads of neo-orthodox theology in SBC educational institutions, two phrases added to the Baptist Faith and Message in 1963 were instead used to justify a radical departure from what most Baptists had always believed about the Bible.”
Kelley cited the addition of the description of the Bible as being “the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man.” He said, “To professional theologians this is a classic statement of neo-orthodox theology.” He explained that the phrase on the Bible having “truth without any mixture of error for its matter” is interpreted as referring only to those portions of the Bible that are revelation, a dramatic departure from what 2 Tim. 3:16 teaches, he added.
“The problem this perspective creates is in how to know which parts of the Bible are revelation and which are merely the background record. Interestingly enough, not even neo-orthodox theologians could agree on what in the Bible is revelation and what is not.”
Kelley also cited the addition of the phrase “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ” as having provided “another neo-orthodox statement that would take Southern Baptists in a significantly different theological direction.” He explained that many “professional theologians” could affirm the statement but “use Jesus as the spotter for separating divine revelation in the Bible from the human record.”
“This new theology says my answer to the question ‘What would Jesus do?’ carries more weight than the clear teaching of the Bible. The Christ of my experience becomes the final authority for theology rather than the Bible.”
Midwestern missions professor Ron Rogers who also has taught theology as well as observing the influence of neo-orthodoxy while a Southern Baptist missionary to Brazil, asked, “Did the architects of the 1963 BF&M know what they were doing?that is, did they purposely insert the language about Christ being the ‘criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted’ to satisfy the so-called ‘ignorant’ critics and to ‘umbrella’ the seminary elite?
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President L. Paige Patterson who in 1999 formed a committee to propose a revised BF&M, seems to find that the case. “The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message contained ambiguous language which was readily seized by neo-orthodox theologians and employed as loopholes to dismiss biblical materials which they believed to be intellectually unpalatable or politically incorrect.”