For the last two decades of the 20th century, Southern Baptists were embroiled in a debate that centered on a relatively new and radically divisive theological term: inerrancy. One group (generally termed “moderates”) pushed back against accusations made by the other group (alternatively termed “conservatives” by themselves and “fundamentalists” by their detractors) that elements within the convention had abandoned a commitment to biblical authority and that it was dangerously close to theological breakdown.
Several key leaders on both sides of the controversy were instrumental in communicating and defending the respective theological stances of each side. Among the conservatives was a young Paige Patterson, then president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies. Among the moderates were Cecil Sherman, pastor of First Baptist Church Asheville, N.C., and Kenneth Chafin, pastor of South Main Baptist Church in Houston.
In a paper presented by Jason G. Duesing at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society last week, he makes a case for the importance of two debates in 1981 between Patterson and these moderate leaders, noting they are often overlooked in the history of the Conservative Resurgence.
“In 1981, two theological debates took place that revealed the ideas at stake in this war over truth,” Duesing writes. “These debates revealed to the ‘people in the pew’ the extent of theological disparity that existed between the average Southern Baptist and the existing Southern Baptist leadership.”
Duesing, who works under Patterson at Southwestern Seminary as the vice president of strategic initiatives and assistant professor of historical theology, openly admits his potential bias, but the paper is a carefully documented account that reflects the tumultuous atmosphere of the conflict.
The election of Adrian Rogers to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention in the summer of 1979 marked the official beginning to what would later be called the Conservative Resurgence. Warring factions within the convention caused tensions to rise quickly.
“By 1981, the Southern Baptist Convention had endured two explosive years of internecine conflict,” Duesing states.
This quarrel was only exacerbated by comments from Paul Pressler, a Houston judge who worked alongside Patterson in the planning and execution of the conservative strategy.
Duesing points out that “in the months prior to the denomination’s annual June meeting, [Pressler] had used the phrase ‘going for the jugular’ to describe the efforts of conservatives to educate and organize Southern Baptists to place conservative appointees on trustee boards.”
Pressler’s “jugular” remarks were widely reported in Baptist Press and other news outlets.
“The statement then took on a life of its own and would continue to do so for years to come,” Duesing writes.
This remark garnered for the conservatives a reputation as rabble-rousers and demagogues, and Pressler later lamented the damage done by his comment.
“I was not referring to an actual, literal jugular vein of anybody of anything,” Pressler said to journalist and historian James Hefley. “I wish I could teach Baptist newswriters the use of metaphorical expressions in the English language. I was only trying to show the source of strength and power, where the lifeblood of Southern Baptists lies.”
Despite Pressler’s regret over his use of metaphor, his comments nonetheless served to galvanize an already emerging group of moderates.
Duesing records that, “Motivated by the activities and the ‘jugular’ comment of Judge Paul Pressler on the conservative side, Cecil Sherman organized a gathering of pastors, of which Ken Chafin was one, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee for September 1980.”
As the conflict continued to escalate, this “Gatlinburg Gang” would attempt to meet the challenge presented by the conservatives. Sherman was the first to do so directly by accepting an invitation to debate Patterson in February 1981.
The two met at Burkemont Baptist Chuch in Morganton, N.C. at the pastors’ conference of the Catawba Baptist Association. Each would have 45 minutes to present a position paper before answering questions.
According to Duesing, Sherman “stated that his purpose was to show how his view of the Scriptures had a place in Baptist history and conceded that ‘I will not declare that I hold to an inerrant Bible.’”
Sherman went on to say, “I do not think that the Bible is full of errors, but there are some places in the Bible that seem to me to be contradictory.
“When you say you believe all of the Bible, you are meaning to say a good thing. In fact, you are saying a contradictory thing,” Sherman explained. “You have to choose between the hard word at the first statement of the law that Moses gave and the softer, compassionate reinterpretation that Jesus gave.”
“[Sherman] explained that in instances where the Bible appears to give two pictures of God, the problem is with the misunderstanding of God by characters in the Bible,” Duesing writes. “For example, he cites Abraham’s Canaanite influence as the cause behind why he would think God would want him to sacrifice Isaac. Since such is inconsistent with the character of God, Abraham misunderstood.”
Patterson countered with a definition and defense of inerrancy, especially as it relates to Baptists.
“[T]he writing of the Old and New Testament Scriptures was superintended by the Holy Spirit in such a manner as to exclude any error of any kind from the ‘autographs,’” Patterson explained. “Precisely how this feat was engineered, we cannot say. Nevertheless, it was accomplished without interfering with the personalities of the human writers.”
Patterson also appealed to the necessity of reliable authority as an argument for inerrancy.
“[I]f the Bible is not inerrant, i.e., if it has mistakes and errors, who decides what is accurate and true?” Patterson argued. “[W]e must have an inerrant word from God, or else we are forced to depend upon our own errant judgments for assessing what is, in fact, a word from the Lord.”
This debate between Patterson and Sherman went largely unreported in Baptist media circles. In March 1981, James Hefley interviewed Baptist Press news director Dan Martin, who explained to Hefley that “our budget couldn’t afford it.”
“As a result [of the lack of coverage], it has largely been overlooked in historical accounts by both moderates and conservatives,” Duesing writes.
Duesing adds in a footnote that Sherman does not mention the debate in his autobiography, and it is similarly absent from Jerry Sutton’s “The Baptist Reformation” and Paul Pressler’s “A Hill on Which to Die,” works that focus specifically on the conservative reformation of the late 20th century.
In May 1981, it was announced that Patterson would debate moderate Kenneth Chafin at the annual convention of the Religious Newswriters Association of America the following month. The debate was organized and moderated by Louis Moore, then the religion editor for the Houston Chronicle. Quite opposite of the Sherman debate, there was no shortage of media coverage.
Per the agreed-upon terms, the topic of the debate would be, “Biblical Inerrancy is a Factor Crucial to the Survival of the Southern Baptist Convention,” with Patterson taking the positive argument and Chafin the negative.
“Patterson began with a comparison of Charles Spurgeon’s downgrade controversy of 1887 to the current events of the SBC and then set forth seven reasons why he believed that biblical inerrancy is a crucial factor for the survival of the denomination,” Duesing writes.
Among his reasons were a historical emphasis on inerrancy as a longstanding Baptist tradition; an argument from the history of theological defection; inerrancy as an “epistemological necessity”; and the claim that “one must affirm inerrancy because it is the Bible’s claim for itself.”
The scholarly presentation by Patterson must have come as somewhat of a surprise to Chafin, who, as Duesing points out, had been circulating rumors (and may well have believed) that Patterson was a poor Bible scholar and would not have made it through seminary had it not been for his wife.
Nevertheless, Chafin countered Patterson’s footnoted presentation with a two-pronged argument, stating that he did not believe inerrancy was crucial because to do so “ignores the one reason why our denomination was formed to begin with—to do missions and evangelism.”
Chafin also concluded inerrancy was not crucial because doing so would “suggest that the Southern Baptist Convention is divided over the authority of the Scriptures, and this would display a vast and monumental ignorance of both our past and of our present.”
Ironically, the end of the debate turned to a discussion of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Chafin lauded the document, saying that, “when you get all the way down to the bottom line … they have basically defined a classic Southern Baptist position on the Bible with a historical, grammatical approach to interpreting it.” He went on to suggest that Patterson “get ahold of that document” as it “would make very good reading.”
Chafin’s endorsement of the Chicago Statement seemed to imply not only that it represented his view of inerrancy, but that it ran counter to Patterson’s.
As Duesing writes, “Patterson replied, ‘May I specifically say, that it is the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy to which he refers, which I have the privilege of serving on their Advisory Council, and I was there hammering out that document and, by the way, I am very proud of the document.’”
The majority of those in attendance “left believing Patterson was the winner,” according to Moore, the moderator. “Chafin let his anger at the conservatives get the best of him, while Patterson remained logical, controlled, and unflappable.”
Duesing points out that after the widely publicized debate between Patterson and Chafin, none of the principal moderate leadership would ever go on to debate him again.
“The Southern Baptist Convention debates over inerrancy in 1981 … allowed Southern Baptists to see firsthand what the moderate leadership really believed about the Bible, and it propelled them to action,” Duesing records.
“Over the next 20 years, conservatives led a recovery of theological integrity in the denomination’s agencies and seminaries,” he writes. “For the moderates, the highly organized plan of the conservatives proved too much to master, and they simply grew weary of debating Paige Patterson.”
The theme of this year’s ETS meeting, convened in Baltimore, Md., was “Evangelicalism, Inerrancy, and the Evangelical Theological Society: Retrospect and Prospect.”
A series of Baptist Press archives related to that era are accessible through the following links: