During the past twenty years America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has undergone a major upheaval and reorientation, a time of turmoil and schism known to many of its participants simply as The Controversy. At the national denominational level, The Controversy is over for all practical purposes. The conservatives have won and the moderates have largely accepted that fact, most with resignation, some with resistance. The resisters have formed in protest new infra“denominational networks, the success of which has been relatively modest thus far. But the roots of The Controversy, how it came about, what was at stake, and how this relates to the theological heritage both sides still claim”all this remains up for grabs.
The partisans on both sides, of course, have simple answers to these questions. The moderates, called “liberals” by their opponents, see the conservative resurgence as an ecclesiastical coup d’état, a great power grab engineered by ruthless church politicians who neither understood nor cared about the great watchword of the Baptist tradition: freedom. For their part, the conservatives, called “fundamentalists” by their opponents, claim that The Controversy was, to quote the title of a best“selling book of the 1970s, “The Battle for the Bible.” The watchword for such conservatives was biblical inerrancy, and this became the dominant theme in their successful effort to transform the theological seminaries and mission agencies of the denomination. What to the moderates seemed an obvious take over, the conservatives saw as a much“needed turnaround.
Both of these popular explanations are too simple. Some historians have traced the roots of The Controversy to the early 1960s, when conflict over historical“critical study of the Bible produced a major crisis in the SBC leading to the dismissal of Ralph Elliott, a professor of Old Testament at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. Others have looked back to the Fundamentalist“Modernist debates of the 1920s and 1930s, which resulted in debilitating splits among Baptists and Presbyterians in the North. Still others have blamed the persistent racism of Southern religion, the cultural captivity of Southern regionalism, the eschatological pessimism of premillennialist ideology, right“wing conspiracy theories, and so forth: There is no shortage of explanations.
The Controversy should be seen, though, in the context of even more remote Baptist battles. We are still feeling the effects of three great populist movements that ripped through Southern Baptist life in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century: Campbellism, Landmarkism, and hyper“Calvinism. For more than a century, the forces released by these schisms have simmered beneath the surface of Southern Baptist consciousness, and they continue to frame current debates within the denomination dubbed by one historian as “God’s last and only hope.”
Those who lived through these theological firestorms did not underestimate their destructive effect. R. B. C. Howell (1801“1868) was one of the founders of the SBC in 1845. He served four terms as president of the Convention and was also pastor of the First Baptist Church of Nashville. Near the end of his ministry, he reviewed the history of Baptists in Tennessee and described the devastation wrought by these three movements:
Now for the third time within forty years, the desolation of Baptist churches in Tennessee was complete. They were first rent, overthrown, and destroyed by the violence of the controversy on the doctrine of predestination; they were secondly crushed and scattered by the “Reformation” of Mr. Campbell; they were thirdly severed and prostrated by the Landmark controversy. Scarcely had they begun to recover from one calamitous division when they fell into another. Will the Baptists of Tennessee ever be united, and labor together continuously in the cause of Christ?
The movements Howell mentioned were all led by powerful personalities, but they also dealt with basic issues of Baptist identity and Christian faith: namely, the balance of Scripture and tradition as norms of belief and practice (Campbellism); the nature of the true church and its identity markers (Landmarkism); and the reality of divine grace in the plan of salvation (hyper“Calvinism). The putative resolution of these issues in the nineteenth century has not prevented their resurfacing at the end of the twentieth.
Alexander Campbell was born in Ireland, educated in Scotland, and emigrated to Pennsylvania with his father, Thomas Campbell, where both were immersed as believers and affiliated with the Baptist denomination in 1812. The Campbells were Scotch“Irish Presbyterians by background, but after Alexander’s wife, Dorothy, gave birth to their first child, they rejected infant baptism. Campbell was a popular speaker at Baptist gatherings and disseminated his ideas through a widely circulated paper he edited called the Christian Baptist .
The Campbell movement (the word “Campbellite” was a nickname coined in 1832) began as an effort to counteract the disunity of Christendom. Campbell’s reforming movement was part of the larger restorationist impulse in American Protestantism. Campbell wanted to bring visible unity among all Christians and hence “restore” the true church by returning to the New Testament, which, he believed, contained a precise blueprint for church order and belief. Building on the earlier restorationist call of Barton W. Stone, Campbell led many erstwhile Baptists to leave their congregations and affiliate with his newly formed Churches of Christ.
The results of this schism are with us still; it is not uncommon to find Baptist and “Christian” churches still facing one another across town squares and village lanes throughout Tennessee and Kentucky, just as New England Congregationalists divided into Old Lights and New Lights in the eighteenth century. Why did Campbell leave the Baptists after seventeen years of ministry among them? For one thing, Campbell’s stark biblical literalism led to disagreements over many aspects of church life and ministerial order. Campbell opposed, for instance, the use of instrumental music in worship and refused to call ministers by officious“sounding titles such as “Reverend” or “Doctor.”
Campbell also had serious soteriological differences with the Baptists. He taught a doctrine that sounded very much like baptismal regeneration, denying the direct agency of the Holy Spirit in conversion. Indeed, Campbell would often poke fun at Baptists who talked about “getting religion” or being convicted of sin and drawn to Christ by the work of the Spirit. For Baptist awakeners in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the Wesleys, this smacked of heresy or even blasphemy, ruling out what the Baptists called “an immediate work of God’s grace in the heart.”
A still more serious breach between Campbell and his Baptist cohorts stemmed from his outright rejection of confessions of faith. Campbell viewed religious authority according to a simple maxim: “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” To many ears this sounded like a reaffirmation of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura . “My conscience is captive to the Word of God,” Luther had stated at the Diet of Worms in 1521. “I can do no other.” The early Protestants in Switzerland had been equally unequivocal in the second of the Ten Conclusions of Berne (1528): “The church of Christ makes no laws or commandments apart from the Word of God; hence all human traditions are not binding upon us except so far as they are grounded upon or prescribed in the Word of God.” Early in his teaching career, Calvin himself had tried to dispense with non“biblical terms such as homoousious and Trinitas in favor of the unadulterated words of the inspired text. But when some of his erstwhile followers, such as Laelius and Faustus Socinus, drew quite heretical conclusions from the same texts he had quoted, Calvin found it necessary to reappropriate the historic language of classical Christian orthodoxy. Thus for all their rhetoric about “Scripture alone,” Protestants in the sixteenth century, and Baptists in the seventeenth and eighteenth, not only affirmed the dogmas of the early church in the language of the ancient creeds, but also added to these classic statements their own particular confessions of faith.
By the nineteenth century, Baptists had produced many such confessions, but the one against which Campbell directed most of his ire was the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, a document printed for the Philadelphia Baptist Association by Benjamin Franklin in 1742. By the 1830s it exerted a magisterial influence among Baptists North and South. At the founding meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, each of the 293 “delegates,” as they were then called, who gathered in Augusta, Georgia, belonged to churches that embraced this confessional standard.
Although he was the most important opponent of confessions of faith, Campbell was not the first Baptist to oppose their use. Some Separate or New Light Baptists spawned by the First Great Awakening had rejected the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, saying that they needed “no such Virgin Mary” to stand between them and God. Even earlier, some General or Arminian Baptists in England had refused to subscribe to a particular statement of faith, perhaps because they were already leaning toward the anti“Trinitarian views they later openly adopted. As historian Raymond Brown put it: “Resistance to subscription became the prelude to heterodoxy. People who refused to sign the articles came eventually to deny them and those General Baptists who were theologically uncertain ultimately became committed Unitarians.”
In any event, Campbell’s views were soundly rebuffed by most Baptists in his day. The Franklin Baptist Association in Kentucky commissioned a long circular letter to counter Campbell’s anti“confessionalism:
If there be any divine warrant for a church (in this day), there is a divine warrant for a Creed, as a test of union, a bond of fellowship, a fence against error, and a shield against that spirit of restless inspiration, which esteems every novelty an improvement . . . . To live, as a society, without a confession of faith has often been attempted”but we have yet to be informed of the first instance of its succeeding.
We understand that the Congregational churches of Massachusetts have made the dangerous experiment, and like those who have embarked before them in the same presumptuous enterprise, they have fallen prey to dissension and heresy, to a degree equally instructive and mournful.
Obviously, the Baptists of Kentucky were looking over their shoulders at the Congregationalists of New England and the rise of nascent unitarianism among the spiritual descendants of the Pilgrims and Puritans. Thus, when James Petigru Boyce founded the first theological seminary among Southern Baptists in 1859, he required every professor in that institution to sign an explicit statement of doctrine pledging to teach “in accordance with, and not contrary to” the beliefs stated therein. He observed, “Campbellism, though checked in every direction in which it attempted to develop itself, has left no little of its leaven among us and exerts no inconsiderable influence.”
By the time of Campbell’s death in 1866, Baptists and the Restorationists had already gone their separate ways. Yet the lingering influence of Campbell’s legacy would continue to haunt Southern Baptists. One way to interpret The Controversy of recent years is to see it as a “preachers’ fight,” a tug“of“war among competing clerics, a theological brouhaha that most laypeople would just as soon go away. One can imagine Campbell’s appalled reaction to the kind of authority exercised by megachurch pastors or denominational executives today”or to the fact that Baptists not only continue to call their ministers “Reverend” and “Doctor” but also have de facto bishops and even a so“called “college of cardinals,” as some moderate critics have dubbed conservative SBC leaders.
Two other issues raised by Campbell continue to echo among Baptists today. In the nineteenth century, Baptists rejected Campbell’s watered“down doctrine of the Holy Spirit and his reductionist understanding of conversion. But in time Baptists lost touch with the older theology of awakening. Jonathan Edwards described the Northampton revival as “a surprising work of God.” But there is little “surprising” about Southern Baptist revivals or evangelistic efforts anymore. While no Southern Baptist, conservative or moderate, would accept Campbell’s regenerative view of baptism, one must ask whether his rationalistic scheme of salvation by correct belief and observance of proper rituals has not become more nearly the norm among many Southern Baptists.
Baptists of the nineteenth century also rejected Campbell’s strong anti“confessionalism. In the early part of the twentieth century, however, the ideal of American individualism was wedded to the Baptist concept of “soul competency” resulting in the triumph of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the infinitude of the private mind.” Many contemporary Baptists would be surprised to learn that venerable shapers of the Baptist tradition such as Andrew Fuller, Richard Furman, B. H. Carroll, and even E. Y. Mullins often spoke in an affirming way of “the Baptist creed.” For example, in 1923 Mullins, the champion of “soul liberty,” outlined various basic Christian beliefs (e.g., biblical inspiration, the miracles of Christ, his vicarious atonement, bodily resurrection, literal ascension, and final return) and declared before the SBC: “We believe that adherence to the above truths and facts is a necessary condition of service for teachers in our Baptist schools.”
It is ironic that Campbell’s slogan, “No creed but the Bible,” has become a shibboleth of Baptist identity among many of the denominational descendants of those who stoutly opposed it in Campbell’s day. SBC conservatives have much history on their side when they argue for a robust Baptist confessionalism, but they depart from the historic Baptist pattern when they restrict their doctrinal concern to the single issue of biblical inerrancy. The early Baptist confessions were much richer and full“orbed. For example, the English Baptist confession of 1679 reproduced the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, declaring that all three “ought thoroughly to be received and believed.” “For we believe that they may be proved by most undoubted authority of Holy Scripture and are necessary to be understood of all Christians.”
Still, Baptists never advocated credalism . Throughout their history, Baptists of all persuasions have been ardent supporters of religious liberty, opposing state“imposed religious conformity and the attendant civil sanctions associated therewith. Believing God alone is the Lord of the conscience, Baptists deny that civil magistrates have any legitimate authority to regulate or coerce the internal religious life of voluntary associations. Baptists are non“credal in another sense as well: they deny that any humanly constructed doctrinal statement can be equal to, much less elevated above, Holy Scripture. But this principle, sacred to Baptists through the ages, is fully compatible with voluntary, conscientious adherence to an explicit doctrinal standard, precisely the issue at stake in the controversy with Campbell. All confessional traditions are liable to lapse into legalism, a charge SBC moderates have leveled against conservatives, sometimes with just cause. But confessionless Christianity poses an even greater danger. Forsaking the distilled wisdom of the past makes every man’s hat his own church.
If Campbell’s ideal was to reestablish the true New Testament church, Landmarkism asserted that Baptist churches had maintained unbroken continuity through the ages. There was no need to restore the true church; Baptists had never lost it. In this view, Baptist churches were the only true churches that had ever existed in the world, all others being mere human “societies” or apostate deviations from the Baptist norm.
An elaborate Landmark historiography was developed to bolster this claim. A popular expression of this perspective was set forth in J. M. Carroll’s The Trail of Blood , a remarkable pamphlet still in print nearly seventy“five years after its initial publication. In dramatic fashion, Carroll sweeps into the Baptist march through the centuries numerous dissenting, heretical, and schismatic groups from the second through the sixteenth centuries: the Cathari, the Novationists, the Donatists, the Paulicians, the Acephali, the Paternines, the Petrobrusiani, the Henricians, the Arnoldists, the Albigenses, the Waldensians, the Lollards, the Anabaptists, and on and on. All of these groups, he claimed, had really been true Baptist churches because they practiced believers’ baptism by immersion and were persecuted by the tyrannical Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Baptist successionism might have remained a relatively small tributary among Baptists in the South had it not been for James Robinson Graves, its chief protagonist and promoter. A native of New England, Graves descended on the South with the force of a tornado, determined to restore the “old landmarks” of the faith. With spellbinding oratory, he preached a rigid, exclusive Baptist ecclesiology. Like Campbell, Graves was also a successful writer and editor of his own paper, the Tennessee Baptist .
In an age of intense denominational conflict, Landmarkism reinforced Baptist tendencies to isolation and separatism. If Baptist churches were the only true churches, it followed that Baptist ministers were the only true ministers, and Baptist “ordinances” the only true sacraments. This had practical implications. Many Baptist churches refused to practice open communion or accept the “alien immersion” of prospective members even from other credo baptist denominations. Many Baptist pastors also refused to hold “pulpit affiliation” with non“Baptist ministers. All of this ran counter to the historic Baptist doctrine of the universal church, invisible and indivisible, the one Body of Christ scattered throughout time as well as space. In his 1849 manual on Church Polity , J. L. Reynolds defined the church in this wider sense: “It is this community of believers, the household of God, the whole family in Heaven and Earth, that constitutes the Holy Catholic Church, the kingdom of Christ in its internal development.”
Landmarkism posed a serious challenge to interdenominational cooperation between Baptists and other mainline evangelical traditions. Yet Baptists arguably had benefited more than any other group from the First Great Awakening (1740“1760), an inter denominational extravaganza if ever there was one. Interdenominational cooperation bolstered all the arms”education, benevolence, and missions”of the SBC. This sort of evangelical synergism became increasingly difficult with the rise of Landmarkism (which also coincided with the controversy over slavery, the separation of Northern and Southern Baptists, and the Civil War).
Around the turn of the century, the staunchest Landmark advocates separated from the SBC to form their own denominations, which continue to this day, largely centered in Arkansas and Texas. Many congregations within the SBC still practice closed communion and insist on re“baptizing new members who come from non“Baptist traditions. But the greatest influence of Landmarkism in Southern Baptist life is a deep“seated antipathy to anything that smacks of ecumenism.
The Controversy, however, has posed a new challenge to Baptist isolation and anti“ecumenism. Three of the most nationally visible Southern Baptist leaders over the past thirty years, each of them claimed as allies by SBC conservatives, are Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry, and Charles Colson. Yet each is primarily identified with the larger evangelical, i.e., interdenominational, constituency, not with internal Southern Baptist structures.
How can Southern Baptists with their strong Landmark suspicions relate to the wider evangelical community? One way to understand The Controversy is to see it, in some measure, as the “evangelicalizing” of the SBC. The evidence for this phenomenon is incontestable: the influx of non“SBC evangelical scholars into Baptist seminaries; the changing of the name of the Baptist Sunday School Board to the more generic LifeWay Christian Resources; the presence and high profile of non“Baptist leaders on SBC platforms, e.g., the closing message at the 1998 SBC delivered by Dr. James Dobson, a Nazarene; the aggressive participation of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission as an advocate for the conservative side of the culture wars conflict; new patterns of cooperation between SBC mission boards and evangelical ministries such as Promise Keepers, Campus Crusade for Christ, the National Association of Evangelicals, Prison Fellowship, and World Vision.
The cooperation between Southern Baptists and evangelicals signals a new day, but it may also come with a price, namely, the diminution of Baptist identity and a sense of uprootedness from a particular tradition. This concern has been voiced by some SBC moderates who have long resisted the coopting of the SBC by evangelicals. For example, back in 1976, the “Year of the Evangelical” that witnessed the election of born“again President Jimmy Carter, an SBC moderate leader protested the easy identification of Southern Baptists and evangelicals: “We are not evangelicals. That’s a Yankee word. They want to claim us because we are big and successful and growing every year. But we have our own traditions, our own hymns, and more students in our seminaries than they have in all of theirs put together.” While this sounds like simple old“fashioned Southern Baptist brag and strut, it reveals a more deep“rooted concern for an evaporating sense of identity in an increasingly post“denominational world.
The ghost of J. R. Graves still stalks the Southern Baptist Zion, forcing a new generation to face old questions about the marks of the church and the limits of Christian fellowship. “Baptists have never dissented from anything but sin,” said Graves. We are “not Protestants, but have been, in all ages, the repudiators of Popery.” Sectarianism and anti“Catholicism are not dead in Baptist life, but the new alignments brought about by The Controversy continue to challenge old stereotypes. Thus in 1994 the SBC commended a Roman Catholic nun, Mother Teresa, for her stirring rebuke of (Southern Baptist!) President Clinton and voted to include the text of her speech on the sanctity of human life in its annual record.
Modern historians have isolated two distinct beginnings of the English Baptist movement: the General Baptists, who evolved out of a church started by John Smyth, a Separatist refugee who rebaptized himself and his exiled congregation at Amsterdam in 1609; and the Particular Baptists, who arose among the underground London congregations of the 1630s. The General Baptists stressed the universal scope of the atonement, holding with the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius that Christ died indiscriminately for all persons. The Particular Baptists, on the other hand, were strict Calvinists who agreed with the doctrines propounded by the Synod of Dort (1618“19), with its assertions of Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, the Irresistibility of grace, and the Perseverance of the saints (TULIP). In the early decades of their coexistence, the debates between Calvinist and Arminian Baptists were intense, not unlike the disputes between fundamentalists and liberals in this century.
The same debates were replayed among Baptists in America, with the consensus tilting strongly, though never unanimously, toward the Reformed side of the ledger. Baptists of this period were not overly concerned about how one reconciled the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. The friendship and cooperation between the Arminian John Wesley and the Calvinist George Whitefield during the First Great Awakening had shown that the two groups could work together in evangelism and make common cause for the evangelical movement.
In the early nineteenth century, however, a new and virulent strain of hyper“Calvinism made strong inroads among Baptists in America, leading to major disruptions of fellowship and outright schism. A system of thought originating among British Congregationalists in the early eighteenth century, hyper“Calvinism promoted the doctrine of eternal justification. The elect were not only chosen in Christ from all eternity, they were actually justified before they were born, quite apart from repentance, faith, and a personal response to Christ and the gospel. This view appeared to undermine the urgency of personal conversion and the importance of the historicity of the Incarnation itself. The Philadelphia Confession of Faith, echoing the Westminster Confession, rejected it plainly: “God did from all eternity decree to justify all the elect . . . nevertheless, they are not justified personally until the Holy Spirit doth in due time actually apply Christ unto them.”
Hyper“Calvinists also rejected “duty“faith,” the teaching that unconverted sinners who hear the gospel proclaimed have a duty to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. This view in turn led them to oppose the open, promiscuous preaching of the gospel: it was useless to exhort unconverted sinners to do what they neither could do nor indeed had any obligation to do. On these theological grounds, hyper“Calvinists thwarted efforts to promote missions, evangelism, Sunday Schools, theological seminaries, and other humanly contrived devices that seemed to them unwarranted intrusions into the sovereign work of the Spirit.
Among Baptists on the American frontier, these views were forcefully presented by Daniel Parker (1781“1844), a man of slight build with a beard streaked with tobacco stains, who set forth his ideas in Views on the Two Seeds (1826). Based on his reading of Genesis 3:15, Parker claimed that two seeds, “the seed of the woman” and “the seed of the serpent,” had entered the human bloodstream resulting in a fatalistic bifurcation of the human race. Two“seed“in“the“Spirit predestinarian Baptists claimed that Christ and his elect ones were born of the pure seed of the woman, while the non“elect reprobates were doomed because they had within them the seed of the serpent.
It is not difficult to see why Baptists intent on winning the frontier for Christ had little sympathy for this teaching. Back in England, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a Calvinistic Baptist of the first rank, claimed such views had “chilled many churches to their soul.” Like Spurgeon, early Southern Baptist leaders rejected hyper“Calvinistic theology with its anti“missionary bent, while embracing distinctively Reformed views on predestination, perseverance, and particular redemption.
Today there is a growing interest in Reformed theology within the SBC. While most Southern Baptist Calvinists have been sympathetic to the conservative resurgence, the two movements are by no means equivalent. Some moderates are also Calvinists, while some conservatives fear that missions and evangelism will be undercut by such a strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty. One SBC conservative leader was reported to have remarked several years ago: “Once we get rid of the liberals, we are going after the Calvinists!” But, to the chagrin of their detractors, Southern Baptist conservatives have thus far avoided such a fratricidal crusade.
Various explanations have been offered for the recent revival of interest in Calvinist theology in Baptist life. One suggests that an age of transition and anxiety such as ours naturally finds attractive a system of thought offering dogmatic certainty and security. Another cites renewed interest in the Bible: Once the question of biblical authority is settled, it becomes urgently important to investigate what the Bible actually teaches about salvation, grace, and election.
But a strongly Calvinist undercurrent has always been present just beneath the surface of traditional Baptist piety. This is evident in every Baptist’s favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace,” written by the Anglican Calvinist and former slave trader, John Newton. Something of the Calvinism shaped by the hardships of the frontier still marks Baptist spirituality in the South, especially among African Americans and poor whites who have been taught by experience to know that nothing is assured in this life, and everything good in it is a surprise, a gift. Although not articulated in technical terms, the Calvinist doctrine of divine providence is at the heart of numerous spirituals and gospel hymns such as “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand, Lead Me On, Let Me Stand.”
The renewed vigor with which Southern Baptists are engaging issues of public policy also draws on a distinctively Reformed critique of culture. For example, SBC leader Richard Land, while far from a strict Calvinist, studied ethics with Paul Ramsey at Princeton and was greatly influenced by the Reformed apologist Francis Schaeffer.
As a Reformed theologian, I sympathize with efforts to recover the Reformation roots of the Baptist heritage, including a strong theological commitment to the sovereignty of God and the doctrines of grace. Reformed Southern Baptists, however, should not forget the real dangers of hyper“Calvinism and the deep scars it has left on the psychic memory of the denomination. Luther Rice, himself both an advocate of a high predestinarian theology and a leading missionary statesman among Baptists in America, left these wise words of counsel:
How absurd it is, therefore, to contend against the doctrines of election, or decrees, or divine sovereignty. Let us not, however, become bitter against those who view this matter in a different light, nor treat them in a supercilious manner; rather let us be gentle towards all men. For who has made us to differ from what we once were? Who has removed the scales from our eyes?
On the brink of the millennium, the SBC remains America’s largest Protestant denomination, some sixteen million strong. The internal struggle of the last two decades has resulted not in fragmentation, but realignment: Jerry Falwell, a bitter foe of the old, moderate“dominated SBC, was a voting delegate at last year’s convention. The conservative resurgence has reversed the denominational drift to the left, at least for the time being. The greatest threats to the SBC today are complacency and amnesia.
Both Campbellism and Landmarkism were strong anti“institutional forces. They emphasized the priority of the local church over all extra“congregational enterprises. In an era of localism and regional autonomy, today’s SBC leaders face an increasingly difficult challenge in beating the drum for denominational loyalty. The conservative movement itself was a grassroots revolution against moderate elites who long ignored the legitimate concerns of their constituency. But the replacement of one set of bureaucrats with another does not a reformation make. The same populist forces that swept the moderates from control can also turn against the current regime should it cease to hear the vox populi that placed it in power.
Campbell’s anti“confessionalism is still championed as a badge of Baptist identity by SBC moderates in exile, although the limits of their libertarianism have been tested by the culture wars. Recently, the moderate“led state Baptist Convention in Texas moved to oust from its fellowship a congregation in Austin that had blessed same“sex unions. The revival of confessionalism poses a different challenge for mainstream conservative Baptists, namely, how to use historic documents of the church in passing on the faith to the rising generation.
For decades Southern Baptists have ignored the systematic religious instruction of young people, assuming that a pious experience of “Jesus in my heart” would suffice. The SBC has nothing comparable to the Catechism of the Catholic Church , despite the fact that the first item published by the Baptist Sunday School Board in 1891 was called “a Baptist catechism.” If confessions of faith are to have a shaping role in Baptist life, they must be integrated into the didactic and liturgical mission of the church and not used merely as instruments of doctrinal correctness. It remains to be seen whether conservative Southern Baptists can translate their political victory in the convention into a living tradition of genuine reformation.
The Landmark impulse in Baptist life has been fed by strong nativist tendencies and a virulent anti“Catholicism. This explains in part the furor within the SBC over the participation of two denominational leaders in the original Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) process. Landmarkism is still alive and well in the Baptist hinterland, but the increasing acceptance of interdenominational ministries and programs within the SBC has reduced its grip on the Baptist soul. While extremist moderates are being drawn more and more into the orbit of mainline Protestantism, centrist moderates, many of whom hold a high view of biblical authority, may find new common ground with irenic conservatives through joint ventures in evangelism, social ministry, and witness in public life. In this context, a new ecumenism that seeks to foster mutual understanding without compromising biblical truth may gain a better hearing in the future than it has had in the past.
The recovery of the Calvinist tradition in Baptist life can serve as protection against sectarian and isolationist impulses. The Reformers of the sixteenth century, including Calvin, never saw themselves as ecclesial innovators or creators of new churches. They wanted to reform the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church on the basis of the Word of God. This is also the genius of the Reformed Baptist movement, with its stress on divine sovereignty in salvation and the continuity of God’s elect people through the ages. Calvinism, of course, has its own sectarian edges: it can degenerate into a graceless polemic about the doctrine of grace with little evidence of the reality of the thing argued about. Calvinists within the SBC will gain a better hearing for Reformed theology if they can combine their zeal for doctrinal purity with a passion for evangelism and a love for the brethren, including those who may not ring all five (TULIP) bells in quite the same way they do.
Baptist historian Walter Shurden has observed that “to fight over your heritage is not a good way to learn about it; but even that is better than ignoring it altogether.” Baptists have always been a fractious and fissiparous folk. There is no reason to think that this will no longer be the case once the infighting stemming from The Controversy has ceased (which will not likely happen until most of the veterans have died). My hope is not for the removal of conflict, but for the elevation of dialogue, for the kind of substantive historical and theological engagement that has always been central to the cultivation of a vibrant Christian orthodoxy. This is a distinctive mark of the Baptist tradition at its best.
Timothy George is Dean of Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, and Senior Editor at Christianity Today. This essay is adapted from a lecture presented to the St. George Tucker Society at Emory University.