In April, 1994, after approximately two years of vigorous dialog, First Things, published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society, published the document entitled Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium (ECT). This document may stand as the most sophisticated attempt in modern Christian history to make a universally acceptable statement from across the great theological divide begun with the 95 echoes of Luther's hammer on Wittenberg's Castle Church door.
Predictably, a storm of controversy blew through Christendom because many darlings of evangelicalism's stronghold not only participated in the discussions but signed on the dotted line--Chuck Colson, James Packer, Bill Bright, Richard Mouw, Mark Noll and Pat Robertson, to name a few. Even Southern Baptists Richard Land and Larry Lewis were swept up by the mighty wind blowing through ecumenical Christianity, attaching their names to the document.
More predictably, lightning struck during the tornado, sending alert signals about theological power outages to millions across evangelicalism. Major theologians within the Reformed wing gathered to discuss just what their Puritan colleague, Jim Packer, perhaps the most respected evangelical theologian alive at that time, was thinking by sitting down for cozy cocktails with the Pope in Rome.
Bill Bright circled his wagons to assess the damage. Richard Land and Larry Lewis wiggled and squirmed, trying to free themselves from the hangman's noose waiting for them from 14 million Southern Baptists. Land managed to get a midnight stay of execution. Lewis choked out slowly and painfully.
Southern Baptists possess a reluctant history--while not particularly isolationist, certainly a guarded caution--about buying tickets on a boat with other adventurous believers when they are not the Captain's offspring. Historically, Baptists have demanded to know precisely where the boat is sailing, who is on board, how many life jackets, the whole shebang. So, you mean, "Southern Baptists want to absolutely control the boat? Is that what you're saying?" Well, if you insist on putting it like that, yes: that is precisely what I am saying.
Before folk get their drawers in a knot, understand: Baptists insist only on sailing their boat, no one else's. In fact, Baptists spilled their blood--literally!--so that everyone could row his or her own boat.
Baptists do not insist any person ride in their boat, buy their ticket or sail to their destination. Rather, they historically have insisted that they only control the boat in which they happen to be sailing; that's all. A more scholarly term for sailing these seven seas is religious liberty and Baptists have championed such freedom-loving expeditions, I assure.
Two events happened recently that drove this home to me afresh: one is a document; the other is a defense. One was drafted by many; the other was defended by many. One was something old in something new; the other was something new in something old. There are similarities as well as the contrasts above. Both affect Baptists; both are confusing; both are indicative of our time; both are historic; and, unhappily for us, both possess potential to break apart the Southern Baptist Convention.
What are these two phenomenon? The document is the Evangelical Manifesto (EM); the defense is the surrender of bedrock Baptist convictions pertaining to believer's baptism by immersion. Three good critiques are available for the first; that is, the document: Ergun Caner, Robin Foster and Al Mohler. I add only the thinest summary imaginable.
As far as the EM goes, it is adequate. But like its forefather and first cousin, the ECT, it only draws an additional swell of confusion to an already confused evangelicalism. With Robin Foster, I lament EM's undeniable vacuum of evangelicalism's heart for the last half century: Inerrancy.
Speak as EM does about the "the total truthfulness and supreme authority of the Bible, God’s inspired Word, [which] make the Scriptures our final rule for faith and practice" but, when the bloviated sophistry is over, virtually any professor teaching in any one of our six seminaries in 1979 could have wholeheartedly agreed with that statement about the Bible. Arguably, Karl Barth himself could have written it.
In 1965, noted psychiatrist, Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled "Whatever Became of Sin?" There Dr. Menninger recorded his lament about the recently strange absence of "sin" as a human condition. He writes:
"The very word, 'sin,' which seems to have disappeared, was once a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word. But the word went away. It has almost disappeared - the word, along with the notion. Why? Doesn't anyone sin anymore? Doesn't anyone believe in sin?"
One could just as well, and even more, lament the absence of Inerrancy among today's proud evangelicals who attached their names to the EM:
"The very word, 'inerrancy,' which seems to have disappeared, was once a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word. But the word went away. It has almost disappeared - the word, along with the notion. Why? Doesn't anyone embrace inerrancy anymore? Doesn't anyone believe in inerrancy?"
Inerrancy and inerrancy's notion constitutes the absolute non-negotiable upon which the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention insisted. Now we're willing to sell the movement's birthright for a bowl of tasteless pottage--"the total truthfulness and supreme authority of the Bible."
This newly envisioned evangelicalism which desires to "reaffirm their identity" instead cooks up an entirely new dish based upon an entirely old recipe. The old Moderates, along with some liberals, are alive and kicking. EM demonstrates that.
Last year, Les Puryear offered a stimulating conversation at his site concerning a Southern Baptist who had then only recently left the SBC for a PCA church. In the post, Puryear "sympathized" with his leaving, and in the comment thread, made some startling revelations pertaining to his own theological journey. I have reiterated them elsewhere.
A few month's later, I brought Puryear's "theological reflections" to the table in a conversation at SBCToday (see link above). There Puryear passed his reflections off as struggling with theological issues pertaining to Covenant Theology, including the baptizing of infants.
Nothing was really settled about it, nor did Puryear either indicate he was looking into Covenant Theology so that he would better understand it, as his recent attempt at explaining his words indicate, or, that after thinking through the issue, he'd decided he'd made rash decisions and gave up his quest. Rather, it was left as not having all the so-called "loose ends" of his theology intact. A "growth process" as I recall the conversation.
That was a few months back. Only recently Puryear placed his name to be nominated as President of the Southern Baptist Convention. The link above to my post raised this issue with him a second time. Puryear answered with a post that acknowledges the questions I raised but refused to deal with the words he himself wrote. In essence, he writes that he accepts believer's baptism, rejects paedobaptism and rejects as well Covenant Theology. Fine.
The problem remains, however, that his answers are conspicuously lacking concerning his explicit words, which, from my view, cannot be glibly passed aside. Puryear writes:
"You see, personally, I am finding myself more and more amenable to Covenant Theology, including the practice of paedobaptism. I have taken the time to read several books about these beliefs and I find myself nodding my head in agreement with what I am reading. Where does that place me theologically? Right now, I'm not quite sure. I feel like I'm somewhere in a demilitarized zone between baptist and presbyterian."
Nor does it answer his personally considering a move from the SBC to the PCA as the post makes plain. Nor still does it even hint at explaining his "heart connection" with another commenter who quiered:
Isn't soteriology a higher concern than sacramentology? Isn't right discipline more valuable than baptism if the choice must be made? What Baptist theology text places the latter at a level higher than the former?
Upon this, Puryear replied:
As always, you speak my heart. You ask a most important question: "Isn't soteriology a higher concern than sacramentology?"
My answer: Absolutely.
So, just what does Puryear mean that absolutely soteriology stands higher than sacramentology and right discipline more valuable than baptism? For me, I cannot accept this "as is" from a presidential candidate for the SBC. Nor can this go unchallenged without allowing Southern Baptists at large to know precisely what was said.
Nonetheless, though this is historic to be sure--after all, when was the last time a man entered the race for the SBC presidency who, only a few short months prior to the announcement, openly conceded to being amenable to infant baptism, nodding his head in agreement with Covenant theologians--this is definitively not the historic moment I had in mind to lament. The former was a document--the EM; the latter is a defense--the defense from a swelling group of Baptists who actually see no problem with Les Puryear's flirtation with baptizing babies.
As you can see on the comment threads you surf, those who have voiced a vigorous objection to a presidential candidate for the Southern Baptist Convention who lacked a less than stellar, strong and seasoned view of believer's baptism by immersion only--defacto the central, historical identifying earmark of being Baptist--have faced a vocal community who simply, but confidently says, it doesn't matter. They assure us that we should all be on theological journeys, that we should all look into other people's faiths, that we all have loose ends we have not neatly tied up.
They further insist that because Les Puryear obviously did not "become PCA" but "stayed SBC" that should constitute in itself positive proof that he is solid and can be our President.
So, a person who has finally decided he wants to be Baptist over the last few months is eligible for president? A man who is amenable to baptizing babies? A person whose heart says baptism is rightly sacrificed for proper church discipline? That person can legitimately represent a faith community whose existence exceeds a century and a half--not to mention going all the way back to Baptist roots in 1609--and begun with blood-drenched bodies because they dared insist on believer's baptism by immersion only?
Some insist I'm making way too much of this. They insist I'm "harassing," "skewing," "spinning," and/or "quote-mining" all, I suppose, just to be against Les Puryear. Some suggested on my site I'm lying and am doing "yellow-journalism." Okay. Prove it and show me to be the huckster I allegedly am. Others continue to joust with crooked sticks, charging that I'm "attacking" Les Puryear and should be ashamed of myself.
Some have hinted that I choose to make the worst possible interpretation of Puryear's words since I have already committed myself to another candidate. Hardly. First, if I wanted to submarine a candidate to help my own choice, I would politically not choose Les Puryear on which to expend my limited firepower. Secondly, I raised this issue with Les Puryear months ago--September, 2007. This is not a new issue. For me, it is an old one; one encountered well before the name Les Puryear was added to the list of nominees.
Thus, it's this small but vocal choir of Baptist folk, strangely unconcerned that a candidate for President of the SBC possesses at best a recently "settled" view of believer's baptism by immersion, subsequently deciding not to go to a PCA church. That's the thumb tack in my chair.
This is the historic moment: When Baptists are apathetic enough to not care if their leader has but recently suffered weak knees when it comes to non-negotiable Baptist identity.
For my part, I cannot imagine voting for a man as president of the SBC whose convictions about Baptist identity remain shrouded and who refuses to offer clarity by ignoring his own public words. My hope is, that the millions of Southern Baptists in general and the thousands of Southern Baptists in particular who meet in Indianapolis in June, will not hesitate to record their strong, non-negotiable conviction that, whoever our next President will be, no questions will cloud our assurance that he is firmly, unambiguously Baptist to the bone. For me, that's the stuff from which SBC Presidents must be made.
These are confusing times, at least from my little plot in West Georgia. EM is confusing because it desires to recast a new identity without inerrancy for evangelicalism. Baptists too are showing signs of confusion. Not necessarily because we are attempting to create a new identity--not at this juncture; rather, in many ways we appear to be giving up our identity period.
And those Baptists among us who defend such a weakened conviction concerning believer's baptism by immersion, explaining it as little more than theological growth, causes me much concern, I have to admit. Are Baptists about to break apart? Is the Baptist movement finally exhausted?
God save Southern Baptists.
With that, I am...