Reactions to the Baptist Faith and Message Committee report to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in Orlando were of two very distinct kinds. The first was an overwhelming affirmation and approval by Southern Baptists. The other was another kind altogether - suspicious, resentful, and hostile.
A particularly egregious example of this hostility is seen in the assertion that revisions to the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) have placed the Bible over Jesus. Detractors erroneously accuse Southern Baptists of being worshippers of the Bible - that we are "bibliolaters." If that were true, every Southern Baptist ought to rise up as one man and repudiate it! But that, in fact, is not the case.
What is behind this accusation? Is it just an expression of anti-SBC sentiment, a ploy in which theological garb is draped over what is in reality a political objection to the SBC and its statement? The duplicity behind such a charge would be bad enough. But the situation may be even worse than that! The truth is that those crying "bibliolatry" may be covering their own aberrant view of Scripture.
This was already a problem before Southern Baptists adopted their first confession of faith. In fact, for more than a hundred years, those who hold a low view of Scripture have seized upon any pretext to challenge its authority. Their own biases against the Bible stimulate them to irreverently attempt the impossible - to use Jesus as a wedge between God and the Scriptures He Himself inspired. Exhibiting sanctimonious fraud of the lowest order, and hoping to seize the high ground by appealing to the "spirit of Jesus," they undercut the authority of whatever part of the Scriptures they wish to dodge or dismiss.
Let's look at how Southern Baptists have addressed this question.
1925 - Mullins on Bibliolatry
Professor E.Y. Mullins was the primary architect of the 1925 BF&M. He was conversant with the malignant attempt to exploit Jesus to devalue Scripture. In 1913, Mullins confronted such attempts in Freedom and Authority in Religion, directing a crushing barrage against those who would set Jesus against Scripture. In a lengthy passage from that work, Mullins presents a closely reasoned argument against the low view of Scripture many held in his day.
In the passage, Mullins employs language slightly unfamiliar to our minds, referring to Christ as "the life," and to the Bible as "the literature."
Mullins contends that human "reason could not be trusted to preserve the truth about Christ after the incarnation and completed revelation. ... This is not to put the literature in the place of the Redeemer, but only to assert that the literature is a necessary medium for the transmission to us of a knowledge of him. Thus, ... the literature comes as the vehicle of objective truth about him and his salvation. ..."
He continues "the relations between the literature and the life of which it is the expression must never be overlooked in defining the function of the Bible, if we are to avoid confusion. ... In the light of those relations, it appears how very groundless are the charges often made by the subjectivists against those who hold to the doctrine of an authoritative Bible. One charge is that they are 'bibliolaters,' worshipers of a book, or that they interpose a book between the soul and God." Mullins says of such objectors "his reason is convinced he has no ground for a rational belief in the Bible as an authority. The conclusion is inevitable, and the Bible is rejected as in any sense authoritative."
Mullins says those who reject the inerrancy and authority of the Bible employ a method that "simply severed the literature from the life which gives it significance, and has judged the literature thus isolated from its true context in the life, and apart from its function. The outcome is directly opposed to the facts. For the literature cannot be understood in isolation from the life."
By use of an apt illustration from the science of astronomy, Mullins makes two points: 1) the indispensability of the Bible for knowing God, and 2) the folly and lack of integrity of those who wrongly charge believers with worshipping the Bible. He said, "The telescope is interposed between the eye and the heavenly body. The astronomer is not accused of worshipping the telescope or advised to pursue the science of astronomy without its aid. The telescope tells him what he could never discover without it. He relies upon it as an 'authority,' and carries forward the discoveries of science."
Mullins concludes that "the objector to an authoritative Bible is on the wrong scent altogether. He is unconvinced by arguments for an infallible or inerrant Bible, or he is unwilling to accept the decree of the early councils which may be supposed to have fixed the canon of Scripture. From these premises he proceeds to the attempt to convict the others of bibliolatry. But he has missed the point entirely. He has torn the Bible away from its true context in its own spiritual order and judged it thus."1
Many "moderates" who often champion Mullins, will actually find little comfort in his writings. Their outlook is, in fact, profoundly antagonistic to his high view of Holy Scripture.
1963 - An Unseen Pitfall
When the BF&M was revised in 1963 to declare, "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ" many initially viewed the change as benign. However, during the intervening years, some who deny the trustworthiness of the Bible have used the phrase to cloak their denials with respectability. The teachings of T.C. Smith, former professor at Southern Seminary and Furman University, are illustrative.
Smith was an insider, not a curiosity on the fringes of his profession. His peers demonstrated their acceptance and respect by selecting him as president of the Association of Baptist Professors of Religion (ABPR).
In the 1970 meeting of the ABPR, less than seven years after the BF&M revision, Smith attacked the inerrancy of the Bible. He declared, "We need to come up with a concept that is more suitable to ourselves, our students, and our conventions." He further insisted that modern Christians should have the liberty to determine their own canon of Scripture, claiming, "Modern scholarship has more valid criteria for selection of the canon than did religious leaders sixteen centuries ago."
In an article entitled "The Canon and Authority of the Bible" in the Spring 1974 issue of Perspectives in Religious Studies, Smith writes about the Bible, "Some of the ethical standards, crude religious ideals, and behavior of the characters portrayed in its pages are strictly out of place in a civilized society. Judged by the teachings of Jesus much of its poetry dishonors the character of God. We can make such judgments about portions of the Bible because we possess the central fact of the record. This is the revelation of God in Christ. ... If we should ask questions about the authority of the Bible, it is not God's authority that we are questioning. It is the reliableness of the authors who wrote the various books. The letters of Paul to the churches at Corinth carry 'as much weight as we are prepared to allow to Paul as a religious teacher, but how far God speaks through Paul is another matter.' Only in the sense that it is not incompatible with its human imperfections can we appropriately speak about the authority of the Bible." (emphasis added)
Smith, in reality, equates the standards of his conception of "a civilized society" with "the teachings of Jesus." And he has the audacity to blame his rejection of Scripture on Jesus! In this system, it is not what Jesus specifically said, or actually taught, but what biased interpreters think compatible with "civilized society" - that mysteriously becomes the "teaching of Jesus."
We are not left to wonder what Jesus' teachings about the Bible were. He is on the record! He referred to the Scripture in its entirety as the very Word of God.2 He taught that it was irrevocable and permanent.3 He treated it as fully authoritative.4 Praying for His disciples, He asked the Father, "Sanctify them in the truth, Thy Word is truth."5 He taught that it points to Him,6 and that He is its fulfillment.7
Misrepresenting the teachings of Jesus is an affront to God the Son! This approach is precisely why many concerned Southern Baptists came to mistrust the revised language. They may not have known all the nuances of theological categories, or the sophistries of theological elites, but they knew that those who wished to undermine and undercut the authority of Scripture too easily subverted the phrase. It has become a gaping hole in the wall of sound Bible interpretation through which a rapid succession of erroneous teachings, especially in the institutions of higher learning, invaded our community of faith.
2000 - A Necessary Corrective
The peril that menaces the body of Christ is not exalting the Scripture over the Son - but exalting human reason over both Scripture and Son! The intellectually honest know there is not a scintilla of a hint in the 2000 BF&M that Jesus Christ, as the moderator-elect of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship claims, has been "demoted."8 A review of the pertinent articles of the confession makes that crystal clear. They teach rather that Jesus Christ is " the eternal Son of God," and "The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. ... All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation."
The Bible does not stand over Christ - but, as the BF&M declares, it indeed stands over all "human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions!" There is no dispute between Jesus and the Bible! Jesus is to be worshipped - the Bible is not to be! I submit that the view Professor Smith espoused is not dead, it is not rare, and that it finds veiled expression in the current dispute.
It should be noted that the change in the most customary way Baptists talk about Scripture did not take place in 2000, but in 1963. The debated phrase, "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ" never appears in any historic Baptist confession until it was added to the 1963 version of the BF&M. Were all the Baptists in the world up till then guilty of worshipping the Bible?
The BF&M statement was revised for the very reason that numerous influential people have used the language as a dodge - a maneuver to sidestep the historic Christian and Baptist view of Scripture.
Hear this, Southern Baptists! Those who sincerely believe the Bible is true and trustworthy have nothing to fear from the BF&M statement on Scripture. Those who look for a loophole through which to cast off parts of Scripture will complain about the change - their cloak has been taken away!
A statement by John R.W. Stott to Billy Graham's Amsterdam 2000 conference for evangelists provides a timely and needed exhortation. He said, "The Scriptures have the content, authority, and power for a proper evangelistic message. ... God has clothed His thoughts in words, and there is no way to know Him except by knowing the Scriptures. ... We can't even read each other's minds, much less what is in the mind of God."
The accusation of bibliolatry is fraudulent! We submit that anti-SBC leaders cannot tell Southern Baptists of one example of a conservative Baptist worshipping the Bible or placing the Bible over Jesus. On the other hand, we can demonstrate a dangerous, damaging pattern in recent years of abuse of Scripture by those who have tried to use Jesus to drive a wedge between God and the Bible. We pray those days have ended for Southern Baptists.
1 E.Y. Mullins, Freedom and Authority in Religion, pp. 350-352.
2 Mark 7:13; John 10:34,35; Luke 24:27, 44,45.
3 Luke 16:17; John 10:35.
4 Matthew 4:4,7,10; 22:29-32; Mark 11:17.
5 John 17:17.
6 Matthew 21:42-44; Luke 24:27, 44.
7 Matthew 5:17.
8 Jim Baucom, Demoting Jesus, CBFOnline, June 30, 2000.