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What Southern Baptists Really Did in Orlando

Key voices on all sides of the Southern Baptist theological debate are saying that Orlando was a watershed convention. From the perspective of conservative leaders and messengers, the revisions to the Baptist Faith and Message Statement (BF&M) officially recognized the theological position embraced by an increasing majority of Southern Baptist messengers meeting in convention over the last twenty years.

The question now before the rank and file of our people is "What did we really do in Orlando?" In short, we revised the wording of our commonly accepted statement of faith to clarify who we are as Southern Baptists and where we stand on the Bible and on how we interpret and apply what we believe it says.

It was especially significant that the convention debate never got past the efforts of a few messengers to defeat the proposed revision of two statements in Article I on "The Scriptures." Three words were omitted from the opening statement as follows. The original reading stated that "The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is the record of God's revelation of Himself to man." It was revised to read: "The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man." The final statement in Article I read as follows in its original wording: "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ." This statement was revised to read: "All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation."

All motions to amend the proposed revision of these two statements were defeated and the revisions were adopted by an almost unanimous vote of messengers as part of the total revisions of the BF&M. The official estimate of the final vote on adoption of the full report was above 90 percent.

The original wording of the 1963 BF&M has provided a comfort zone through the years for those who have not agreed with the theological direction of the Southern Baptist Convention. There are those who have appealed to these statements in order to be able to support the BF&M, which was first adopted by the Convention in 1925, and was revised in 1963 and in 1998. However, the recent revisions — especially the stronger position on the Scriptures — have made it very difficult for those with a low view of Scripture to say that they support the BF&M.

For twenty years, Southern Baptist Convention messengers have been backing away from the influence of neo-orthodoxy. In Orlando they finally backed all the way out the door and shut it. This middle of the road neo-orthodox theology, with its low view of Scripture, had become increasingly entrenched in our colleges and seminaries since the early part of the twentieth century. Not all messengers at the Orlando Convention may have fully understood all that the revisions meant, but a decisive break with the influence of neo-orthodoxy is certainly what was intended and is clearly what the messengers pray was accomplished.

Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian and the acknowledged leader of neo-orthodoxy, is due much credit for his efforts to bring Protestant theology back from the extreme left to what he called "a theology of the pure Word of God." He strongly resisted natural revelation and existentialism, and was a leader in the struggle of the German church with Hitler. It is unfortunate that, in his attempt to wrestle theology out of its liberal quagmire, he did not take a higher view of Scripture. This is the major point at which his "New Theology" was flawed.

Neo-orthodoxy accepts in part the doctrinal position of the 16th century Reformation as to what the Bible says about God and what He did in Christ for man's salvation and the world's redemption. But neo-orthodoxy draws a distinction between Scripture itself and revelation from God by saying that one may disregard Scripture as being authoritative unless God is encountered personally in reading it. Messengers in Orlando made the position clear that revelation from God is found as propositional truth in all Scripture, and that Divine Truth relies solely upon Scripture.

Perhaps Barth's view of Scripture may be best described by citing one of my seminary professors of nearly forty years ago. In an associational meeting address, he said that the Word of God, witnessed to in the Scriptures, should be spelled with a big "W," but the words of Scripture themselves should be spelled with a little "w." He was saying that though one may be aided in finding a personal knowledge of God through the Scriptures, the words of Scripture themselves may be said to be inspired only in those passages where the reader personally encounters God. In contrast, messengers in Orlando clarified the prevailing Southern Baptist conviction, which they have been reaffirming for twenty years, that the words of Scripture are spelled with a big "W;" meaning that the Bible is a Sacred Book, that it was God-breathed, and that the words of Scripture as given by God to the inspired writers are, therefore, the words of God.

A reputable pastor, who was viewed by some as a theological conservative, said in a message to that same Baptist association, that "when Peter and Paul differ, we have to appeal to the principles of Christ to make a judgment."

The neo-orthodox error was evident in what both of these associational speakers said. It was a low view of Scripture, first of all, to suggest that what Paul wrote and what Peter wrote might contradict each other. It would be a denial of our dependency upon the epistles of Peter and Paul to suggest that we may judge their writings on the basis of our personal understanding of the principles of Christ, when the epistles were inspired of God and written to clarify and to interpret those principles for us. If we must judge the writings of Peter and Paul by our understanding of the principles of Christ without the advantage of relying upon Peter and Paul to interpret those principles for us, then we are denying the biblical principle of using Scripture to interpret Scripture.

The Orlando 2000 revisions affirmed the conviction that our personal knowledge of God in Christ comes through His revelation of Himself to us in all the Scriptures. Jesus said to those who refused to believe in Him, that "Moses in whom they trusted" would be their accuser. "For had you believed Moses," He said, "you would have believed Me also, for He wrote of Me. But if you believe not his writings, how shall you believe My words?" (John 5:45-47). Jesus affirmed that all Scripture provides a reliable revelation of the things concerning Him.

The revision of the BF&M by the messengers in Orlando brought this statement all the way back to the "pure Word of God," and separated us, at least by official declaration, from the compromised theological position of neo-orthodoxy. The 2000 BF&M represents who we say we are and what we believe as Southern Baptists and it was essential that we make it clear.


Julian M. Motley is director of Denominational Relations and Ministry Referral at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

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February 2001 Edition
Volume 9, Issue 5
February 2001