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Guest Post by Robert Sagers

Change is afoot in the Southern Baptist Convention.

This past summer saw the adoption of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force recommendations and the hiring of a new Executive Committee president. Yesterday the Convention’s North American Mission Board announced its presidential candidate. The International Mission Board is still searching for the man to replace its outgoing president, who is retiring.

But for all the change taking place in the present that will affect its future, the Southern Baptist Convention has quite a past.

Today I’ve asked three of the Convention’s brightest young historians—Nathan Finn, Joshua Powell, and Jason Duesing—to address issues such as the importance of studying the Convention’s history, the relationship between Southern Baptists and evangelicals, and the need to learn from the past for greater fidelity to Christ in the future.

About the contributors:

Nathan Finn serves as assistant professor of church history and Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Nathan and his wife, Leah, have two children, and are currently expecting their third.

Joshua Powell is currently preparing to lead a new Baptist seminary and pastor training facility in southern India, and is in the writing phase of his doctoral dissertation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Joshua and his wife, Allison, have three children.

Jason Duesing serves as Chief of Staff and Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jason and his wife, Kalee, have three children.

Robert Sagers: Who is one person from evangelicalism’s past who you think could provide wisdom for the way forward for Southern Baptists? Who is one person from the Convention’s past who you think could provide wisdom for the way forward for evangelicals?

Nathan Finn: One evangelical whom I think can help point the way forward for Southern Baptists is William Wilberforce, the famous British political leader. There is a discussion/debate right now among evangelicals, including many Southern Baptists, about the relationship between gospel proclamation and redemptive cultural engagement. While I mean no disrespect, it seems to me that many folks are talking past each other because of perceived fears about either “fundamentalism” on the one side or the “social gospel” on the other (however each is defined!). While there is no doubt there are extremes, and these must certainly be avoided, it seems to me that the answer to the question “Should we focus on evangelism and discipleship or engage in redemptive cultural engagement?” is “YES!” Wilberforce illustrates this balance with his wedding of a commitment to evangelism, missions, and general church health with gospel-inspired advocacy of the “reformation of manners” in British culture and vocal opposition to slavery.

A group of Baptists with whom I particularly resonate is a group of early 19th century “First Church” pastors, many of whom died right before the formation of the SBC. These men were entrepreneurial leaders who were committed to orthodox doctrine, cooperation for the sake of missions and evangelism, and the need for sound theological education; these three priorities are the burdens of my heart. These brothers pastored evangelistic churches, founded state conventions and Baptist colleges, founded and/or edited Baptist papers, and longed for revival and spiritual awakening. Since I’m a native Georgian, Jesse Mercer is my personal favorite, though Richard Furman of South Carolina and Thomas Meredith of North Carolina also fit the profile.

Joshua Powell: I am reminded of an interview that I read in college from 1980. It was the last public interview of the late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The person giving the interview was evangelical giant Carl F. H. Henry for Christianity Today. In the interview Dr. Henry asked Dr. Lloyd-Jones a question that pertained to summarizing his ministry of over 50 years, maybe a chance to leave his legacy in a statement. Lloyd-Jones answered pointedly, he would summarize all of his preaching ministry with the words, “Flee the wrath to come.” Again, Henry asked the question thinking that Lloyd-Jones did not understand it completely, only to have Lloyd-Jones reiterate, “Flee the wrath to come.” These words ring in my ear. We as Southern Baptists must always remember that this is the heart of our message. God’s wrath rests upon all who do not humbly submit to King Jesus, and our message must be proclaiming our King crucified as the only refuge for sinners. And we need to preach this urgently, for already the axe is laid at the root. We would be wise to follow the example of Dr. Lloyd-Jones in so many places, but here is one that I think is most important.

A person we could all learn from is an Indian Baptist pastor named Prassad. I have had the privilege of working with Prassad on many occasions. One of the several churches that Prassad pastors is located within a leper colony. The first Sunday I ever preached in India was at the church within this leper colony. Prassad was the pastor and my interpreter. As the service was starting I could not find him anywhere. I began to get worried. I finally looked out the door and saw him coming down the street. He was carrying upon his back a leprous man, a man who had lost his feet and hands. Prassad brought the man in and sat him down gently. He then walked to the front and stood beside me and said, “Now we are ready to preach.” This is a man who will never preach any Convention sermon, and has never even owned a suit (believe it or not). But he is a man of whom the world is not worthy, and we would all do well to know him, and those like him. The world needs humble servants who would look at any task, even washing lepers and caring for them, and say, “Jesus is Worthy.”

Jason Duesing: While I am not certain I can say exactly who Southern Baptists need to hear, I can mention a few of those who I, as a Southern Baptist and an evangelical, need frequently to hear.

First, I think William Tyndale provides immense wisdom and encouragement. Tyndale’s commitment to getting the Word of God into the language of the people, at whatever cost, challenges me to examine the level of faith in and priority I give to the Word of God. Does my life reflect what I say I believe about God’s Word? Do I regularly point people to God’s Word first or do I rely more on my collective wisdom and experience? Further, Tyndale was a man born ahead of his time. Had he arrived a few decades later after the arrival of the printing press and the mass distribution of printed materials, perhaps his life and the progress toward true Reformation in England would have been radically different. But Tyndale wasn’t born at the wrong time and neither are we. In eras of widespread darkness sometimes the brightest conduits of light are born.

Second, one little known person in modern Southern Baptist history whose story is not often told is Bill Wallace. A medical missionary with the then Foreign Mission Board, Wallace was used greatly in China in the decades prior to the “cultural revolution.” As the communist party advanced, Wallace was captured and murdered after years of faithful witness. The biography of his life recently republished, Bill Wallace of China, is one worth reading and has served to inspire many, Southern Baptist and non-Southern Baptist alike, to consider the call to take the gospel to those who have never heard.

RES: What is one historical moment or event from the Convention’s past that you think evangelicals would be wise to remember—both now and in the future? What is one historical moment or event from evangelicalism’s past that you think Southern Baptists would be wise to remember—both now and in the future?

NAF: Evangelicals need to pay close attention to the Conservative Resurgence. Many Southern Baptist denominational servants were tracking in several unhealthy directions: progressive theology, atheological pragmatic cooperation, affinity with mainline ecumenism, and a programmatic hubris. I sense some of these same tendencies among many evangelicals, though they sometimes manifest themselves differently than they did among Southern Baptists. A growing number of evangelicals are flirting with the same aberrant theological views that many pre-Resurgence Southern Baptists leaders embraced (problematic views of biblical inspiration and authority, soteriological inclusivism, egalitarianism, “mainline envy,” etc.). And these are in the conservative wing of the evangelical movement—many left-of-center evangelicals embraced these things during the same years Southern Baptists were in the throws of our Controversy (c. 1960-1990). Evangelicals need their own “Orthodoxy Resurgence,” though I couldn’t begin to suggest how that could happen in a loose-knit coalition of individuals, churches, and parachurch ministries.

Southern Baptists need to pay close attention to the post-World War II evangelicals who divided into Separatist Fundamentalists and New Evangelicals. From the 1940s until the 1960s, most folks in these two camps were in 90% agreement in doctrine, including total agreement on what I would consider foundational issues. But the fundamentalists incessantly anathematized the evangelicals over tertiary issues, and the evangelicals treated the fundamentalists like a bunch of embarrassing backwoods rubes. Both attitudes were unfortunate, and they helped push many post-1960 fundamentalists further right (KJV-Only, second-degree separation, etc.) and nudge many post-1960 evangelicals to the left (rejecting inerrancy, egalitarianism, etc.). I greatly fear the seeds of our own version of this type of division are already present in the post-Resurgence generation of Southern Baptists.

JP: An event from Southern Baptist past that evangelicals can learn from is the Whitsitt Controversy of the late 19th century. The heart of the controversy was over the control of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Whitsitt believed that the control should ultimately lay in the hands of the academics and not the people. After all, the academics were the ones qualified to run a school. But that was not the way the school was structured. The school belonged to the people of the Convention and was meant to serve them. Thankfully, Whitsitt lost this battle and the school remained in the hands of the people of the SBC. If Whitsitt would have won then the people would no longer have say over the control of the seminary, and quite possibly other entities would have followed suit. If that would have happened then there could not have been a Conservative Resurgence within our seminaries in the late 20th century. It was the people of the Convention that brought about the change within the Convention. Many other denominations in the 20th century simply split; there was no method of correcting the situation when doctrinal fidelity was lost. We should trust the power of God’s truth in the hands of God’s Spirit-filled people.

JGD: I will choose an overlooked Southern Baptist event—the 1987 SBC Conference on Biblical Inerrancy. Not to be confused with the earlier International Conference on Biblical Inerrancy that produced the “Chicago Statement,” rather, the 1987 Conference was a Southern Baptist event hosted by the denomination’s six seminaries in response to the findings of the two-year investigation of the elected Peace Committee. Taking place at the height of the conflict over inerrancy in the Convention, the conference was held in Ridgecrest, North Carolina and was attended by several leading theologians and representatives from both sides of the debate, including a few non-Southern Baptists such as J. I. Packer. The proceedings from the conference were published by Broadman Press and are very instructive both for the technical arguments made and as a historical reminder of just what was at stake as the Convention pursued its two-decade long course correction and “Reformation.” The exchange between Clark Pinnock and Paige Patterson alone is worth tracking down the volume for Patterson, once a student of Pinnock’s in the late 1960s, was placed in the position of debating the one who taught him all he knew about the craft of debate. One poignant quote that shows both the weight of the topic for the Convention in 1987, but also the height of the exchange between Patterson and Pinnock follows:

PATTERSON: Pinnock grieves over the state of disarray. But I probably grieve more than he. Not only must I grieve over the confusion, but also I must lament the plight of biblical inerrantists who endure discrimination, misrepresentation, and isolation. I must sorrow over the long history of denominational apostasy which rendered other Baptist federations impotent and now impinges upon our Southern Baptist Zion. I must bemoan the fate of millions of lost persons around the globe who remain oblivious to the message of Christ due to the inroads of universalism, liberation theology, and anemic evangelism which rests on a shifting foundation of historical-critical hypothesizing. Last of all I must grieve over my professor who has forsaken the prophetic pulpit of Luther for the indecisive desk of Erasmus and the certainty of Paul for the vacillation of the Athenians who must always “hear some new thing.” But Pinnock’s price for peace is too high. He would have us to support those who teach the exact opposite of what we hold to be sacred. He would have us stand at the judgment seat of Christ and try to explain to the enthroned Christ that in the interest of peace in the convention we supported either by silence or by resources those who say that His word errs. This we cannot and will not do! (93).

For a historical moment from evangelicalism, I would return to the basement of North Gate Hall in Oxford, England where a young J. I. Packer discovered a collection of old dusty books—some of which contained the writings of the Puritan theologian, John Owen. Packer’s literal “discovery” of the Puritans would start a movement that not only would bring great and good revived interest in these evangelical forebears, but also would help provide an anchor to the Word of God during the tumultuous 60s and 70s in the UK and abroad. One could argue, hypothetically of course, that had not Packer discovered that box of books, the tremendously influential and life altering works, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958) and Knowing God (1973), may never have appeared. While this would have been a tragedy for the UK alone, many Southern Baptists’ lives would be immensely different and perhaps the courage they found to stand for truth might have waned without Packer’s influence and significant works of theology for “travelers.”

RES: Why should younger Southern Baptists care about the history of the Southern Baptist Convention? Should non-Southern Baptists be interested in that history, as well?

NAF: Younger Southern Baptists should care about SBC history because it is their history—the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is true of church history in general. While being historically aware is certainly not a guarantee against heterodoxy or failure, the more we know about the past the better equipped we are to be faithful in our own context. Let me give two examples, one positive and one negative. On the positive end, Southern Baptists have always been firmly dedicated to cooperation for the sake of mission work at home and abroad. It would be a shame if the rising generation of Southern Baptists forfeited this enviable past. On the negative end, Southern Baptists have for most of our history had difficulty recognizing the difference between Christianity and Southern culture (and in the last 30 years, socially conservative American culture). It would be great if the rising generation of Southern Baptists were better at understanding what it means to be (to paraphrase Tullian Tchividjian) against the culture, for the sake of the culture.

Non-Southern Baptists should be at least somewhat interested in our history because it is part of church history. And there are likely some aspects of our history with which they should be more familiar than others (e.g., the Conservative Resurgence). But I don’t think they should have to be experts on our history, just as I don’t think Southern Baptists have to be experts on the history of other traditions. I think it’s enough for the average non-Southern Baptist to be familiar with the main contours, key figures, and most important events.

JP: The response of many when confronted with their own identity is to critique and abandon, or at least strongly consider it. The grass always seems greener. But, that response is almost always a short sighted knee jerk. While of course there are many things that we would love to change about our identity, both perceived and real, the truth is we have the root of the matter at heart. We have the gospel. Maybe some prevailing methodologies leave a lot to be desired, but no one can say that we do not have the gospel at heart. So don’t leave, with the gospel comes hope. The movements over the last year have been a testimony to that truth. I am a third generation Southern Baptist minister and I will no longer be a part of the SBC the day they turn from the gospel, but at that point I would not have left them, they would have left me.

JGD: Younger Southern Baptists should care about the history of the SBC because whether they grew up in Southern Baptist churches  or were adopted into them later in life, it is their history. As I sometimes mention in the Baptist History course I teach, there are many denominational ships that are seaworthy and are headed in the same direction, thankfully, in the Christian world. The SBC ship is the one, by God’s providence, upon which I have been placed. Sure, decks 3, 8, and 12 are taking on water and there are regular sections in need of constant repair, but God’s faithfulness has worked miracles on this ship and while it is no better than the others, it is where I have been placed. So, if placed there, then one should be a good steward and work to appreciate and value all he has been given in order to help the ship sail straight and with greater faithfulness and fruitfulness. We sail not alone and we would not sail if it had not been for the many who had sailed the ship before—some at great cost.

Non-Southern Baptists might have interest in this, to follow my analogy above, if they are also seeking to sail toward the same end of glorifying the one true God by spreading the news of His great name and great work through His Son to the ends of the earth through the witness of local churches until He returns.

RES: How can the study of the past fuel doctrinal and practical fidelity in the present, and in the future?

NAF: Understanding church history in general, and Baptist history in particular for our context, is critical for contemporary gospel faithfulness. For example, there is no excuse for contemporary Southern Baptists or other evangelicals to “waffle” on doctrinal faithfulness in some attempt to try and reinvent the theological wheel. In my mind, the 4th and 5th century ecumenical councils did a pretty good job articulating the biblical doctrines of the Trinity and Christology; the 16th century Protestant reformers did a pretty good job of articulating the biblical doctrines of sin and atonement; the 17th century Baptists did a pretty good job of articulating biblical ecclesiology; and the 19th century evangelicals did a pretty good job of articulating a biblical view of scriptural inspiration and authority (among loads of other examples). In these cases, our own articulations should strive for complementary contextualization of what others have done, not competitive reinventions for the sake of theological cleverness, intellectual creativity, or the accolades of mainstream scholars. The same principle applies as much to methodology as theology. The old G. I. Joe cartoons of the 1980s were right: “knowing is half the battle.” History is not infallible, but it is our friend.

JP: As my favorite professor, Dr. Gregory Wills, has often pointed out: Our history is both full of beauty and scars. May the scars be a reminder of the errors that we have made. We learn from them, and we grow. The beauty is when those scars are healed through fidelity to the truth of God’s Word. Where we have been faithful let us continue, where we have been unfaithful let the Word wound and heal.

JGD: I believe there are many ways the study of the past can fuel fidelity, but to choose one—and perhaps the most significant in my view—I believe the past, if studied correctly, should have an immense effect on the life of the one studying. Studying the history of God’s work through sinful people to exalt His name through the transformation of the lives of individuals is one of the best ways I know for cultivating deep, lasting, and sometimes even painful humility in one’s life. When the study of the past has this kind of effect one is made more like Christ, longs for the things of God, and is pointed toward His Word—such things like doctrinal and practical fidelity will then naturally take care of themselves!

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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