Theological Variety in the Baptist Experience: In His Foreword to Bruce T. Gourley's the Godmakers, Walter Shurden Wrote: "The Making of History Books without a Point of View Has No End." (1) the Point of View from Which This Article Is Being Written Is That of a Southern Baptist in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

Readers of this journal are aware of the fact that beginning in 1979 the Southern Baptist Convention was convulsed by a controversy that resulted in the resignation or firing of numerous professors, missionaries, and heads of agencies. In addition to the tragic toll that it exacted on the lives and careers of many fine persons, the controversy has altered the theological orientation of the agencies of the convention, and we may expect that the vision of the new leaders will eventually reach many of the people in the 42,000 churches in the convention.

I hope to identify the theological heritage that Southern Baptists received prior to the controversy, as a way of displaying the theologically variety of the Baptist experience. (2)

This article comprises two parts. In-the first, I will describe the theology held by the majority of Southern Baptists up until 1979. The majority tradition includes four clusters of beliefs: the beliefs that Baptists hold in common with all Christians; those they hold in common with other Protestant Christians: those they hold in common with other Baptists; and those they hold in common with other Christians who have been influenced by revivalism. The sequence is chronological; the beliefs in the first cluster were held before the Reformation, those in the second cluster come from the sixteenth century, those in the third cluster come from the seventeenth century, and those in the fourth cluster come from the eighteenth century.

In the second part of the article, I will describe seven clusters of beliefs held by minority groups in Southern Baptist life prior to the controversy. These also are in chronological order. From the sixteenth century there are Anabaptist beliefs and Calvinistic beliefs; from the nineteenth century there are Landmark Baptist beliefs and deeper life beliefs; and from the twentieth century there are fundamentalist beliefs, Pentecostal beliefs, and progressive beliefs.

The theological variety of the Baptist experience will be evident in the first part to the extent that one recognizes that beneath the consensus on beliefs such as "God created the world" there is a variety of interpretation such as, for example, whether or not life on earth has evolved. The theological variety of the Baptist experience will be obvious in the second part because each of the seven clusters of beliefs comprises ideas held by some, but not all, Baptists.

The Majority Tradition: Beliefs Baptists Share with All Christians

Of the approximately six billion people on earth, slightly more than two billion are members of Christian churches. With occasional and statistically trivial exceptions, these churches are committed to a number of beliefs, and Baptists share those beliefs. It is natural to assume that beliefs held by churches as diverse as the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches of the East, the various Protestant churches, and the indigenous churches that are now growing so rapidly in some parts of the world would be trivial beliefs.

In my judgment, the opposite is the case. The beliefs that Baptists share with all other Christians are in fact some of the most important beliefs that they hold. They include the following:

* There is one and only one true and living God. While this may seem self-evident today, it was not self-evident when Israel began to grasp it many centuries ago.

* God is the creator of the entire universe.

* The world has fallen into sin. One of the great achievements of the Jewish and Christian faiths has been to hold both of these beliefs together, for they contain a paradox: The world is good (the good God made it), and the world is evil (human beings have disobeyed God).

* In some mysterious way the one true God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

* The Father sent the Son into the world to provide salvation for the world. Jesus was born of Mary, a virgin, and as an adult carried out a brief public ministry that included healing, exorcisms, teaching, preaching, and gathering together the nucleus of a new faith community. …