Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Historical Criticism among Southern Baptists: A Comparison of Clyde Francisco, Ralph Elliott, and G. Henton Davies

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Historical Criticism among Southern Baptists: A Comparison of Clyde Francisco, Ralph Elliott, and G. Henton Davies

Article excerpt

Although Southern Baptists are by no means theologically monochromatic, they have generally been characterized as suspicious of critical biblical scholarship. (1) This suspicion manifests itself as early as the 1879 dismissal of C. H. Toy from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) (2)

In fact, it was not until the 1942 arrival of Clyde Francisco at SBTS that Southern Baptists began significant engagement with historical-critical scholarship. (3) Although Southern Baptist scholars began incorporating historical-critical scholarship into Baptist academies in the middle of the twentieth century, the hermeneutical methodologies of most Baptist churches remained relatively unchanged, producing a growing divergence between the churches and their seminaries within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). (4)

Nearly two decades after Francisco began his career at SBTS, the denominational fault line over the use of historical-critical scholarship emerged in the form of the "Genesis Controversy," revolving around Francisco's student Ralph Elliott and the 1961 publication of The Message of Genesis. (5) The fury of Baptist newspaper publications, polemical editorials, and tumultuous annual convention meetings hardly subsided when controversy erupted once again in 1969 over the Broadman Bible Commentary entry by G. Henton Davies on the book of Genesis. (6) Once again, complaints and publications in local Baptist newspapers erupted, eventually spilling onto the convention floor at the 1970 annual convention meeting in Denver during which time former SBC president Herschel Hobbs was booed from the stage while urging restraint. These two controversies are credited with being two of the first shots fired in the subsequent battle for control of the SBC. (7)

Curiously, Clyde Francisco as one of the forerunners of critical scholarship in Southern Baptist life differed little from Elliott and Davies in his use of historical criticism, yet he generated almost no controversy over the course of more than thirty years in the leading Southern Baptist academic institution. Elliott admitted that much of the material from his book was shaped by Francisco. (8) When leaders of Broadman Press experienced the backlash over Davies's entry on Genesis, they contracted Francisco to rewrite the volume, which he did only after affirming Davies's previous work. (9) Therefore, the question emerges: How is it that Francisco was able to employ historical-critical methodologies among Southern Baptists without generating the controversy of Elliott or Davies?

Although Francisco and Elliott both had extensive preaching and teaching careers, the following study specifically explores how they represented themselves in writing. This investigation will argue that Francisco differed from Elliott and Davies principally by carefully employing historical-critical methodologies without allowing the historical-critical conclusions to undermine the Baptist necessity for certainty in the reliability of the biblical text. This commitment is manifested in Francisco's writings in two ways. First, Francisco exhibited a clear concern for the reliability of the text as inspired. Thus when he raised questions of historicity, he did so through the lens of interpretation and not inspiration. Second, he did not allow historical-critical conclusions to obscure the interpretation of a passage. Francisco used historical criticism to buttress theological interpretation, not diminish it.

The comparison of these three scholars will proceed in four parts. First, the preliminary methodological considerations for the investigation at hand will be surveyed in an effort to identify and address potentially compromising historical complications. Second, the critical responses to Elliott and Davies will be reviewed in order to identify the specific characteristics against which conservative critics objected. (10) Third, Francisco's contribution on Genesis will be compared to the work of Davies and Elliott in an attempt to identify key differences in methodology and presentation related to the previously identified offenses. …

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