Baptists and the Bible: 30 years later
Filled to capacity, Binkley chapel on the campus of Southeastern Seminary seemed more like a family reunion than a memorial service on Jan. 27, 2008. The place buzzed with stories from young and old who had encountered the life and ministry of L. Russ Bush as professor, apologist, philosopher, theologian, preacher and author. As the faculty of Southeastern Seminary walked down the aisle and were seated near the front as honorary pallbearers, the platform hosted Southern Baptist icons—men with whom Southern Baptists were quite familiar.
Daniel Akin, the sixth president of Southeastern Seminary, joined Paige Patterson, the fifth president of the seminary, along with other worship leaders for the start of a memorial service honoring Bush’s life and ministry. Seated far to the right on the platform was a man many have read, but few had actually seen in person. Earlier in the day, he had made his way to the funeral home to pray near the casket of his lifelong friend and partner in ministry for more than 30 years. Both Mississippians, these men had attended Mississippi College together and pursued graduate degrees in theology at Southwestern Seminary.
Weeks before, as Bush lay dying, Thomas J. Nettles, wrote him a letter which so moved his wife that she asked that it be read aloud by Nettles at the memorial service. As he rose to read the letter, a certain awareness that an era was passing away in Southern Baptist life became apparent. For it was the research of Tom Nettles and Russ Bush that, in many ways, helped ignite the passion of many across the Southern Baptist Convention to regain their footing regarding the inerrancy of Holy Scripture. Against a denominational status quo that had all but placed the Bible on the level of something which contained the words of God, but certainly was not to be regarded as the vox Dei—the voice of God in Holy writ—Baptists and the Bible would become a bombshell and serve as a compass on the stormy seas of the SBC’s battle for the Bible.
Doctrine Divides—Missions Unites?
The culture of the SBC in late 1970s was one where the agencies and institutions all but ruled the affairs of the entire denomination. The presidents of the SBC’s mission boards, the Executive Committee, the Sunday School Board and the seminaries diligently worked to somewhat stymie vigorous theological discussion at a denominational level fearing the disagreement brimming just beneath the surface. A 1979 publication, The Current Crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention: An Overview, said as much when it declared, “because these leaders understood the impossibility of negotiating theological issues in a convention context, they kept the convention in the middle of the theological spectrum . . . (and) promoted a unity based on a common commitment to missions and evangelism.”
Bush and Nettles, however, knew nothing of a “middle of the road” approach to the Bible. Nettles had been raised under the preaching of Carey Cox, the legendary pastor of Brandon, Miss., First. Bush’s pastor was the affable Howard Aultman, longtime pastor of Columbia, Miss., First. These pastors were committed to a personal quest of theological renewal in their congregations and in the lives of the young people who filled the pews of their churches. By the time Bush and Nettles arrived at Mississippi College, the religion department of the school sponsored the appearance of John Claypool and Harry Emerson Fosdick was championed as a paragon of theological excellence.
Moderates argued the doctrine of inerrancy had been regarded as something of a modern political tool by so-called fundamentalists. It was more of a new fad rather than a time-tested plank of Christian orthodoxy. As an example, the 1982 SBC doctrine study, The Doctrine of Biblical Authority, was written by Russell Dilday, then president of Southwestern Seminary and championed the idea inerrancy was something that was not essentially Baptist. Holy Scripture was a dynamic compilation that resonated in the hearts of people as the words of the Bible became, for them, the word of God. Bush and Nettles, however, continued their quest to study the Bible and to quietly pursue their research regarding the idea of inerrancy in Southern Baptist history.
Political Hacks or Theological Courage?
When Baptists and the Bible first appeared in 1980, many charged Bush and Nettles with little more than political quackery—something done by young professors who had committed themselves as the political hacks of the conservative movement in the SBC. Dale Moody, professor of theology at Southern Seminary regarded the work as “critically unacceptable.”
“The formal research actually began in the middle of 1976 as we both were finishing our dissertations at Southwestern Seminary,” Nettles said in an interview. “The book is actually the fruit of a long after-dinner discussion where we knew that if we were to proceed and actually publish a book which refuted the prevailing ideas of the day, we risked being regarded as renegades and suspect in the eyes of our professors and SBC leaders.”
As they began the formal work on the book, their method was to historically analyze various periods of Baptist history in general and Southern Baptist life in particular with a goal of an intensely practical section toward the end of the work which called for clear historical, biblical, and theological convictions to frame “a contemporary restatement of the historic Baptist view of Scripture.”
“We had no idea what we would find,” Nettles confessed. “We began with basically a clean slate and committed ourselves to telling the truth no matter what.” What they found were key theological incidents long forgotten in Southern Baptist life that were basically buried beneath the rubble of modern theological research. Chief among them: Crawford Howell Toy.
A Model of Malfeasance
Crawford Howell Toy was a brilliant Old Testament scholar who was regarded by Southern Seminary professors James Petigru Boyce and John Albert Broadus as one of the most gifted scholars ever to study at Southern Seminary. As a member of the seminary’s first class, he had distinguished himself as a theologian and followed his time at the seminary with advanced study at the University of Berlin. Upon his return to Southern Seminary, his theological compass had changed, and his inaugural address in 1869 revealed a different man than had previously studied under Broadus. Toy confessed that he no longer viewed the Bible as a solely divine work, but a document containing human error at the hands of men incapable of sacred authorship by the inspiration of the Holy Sprit. This distinction began to manifest itself more and more in his teaching and writing until it finally cost him not only his job at the seminary, but a potential marriage to notable Southern Baptist missionary Lottie Moon.
Bush and Nettles wrote the following words in an age of theological ambiguity in the SBC: “Theological issues are often costly. Boyce and Broadus believed that Toy’s shift in viewpoint was a serious theological matter. As the implications became clear to them, they acted as they knew they must to preserve the theological integrity of the school.” Bush and Nettles feared that Southern Baptists were on the verge of traveling this theological path once again.
The young professors demonstrated that Toy was an aberration, not a representative of mainstream Baptist thought. Most Baptists have always believed in the doctrine of inerrancy even though the term itself did not become popular until the 19th Century. Dating as far back as John Smyth and Thomas Helwys and incessantly moving through the formation of the Philadelphia, Charleston and Sandy Creek Associations and extending through the lives of William Carey (the father of the modern missionary movement), Adoniram Judson, Richard Furman and John Leadley Dagg, Baptists were a people committed to the inerrancy of the Bible.
“We had no idea the book would be of use during the conservative resurgence,” Nettles said. “We simply sought to test our hypothesis and finally assert that there needed to be a new way of looking at Baptist history,” he said. Through their vast explorations of primary source material, Nettles still maintains that inerrancy is more than a political weapon; it is an issue of theological integrity. “Theology made history,” Nettles says, “and that is the truth of Baptist life through the centuries.”
The Book That Almost Died
The book itself almost was not published. When Johnny Goodwin of Broadman Press was presented with the research and asked to publish it, the young scholars were told that the SBC publishing house was looking more for a textbook, not a book which presented a particular viewpoint on the doctrine of Holy Scripture. It was Paige Patterson, then president of Criswell College, who helped the manuscript see the light of day. Patterson met Russ Bush undercover, as it were, at a high school football game as the two discussed the findings of their research. He had an idea and connected Bush and Nettles with Dave Duncan at Moody Press, who immediately agreed to publish the work. When the book was released in 1980, its popularity skyrocketed as it became a leading resource for the conservative resurgence.
When Patterson stepped to the podium to speak words of honor at this historical memorial service for his friend and former Southeastern Seminary colleague, he held up his original copy of the book he helped get published. As Nettles looked on, there was a certain assurance that something of significance had taken place in their lives, and this book which had already been re-released would outlive them and their words would speak even as they would die.
“Holy Scripture,” Bush and Nettles wrote 30 years ago, “is God’s gracious gift to men to teach them, to correct them, to convey truth to them. Scripture is the truthful norm by which human thought is to be tested.” And on this the 30th anniversary of the original publication of Baptists and the Bible, the question no longer seems to be one of inerrancy, but of the veracity of the people called Southern Baptists to obey the Bible they claim to revere.
Since the days of the 1980s when Southern Baptists were debating the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture to the present hour, Nettles still expresses his hope and prayer that since such a great victory was obtained at such great cost during the conservative resurgence, the modern issues of denominational structure might also be guided by a firm adherence to the missionary mandate of the Bible as the source and guide for all future endeavors of a denomination he obviously loves so very much.