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Baptists and the Bible: 30 years later

L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles at a signing of Baptists and the Bible. (Photo provided by Cindy Bush)

L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles at a signing of Baptists and the Bible. (Photo provided by Cindy Bush)

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.”

L. Russ Bush (Photo provided by Cindy Bush)

L. Russ Bush (Photo provided by Cindy Bush)

“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.

Author: Douglas Baker

View more articles by Douglas Baker.

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  • Man, look at that plaid 3-piece suit Tom is wearing!!! I wonder if he still has it? Tom and Russ both look like teenagers in that pic.

    • Andy Scott

      Bill, That’s what they looked like back in the day! Don’t you remember what you looked like? Bush and Nettles were not only heroes, they were friends, and we all thank God for their timely and timeless contribution to Southern Baptist theology and history. To me, the fact that Broadman balked at publishing their work says it all, about the climate of the times, and the change that was so desparately needed.

  • Gary Adams

    I was Russ’s graduate assistant the year he got his PhD, along with David Thomas. Russ and Tom contributed so much to so many. Those years were transformative for Southwestern–the offices of the Theological Fellowship were opened to “undergrads,” and we got to hear and interact with speakers like Carl F. H. Henry, Bernard Ramm, and W.A. Criswell. Thanks for running this article to remind us.

  • I taught Bush and Nettles textbook on the bible in a seminary extension course for the Greater Gaston Baptist Assn. sometime between ’02-04. It recalled memories of my own clashes with Moderates who were more extreme than most would think possible. My first introduction to the higher critical approach came in a Psychology class in 1959-1960 at St. Louis Baptist College. The professor took time from the course&introduce to his class Ralph Elliott’s The Messageof Genesis. Having beenan atheist prior to my conversion, I was kind of nonplussed to see the kind of thinking I had done as an unbeliever accepted as a legitimate approach to the Scripture. In fact, as I would learn throuh many long years of study, that approach was really what has been called French Infidelity or, in more technical terms, the Enlightenment. That attitude of skepticism, even to the point of extreme viciousness, had been a hallmark of my atheism. I remember once sneering at my sister who was trying to witness to me, “Take your old namby-pamby religion and go jump out the window with it,” which reduced her to tears at the time. Later,Iwas converted by a vision or a hallucination (how does one prove which?) of Jesus standing at a door, knocking, a literal fulfilment, one might say, of Rev.3:20. My response was to flee, but in another fulfilment of Acts 16:14 he opened my heart’s door and I freely responded, asking His forgiveness. All of which raised serious questions for me about the so-called higher critical approach. I began to study the issue, and I also encountered opposition to any effort to take the Bible seriously as the verbally inspired word of God. My first experience of this was a fellow who had learned his critical views at Union University and Midwestern Seminary. He sneered at me and called me ignorant for believing in the Virgin Birth, after I had done the research on almah in Isa.7:14 and had come to the conclusion that there was as much ground for believing virgin to be the right rendering of the term as the other, young woman. That was in 1961. Four-five years later, during my second pastorate, a fellow pastor and grad. of Midwestern, said, “I agree with him. You are ignorant for believing in the virgin birth.” Having been an atheist with extreme and vicious skeptical attitudes, I wasn’t much botherd by such remarks – except to do research. One work I read in this period was L. Gaussen’s Theopneustia which helped to establish verbal inspiration as the teaching of Scripture and that is not mechanical dication (though that work uses the term dictation) as the author discusses, for example, the authors of the four Gospels – which he could not do, if the inspiration was mechanical dictation. Later I would find, thanks to John Warwick Montgomery and the Preuses of the Missouri Synod Lutherans that the classical Lutheran theologians had taught this truth. Let me also add, I wrote to Dr. Samuel J. Mikolaski (sp?) of New Orleans Seminary, asking for a list of works defending Mosaic authorship, etc. He held a D. Phil. from Oxford, and one of his recommendations was the Five Books of Moses by Oswald T. Allis who held two earned doctorates, one from Princeton and another from a University in German (Berlin I think).. I became immensely satisfied with Mosaic authorship and would be blessed when I came across an incident in history where John A. Broadus walked out of a debate with William Rainey Robinson, President of the Univ. of Chicago, say, “Jesus said, Moses wrote of me. Jesus said, Moses wrote of me. Jesus said, Moses wrote of me.” By the time I came to SEBTS in the Summer of ’72, I had a B.S.Ed with 155 semester hours from 6 institutions, an MA in American Social and Intellectual History, and 18 hrs. toward a Ph.D., 12 hrs of which were earned at Columbia Univ., NYC, where I wrote a prospectus for a Doctoral Dissertation in Black History ( I can really appreciate Dietreich Bonhoeffer’s chosing the theology of the negro spirituals for their sola scriptura basis over the Neo-orthodoxy of Barth).

    At SEBTS I wrote a paper on the Lausanne Covenant adopted by the Billy Graham effos in 1974 on te article on Inspiration. I was nearly flunked out of the doctor of ministry problem with a C+, because the professor was very upset with the view taken. This response with others that I experienced during my four years at the school rather puzzled me as it was hardly what I was use to in the secular schools, where you could take any view you desired – so long as you sought to substantiate it with evidence while confuting its opposite as a null hypothesis. In my opinion, Bush and Nettles performed a needed service to Southern Baptists. As an intellectual (my field in my M.A. in history and listing in the International Who’s Who of Intellectuals. III. Cambridge, Eng.: IBC, 1980), I applaud the effort to retain the highest view of Scripture, verbal inspiration – not mechanical dictation (the major Bible believing scholars such as Warfield, Young, et. al., hold to verbal inspiration – not mechanical dictation) as the reality that conforms to the facts. Moreover, since the Bible is word-inspired by Omniscience, it ought and it does reflect an intelligence that is commensurate with that reality of its origin.

    Since ideas are my specialty, and since I did 6 yrs. of research in church history, wrote a thesis in Intellectual History, “The Baptists and Ministerial Qualifications,” along with many other papers onthe nature of biblical and theological ideas and their effect upon human behavior, I can say that the depth of the wisdom, the intellectualism of the ideas, is of such nature as will empower believers to become balanced, flexible, creative, and magnetic. Biblical ideas have been the subject of my reflections for fifty-two years, and I have found that such truths even in their simplest and clearest forms present a depth which people are ill-equipped to discern. Like a friend fishing on a mountain stream in Virginia. He intended to cross over the stream. Looking down, he could see the grains of sand rolling along the bottom. Two-three feet deep, he thought as he stepped off into 18-20 feet of water and nearly drowned. He did not realize until then that his discernment of the depth was wanting. He was looking into another medium just as many who do believe the Bible are, and, like him, they often fail to discern the depths of even the clearest teachings due to the fact that they are seeing into another medium.

    While I am not tooimpressed with much of the effort now to present the teachings of the Book by believing scholars – indeed, I find much of the efforts distressing to say the least -, still, as respect for the Bible is affirmed, I trust that God will eventually make it known how much more challenging, scintillating, transforming, stimulating, exciting, mysterious, attractive, uplifting, ennobling, illuminating, motivating, chastening, paradoxical, and etc., His written word truly is. And always, that written word brings us to the Lord Jesus Christ whose challenge is to the whole earth, as George W. Truett once put it, “Try me, Test me. Prove me. Investigate me.”

  • Gary Capshaw

    “Try me, Test me. Prove me. Investigate me.”

    And that is the essence of true, New Testament faith! Faith is not a feeling, it’s not an emotion, it’s not a discarding of the intellect in favor of “belief.” It is a calm, deliberate, intellectual assessment of the evidence of the existance of God, the holiness of Scripture, the reality of Jesus Christ and deciding to believe based upon that evidence.

    In the New Testament, the word most often translated into English as “faith,” is the Greek word Pistis, which means to believe in the truth of something. It’s root is found in the word Peitho, which means to believe based upon an examination of the evidence. Like a jury in a court of law, for our faith to be genuine and kind of faith God wants us to have, we must look at the evidence presented and chose to believe.

    Of course, that belief must result in concrete action, or your faith is dead. Just as I may believe fire would be good for cooking, it’s of no practical value to me until I put that belief into action and grill a steak.

  • Mark Osgatharp

    The Summer 1984 issue of the Review & Expositor (the theological journal of Southern Seminary) carried an article titled “The King As ‘Messiah’ In The Psalms” written by John I. Durham who was, at the time, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament and Southeastern. The essence of the article is that the Psalms (nor any of the Old Testament Scriptures for that matter) made no prophetic utterances about the coming Christ.

    He wrote: “messiah in the Psalms refers always and only to the ruling king, the ‘Davidic’ king who was Yahweh’s appointed and so anointed mashiah representative. These references are not intended as predictions of Jesus who is the Christ (Christos, which also means anointed), though they have very often been taken as such, beginning as early as the New Testament period.”

    The far reaching implications of this philosophy will be apparent to any man with the least acquaintance with the concept of Christ in the Scriptures. It proves the extent of anti-christian heresy embraced and propagated by the modernist Baptists who had taken control of the Southern Baptist educational and denominational establishment through the course of the 20th century.

  • Gary Capshaw


    What a thing to be teaching in a SB Seminary! That’s saying that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah!

    But, that’s not surprising. During that same time frame, I ran across a few seminary graduates who weren’t even sure about the Trinity and a couple who denied the resurrection.

    Well…scripture tells us that Satan is like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, and that doesn’t just apply to individuals. It also applies to churches and whole denominations!

  • Mark Osgatharp


    You are absolutely right.

    It is also apparent that those who want to be known as “moderates” are not moderate at all. They are way out in left field and either advocate doctrines that are antithetical to Christianity or advocate fellowship with those who do, which, according to II John, makes them partakers of their evil deeds.

    Just look at the Alliance of Baptists to see where these men would have dragged the SBC had they not been driven out.

    • Gary Capshaw

      Ok, I looked at their website and came away with a couple of thoughts:

      1. Nowhere on that site do I find a clear statement that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Light and that no one comes to the Father but by Him. I always find it troubling when an organization which holds itself up as Christian doesn’t specifically confess Christ and Him risen.

      2. I have no problem with their desire to help the poor, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised and the disadvantaged as I think that’s something believers are called to do. Neither do I have a problem with working alongside people of other faiths to accomplish those goals. And, I can even understand their committment not to proselytize those workers from other faiths as a practical matter. However, I don’t think a Christian should EVER arbitrarily reject the idea of sharing the Gospel, especially while working in His name.

      3. I note with dismay that their position vis a vis Muslim’s includes the statement that both faiths share in the teachings of Jesus. While that may be true so far as His teachings go, there is a clear and uncrossable line between Christian’s and Muslim’s in that the Qur’an specifically rejects His sacrificial death and resurrection. Islam does not accept either Christ’s status as God/man and Messiah nor the Trinity. Consequently, while we make work hand in hand with our Muslim fellows doing the work of God, and while there certainly are avenues for better understanding and co-operation, we are not equal before God and can never be so long as their faith rejects Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Great Redeemer. To say otherwise is blasphemy.

      4. On the their social justice and political stands, I will make no comment for I do not believe in mixing faith with politics. While my faith surely informs my politics, my politics do NOT define my faith. Consequently, I totally reject any attempt to define a believers standing before God by such terms as “progressive,” “moderate,” or “conservative.” What’s important to God is that we love Him with all our heart, mind and strength and that we love each other as we love ourselves, not how we stand on the hot-button political issues of the day.

      In that regard, the Alliance of Baptist’s seems little more than a mirror image of so-called “right wing” Christian groups whose actions and statements suggest that “real” Christian’s couldn’t possibly be liberal in their political leanings. Both extremes are wrong. We are all followers of Jesus Christ, commissioned by Him to take the Good News to those who are lost and I doubt very much if God is happy with us when we reject our brothers as fellow Christian’s because of their political leanings.

      On the whole, I’m glad that beliefs similar to what the Alliance of Baptist’s espouse has been purged from our seminaries. On the other hand, I am equally glad that the hateful rhetoric and political divisiveness found in the ultra-right hasn’t gained a substantial foot hold there too, so far as I know. Our seminaries should be a training ground for called men and women to take the Gospel to a lost and dying world. That training should be based upon the clear and undeniable life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and not be used as a venue for spreading political doctrine disguised behind the image of Christ.

  • Gary Capshaw


    Well…not exactly. What John spoke of in relation to being partakers with them was about those who don’t believe the doctrines of Christ he spoke about in the previous verses and those who wished them God Speed. The doctrines he spoke of were loving one another and walking in his commandments as an act of love. He also mentioned those who deny that Christ came in the flesh.

    God speed is the Greek word “chairo,” and it means to rejoice or rejoice exceedingly. In other words, those who are partakers with them are not those who simply mingle with unbelivers, but those who rejoice that they ARE unbelievers. Obviously, for one to rejoice at someone’s unbelief necessarily requires one to be an unbeliever himself. Therefore, he certainly would be a joint partaker of the wrath of God.

    While we should never have fellowship with unbelievers in the New Testament sense, which means to be joint partakers and sharers with them (in their unbelief), it’s my opinion that we should never refuse the hand of fellowship in the modern day sense of being friends and companions with them. If we do that, how will we get to know them on a personal basis and reach them with the Gospel?

    Frankly, I “fellowship” in the modern day sense with a lot of unbelievers, including drunkards, homosexuals, followers of false religions and those representing the whole gamut of lost and turbulent lives, and through that “fellowship,” a half dozen or so have found their way to salvation and more have had seeds planted simply by knowing me and listening to what I have to say about Jesus and redemption. We can all do that without actually subscribing to their unbelief and rejoicing at their lostness and our Grace-filled lives are a powerful witness to them.

  • Mark Osgatharp


    You said,

    “Well…not exactly. What John spoke of in relation to being partakers with them was about those who don’t believe the doctrines of Christ he spoke about in the previous verses and those who wished them God Speed.”

    Which is exactly what so called “moderates” do. They all either are apostates or fellowship with apostates in church and associational capacity. That is, indeed, bidding them God speed.

    I agree, we can “fellowship” with any man in the sense of socializing with them, so long as our socialization does not put us in the position of condoning evil. But the “moderate” Baptist movement is not just about socializing – it is about embracing as fellow Christians those who have denied the faith.

    • Gary Capshaw


      ALL “moderates” are either apostates or fellowship with apostates? That’s a pretty bold statement to make and one which presumes that those who claim, or are designated with, the lable “moderate” are monolithic in their beliefs, that they all are the same and believe the same things. That’s no more true than blanket statements about any group is true.

      Just as no one can categorically define ALL Southern Baptist’s by what they do or believe or hang around with, neither can one define every moderate as an apostate or fellow traveler with apostates because apostate has a specific meaning, ie: to renunciate your faith. Fellowshipping with someone who was once a believer and then renounced that is not the same thing as fellowshipping with someone who has never believed.

      And, in any case, when we take it upon ourselves to judge someone elses’ heart, someone elses’ standing before God, based upon who they associate with, we’re treading on very dangerous ground.

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