Guest Editorial: This man was no moderate: The legacy of Cecil Sherman
We are not likely ever to see the like of Cecil Sherman again. No one will be able to understand the history of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in the 20th Century without reference to him. No one who had a meaningful encounter with him will ever forget him. Sherman may have led the moderate movement in the SBC, but this much is clear—Sherman was no moderate.
Some men leave an indelible mark on their times. Sherman was one. He died April 17 at age 82, just two days after suffering a massive heart attack in Richmond, Va. He lived long enough to be almost unknown among a generation of younger Southern Baptists. But, for those who knew him, Sherman is impossible to forget. My first glimpse of Sherman came during the years he served as pastor of Asheville, N.C., First. He came to preach in chapel at Southern Seminary when I was a new student. He stood tall in the pulpit and announced he was “born, bred and buttered a Baptist.” He spoke with a steady authority that dared anyone to argue with him.
I had arrived at Southern Seminary as a fellow “born, bred and buttered” Baptist. We were of different generations, of course, but our early biographies were remarkably similar—if for no other reason than we were both representative of generations of Southern Baptist children and youth. We knew and loved a Southern Baptist culture that was truly a cradle to grave experience. We were both shaped forever by that experience.
Over the course of his ministry, Sherman served churches in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina as pastor. He had the look and language of a scholarly and serious pastor. He graduated from Baylor University before attending Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. He then earned a Master of Theology degree at Princeton Seminary before returning to Southwestern for his doctorate.
By the time our lives intersected, Sherman was a well-known figure in Southern Baptist life. He was known as a progressive thinker and a forceful leader. During his years as pastor in Asheville, he fought a brave fight for racial equality. He was passionate in his preaching and he took no prisoners in argument.
By this time, the SBC was embroiled in the definitive controversy of Baptist life in the 20th Century. Opposing forces fought for control over the institutions of the denomination and the future course of the convention. Conservatives had elected Adrian Rogers, pastor of Memphis, Tenn., Bellevue, as president of the convention, and the stage was set for a battle royal over theology, doctrine and the accountability of the denomination’s seminaries and institutions. The central issue was the inerrancy of Scripture. Conservatives affirmed it; Sherman did not.
Over the course of the controversy, Sherman would emerge as a formidable leader on the convention’s left—who called themselves moderates. He would serve on the Peace Committee that attempted to bring a negotiated conclusion to the controversy, but he resigned in protest after the presidents of the denomination’s six seminaries signed the “Glorieta Statement” affirming that the Bible is without error “in any area of reality.” In his autobiography, By My Own Reckoning, Sherman wrote: “I was undone by friends who knew what they had written was not so, but for the sake of buying time and space from Fundamentalists had caved in and told a lie about the Bible.”
Sherman was not coy about his own beliefs. As far back as 1975, he preached a sermon in Asheville in which he affirmed the theory of evolution.
In 1981, Sherman debated Paige Patterson, then president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies in Dallas and recognized as the leading theologian among conservative Southern Baptists. That debate would turn out to be a crucial moment in the SBC controversy, for Sherman was as candid about his beliefs in that debate as he was with his own congregation. “I will not declare that I hold to an inerrant Bible,” he stated clearly. He claimed a “dynamical” view of the Bible’s inspiration, and then pointed to what he saw as contradictions in the biblical text. Then he dropped a bombshell:
“I actually do think parts of the Bible are more valuable than others, more inspired than others. In fact, I think that some parts of the Bible have been put aside by the Christian revelation.”
He then pointed to specific texts from the Old Testament and the New Testament and suggested that the passages made reference to different Gods. “One is a tribal god, vindictive and cruel. The punishment that is to be inflicted upon even the innocent is low and mean by any standard. On the other hand, the picture of God in the sayings of Jesus is lofty, beautiful, exalted.” He proceeded to argue that the Old Testament’s view of God is often distorted and grotesque.
Patterson was courteous, but clear, in his responses. Sherman’s view of the Bible was stunningly out of step with Southern Baptists. More importantly, it was horribly deficient by any standard of biblical orthodoxy.
While affirming the Virgin Birth himself, Sherman offered one of the most remarkable statements of recent Baptist history: “A teacher who might also be led by Scripture not to believe in the virgin birth should not be fired.” Led by the Scripture not to believe in the Virgin Birth? By then, Sherman was serving as coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), a group of moderate Baptists who separated from the SBC.
Throughout his years as a leader among more liberal Baptists, Sherman never hid behind a claim of moderation. He was a man of deep principle who seemed incapable of trimming his sails for the sake of politics or public relations. There was no lack of irony in the fact that such an immoderate man was destined to lead a group of people who insisted on being called “moderates.” He attempted to lead moderate opposition to the conservative resurgence in the SBC, even calling together a group of moderate pastors later known as the “Gatlinburg Gang” and orchestrating a sophisticated political strategy and machinery.
He assumed leadership of the CBF in 1992 and spent years seeking to build the movement. I was serving as editor of the Christian Index when Keith Parks, formerly president of the SBC Foreign Mission Board, was named leader of the CBF mission agency. I attended the press conference held on the Atlanta campus of Mercer University. At the conclusion of the public event, Sherman called me aside. He unleashed a verbal critique that will never be forgotten, punctuated with his finger repeatedly thrust into my chest. He referred to my experience as a student at Southern Seminary in what he saw as its moderate heyday and lambasted me for reverting to what he saw as an intellectually discredited view of biblical inerrancy—not the kind of encounter one forgets. But, in its own way, it provided me with an experience that would be invaluable in years ahead.
Looking back, I learned a great deal from Sherman. His honesty revealed the basic theological issues at stake. His rejection of biblical inerrancy caused me to think more deeply about the inspiration and authority of the Bible. His candid and shocking words helped me to understand what was at stake. When I heard recordings of his debate with Patterson over biblical inerrancy, I realized that I agreed with Patterson, not Sherman. Had Sherman equivocated or played verbal games, I might not have seen the issues so clearly.
Sherman is also a reminder of the shaping influence of a denominational culture. By his own admission, the SBC he knew as a boy and young man was adept at sweeping doctrinal problems under the denominational rug. Speaking of the adoption of the denomination’s first confession of faith, The Baptist Faith & Message, in 1925, he asserted that “no one paid attention to it.” He was largely right. The denominational culture that produced the generation of Sherman was a culture of program, not doctrine.
Similarly, his generation of seminarians was caught up in the Southern Baptist drive to attain the intellectual and cultural respect of the larger Protestant world. But the entry price to that esteem was the forfeiting of much Baptist conviction. When Sherman spoke of what it means to be a Baptist, he leaned immediately into libertarian themes of radical individualism, couched as Baptist freedoms. His generation knew of no credible evangelical theological and biblical scholarship. So far as he and so many other moderates were concerned, anything to the right of liberal Protestantism was obscurantist Fundamentalism.
The cost of the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC was unspeakably high, but undeniably necessary. The theological differences between the moderates and conservatives in the SBC were fundamental and irreconcilable. Conservative leaders saw this clearly, and argued it openly. Most moderates denied the reality. Not so with Sherman. As Patterson would later reflect, “Cecil Sherman is an honest man who tells you up front what he thinks about everything without indulging in political spin games.” That is a remarkable tribute from a man who led the movement Sherman so energetically opposed.
Sherman’s death brings to a close a remarkable chapter in Southern Baptist history—and one with lessons too important to forget. I will never forget seeing him stand in that chapel service, nor feeling the jab of his finger in my chest many years later. In his own way, he played a very important part in clarifying for me the most basic issues at stake in the SBC conflict. We ended up at opposite ends of the SBC spectrum. The fact that our boyhoods and youth experiences in the SBC were so similar serves to underline the vast change brought about by the conservative recovery of the denomination. A Baptist who feels no grief in that fact has no heart. This grief serves to underline the cost of theological recovery and doctrinal accountability. We must be ever willing to pay that cost, but we must never forget the cost that is paid.
We are not likely ever to see the like of Sherman again. No one will be able to understand the history of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 20th Century without reference to him. Sherman may have led the moderate movement in the SBC, but this much is clear—Cecil Sherman was no moderate.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of Southern Seminary.