Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Awful Truth

Sometime back in the early or mid-1980s, I was perusing some of the major theological journals in my field that could be found in the library of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—the Journal of Biblical Literature, the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, and Sports Illustrated.

You know, come to think of it, in the seven years that I spent at Southern I never once saw the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. What kind of self-respecting liberal (that’s what they said back then) seminary would practice such censorship?

JBL and JSOT and ZAW didn’t have a swimsuit issue. God is good.

Anyway, as I was perusing the journals I came across the Criswell Theological Review, the theological journal published by Criswell College in Dallas, Texas. Glancing at the table of contents of the most recent issue, I noticed that it contained a review of an Old Testament commentary in which I thought I might be interested. The reviewer did what book reviewers do. He summarized the contents of the book, dialogued with those contents a bit, and offered some positive and critical comments. Overall, I thought he did a nice job.

Then I came upon the last sentence of the review. You’ll have to forgive me for not remembering verbatim that sentence that I read one time over twenty years ago, but I never forgot the essence of it. The reviewer said something like this: “Unfortunately, because of the author’s use of the methods of higher criticism, readers of this journal will not be able to use this book.”

I was outraged! I was mortified! I was pretty unhappy.

“How ridiculous,” I thought. “How close-minded and narrow and silly and anti-intellectual and unscholarly can someone be?” I mean, just because the reviewer disagreed with the presuppositions and the methodologies employed by the author, he advised his readers to avoid the book altogether. No doubt there were insights in the book that could have proved helpful to some readers. They didn’t have to agree with the whole book in order to partner with it in arriving at some helpful understandings.

I was, I thought, so far beyond such thinking. I had, I thought, evolved way past the need to avoid engagement with folks with whom I had disagreements, as if somehow their faulty (to my way of thinking) presuppositions should lead me to conclude that their every observation and conclusion must somehow be contaminated.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I want to announce to you today that I am no different than and no better than that book reviewer whom I judged to be so narrow and shallow and ridiculous.

Allow me to illustrate.

I love the Broadman Bible Commentary (BBC). The BBC was produced by the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in the late 1960s-early 1970s. It is a very nice blend of scholarship and expository helps which offers good practical guidance for preachers and other Bible students. Some of the commentaries in the twelve-volume set were written by teachers of mine at Southern, including Clyde Francisco, J. J. Owens, John D. W. Watts, Marvin Tate, and Page Kelley. But, some elements in the SBC were unhappy with some of the material presented in the commentaries and the volumes provided considerable ammunition for the instigators of the “Conservative Resurgence” of the 1980s in their attacks on seminary professors. I’m sure some folks wouldn’t use them because of what they perceived to be “liberalism” in those pages.

Later, after the Sunday School Board (now Lifeway Christian Resources) came under the control of the fundamentalist branch of the SBC, a new commentary series was undertaken. It’s called the New American Commentary (NAC). The volumes are written from the standpoint of biblical inerrancy; the editors’ preface states, “All NAC authors affirm the divine inspiration, inerrancy, complete truthfulness, and full authority of the Bible.” I have four or five of the volumes on my shelves. One or two were gifts; the others came to me as review copies while I was teaching at Belmont University.

I never use them. I never open them. I never read them. I never consult them. Why? Is it because there is no good information in them? Is it because there is no material in them that would be helpful to me as I preach and teach? Of course not. At least, I don’t think so, given that I’ve never looked at them. I do know that some of the volumes were produced by very good conservative scholars.

I don’t use those books because of the presuppositions on which they are based. And it’s not even that I have a big problem with the writers espousing biblical inerrancy so long as that is their legitimate conviction. My real problem is that I associate the entire NAC project with the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC and somewhere down in my gut I feel that I would be disloyal to those who taught me and who were vilified and hounded during the “resurgence” if I even crack one of those volumes.

And therein lies one example of the awful truth.

What is the awful truth? The awful truth is that most fundamentalist Baptists really don’t want anything to do with moderate Baptists and that most moderate Baptists really don’t want anything to do with fundamentalist Baptists. We have written each other off. Each group really wishes that the other group would just go away or at least if we want the other group to hang around it’s so we can use our disagreements with them as fuel for our particular fires. Each group knows that it is right and that the other group is wrong.

The awful truth is that when a fundamentalist Baptist talks about evangelism most moderate Baptists hear them saying “It’s all about numbers.” The awful truth is that when a moderate Baptist talks about feeding the hungry and helping the poor most fundamentalist Baptists hear them saying “Let’s deemphasize personal evangelism and do social gospel stuff.”

The awful truth is that when a fundamentalist Baptist talks about taking steps to affect public policy in matters such as abortion and gay marriage most moderate Baptists hear them saying “Let's legislate morality.” The awful truth is that when a moderate Baptist talks about taking steps to affect public policy in matters of war and peace or global warming most fundamentalist Baptists hear them saying “Let’s get behind a liberal social agenda.”

The awful truth is that when a fundamentalist Baptist preacher preaches most moderate Baptists don’t want to listen to him even though somewhere in that sermon the Word of God is likely being proclaimed. The awful truth is that when a moderate Baptist preacher preaches most fundamentalist Baptists don’t want to listen to him or her even though somewhere in that sermon the Word of God is likely being proclaimed.

The awful truth is that a fundamentalist Southern Baptist would rather partner in missions and ministry with other evangelical Protestant Christians than with other Baptists with whom they have disagreements, such as CBF Baptists or ABCUSA Baptists. The awful truth is that a moderate Baptist would rather partner in missions and ministry with folks from more mainline denominations than with Southern Baptists or other fundamentalist Baptists with whom they have disagreements.

The awful truth is that a fundamentalist Southern Baptist figures that if it comes out of the Baptist Seminary at Richmond or the McAfee School of Theology or Smyth & Helwys Publishing or Mercer University Press or Associated Baptist Press or Baptists Today or the Baptist Center for Ethics, it must be wrong or dangerous. The awful truth is that a moderate Baptist figures that if it comes out of Lifeway, Baptist Press, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, or one of the SBC seminaries, it must be wrong or dangerous.

The awful truth is that most of us have lost all perspective on what really matters.

The awful truth is that too many moderates are more concerned about being moderate than they are about being Christian. The awful truth is that too many Baptist fundamentalists are more concerned about being fundamentalist than they are about being Christian. The awful truth is that too many Baptists are more concerned about being Baptist than they are about being Christian. The awful truth is that too many Baptists care more about being right than they care about being conduits of the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The awful truth is that there is no way on earth, barring some direct miraculous intervention by God Almighty, that fundamentalist Baptists and moderate Baptists are ever going to get together again in any way that has any significance at all.

Now, don’t hear me saying something I’m not saying. I don’t even think that such disparate Baptist bodies as the SBC on the one hand and the CBF or ABCUSA on the other hand ought even to think about getting back together in any kind of formal or institutional sense.

But I have been holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, fundamentalist Baptists and moderate Baptists would wake up one day to the awful truth that the world is going to hell in a hurry and that the world is not going to be saved by our affirmation of a correct doctrine of biblical inspiration nor by a proper emphasis on the priesthood of believers but rather by the faithful proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I have been holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, fundamentalist Baptists and moderate Baptists would wake up one day to the awful truth that people all around us are suffering and dying and that they are not going to be fed, clothed, healed, our housed by the purity of our doctrine or by our allegiance to Baptist heritage.

I have been holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, fundamentalist Baptists and moderate Baptists would wake up one day to the awful truth that the world is suffering from a lack of the knowledge of God’s love and that they won’t be led to a loving by God by Christians who slam other Christians or by Christians who value being correct or pure over reveling in the grace and love of Jesus Christ.

I have been holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, fundamentalist Baptists and moderate Baptists would wake up one day to the awful truth that the days of blind allegiance to any denominational headquarters or hierarchy or program are passing away but that we can wake up to a new day in which we say, like adults, “OK—you’ve gone your way and I’ve gone mine, but let’s get together to preach the gospel and feed the hungry and love the lost and welcome the stranger—because that’s what Jesus would have us do and because they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

But it will take a miracle. And I don’t know if one is coming. I know that I don’t think so.

The awful truth is that we have cut ourselves off from one another to the extreme point that we will not even listen to one another, must less find ways to do missions and ministry together.

The awful truth is that we have learned how to be moderates or fundamentalists or conservatives or progressives—but we have forgotten how to be the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

May God forgive us all.

2 comments:

Tauratinzwe said...

AMEN!

Drew Hill said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Sad truth. It's hard to be hopeful, but who knows what God might do. I try to be open to little opportunities to work for understanding and reconciliation. Maybe that's where it begins. Thanks for your thoughts.