May 21, 2018

Resolving the Uncertainty at the Crossroads: The 2018 Southern Baptist Convention

During the past few months, it has become apparent that while Southern Baptists say we want biblical truth to drive our efforts, we are somewhat conflicted amongst ourselves as to how that looks. Southern Baptists have arrived at a crossroads, and the future for our common work as a Christian people is uncertain.

Some of us pine primarily for a revival in that aspect of our piety characterized by evangelism; others among us argue for a renewal in that aspect of our piety characterized by justice. These two tendencies coalesce for a third and ultimately decisive middle group in a desire for expressing well the Lord’s commands to engage in both gospel witness and gospel practice. (I personally believe our choices are, providentially, not as much in conflict as the political conversation suggests, but more anon.)

Nevertheless, as with civil voting patterns in the United States, the middle group may feel forced to choose between one way or the other, for we have created a unitary power structure that funnels authority through the office of a single leader. The wisdom, or lack thereof, of the American proclivity, through both its civil and religious political democracies, to grant overarching power to one officer demonstrates itself once again in a polarized people. As a result, we sense intense heat even as we hope to see great light moving into our annual gathering.

For several weeks now, I have been encouraged by a number of good people to declare my views publicly on critical matters facing Southern Baptists as we head to Dallas. Yet the Lord has not released me to address matters that reach their cruces in judgments regarding particular persons. Friends would have me address persons, but God has laid on me the necessity of addressing principles.

I have chosen, therefore, not to focus upon persons for the sake of principles, but upon principles for the sake of persons. Perhaps God will allow us to see that these principles can, true in themselves and truly utilized, help us discern and deliver God’s will regarding the persons around us. Today’s relevant theological principles themselves preeminently concern us as human persons.

There are two principles which currently require our attention, at least as far as I can see. The first principle concerns our divine authority; the second, our divine imagery. Perhaps both will garner our people’s hearty affirmation.

Our Divine Authority

Evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, know that God has chosen to reveal himself in his Word. But while we emphasized the Word of God as Scripture in the late twentieth century, we appear to have drifted from that concern in recent decades. At one time, the dependability and trustworthiness of the Bible compelled both our dialectics and our rhetoric. Alas, however, biblical inerrancy may have become less a principle and more a talisman.

Like passersby glibly burnishing the shiny toe of David Hume’s bronze statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, have we begun to treat Scripture’s dependability as something of an obligatory if largely meaningless charm? The language of inspiration and infallibility is no longer used as much in our speech, and sadly its deep meaning seems increasingly lost to our cognition. We say we believe in God’s Word, and most of us even refer to it in our sermons. But are we really allowing Scripture its proper formative role in our thought, speech, and practice?

Recognizing the importance of the doctrine that compelled and legitimized the Conservative Resurgence in the first place, Dr. Owen Strachan of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary worked with me to craft a resolution for consideration by the Committee on Resolutions. Dr. Strachan, Associate Professor of Christian Theology and Director of the Center for Public Theology at our Southern Baptist seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, is a rising young theologian with an impressive record of addressing critical issues in speech and in text. It was a privilege to work with him for a second year in a row. (Last year, we worked together to affirm Penal Substitutionary Atonement.)

My personal hope in submitting our Resolution Affirming the Inerrancy of Holy Scripture is that by returning to our first principle regarding the authority of divine revelation, we might again know the leadership of the Lord in our common effort as a denomination. Psalm 111 reminds us, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," and "All who follow his instructions have good insight."

I believe we will see the way forward to real unity and proper action only through serious Bible study and passionate Bible proclamation. Without constant referral to the divine basis of our authority, we will perish. We absolutely must restate the importance of biblical inerrancy.

Our Divine Imagery

The second resolution summarizes a doctrine with profound implications for a multitude of practical issues. It undergirds today's most popular news headlines and dominates our social media discussions. What dogma lies at the center of our concerns with the problems of abortion, euthanasia, racism and ethnocentrism, sexual abuse, political demonization, and religious persecution?

The biblical doctrine of humanity orients the nexus of these critical ethical issues. The real sickness we have concerns a misunderstanding of who we are as human beings; our ethical crises are symptoms of a more fundamental problem. Humanity is under sustained demonic assault, and the social traumas originating from that warfare demand a faithful witness from God's people concerning God's highest-placed creature. The created dignity of human beings is a doctrine which Southern Baptists have long affirmed, but we have too often overlooked it during other discussions.

Recognizing the church's responsibility to address the anthropological deficiency of this day and age drove recent discussions between Dr. Keith S. Whitfield and me. Dr. Whitfield, who is Associate Professor of Theology, Dean of Graduate Studies, and Vice President for Academic Administration at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, has a gentle heart and a keen mind. I believe we would do well to wear his winsome words. Dr. Whitfield and I previously collaborated in a book on theological method, but we now try our hand at collaborating in a resolution on anthropology.

My personal hope in submitting our Resolution Reaffirming the Full Dignity of Every Human Being is that by reminding ourselves of God's creative and redemptive gifts of identity to humanity, we might help reverse the horrible denigrations of humanity occurring in so many areas of contemporary life. Especially vulnerable in our culture are those persons who lack sufficient political or economic power to require recognition of themselves as worthy of life and liberty. There are two major theological parts to our resolution:

First, as Christians, we believe it imperative to affirm the sacredness, the full dignity, and the worthiness of love which belong to every human creature as a special gift from the Creator. Our dignity as human beings derives not from other human beings. Too many human institutions arrogate to themselves an authority to pronounce decisions about things regarding which they were never given authority to define. Because our dignity as human beings derives from the Creator of all human life, every human life belongs to God alone. Human powers must submit to this universal anthropological truth or find themselves damned for their despicable actions at the final judgment.

Second, as Christians, we also recognize that being created in the divine image is not the end of the story. After we were created in the divine image, humanity abused his image through sin and suffered debilitating damage. To solve this problem is why the Perfect Image of God became a human being, and through the Spirit's gift of faith, the human being's image can be renewed unto conformity with Christ. Thus, we call people not only to respect the full dignity of all human persons, but also to have their own dignity renewed unto perfection by the perfect Word of God.

True humanity comes as a result of creation and of redemption. Both stages of the human condition must be reaffirmed by those who believe in the truth of God's Word as the basis for our teaching today. On the one hand, without recognition of humanity's universal created dignity, we face the specter of continually repeating the horrors of our world's past denigrations of precious children, women, and men. On the other hand, without recognition of humanity's universal need for a renewal of that dignity, we face the specter of God's righteous final judgment upon us for our sins. The biblical doctrine of the image of God puts evangelism and justice in correlation rather than in conflict.

In Conclusion

My purpose in submitting these two resolutions is to call us back to God's Word as the basis for our approach to reality and to call us to see every human person's proper place of dignity within this reality. May God use my brothers' excellent labors upon these resolutions for his glory.

(We trust the collegial wisdom of the Resolutions Committee to bring forward in the proper form the common messages the Lord would have Southern Baptists speak regarding the critical issues of our day. Thus we will not repeat our proposed resolutions verbatim online. Nor do we presume the committee will see exactly what we see in speaking about these great truths. So we pray.)