Who Are the True Baptists? The Conservative Resurgence and the Influence of Moderate Views of Baptist Identity -- By: Gregory A. Wills

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 09:1 (Spring 2005)
Article: Who Are the True Baptists? The Conservative Resurgence and the Influence of Moderate Views of Baptist Identity
Author: Gregory A. Wills


Who Are the True Baptists?
The Conservative Resurgence and the Influence
of Moderate Views of Baptist Identity1

Gregory A. Wills

Gregory A. Wills is Professor of Church History and Director of the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of the highly acclaimed Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785–1900 (Oxford University Press, 1997).

In the inerrancy controversy that shook the Southern Baptist Convention beginning in 1979, Southern Baptists divided over what it meant to be a Baptist. When Southern Baptist leaders polarized amid the conservative effort to make belief in inerrancy a condition of denominational service, their posture toward the inerrancy initiative derived in large measure from their understanding of Baptist identity. Conservatives believed that moderates had departed from the Baptist tradition and moderates felt the same way about conservatives. Each party in the conflict claimed to be true Baptists and claimed the imprimatur of Baptist tradition.

Conservatives believed that the true Baptist tradition consisted in maintaining New Testament faith and practice. They felt that they were responsible therefore to exclude false teaching. Those teachers and denominational leaders who held liberal doctrines departed from New Testament faith and practice. By their departure from the Baptist tradition they betrayed the trust of the denomination and relinquished their claim to their position. Sincere commitment to the traditional Baptist understanding of scriptural teaching, conservatives insisted, should be a condition of service in positions of denominational service.

Moderates held, on the contrary, that true Baptists did not exclude their fellow Baptists for divergent views of what the Bible taught. The denomination should not require seminary professors to believe some prescribed set of dogmas in order to serve the denomination, for that would infringe their freedom. When conservatives argued that seminary professors must be committed to scripture truth, moderates effectively asked, “What is truth?” Truth, they held, was a matter of individual interpretation. To exclude professors for divergent interpretations sincerely held would be un-Baptistic. The true Baptist tradition, moderates said, upheld individual freedom as the central Baptist commitment.

Conservatives and moderates thus responded differently to the question of the legitimacy of liberal professors based on sharply different views of what it meant to be a Baptist. But their views of Baptist identity had broader ramifications. It undergirded their respon...

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