NEW ORLEANS – The Conservative Resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in the 1980s and ’90s and its implications for the future of the denomination were discussed at the Baptist21 luncheon June 19 in New Orleans where two key leaders of the movement – Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler – were honored.
A six-member panel of three generations of Southern Baptists were featured at the luncheon moderated by Jonathan Akin, senior pastor of Fairview Church in Lebanon, Tenn. Akin provided some background on the Conservative Resurgence.
On the panel were Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; R. Al Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; David Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala.; and Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.
“The Southern Baptist Convention’s entities were being highly influenced by a theology that was questioning and denying the inerrancy of the Bible – things like the exclusivity of Christ, the necessity of the virgin birth, the necessity of the resurrection, gender roles in the home, gender roles in the church, questioning the sexual ethics of the Bible, and many other things,” Jonathan Akin said.
Baptist21, an organization that analyzes the faithfulness of Southern Baptists to gospel witness in today’s cultural context, holds a panel on the topic “The Conservative Resurgence, the Great Commission Resurgence and the Future of the SBC” at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans June 19. Panelists included, left to right: Paige Patterson, Al Mohler, J.D. Greear, David Platt and Danny Akin.
In such an environment, Akin said that God stirred in the hearts of some key men – such as W.A. Criswell, Jerry Vines, Charles Stanley and others – a desire to turn the SBC back from liberal theology to orthodoxy.
Baptist21 recognized two of those men at the luncheon, presenting plaques to Patterson and Pressler. Pressler, a layman, is a retired justice of the Texas Court of Appeals who wrote a memoir, “A Hill on Which to Die,” published in 1999 by Broadman & Holman.
“God used these two men as key leaders to bring about the Conservative Resurgence,” Jonathan Akin said, noting that the movement’s success of returning a denomination from liberalism to orthodoxy was unprecedented in U.S. evangelical history. “Baptist21 and a lot of young Southern Baptists feel a great deal of gratitude and debt to Dr. Paige Patterson and Judge Paul Pressler,” Akin said.
In examining the history of the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence, Patterson pointed to the importance of the book “Baptists and the Bible” by L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles, both professors at the time at Southwestern Seminary. Bush and Nettles “cut the ground out from under the idea that somehow Baptists did not believe that the Bible was the inerrant, infallible word of God,” Patterson said.
Though Patterson said several opponents made attempts to rebut the book’s arguments, “all of them fell on deaf ears, and so that book prevailed.”
Danny Akin described Patterson as the movement’s theologian, Pressler as its organizer and Adrian Rogers as its preacher.
“When you put those three men together, they inspired and mobilized Southern Baptists to go to the convention and vote their convictions,” Akin said.
A rejection of substitutionary atonement and an embrace of inclusivism and universalism was already present in the SBC in the 1980s, Mohler said. Other denominations that went down that path, including most mainline Protestant denominations, now have theological debates over such issues as the ordination of homosexuals and the blessing of homosexual unions.
Mohler said if the Conservative Resurgence hadn’t happened, the SBC would be having the same kinds of debates today.
“Thanks be to God, we’ve got things to discuss, but not those things,” Mohler said.
Jonathan Akin asked Greear and Platt if they had any concerns in Baptist life where the sufficiency and authority of scripture are still being compromised.
Greear described the Conservative Resurgence as a “confidence in the Bible that leads to great urgency in the Great Commission,” and said that all practices and methodologies should be concerned with evangelism and reaching the lost.
Platt said he thought there were many preaching practices, even in Southern Baptist life, that deny the sufficiency of scripture, with pastors facing pressure to fill their sermons with their own thoughts and stories.
“If our sermons are not saturated with Scripture and driven by the text, then we’re not taking advantage of all that God by His grace has provided us with,” Platt said.
Jonathan Akin asked for the panelists to provide some criteria for determining which fights over doctrine and theology were worth fighting in the denomination.
Danny Akin pointed to a “theological triage” system Mohler developed. He described “first-tier issues” such as the gospel, the deity of Christ, the sinlessness of Christ and the miracles of the Bible as things “worth spilling our blood over because those are what constitute being a Christian,” Danny Akin said.
Over “second-tier” issues, such as infant baptism, Danny Akin said Baptists could still affirm people as brothers and sisters in Christ, but working together in a church would be difficult. Even less important issues, such as eschatology, may be worth debating, but are not worthy of breaking fellowship, Akin said.
The discussion then shifted to the topic of Calvinism and the recent document “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” which by the time of the luncheon had been signed by more than 700 denominational leaders and pastors, including seven state convention executives.
Jonathan Akin mentioned that Patterson signed the document and asked Patterson if he thought Calvinists should be prohibited from serving in leadership positions within the SBC.
“No, I’ve never thought that at all,” Patterson said.
“When you get into a discussion, part of what you need to do is measure your own heat content,” he said. “The hotter you get, the less likely you are to be correct in the whole situation.”
Patterson said Southern Baptists have always had “two tributaries flowing into one river.” Pointing to church history, he said British Baptists in the 17th century failed when they split into General and Particular Baptists.
“They really needed each other; they needed the discussion. In Southern Baptist life, we’ve always been able to have this discussion,” Patterson said. Noting differing interpretations between himself and Mohler, he said: “Do we divide up and fuss and fight among ourselves? No. We state our positions clearly, as clearly as we know how, and then we go have a Baptist drink together – which is a Diet Coke. You have to learn to discuss these things without the heat content that is the problem that leads to divisiveness.”
Patterson said Baptists hold to religious liberty, so he has no problem with people issuing clarifying statements on their beliefs. However, he said, “I do not raise the statement that I signed to the same significance that I would the BF&M 2000. The BF&M 2000 represents a consensus among all Southern Baptists.”
Mohler echoed these sentiments, calling for Southern Baptists to state their convictions with grace and love.
“The last thing we need is the development of theological tribes in the SBC,” Mohler said. “The point is, what are you doing in order to glorify God and bring praise and honor to the Lord Jesus Christ, pushing back the darkness and sharing the gospel and gloriously celebrating when even one sinner comes home? … We earned the right, from those who came before us in the Conservative Resurgence, for us to be able to talk about doctrine without embarrassing ourselves because a failure to do that means we become a non-theological people, and a non-theological people will lose the gospel.”
Additionally, Mohler said, “There should be absolutely no criticism of anyone who has the courage to frame a theological argument and to submit it for the discussion of the denomination.”
Connecting the discussion to a local church setting, Greear said his church does not allow the topic to be a divisive issue. He said there are Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the congregation and on staff, but they work together harmoniously.
“One of the things that we’ve found is that if you’re committed to the expository preaching of the Bible, … then a biblical Calvinist and a biblical Arminian end up sounding unbelievably similar on the passages they preach,” Greear said. “There is room for us to agree on the essentials of gospel proclamation and to exegete texts correctly without having to vilify one another and put one another outside of this fold.”
Jonathan Akin broadened the discussion, asking Luter to address racial unity in the midst of diversity. Luter said churches must make people of all backgrounds feel welcome in their services. He also encouraged a focus on the gospel and God’s Word over that of skin color.
“When [we] go and stand and proclaim the Word of God, it’s amazing how those tensions can break down,” Luter said. “We're connected not based on skin color but based on sin color. We don’t have a skin problem here. We have a sin problem. Once we deal with the sin problem, I promise you the skin problem will work itself out.”
Jonathan Akin ended the discussion with the question of how Southern Baptists going forward can be good stewards of what was gained through the Conservative Resurgence.
Panel members said Southern Baptists must learn from history and remember debate over the inerrancy and sufficiency of scripture will never end. Members of the panel encouraged pastors to stand strong for the essentials of the Christian faith and to remain vigilant against attacks on the reliability of the Bible. With this in mind, panelists said, Southern Baptists must remain unified and be faithful to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth.