Finding Fault Lines in the Southern Baptist Convention: The Battle for the Bible and the Insignificance of Inerrancy

God blessed the Southern Baptist Convention with victory in a battle for the Bible during the Conservative Resurgence. But theological giants from that era now warn of a looming threat outside of the concern for defending the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. Two of the most prominent figures in the SBC and leaders during the CR are Thomas J. Nettles and R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Both of these men took uncompromising stands on the doctrine of inerrancy during the CR. But both of these men now warn of a new threat in the SBC and evangelicalism.

Baptists and the Bible

Through the years, the Baptist Faith and Message, the confessional document, or statement of faith, whereby Southern Baptists express their areas of doctrinal agreement for the sake of cooperation in missions, has evolved in its portrayal of Scripture, and for the better.

We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter; that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds and religious opinions should be tried. (1925)

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. It reveals the principles by which God judges us; and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ. (1963)

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation. (2000)

Historically, new threats to the gospel result in more clearly defined statements of faith (to include creeds, confessions, and the like). What the BFM 2000 says on the doctrine of Scripture serves to undermine the arguments of those advocating for theologically liberal and Neo-Orthodox understandings of Scripture. In this sense, the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is not insignificant at all.

Indeed, those advocating for a gospel-centered ecumenical spirit with regard to disagreement on the doctrine of inerrancy apparently miss that positing error in any part of Scripture also posits the potential of error anywhere else, including error in the gospel message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our sins. The reason we must trust that the gospel is truth without mixture of error is that we trust that the Bible has, “truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.” God cannot lie, and God cannot err, so God gets every detail right in his revelation to us in Scripture, the whole of which is his word. In this sense, nothing at all is ‘insignificant’ about affirming the doctrine of inerrancy.

Battle for the Bible

Tom Nettles is a legendary figure in the SBC, having retired from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after almost four decades of teaching Church History. Nettles is also known as a man who practices what he preaches, having sacrificed as much as anyone during the CR of the SBC. Thus by all accounts, Nettles possesses unmatched expertise and experience regarding the CR.

In a recent interview which appears in the lengthier trailer for a forthcoming ‘cinedoc’ from Founders Ministries, Nettles, reflecting on his aforementioned experience during the CR, says, “I’ve told people before that the inerrancy controversy was sort of easy. I mean it was real hard, but it was such a clear cut issue. If you don’t believe in the inerrancy of Scripture you’re bad off.” Commenting on the propagation of Critical Race Theory, Nettles continues:

This one is something sort of behind all of that. There are people who say, and I believe them, they believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. And they’re going to function that way. They believe in the Doctrines of Grace, they believe in substitutionary atonement, and they’re gonna preach that way. But they’re going to employ Critical Race Theory as a way of preaching to certain groups or as a way of getting the inclusion of other groups, or as a way of broadening our understanding of what the theological task is like. And so they can affirm all of the doctrines, but they are introducing a theory, a philosophy that demands that we reject – in the long run – demands that we reject certain things that are clearly revealed in Scripture.

Nettles claims that the issue of inerrancy was more clear-cut in terms of affirmation and denial than issues concerning engagement with and inclusion of “certain groups.” He further claims that people who affirm, not only inerrancy, but doctrinal matters as specifically theologically conservative as the Doctrines of Grace and substitutionary atonement, are nevertheless, “introducing a theory, a philosophy that demands that we…reject certain things that are clearly revealed in Scripture.” Something that sticks out in this observation from Nettles is the contrast between the inerrancy issue and the cultural engagement issue in terms of the ease with which they are addressed. According to Nettles, “the inerrancy controversy was sort of easy….it was such a clear cut issue.” Not so, when it comes to the current controversy. And Nettles is not alone in his assessment of the current situation in evangelicalism.

Al Mohler currently serves as President of SBTS, a position he has held since he was placed at the helm of the flagship seminary during the CR. Like Nettles, Mohler is known for his unassailable expertise and experience related to his direct involvement – theologically and politically – with the CR and SBC. During a panel discussion at the 2019 Shepherds’ Conference, Mohler expressed concerns that are very similar to those from Nettles, using almost exactly the same language to do so.

When it comes to concerns about the Evangelical Left, absolutely. I mean, I have been quite vocal. And anyone who knows the conversations amongst evangelical leadership knows exactly where I am on these issues. How best to articulate that concern in this particular moment, that’s not easy, that’s not easy. And I have tried to help to interpret these issues as clearly and biblically and charitably as I can. I’m afraid we’re going to lose an enormous number of evangelicals to various kinds of Social Gospel because that’s a lot easier to find satisfaction in than evangelism. […] Knowing exactly how to help younger evangelicals figure these things out, which is actually my job as a seminary president, that’s not real easy, and I will confess that. But I’m trying to be as clear as I can be on this. I mean for years…I mean this has been the great concern. […] You know of my concerns. I am having, before God, to try to address those concerns the way I think best consistent with thirty-five years of public ministry.

The reader will notice that Mohler, like Nettles, understands that articulating his concerns with current challenges is not an easy task. Nettles sees a slippery slope toward the rejection of Scripture, and Mohler senses a slide into the Social Gospel, which he will also label a “threat” before making the same comment Nettles does; namely, advocates of error in areas of cultural engagement who are headed toward a rejection of Scripture and an embrace of the Social Gospel would nevertheless affirm, not only inerrancy, but many of the same points of conservative theology that Nettles and Mohler would affirm. In response to a question from Phil Johnson of Grace to You, Mohler says:

Well I’m trying to say I agree with you about much of what you see as the looming threat. […] I have lived long enough to remember that when I came of age as an evangelical, this was the same discussion. And it was being driven by the Evangelical Left, people like Jim Wallace and Sojourners, the Sojourners community. […] The difference is, they have followed the consistent logic of their own position and they have been pulled…I mean, they’re no longer theologically orthodox nor any semblance thereof.  […] The reality is the same thing is a danger that I see looming and I’m quite concerned about it. (Trying to address that as best I know how.) The difference is this – and I debated Jim Wallace, in person – the difference is this: Jim and others, Jim will speak as an evangelical, but they don’t want to get very specific in theology. One distinctive which is a part of our challenge right now is that there are people who will agree with every point of our theological system who are not seeing the other issues the same way. That’s requiring a different kind of apologetic argument. Does that make sense?

In reply to Mohler’s response above, Johnson more pointedly asks, “I go back to what you said about incremental changes that promote that sort of liberalizing tendency and realize that just last year at both The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel I was hearing some rhetoric that actually I first heard from Jim Wallace and Sojourners twenty, thirty years ago. And so I think what I’m asking you is – in fact what I am asking you is – do you not see that the evangelical movement – even our constituency, the most conservative end of the evangelical movement – is becoming a little more susceptible to that?” To which Mohler unequivocally responds, “You know the answer to the question is ‘Yes.'”

Baloney and the Bible

Some are concerned about the direction of the SBC and evangelicalism as a whole. Others object to various entity decisions. Both warn of potential danger related to creeping liberalism. Both are usually dismissed out of hand. Both are marked as troublemakers. In short, both are thought to be ‘full of baloney.’ To be fair, those closer to the fringe of polemically motivated warfare with the supposedly socially progressive Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and now with the SBC as a whole have been anything but helpful with respect to how this discussion is handled. Nevertheless, those sounding the alarm about liberal drift apparently have a point, they are not full of baloney, as we are not talking about the opinions of fringe figures here, conspiracy theorists, or pugilists…we are talking about Tom Nettles and Al Mohler.

The main counterargument to the aforementioned concerns about various teachings, individuals, and institutions in the SBC has been to cite convictions about the inerrancy of Scripture. The argument is that since this or that individual or institution upholds the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, teaches substitutionary atonement, and promotes Calvinist soteriology (who doesn’t, at this point?), well then, that person or place must not have any other problems at all, at least not problems pertaining to theological liberalism. This counterargument conflates our areas of apparent agreement with areas of actual disagreement. The disagreement visible to those attempting to discern what has happened in the SBC and evangelicalism for about the past ten years or so is not a disagreement about the inerrancy of Scripture or penal substitutionary atonement, but a deeper disagreement about the proper place of Critical Race Theory, incipient elements conducive to the Social Gospel, and cultural engagement, at least according to Nettles and Mohler.

Inerrancy is not, at least in any formal or explicit sense, what is at stake at this moment in the discussion. An appeal to mere Christianity or catholic creeds or inerrancy or penal substitutionary atonement as a response to questions and concerns about worldly philosophies or Social Gospel or disagreements over the methodologies of cultural engagement is either an unintentional distraction from the substance of concern or a diversionary tactic. We should be grateful to God for the universal affirmation of the doctrine of inerrancy from our professors and entity heads. But, so far as it relates to what Nettles and Mohler and others are seeing right now in the SBC and evangelicalism, inerrancy is an insignificant point of discussion.

To turn the aforementioned argument, or defense, on its head, we need only imagine the following scenario. When someone charges another with racism or white supremacy or misogyny and the like, it will not do for that person to reply that he or she is deeply committed to inerrancy, because that is not the point in question. Indeed, the constant claim in our cultural milieu is how awful our ancestors were to engage in racism and white supremacy and misogyny and the like, and indeed, they were awful to do so. They were also inerrantists. They affirmed penal substitutionary atonement. They were more Reformed than any skinny-jeans-wearing, beer-drinking, tongues-speaking Piper-Calvinist you might find in the SBC today.

But note the analogy. Holding to the doctrine of inerrancy certainly does not excuse the aforementioned sinful beliefs or practices. Citing one’s belief in inerrancy does not come close to even addressing the aforementioned sinful beliefs and practices. So also, citing one’s affirmation of the doctrine of inerrancy in response to charges of creeping liberal thought in other areas of one’s theology does not actually address the issue of creeping liberal thought. When someone charges another with imbibing worldly philosophies or imposing the categories of Critical Theory onto the Bible or venturing into the Social Gospel, it will not do to cite one’s affirmation of inerrancy or penal substitutionary atonement or ‘Calvinism’ in response. None of those are necessarily in question. The problem is not with areas of agreement. The problem is with areas of disagreement, and the disagreements are believed to be a significant enough issue to be addressed, much like false racist and white supremacist and misogynistic beliefs and practices should be addressed. That has almost nothing to do with affirming inerrancy. But you do not have to take it from me. Listen to Nettles and Mohler.

Published by Chris Bolt

Wretched sinner saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Husband, father, pastor, seminary professor, and author.

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