Historic Southern Baptist Principles

Tom Ascol

This journal is committed to historic Southern Baptist principles. This means that we are sensitive to and in agreement with the theological and spiritual impulses which led to the formation and early development of the Southern Baptist Convention in the last century. Inherent to this rich heritage are two principles which served our forefathers well as they united their efforts in the service of Christ's Kingdom. Simply stated, those early Southern Baptist statesmen on whose shoulders we stand believed that truth matters, and that evangelism is a great priority.

This second point has been loudly and repeatedly asserted by modern denominational pundits in the wake of the protracted convention controversy. We have been regularly reminded that evangelism is the great work which binds Southern Baptists together.

Only in the last several years, however, has the importance of truth been given a hearing. Amidst charges of creedalism and thought control the point has been successfully (if not finally) made to those within and without SBC borders that truth once again matters to Southern Baptists.

Both of these points are important and both are firmly rooted in our convention's heritage.

The Priority of Evangelism

There can be no doubt that evangelism has always been a top priority in our denomination. It was a missionary impulse which gave rise to the organization of the convention in 1845. In the Preamble to the Constitution of the SBC it is stated that the original "delegates" met together for the purpose of "organizing a plan for eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the Gospel."

During this inaugural meeting, as one of its first official actions, the SBC adopted the following resolution:

Resolved, that the Convention appoint a Board of Managers for Foreign Missions, and also one for Domestic Missions, and that a committee be appointed to nominate the members for such boards.

W.B. Johnson, the first President of the Convention, in his published address explaining the rationale for the new organization, made impassioned pleas for help in the great work of evangelism. Citing the great spiritual need of "poor, perishing and precious souls," Johnson said, "Our language to all America, and to all christendom, if they will hear us, is "come over," and for these objects, as ye love souls, and the divine Saviour of souls, "help us."

Even a cursory examination of the modern scene reveals that evangelism and missions remain a top priority for Southern Baptists 147 years later. At the end of 1991 there were more than 4700 missionaries serving under the Home Mission Board and more than 3850 serving under the Foreign Mission Board.

Amidst all of the distractions which call for our attention, we must never lose sight of our indebtedness to a lost world. The One who came "to seek and to save that which was lost" ahs entrusted to us His Gospel, and has commissioned us to make disciple of the whole world. Herein lies a principle to which all who name the name of Christ must be committed.

The Importance of Truth

But, contrary to much modern misconception, this emphasis on evangelism in our heritage is not found in isolation from genuine concern for doctrinal integrity. Those early Southern Baptist statesmen who labored diligently to see the Gospel spread around the world were men to whom the truth of God's Word was sacred.

Clear evidence of this is found in this issue of the Founders Journal. F.H. Kerfoot, a Systematic Theology Professor, was chosen to serve as corresponding secretary for the Home Mission Board in 1899. As the article on page 27 demonstrates, he influenced the convention as one who maintained evangelism as a great priority while recognizing the need for confessional orthodoxy.

The name, Luther Rice, is synonymous with missionary zeal. Though he labored before the actual formation of the SBC, his influence in its early years loomed large. As the article on page 10 makes clear, he is another whose life demonstrates that evangelistic fervor and love for the truth are most productive when found within the same breast. The Baptist Convention of South Carolina memorialized this quality of his life by having the following testimony inscribed on his tombstone: "Perhaps no American has done more for the great Missionary Enterprise....As a theologian he was orthodox."

Lottie Moon, whose name has become the denominational motto for foreign missions, was a woman whose love for and commitment to God's truth caused her to break off an engagement to be married to Crawford Toy, a brilliant Old Testament Professor at Southern Seminary. Upon careful examination of Toy's writings and books which he recommended, the missionary determined that her allegiance to Christ and His truth could not coexist with marriage to one whose views on the inspiration and authority of Scripture were steadily degenerating. Lottie Moon refused to "toy" with liberalism.

Toy's removal from Southern Seminary provides one of the clearest examples that Southern Baptists have historically believed that truth matters. After making a promising start as a Professor at the seminary, he became convinced of Darwin's theory of evolution and its application to Old Testament history by Wellhausen and other German Higher Critics (according to whom the whole Old Testament had to be reconstructed along rationalist guidelines which disregard the divine inspiration of the text). As Toy's classroom teaching began to reflect his newly embraced heterodox views, it became obvious that either his convictions must change, or he must go. Unable to do the former he tendered his resignation for the trustees in May, 1879.

One of the most touching scenes in our denomination's heritage of doctrinal integrity comes from this tragic chapter in our history. John Broadus and James Boyce, his colleagues and friends at the seminary, accompanied Toy to the Louisville railway station. As Broadus describes it, "The three happened to stand for a little while alone in a waiting-room; and throwing his left arm around Toy's neck, Dr. Boyce lifted up the right arm before him, and said, in passion and grief, 'Oh, Toy, I would freely give that arm to be cut off if you could be where you were five years ago, and stay there.'"

The belief that truth is important will necessarily lead one into disagreement and perhaps even confrontation with those who are judged to be deviating from important doctrinal standards. It goes hand-in-hand with contending for the faith (Jude 3) and defending the Gospel (Philip. 1:7).

Such concern need not (indeed should not) be expressed in a hostile or contentious manner. But it should be expressed. Ernest Reisinger's critique of deviation on the right, and Timothy George's analysis of deviation on the left are exemplary in this regard. They stand in a long line of Southern Baptists for whom truth matters.

Truth and evangelism. There can be no God-honoring commitment to one without equal commitment to the other. Without truth we have no evangel-no good news-to proclaim. Yet, an unproclaimed Gospel is a contradiction in terms.

No one is safe living in a house that has a shaky foundation. No matter how impressive the superstructure, it simply cannot stand for very long. But a foundation by itself is hardly livable. Its purpose is to support a building. Until it does, it serves little practical use. In the same way truth and evangelism go together.

May God help us build a mighty evangelistic house on the strong foundation of His truth.


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