NEW ORLEANS – Conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention fought what is believed to have been a "bloody" battle some 30 years ago when the authority of the Bible was at stake. Though that battle was won, the threat of theological liberalism remains.
"The debate about ... Scripture is never going to be over," said Dr. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a principal figure in the Conservative Resurgence, to hundreds of young Southern Baptists earlier this week.
"The enemy never sleeps and he will make every appeal in very unique ways. He will come at this issue of whether or not the Bible is really believable."
Patterson was among a panel of six Southern Baptist leaders who reflected on the unprecedented theological fight they had decades ago. The panel, hosted by Baptist21, was held during the SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans on Tuesday.
"Many people assume that Southern Baptists were immune from this kind of trajectory (toward liberalism), immune from these kinds of temptations or if they existed they existed in rare pockets such as a couple of liberal Baptist colleges and universities where you can find Darwinists and other things," noted Dr. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
But, he stressed, liberal theology was present in the SBC and people, like Patterson, stood up to fight it.
Dr. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, remembered just how liberal some Baptists' views were.
In the late 1970s to early 1980s, he said he went to Southwestern – which was at the time considered the most conservative seminary in the SBC – and found that even there, men "were very hesitant to affirm the inerrancy of the Bible."
"They were very soft on gender issues [and] the exclusivity of the Gospel," Akin recalled.
The Conservative Resurgence, or what critics call the fundamentalist takeover, placed the SBC firmly back on the foundation of the inerrancy of Scripture. Conservatives replaced liberals in leadership and all seminary professors were once again committed to the full authority of the Bible.
But it wasn't an easy battle. Patterson explained, "We played the role of the expendables ... we caught plenty of fire."
It was a costly stand for him and others such as Judge Paul Pressler and Adrian Rogers, he said, and it will be a costly stand for Southern Baptists today as they continue to defend Scripture.
"There is a price to be paid for standing for truth," Patterson warned seminary students and young pastors.
"The future that lies immediately ahead of you is to fight that same battle again, hopefully not in the same way and hopefully this time not from a position where you will be constantly bloodied but you will have fights … because certain people … do not believe the Bible is the Word of God."
Akin warned that theological positions always drift to the left and if they're not careful they'll find themselves in a place they would have never thought they were going to go.
"This generation will fight the battle again. It's come back quicker than I think most of us thought it would so you're warned. So be ready, be prepared."
But they have to be wise in the battles they pick. While there are certain non-negotiables such as the Trinity and the exclusivity of Christ that must be defended, other issues are not worth "spilling blood" over, the Southern Baptist leaders stressed.
Eschatology – the theology concerning the last days – and certain areas of Calvinism are among those issues where they can have respectful disagreement.
Theology for the Sake of the Lost
As beneficiaries of the Conservative Resurgence, Pastors J.D. Greear and David Platt expressed their appreciation to those who fought the battle and declared their commitment to not lose what they've gained.
In the end, what they're all after is reaching the lost.
Greear remembered Patterson saying that the reason he and others did what they did was because "it's about seeking and saving the lost."
"That epitomizes to me what the Conservative Resurgence was about, what has been bequeathed to us – that it is a confidence in the Bible that leads to great urgency in the Great Commission," Greear, pastor of The Summit Church, highlighted.
Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills, added that it's their common belief in the inerrancy of Scripture that drives them to spread the Gospel.
"Global missiology is obviously driven by biblical theology," he explained. "We wouldn't be talking about going to the unreached in the world if we believed in universalism.
"If we have a strong doctrine of the exclusivity of Christ, then let's stop living like functional universalists and let's stop leading churches that look functionally universalistic, let's stop leading church members who live like everybody's going to be OK in the end."
Southern Baptists are making efforts to place their focus on the Great Commission. They even approved an alternative name for themselves – the Great Commission Baptists – this week for the purpose of more effective evangelism.
But Southern Baptists have to make sure they don't get distracted – by each other.
Mohler admitted, "I think if you were an outside observer looking at the Southern Baptist Convention, we would rightly be criticized of talking too much about ourselves.
"If we really believe that the world desperately needs to hear the Gospel, if our concern really is thousands of unreached people groups, then we're going to have to get over spending most of our time talking about ourselves and talking about the world and what it's going to take to get us out there."