Wednesday, July 19, 2006

"Is the Battle for the Bible Over?"---A Response

In an article posted on the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention's web site, Gary Ledbetter, editor of the Southern Baptist Texan, raises the question of whether the "battle for the Bible" is really over within the Southern Baptist Convention. Certainly, one would be hard pressed to find a current leader in the SBC who would deny the inerrancy of Scripture. It might be accurate to say that the battle regarding inerrancy is over within the SBC, but can we really say that the battle for the Bible is over? Ledbetter asserts that the battle for the Bible is not over, and on this point I fully agree with him. As you will see, however, we have different reasons for believing this.

Ledbetter is right when he says, "The battle for the Bible will not end until time does." As long as Satan is operating in this world, he will attack the inspiration, truthfulness, and authority of the Bible, because the Bible is the Word of God. So in this sense the battle for the Bible is something we will always be engaged in. We must always be vigilant against efforts to denigrate the inspiration, truthfulness, and authority of the Bible. If Ledbetter had stayed with this theme, his analysis would have been completely on the mark. Unfortunately, he carries his argument too far and confuses biblical fidelity with subscribing to a particular interpretation of Scripture.

Ledbetter indicates that there are Southern Baptists who profess to believe in inerrancy but who are not really faithful to Scripture because they accept unbiblical doctrines. He mentions the recent, and often contentious, discussions about baptism and church membership, tongues and private prayer language, and the use of alcohol as examples that the battle for the Bible is far from over in the SBC. Certainly if someone denies the deity or the humanity of Jesus, or that salvation is found only through Christ, or anything else that is clearly taught in Scripture then that person is being unfaithful to Scripture, even if he or she claims to believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. However, the examples given by Ledbetter do NOT meet this standard because on each of these issues the view that is predominant among Southern Baptists does not rest on clear and unambiguous biblical teaching. These views reflect a specific interpretation of what the Bible says about each subject, but while the Bible is inerrant and infallible, our interpretations are not.

I believe that there is a new "battle for the Bible" coming to the forefront in the SBC. Whereas during the Conservative Resurgence the battle was over the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the new battle for the Bible is concerned with the sufficiency of Scripture. The key issue for our generation within the SBC is not, "Is the Bible really the Word of God?" but "What does the Bible itself say about [insert topic]?" It is because we acknowledge that the Bible is the Word of God that we examine everything, including issues that Southern Baptists in the past have almost universally agreed upon, in light of what the Bible actually says, and also what it does not say. This has resulted in some contention within the SBC, as many of us have become convinced that the predominant views on some issues within the SBC are lacking in clear and unambiguous biblical support. This is certainly true for the issues that Ledbetter refers to in his article.

Ledbetter and I agree on what needs to happen in our churches if we are to be faithful to Scripture. At the end of his article he says:

A systematic preaching and teaching of the whole Bible will cover everything eventually. It’s not commonly done. It is more loving for us to pass along as much of what God has taught us as possible than it is to teach to perceived needs or trendy subjects. That way our children and our other disciples can learn to love God and his truth in the same way we have.

“Inerrancy” is still a good and serviceable term. It’s got to be more than that, though. If it is our conviction regarding the nature of God’s revelation of himself to all men, we’ll do something about that. We’ll learn it, love it more than other competing versions of the truth, and we’ll teach all of it to those who follow us.
I agree with this statement. However, if we actually do this--- systematically preach and teach the whole of Scripture as it is written---I believe the results will be different from what Ledbetter expects. Ledbetter seems to think that such preaching and teaching will lead future generations of Southern Baptists to embrace the predominant views on the issues mentioned above. I believe that the opposite is true. Such preaching and teaching will result in a diversity of views on these issues, because the Bible does not address these issues with perfect clarity. If we teach the Bible as it is written, then we will have agreement on those issues where it speaks clearly, diversity on those issues where it does not speak clearly, and unity in the midst of this diversity. To me, this would be a victory in the "battle for the Bible."

11 comments:

Paul Burleson said...

Tim

Excellent post.

I would love to reprint this on my blog in a few days with your permission and with full credit.

I've been in a discussion with some pastors about this very thing and I don't want to try to put into words what you've already said with clarity.

Paul Burleson

Kevin Bussey said...

Great post Tim!

Why does everything have to be a battle anyway? We always sound combative. You are right, if we just preached what the Bible says there wouldn't be a battle. I am amazed when I hear some of the messages being preached. They read one verse or a passage but they go to other issues or politics and don't even talk the subject they started.

Jeremy Atwood said...

I was in church for almost 21 years before I heard an expositional sermon. Which is sad, but some people go even longer than that. I am thankful that I am at a church that loves the word, however, I am the first pastor they have had that preaches through books of the bible and although they like it, it has taken them a while to get used to it.

I think one of the problems within the church is that our definition of sermon is too broad. Whenever I am preparing my sermons I like to follow Paul's definition of preaching and try to include each one - Preach the word, correct, rebuke, encourage with great patience and careful instruction (from II Tim 4)

Not long ago, I almost lost a friend over this issue - she was so upset that I was so narrow minded on preaching. She came from a seminary that changed the name of the preaching class to proclamation and argued that a movie clip that dealt with a relevant topic was much more powerful than a sermon from Leviticus.

Tim Sweatman said...

Paul,

Feel free to use this post however you wish. The more we can get this discussion going, the better of we will be in the long run.

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Kevin,

We have a public image to keep up as "fightin' Baptists." If we were to quit fighting, what excuse would people be able to use for not attending our services? Maybe the martial terminology is used to try to attract men to the church. ;)

What you mentioned is one of my biggest pet peeves. At the church where I was a member before pastoring, we had an interim who would do that. He would read a few verses and then tell stories about his wife and daughter. That was the only time I ever considered leaving that church.

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Jeremy,

It may have taken you a long time to be exposed to solid expository preaching, but I'm confident that at Burton you made up for lost time listening to Kevin. I'm thrilled that the people at Hillview have embraced the systematic exposition of the Word. You are truly blessed in that regard.

Unfortunately it seems that your friend's view is becoming more and more prevalent, even in the SBC. I have no problem with using illustrations or audio/visual clips to reinforce the message, but the message itself has to be based directly on what the Scripture says. If the illustrations seem to be more powerful than the Scripture, then the Scripture has not been properly preached. We're not called to give inspiring speeches; we're called to preach the Word.

Anony Moose said...

Tim,

Were we to teach/preach the entire Bible systematically in our churches:

1. The faithful few would experience dramatic personal growth and would be much more equipped to personally fulfill the Great Commission.

2. The fringe would either leave or be converted.

3. The overall congregation would be perhaps smaller, but much more healthy.

The key would still be the practical application of what we study. Yes, it is entirely true, but how will that be reflected in action?

We have ridden our favorite passages and dodged the ones we don't "side with," and most laypeople have followed suit. I for one would love to see and be a part of a biblically-literate body of believers.

I've been reading your posts for the past several days (still fairly new to this whole blogging deal); I appreciate the depth with which you discuss this and other issues.

WM

GuyMuse said...

The "Battle for the Bible" may be over, but certainly we are only in the beginning stages of the "Battle for Interpretting the Bible".

I have been reading with interest the first few shots as the alcohol, ppl, baptism, and a few other issues have begun to hit prime-time. This is what confronted us on the missionary field a number of years ago when New Directions hit. One of the by-products of ND was the necessity to go back to the New Testament and examine carefully exactly what Scripture says about many of the things we had always just taken for granted in our Baptist church bubble.

For us, the biggest of all has been ecclesiology--what is the church? ... definition of church and church practices. So much of what we take for granted about "church" is nowhere to be seen in the pages of the NT.

I predict "church" will increasingly be examined in much the same way some of the other current "hot topics" are being reevaluated today in the light of Scripture. This whole exercise has been one of the most painful and uncomfortable experiences of my life and we are still in the process after seven full years! In many ways our whole world has been turned upside down.

You may have just written the "Ft. Sumnter" preface to the next round in the "Battle for the Bible!"

Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Brother Tim,

You continue to amaze me by hitting another subject right on the money. I wish we could replace G.L. with you as Editor.

In one comment you made, however, you indicated support for the use of video clips in the sermon. Right now I am struggling with whether or not to accept The Regulative Principle for worship. I believe that principle says that we only do in our church's worship meetings what the Bible says to do. Are you familiar with that principle, and if so, do you accept it?

Love in Christ,

Jeff

Jamie Wootten said...

Great post Tim!

One of the great encouragements I have had lately was to study the "dry bones" passage in Ezekiel 37. What was it that the Lord used to breathe life back into the dead? The preaching of the Word!

Matt Snowden said...

Tim,
Great post. I think you have it right. We will travel closer and closer to "sectdom" if your insights are not put into practice. There are a number of non-essential issues that many Baptists place on a level with the core of the gospel. This dishonors the gospel and creates a party spirit that is counter productive. Thanks for your thoughts.

Jeremy Atwood said...

Indeed, I grew more at Burton that at any other point in my spiritual journey and it came through the preaching of the word.

But I do not think the battle is anywhere close to being over even though the majority in SBC and KBC conservatives have won that battle. It is still something we must be engaged in because as believers and preachers and church members this is one avenue we must not compromise on.

Paul, Peter, and Jude warned us about this. I think there is a reason the writer of Hebrews calls His word a sword and John saw Christ with a sword coming out his mouth in revelation.

Unfortunately, it is more "successful" to go the other route - there aren't that many Bible preaching mega churches and the sermon series on 5 steps to this and 7 steps to that seem to draw more of a crowd than a series on any given book of the Bible.

Let me ask you guys this - I am all for diversity, but how much should we embrace and work along side those on the other side of the "battle". I think this may be a big question that will come up very soon in KBC life.

Tim Sweatman said...

WM,

I agree with your assessment of what would happen in our churches. That is why so many churches avoid deep and systematic Bible teaching; it offends people. It also tends to get pastors driven away from churches, so pastors who are looking for big crowds or job security refrain from such preaching and teaching. This is NOT to say that there are no megachurches that provide solid, thorough biblical teaching. I believe there are megachurches where the Word is preached as it is written, with no holding back on the part of the pastor, but in such churches the pastor is not driven by a desire for big crowds.

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Guy,

That is the issue. It seems that some people are basically saying that anyone who does not agree with their interpretation on some matters really doesn't believe in the Bible.

You referred to New Directions. I believe that one reason New Directions is so controversial is that it does encourage people to carefully examine what Scripture says instead of accepting a view just because Baptists have always believed it.

The Fort Sumter reference is interesting, but I hope it's not prophetic for two reasons. First, we don't need another messy civil war in the SBC. Second, the side that fired the first shot at Fort Sumter won the battle but lost the war.

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Jeff,

I am somewhat familiar with the Regulative Principle. Based on my limited understanding, for the most part I don't really accept it. I do believe that certain elements are essential parts of a worship service (reading/preaching/teaching of the Word, prayer, singing, giving, etc.), but I don't find anything in Scripture that would prohibit other means/methods/styles/forms from being used in worship, provided that everything were done "in a fitting and orderly way" and "in Spirit and in Truth."

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Jamie,

If we want to see real spiritual vitality in our churches, we must preach the Word. As you pointed out from Ezekiel, the Spirit uses the Word of God and not motivational speaking, pop psychology, or positive thinking, to breathe spiritual life into people.

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Matt,

That is one of my concerns as well. We should not join ourselves on an affiliational level with those who would deny the truthfulness or authority of Scripture or who hold to different views on core doctrines where the Bible's teaching is clear and unambiguous (but we should work with them at whatever level is possible). But we should not draw boundaries of affiliation around issues that are peripheral or where the Bible's teaching is not clear and unambiguous.

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Jeremy,

As I said in my post, the battle will never really be over because Satan will always attack God's Word. I agree that we must never become complacent. But we do face a real danger in the SBC from those who go beyond the issue of inerrancy and authority to demand conformity to a specific interpretation on issues where the Bible is not perfectly clear. At this point within the SBC the greatest struggle is over the sufficiency of Scripture.

I concede that the climate in the KBC is somewhat different because most of the moderates in Kentucky are still actively engaged in the KBC, whereas on the national level most moderates have distanced themselves from the SBC. This complicates the matter because I am not convinced that those who deny inerrancy and those who affirm inerrancy can cooperate on an affiliational level. Cooperation is possible and desirable at other levels, but I don't see how churches can cooperate on an affiliational level when they disagree about the nature of the Bible.