Friday, July 19, 2019

The Criterion

For many moderate to liberal SBC Baptists the traditional liberty of conscience morphed into the liberty to deny the truths God revealed in the Bible. For example, part of the crisis behind the 1963 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message were things such as Ralph Elliott’s book on Genesis, which many Southern Baptists believed taught things that simply were or were approaching heretical. This 1963 revision produced the sentence, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” Apparently some conservatives viewed it as a good thing, while others saw the dangers within it. Regardless, it gave a foothold of appeal to liberals to claim they had interpreted their view through (their ideas about) Jesus Christ.

The Making of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message by A. J. Smith gives some interesting looks behind the scenes of things that went into making the 1963 BF&M. For example, he writes:
Denominational leaders found it necessary to address the issue raised by Elliott’s book by forming a Committee to revise the BFM. According to Garth Pybass, one of only three members of that Committee still living in 2004, the intention of the “criterion” statement in the article on Scripture was “to convey biblical infallibility based on Christ’s testimony of it in the gospels.” A footnote below comments “this interpretation of the ‘criterion’ statement would take on differing interpretations within the Convention.” (p. 34)
When the Committee agreed to follow a shortened form of the “criterion” sentence they played into the hands of men such as Moody. To say that “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ” without qualification raised a host of questions. Marvin Tate, who taught Old Testament at Southern from the early 1960s until his retirement, commented: “Back in 1963 I asked, ‘What does that mean?’ It doesn’t mean anything.” (pp. 139-140)
Smith follows the above with a quote from Herschel Hobbs’s journal article “Southern Baptists and Confessionalism” (“Southern Baptists and Confessionalism: a Comparison of the Origins and Contents of the 1925 and 1963 Confessions,” Review and Expositor 76, No. 1 (1976), 55-56). In it Hobbs pointed out that Elliott in The Message of Genesis said Melchizedek was probably a priest of Baal. He thought that the “criterion” sentence would mean such nonsense would have to be rejected in the light of Jesus and the New Testament. See Smith, page 140.

Below are some interesting comments from Mercer University’s Department of Christianity (a list of the faculty is on page 131 of Smith’s book).
This paragraph [on soul competency, in the preamble] ignores that for Baptists the object of “the individual’s soul competency,” “freedom of religion,” and “the priesthood of the believer” is God and not “soul” itself, “freedom” itself, the “believer” himself. (p. 132).
The paragraph tends to undermine Article I, the Scriptures, by assuming man is free to select those “certain definite doctrines” which they “hold dear.” (p. 132)
The term “criterion” unfortunately connotes the presence of a yardstick by which men can measure or judge Scripture, rather the Scripture measuring and judging man. (p. 172)
The Mercer professors, certainly not champions of fundamentalism, saw the dangers of creating “a yardstick by which men can measure or judge Scripture.” The proof has been in the pudding, as many used it for just that purpose – and howled like hit dogs when the statement was removed in 2000.

Most of you reading this probably are not Southern Baptist. You many think it irrelevant. Let it be a reminder that words, phrases, and sentences have meaning, and often ugly unintended consequences.

Note: Best I have found, the original “criterion” statement out of committee was “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is the person, work, and teachings of Jesus Christ.” The Mercer faculty was objecting to this, not just the shortened statement that left out “person, work, and teachings.”

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