Remember the Alamo
RELIGION: Is the battle for the Bible really over?
It was America’s bicentennial year, but not all the fireworks were about the nation’s birthday. That same year, Harold Lindsell, then editor emeritus of Christianity Today, lit a fuse of his own with the publication of The Battle for the Bible.
Lindsell’s book was an exposé of a spreading liberalism within evangelicalism—and with special reference to the Southern Baptist Convention. “At this moment in history the great bulk of Southern Baptists are theologically orthodox and do believe that the Word of God is inerrant,” he advised. Even still he warned that if Southern Baptists committed to inerrancy did not act soon, “the rougher the battle will be, the more traumatic the consequences, and the less obvious the outcome in favor of historic Christianity.”
Southern Baptists did not hesitate. In 1979 they elected Adrian Rogers, pastor of the famed Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, as president—and the battle was joined. What later became known as the “Conservative Resurgence” in the SBC began in earnest, and conservatives eventually captured the boards of all of the denomination’s national institutions. The “Battle for the Bible” was won by those who insisted that biblical inerrancy is so vital to the health of the church that it was worth dividing the Convention over the issue if necessary.
This week the Southern Baptist Convention convenes for its annual meeting in San Antonio. The last time the Convention met here, the voting “messengers” elected Jerry Vines of Florida as president—by 692 votes out of 32,727 cast. Those were days of constant controversy and contested elections.
This year’s convention will be different. SBC President Frank Page, a prominent South Carolina pastor, is expected to be elected to a second term without opposition. Page represents a new generation and is marked by a low-key style. There will be no long lines of buses from across the Convention idling outside the convention center, waiting for decisive votes to be cast.
So much has changed. Adrian Rogers died in 2005. Jerry Vines retired last year as pastor of Jacksonville’s First Baptist Church.
The SBC’s seminaries, now under the control of conservative trustees and presidents, enroll a record number of young ministers, drawn to the conservative theology. But most of these students were not born when Adrian Rogers was elected in 1979. They were toddlers when the Convention made history in San Antonio in 1988. They are the generation without a living memory of the controversy and what was at stake. To them, the election of Jerry Vines in 1988 is almost as remote as the struggle of Davy Crockett and the brave Texans at the Alamo.
A group of younger pastors and bloggers is now openly asking the question, Is the “Battle for the Bible” over? Some go further, arguing that the theological issues are settled, health has been returned, and the SBC should move on from theological preoccupations. Are they right?
The SBC is certainly in no danger of an organized liberal takeover. The more liberal elements have largely moved on to other groups and have little to do with the SBC. There will be no re-match on the question of biblical inerrancy in San Antonio.
Still, all is not well. The denomination is losing many of its young people, especially at the crucial transition between adolescence and adulthood. New controversies have emerged even as older fissures have been reopened. A generation that was playing Little League as the “Battle for the Bible” raged now includes some who loudly claim that the Conservative Resurgence has gone too far.
Not hardly. The incipient controversies of the present serve to remind Southern Baptists of what was at stake when we last met in San Antonio—and of where we would be if the Convention had headed in a very different direction. The issue of biblical inerrancy is as important today—and as in need of defining and defending—as it was then.
Southern Baptists will do well to remember what every Texan remembers when reminded of the Alamo: There are some battles worth fighting, some stories worth remembering, and some causes that never die.
— R. Albert Mohler Jr.