Home > Books > Humphreys: The Way We Were (1994)

Humphreys: The Way We Were (1994)

As I mentioned before Fisher Humphreys’s 1994 book The Way We Were: How Southern Baptist Theology has Changed and What it Means to Us All is an attempt on Humphreys’s part to situate the conservative-moderate conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention as a conflict between a majority tradition of mainstream Baptists and one of the SBC’s minority traditions. To do this he needs to establish what is historically uniquely Baptist and what isn’t.

Humphreys spends a chapter locating Baptists as Protestants, sort of. Which I guess he has to do; Baptists are only sort-of Protestants: they were dissenters from Anglicanism, not Roman Catholicism, and identified themselves as Baptists about 1608, two or three generations too late for the Reformation. Still, Humphreys identifies five beliefs Baptists share with historical Protestants:

  1. The Church must always seek to be reformed.
  2. The Bible alone is the written Word of God
  3. Justification is by grace through faith alone
  4. All believers are secure in their salvation
  5. All believers are priests of God

I’m going to mostly focus on the last item here because it was the distinctive the moderates wielded against the conservatives in the Eighties and apparently still do. The term took on its specific modern Baptist meaning around 1908, where theologian E. Y. Mullins elaborated it into the concept of “soul competency,” meaning that each individual must stand before God himself or herself, rather than being constituted under some religious or political federal head. From it is derived the Baptist distinctive of “a free church in a free country,” meaning they do not support established churches, etc.

By the Eighties the moderates within the SBC were also citing this as support for the ordination of women (the priesthood of the believer being interpreted as having no regard for gender) and for academic freedom in seminaries, including various interpretations of Scripture using the historical-critical method. The conservatives, of course, interpreted this point more narrowly, or as subordinate to various plain readings of Scripture, or whatever. In the accounts I have read of the controversy in the SBC, the two sides rarely actually engage with the others’ points, but instead just restate their own in ever-increasing intensity, usually wrapped in metaphors and accusations.

I don’t know that there’s an obvious way out of this problem: after a few years of discussion the controversy in the SBC became more a political fight than a theological disagreement, with more attention paid to numbers than to ideas.

Still, I am given to wonder if at least part of this question isn’t still with us, when we ask whether every Christian has the right and responsibility to learn and interpret Scripture himself, or whether he has an obligation to pick an existing tradition and stick with it. Or, similarly, whether academic theology matters, or practical theology, or so-called folk theology.

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