My first post in this series explored how the fundamentalist hermeneutic (approach to interpreting the Bible) is not particularly conservative and certainly not “literal.” This is because the fundamentalist claims of “inerrancy” and “authority” (words I certainly don’t object to in the abstract) tell us what the Bible is. They do not tell us anything about what the Bible says.
As such, they are not used to study the Bible, but rather to attack competing interpretations as being in error, and lacking “authority.” They are a means for consolidating power and compelling obedience.
And this approach is, as I have demonstrated, not very conservative. It allows, and in fact, encourages the use of “biblical authority” to effect radical changes in church doctrine (examples I gave earlier include the “advanced revelation” claims of some King James only advocates, premillennialist “rapture” eschatology, charismatic faith healing, and the Gospel of Prosperity).
In this post, I will examine the Southern Baptist Convention as a case study of how the abandonment of a rigorous and truly conservative hermeneutic in favor of “inerrancy” can lead to dramatic, and in my opinion unfortunate, changes in the Church.
Churches in the SBC must adhere to the “Baptist Faith and Message.” And the first article of the BFM is devoted to the scriptures and their interpretation. In its current formulation, the BFM does not prescribe any particular hermeneutic, except to say that “all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”
Like, totally, dude. And this valley girl language is a tip-off that the line is a recent addition to the BFM (it first appeared in the 2000 revision). So what used to be in the BFM’s statement on scripture? This: “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
And, unlike “totally true,” this is a real hermeneutic. It is not, perhaps, as rigorous or as conservative as I would prefer (this blogger is a proponent of the paleo-orthodox hermeneutic of “original intent”). However, this hermeneutic has one significant advantage. It provides a simple, clear guide for the average person who wants to apply scripture to their life.
The Bible is a big book. A big collection of books, really. And for any particular situation, there will be many passages that seem relevant, and it isn’t really practical to take the time to find all of them, do a close, academic reading of all of them, consult the appropriate historical sources, and place everything in its proper context. Additionally, as with any sufficiently complex moral/philosophical system, most issues will involve several conflicting biblical principles. So what is the average person to do?
The SBC had a good answer: look first to the words of Jesus (which in most editions of the Bible are printed in red, hence the ever-so-clever* title of this series). And the red stuff is a great place to look when you’re in a quandary.
The red stuff is comparatively short and manageable, and Jesus usually spoke in clear, general principles, thus ensuring that for any given question there will probably be something on point. And this is a perfectly reasonable hermeneutic for a New Testament church to take – when in doubt, follow the red stuff.
And that’s how the Southern Baptist Convention operated up until the late 20th century. It was then that they began to realize that many of their positions were increasingly incompatible with the red stuff.
Involvement in partisan politics and attacking the separation of church and state:
Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. Matthew 22:21, Luke 20:25, Mark 12:17.
Declaring consumerism, personal wealth and free-market economics to be instruments of God’s will:
If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. Matthew 19:21.
My Kingdom is not of this world. John 18:36.
Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Matthew 25:40.
Support for the Death penalty:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Matthew 5:38-39.
And for those of you remotely familiar with the Southern Baptist Convention, these last two need no further explanation:
He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. John 8:7.
Judge not, that ye be not judged. Matthew 7:1.
So, over the course of the late 20th century, the red stuff became too hard for the SBC to stomach. They retreated to “inerrancy” and “literalism.” And when the fundamentalists finally took over in the 1990s, thousands of churches and millions of Christians left the convention that had decided their politics and personal comfort were more important than their savior.
In theological circles, most Baptists are still painfully familiar with what happened when fundamentalist Albert Mohler became president at the convention’s flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993. Within a year, ninety percent of the faculty were fired or forced to resign, and over half the student body transferred out of Southern.
They refused to accept Mohler’s contention that his interpretation – his and his alone – was inerrant, authoritative, and “totally true.” They stood their ground and stuck to the red stuff.
But the laity of the SBC has not. In the absence of real guidance, the layperson will naturally turn to his church pastor or elder to tell him what the “total truth” is. And that suits Southern Baptist pastors just fine.
As the “Red Letter” series progresses, we will examine the other changes in the 2000 revision of the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message, and the material ways in which the convention’s abandonment of Christ as “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted” has affected their ministry.
To quote a particularly wise Jewish street preacher (and occasional carpenter): “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
*The title of this series is also a reference to the phrase “black letter law,” used by lawyers to denote the basic, well-established rules in a particular field of law.