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Why Southern Baptists insist on biblical literalism

Published Oct. 13, 2005

The total domination of the recent Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Atlanta by conservatives demonstrates yet again the durability of the fundamentalists' hold on the denomination. Re-election of Morris H. Chapman as president of the Southern Baptist Convention was expected. Traditionally the president is accorded two terms.

But Chapman, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas, is only the latest in a line of conservative or fundamentalist presidents elected by the convention over the last 12 years.

With their hands on the reins of power, conservatives like Chapman and Adrian Rogers of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis have sought to defend against what they see as the encroachment of liberalism or heresy within the denomination. Using their powers of appointment, they have succeeded in stacking denominational committees and the boards of trustees of Southern Baptist institutions with conservatives.

The fundamentalist takeover of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., for instance, is nearly complete. Several professors, seeing that the conservatives mean to impose a litmus test on theological issues, have elected to leave rather than hunker down for what they apparently believe would be a hopeless struggle.

For fundamentalists, the litmus test of orthodoxy is quite simple: Do you believe in biblical inerrancy, the doctrine that the Bible is entirely without error in the original manuscripts? Chapman asserted that his re-election finally resolved the matter for Southern Baptists. "For those of us who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God," he said in his presidential address, "the issue in our convention is settled. For those of us who do not believe it, the issue will never be settled."

Why focus on inerrancy? Biblical inerrancy is important not only for what it affirms _ that any errors or discrepancies in current versions of Scripture were not present in the originals but crept in through the copyists or translators _ but for the theological ambiguities it avoids.

Although some theologians have insisted upon the errorlessness of the Bible for centuries, the doctrine attained new prominence among Protestant conservatives in the 19th century. Traditional notions about the inspiration of the Bible were challenged on two fronts.

First, the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859 implied that literal interpretations of Scripture, especially the opening chapters of Genesis, were fanciful, even foolish, in the light of scientific evidence. Then scholars emanating from Germany called into question the authorship of the Pentateuch, Isaiah and the New Testament epistles traditionally attributed to St. Paul.

A renewed insistence upon biblical inerrancy in the original texts (even though they were no longer available) provided a measure of refuge from these challenges.

Such a foundation _ together with the assertion that any discrepancies in current copies or translations are trivial and do not affect matters of faith or doctrine _ allows conservatives to retain their literalist interpretation. That is, conservatives believe that an inspired and inerrant Bible is the definitive word of God unconditioned by time or cultural circumstances; therefore, it demands to be interpreted literally.

Why is biblical literalism so important to conservatives like Chapman? Southern Baptists need only steal a glance at the Presbyterians or the United Methodists or the Episcopalians to appreciate the significance of biblical inerrancy and literalism. Those denominations currently are racked by discussion _ and dissension _ over attempts to redefine Christian teachings regarding human sexuality.

Implicit in such proposals is the "liberal" notion that the Bible is a collection of writings that reflect cultural biases as well as eternal truths and that Christian theology must therefore be adapted to our present culture.

By insisting upon biblical inerrancy, fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention can avoid such nasty debates altogether. The Bible contains some unequivocal passages condemning homosexuality, extramarital relations and even women preachers, according to some conservatives. For a strict biblical literalist, those passages settle the issue. Religious faith becomes less a matter of struggling with difficult moral choices than of simply clinging to absolutes.

Dr. Balmer, who writes frequently on religion in America, is associate professor of religion at Barnard College/Columbia University.