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Book Review – The Making of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message

BFM1963Title: The Making of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message
Author: A.J. Smith
Publisher: Wipf and Stock Publishers
Publishing Year: 2008
Pages: 266
My Rating: 4 out of 5 (1 meaning I hated the book, 5 meaning I loved the book)

A.J. Smith in his book The Making of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message seeks to establish that Herschel H. Hobbs attempted to avoid a division within the Southern Baptist denomination by altering the Baptist Faith and Message in such a way as to appease both the conservative and liberal factions in that denomination.  He does so by exploring the background of the controversy leading to the revision, discussing the factors involved in the debate and finally explaining the revisions that were made.

Controversy erupted among the Southern Baptist Convention as two Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professors challenged the traditional and conservative understandings of Scripture held by most SBC pastors.  Professor Dale Moody espoused an ecumenical philosophy which appeared to challenge long-held views concerning the eternal security of the believer.  Professor Ralph Elliott published The Message of Genesis which, among other issues, denied Mosaic authorship and interpreted the first eleven chapters of Genesis as allegorical.  This lead to an uproar as many began to wonder why men who held to such beliefs were not forced to submit to the BFM.  The question was raised, should professors be given some level of academic freedom or should they be forced to accept the denomination’s statement of faith as a constricting boundary?

Several other concerns faced the convention at this time including the rise of racism and materialism within the nation.  Yet, the issue at hand was doctrinal.  Smith takes great pains to show that historically Baptists have held that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and it alone stands as the chief authority in all matters of doctrine.  Yet, this does not negate the use of confessions.  Baptist associations, claim Smith, did use confessions to articulate their beliefs and distinguish themselves from other denominations.  These confessions were expected to followed and used to keep purity within the association.  Though Baptists also subscribe to the concept of soul liberty, this was not seen as an opportunity to depart from confessional standards.

A shift began to take place under the leadership of E.Y. Mullins.  Mullins emphasized the teaching of soul competency.  Soul competency stressed the individual’s role in his response to God.  This led to a shift away from seeing the Bible as the authoritative standard and a move toward seeing the experience of the individual as a foundational understanding of God.  All of this would feed directly to the controversy facing the convention in the early 1960’s.  How can a doctrinal statement such as the BFM be thrust upon individuals who have the freedom to work out their own understandings of Scripture?

A committee was formed, chaired by Hobbs, to revise the BFM 1925.  Hobbs’s stated goal was only to revise, not rewrite the BFM, and do so in such a way as to make it palatable to both liberals and conservatives alike.  No major changes were to be made, or so suggested Hobbs.  The document went through several drafts and the faculty from both SBTS and Mercer University joined in the process.

While the goal was not to make any major changes, several significant chances were indeed made.  In regards to the Scriptures, the committee watered down the Bible as unique revelation itself and only recognized as a written record of revelation.   No longer would the emphasis be on Scripture interpreting Scripture but now Jesus would be the key to interpretation.  In regards to Anthropology, man was no longer seen as having once possessed original righteousness and holiness, but simply was innocent before the Fall.  Overall the document left a once Calvinistic understanding and now leaned more Pelagian.  The new revision also denounced Landmarkism and replaced the wine in the Lord’s Supper with “fruit of the vine.”

One of the strengths of this work is the heavy amount of research done to back up each assertion.  Painstaking effort was used to support each assertion with quotations taken from the leading figures in each debate even reaching into the past to establish the proper context in which this controversy took place.  This leaves the reader with little doubt as the reliability of each point mentioned.  Both side, liberal and conservative, seemed to be equally represented and fairly quoted.

Smith is quite straightforward in his approach to writing this book.  He makes his points very clear and obvious so as to leave no misunderstanding of what he has said, is saying or will say.  The book is organized in such a way as to make logical sense and establish a clear goal in mind.  He set forth his thesis at the beginning and each chapter served to back up that assertion.

However, I do believe Smith failed, in some degree, to show how if the BFM 1963 was accepted by liberals and conservatives alike.  The work ends with the final document written by the committee.  Though we know from history that the document was accepted, how did that come into being?  While the reader was informed of the reaction of some seminaries, what was the reaction from the conservative pastors referred to in the beginning of the book? Did the convention vote for final acceptance?  What was the vote?  Did it bring a sense of unity to the SBC?  In short, did the document meet the stated goals?  These questions go unanswered.

Another weakness of this book is found in the lack of consideration given to the effects liberal theology would have on the church.  How did these new doctrines effect the average believer during this time?  While much time was spent on the effect seen in seminaries, how was the individual in the pew effected?  While this was not the main focus of the book, it would have been appropriate for a few paragraphs of discussion.

This work by Smithis a valuable tool to any historian researching the life of the SBC or any person simply wanting to know more of how the liberal and fundamentalist clash of yesteryear had an effect on the life of the church.

Purchase the book here.

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