Aug 1, 2012

Al Mohler's confessionalism

Al Mohler, who once effected a purge of "liberals" at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was recently reflecting on that after nearly 10 years. In that reflection he gives a curious account of what he considers liberalism, and how that liberalism happened at the flagship seminary of the famously conservative Southern Baptists.

"The confessional accountability was loosed. And the obligation was ignored. Now it was not done in a blatant way, where someone got up and said 'I deny the Abstract [of Principles],' except in a couple of -- it did happen in a couple of examples. But rather it happened by the claim to private interpretation, which was explicitly ruled out by the founders. Who said the confession must be signed by every faculty member.... It was very clear that if at any point mental reservations should come, it was the faculty member's duty to bring his concerns with his resignation to the president of the school [laughter]. When the conservatives at the SBC -- and this is something very, very important, and I raise this with some fear and trepidation, for I have concerns about my own denomination, which are many -- but, grassroots Southern Baptist, many of whom could not articulate what was wrong, knew something was horribly wrong .... Wonderfully, by God's grace, the issues became clarified. And you had grassroots Baptists who began to understand the issue of the inerrancy of God's word. And, even though they may not know the word 'confesssionalism,' they knew the need for it, even if unarticulated."
This is curious, I think, for a few reasons:

1) Mohler is suggesting that theological liberals are not liberals because they hold liberal positions, but because of the how they come to those positions. It's the hermeneutic of private interpretation that bothers him. Presumably one could hold that individuals can and should interpret the Bible for themselves and still come to exclusively conservative positions on things,  but Mohler would still object to them (in principle at least).

Mohler's making opponents out of a lot of evangelicals who would agree with him on particular issues that normally get classified as "conservative" or "liberal," on the basis that their interpretive principles are in themselves "liberal," even if that hasn't been the result.

2) The emphasis is on confessions, rather than biblicism more strictly.

Not to say that Mohler goes anywhere near suggesting a confession could be authoritative beyond or separate from the Bible. There's no question Mohler believes confessions are valuable only to the extent they sum up essential Biblical doctrines. Yet there is a matter of emphasis. The problem he's pointing to came not specifically because of disregard for the Christian scriptures, in his account, but because of a weakening of authority and a loosening of "confessional accountability."

I read that as implying that the Bible can be read in a rather open way, as a dialogue, with interpretation ongoing and developing, etc., whereas with these confessions (as per Mohler), there's absolute closure and an end to interpretations. One can either assent or not assent, but it's no longer a matter of reading.

The Baptists have a long tradition of confessions, but it's more common, post-Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies, to hear an emphasis on fidelity to the Bible and also a commitment to certain sort of reading (i.e., "literal"). Where the Abstract of Principles doesn't even mention the Bible, more recent Southern Baptist documents make beliefs about the Bible central. In the Southern Baptist Convention's statement of faith, for example, in 1925, '63 and '00, the Bible is the very first item on the list, above even beliefs about God.

I suspect that this emphasis on confessions and grassroots Baptists turn towards (unarticulated) confessionalism evidences a growing concern that the Bible and the literalist hermeneutic were not enough. That authoritative official interpretation is necessary.

If this is the case, then this development is not unrelated to the evangelicals who've become Catholic and Eastern Orthodox in recent years. 

3) The SBC statement of faith says of the Bible that it is "the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried." It's really not clear to me how or by whom such things should "be tried," according to Baptist polity, if not by individuals.

There may be an answer to that, from Mohler or other confessional Baptists. I don't know what it is, though.

4) It's not always the case that confessions are enforced so authoritatively as set out by Mohler here. It can still be the case that confessions are open to ongoing readings, interpreted by communities, part of a conversation where commitments have been made but applications and explanations and understandings are still being worked out. He rules this out, though, by promoting this idea of a confession where even having "mental reservations" is unacceptable.

This means, in a sense, a confession for Mohler is not something that can be read. It can't be interpreted, because it already has been interpreted. There's supposed to be a finality to the meaning of the thing, I think. There are thought to be only two responses to a confession, accepting and assenting or rejecting and having reservations.

5) D.G. Hart, historian of American religion, has argued that history of Protestantism in the 20th century has been badly misunderstood as a fight between modernists and fundamentalists or liberals and conservatives, where really it's a conflict between those Protestants who maintained confessional orthodoxy and those who didn't. That's proposing a pretty dramatic revision of the historiography as it currently stands. Is Mohler, though, kind of suggesting the same thing?

Some other notes:
-- The purge at Southern inspired some reflection on and defense of Baptist's confessional history. See Steve Weaver's "The Use of Confessions of Faith in Baptist History," which appears to have been written at Southern circa 2002; Gregory A. Wills' "Baptists, the Bible and confessions," written for Southern Seminary Magazine in 2000; and Robert Paul Martin, "The Legitimacy and Use of Confessions of Faith," who argues confessions can prevent heresy where the Bible could not:
"A confession of our loyalty to the Bible is not enough. The most radical denials of biblical truth frequently coexist with a professed regard for the authority and the testimony of the Bible. When men use the very words of the Bible to promote heresy, when the Word of Truth is perverted to serve error, nothing less than a confession of faith will serve to publicly draw the lines between truth and error."

There have been corresponding rejections of confessionalism and counter histories arguing that Southern Baptists are not confessional. Representative is Walter B. Shurden's "The First President of the SBC and Confessions of Faith."

-- It would be worth exploring why history is seen as authoritative in this debate, and to what extent Southern Baptists take their own traditions as authoritative.

-- What I refer to as a purge, above, is more often described as a bold stand for orthodoxy. E.g., Justin Taylor calls it "how the Lord turned the tide at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—from a place of deep theological liberalism to a bastion of orthodox fidelity."

I realize "purge" has negative connotations, but it's the most accurate word I can think of for the situation.

-- I was taught that the Southern Baptists were not a denomination, but a convention. A fine distinction, but significant if you want to make it so. What I was taught was apparently wrong, though.