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Who are we? And why are we here?

"Who are we? And why are we here?" Continued...

Issue: "Year in Review 2000," Dec. 30, 2000

In each of these denominations, some conservative-minded clergy and congregations have headed for the exits in disgust, continuing a 31-year exodus that has drained mainline Protestantism of up to a third or more of its membership. Others have chosen to stay, work for better days, and hang onto their piece of the high ground. Evangelicals: Tightening the border
As evangelicals see it, liberals ended up in control of the core mainline denominations and their seminaries because gatekeepers decades ago grew lax about standards. Not wanting to see a repeat of such negligence, at least two denominations in 2000 drew doctrinal lines in the sand.

  • With 15.8 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is America's largest Protestant denomination, and one of the most conservative. Still, by a large majority, messengers (delegates) to the SBC's annual meeting voted to close loopholes in the historic Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) statement, the nearest thing to a confession of faith that Southern Baptists have. Although the original 1925 BFM held the Bible to be divinely inspired and inerrant, a 1963 revision described it as "the record of" God's revelation, and said the "criterion" for interpreting the Bible is Jesus Christ. This vague and subjective wording helped to keep liberals and moderates in place at the SBC's six seminaries in the years leading up to the conservative takeover of the reins of power, which began in 1979. The 2000 revision cancels out the offending 1963 revision. It says the Bible "is" God's revelation of Himself and all Scripture "is a testimony to Christ, who is himself the focus of divine revelation." The BFM is not binding on congregations and pastors, but it is for SBC agencies and employees, including seminary professors. In retaliation, moderates in Texas who had fought against the changes led their state convention-the SBC's largest state unit-to defund the SBC's seminaries, its headquarters offices, and its public-policy agency by millions of dollars. SBC leaders acknowledge the going may be rough for a while, but they emphasize that keeping the biblical basics clear and in force is worth whatever the cost.
  • The smaller but also largely conservative 140,000-member Baptist General Conference ended its debate about the omniscience of God. At issue was the "openness" or "open theism" view of God's foreknowledge, promoted by Greg Boyd, a popular BGC pastor, author, and teacher in St. Paul, Minn. He contends that God doesn't know in advance everything that is going to happen, a view that has caught on among many students and younger leaders throughout the country. Delegates to the BGC annual meeting by a standing vote overwhelmingly affirmed that "God's knowledge of all past, present, and future events is exhaustive," and that "the 'openness' view of God's foreknowledge is contrary to our fellowship's historic understanding of God's omniscience." Delegates allowed Mr. Boyd to keep his teaching post at Bethel College, provided he observed certain guidelines.
  • "Open theism" was one of the hot topics at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual thoughtfest in Nashville, Tenn., in November. (Others included Israel's future, Jewish evangelism, whether women can be pastors, and essentials of salvation.) Greg Boyd, the leading champion of open theism, and Southern Baptist theologian Bruce Ware, author of a book rebutting it, traded jabs in a panel discussion. Mr. Ware warned that the view is at odds with Scripture and undermines the doctrine of God's omnipotence. In response, the ETS executive committee placed on the agenda for next year's meeting in Denver a discussion of whether open theism is within the bounds of evangelicalism. The theme for that meeting will be "Evangelical boundaries."

Even the ETS statement of faith will be under scrutiny. ETS founders opted for a minimal one, simply affirming the inerrancy of Scripture. A statement on the Trinity was added later. But some theologians want to see it expanded and made specific; they fear that in the absence of well-defined boundaries, an "anything goes" philosophy will take hold and seriously threaten the future of the evangelical movement.

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