Friday, June 22, 2012

Fundamentalism and the Future of Baptist Higher Education

Understanding Fundamentalism Series
Part 1 - Understanding Fundamentalism
Part 2 - Baptist Distinctives and the Fundamentalism Movement
Part 3 - Preserving Unity:  The Baptist Faith and Message of 1925
Part 4 - Censoring Higher Education:  The Baptist Faith and Message of 1963
Part 5 - The New Credalism:  The Baptist Faith and Message of 2000
Part 6 - Fundamentalism and the Future of Baptist Higher Education

For those who have made it this far on our journey toward Understanding Fundamentalism, we thank you.  For those newer to our series, we invite you to dig more deeply into the into the battlegrounds of the Southern Baptist identity—namely, the Baptist Faiths and Messages of 1925, 1963, and 2000.

Each statement of faith has its own story to tell—from the contentious culture war of the 1920s, in which the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy threatened to split even the conservative Southern Baptist Convention; to the days in which growing concern about liberalism in the SBC seminaries led to the firing of a leading scholar and the banning of his book, so that only concessions to the fundamentalists in the arena of education maintained a fragile peace; and finally to the Baptist battles of the 1980s and '90s during the Inerrancy Controversy and the effort to use the Baptist Faith and Message to exclude moderates and enforce Baptist theology.  At each turn, the defining marks of four centuries of Baptist witness were slowly surrendered to fundamentalist pressure.

Where then does that leave us at Save OBU?  Why tell these stories—in other words, what relevance do they have for our mission of preserving the academic and educational heritage of OBU?

Fundamentalism and Conservatism
To answer these questions, let us first make a distinction between conservatism and fundamentalism.  Historically, the fundamentalist movement has been known for two things:  (1) its militant opposition to the teaching of evolution and (2) premillennial dispensationalist theology.  Given the longstanding conservative nature of the Southern Baptist Convention, it has often been difficult to distinguish between true fundamentalists and conservatives.  Indeed, conservatives were quite often the group caught between fundamentalists and moderates during their many controversies in the SBC.  Theologically, they have been more in line with the fundamentalists; however, they often disagreed with fundamentalists on tactics (in other words, militancy) and historic Baptist distinctives.

To put it another way, it is entirely possible (and often true) that a person holds to a conservative reading of Genesis and believes in premillennialism or dispensationalism and is not a fundamentalist. The key marker of fundamentalism is the vigorous and often aggressive action with which its supporters defend their theology and oppose evolution.  In terms of the Baptist Faith and Message, each version has largely been an accurate description of what most Southern Baptists believed at the time.  The key differences between the revisions are in those whose views were excluded from the statements of faith and how these documents have been used.  This can be seen most clearly in the 2000 BFM, which was revised in order to more clearly define Southern Baptist theology (as opposed to describing it in a non-binding way) and to exclude moderates from Southern Baptist life.

The other point that needs to be made is that historic Baptist distinctives—soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom, and religious freedom—are very conservative views within the context of the Baptist heritage.  These defining markers outdate the development of fundamentalism by three centuries.  They are what united Baptists—liberal Baptists and conservative Baptists, American Baptists and British Baptists, and Northern Baptists and Southern Baptists—until quite recently.  However, fundamentalist militancy and the need for purity in theology and practice is vitally opposed to the very conservative Baptist belief in soul freedom.

The belief that each individual has the right and responsibility to respond to God without a mediator is the foundation for Baptists' commitment to believer's baptism (as opposed to infant baptism), the gathered church of voluntary believers (as opposed to a politically or culturally defined membership in the church), democratic church government (as opposed to being led by a priest), local church autonomy (as opposed to being governed by a bishop or pope), and missions (emphasizing the conversion of the individual rather than the political transformation of a region).

In other words, the conflict between soul freedom and fundamentalism is not a peripheral conflict, something off to the side that is interesting to a few but irrelevant to the rest.  No—it goes to the very heart of the Baptist identity and the conservation of principles believed by Baptists for centuries.

Fundamentalism and Academic Freedom
Save OBU has made it clear that our interests are not in changing the conservative character of OBU nor the churches and state it serves.  Instead, our objection is that the fundamentalism of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, and certain administrative leaders has compromised the distinctively Christian, liberal arts tradition at OBU.  Indeed, the liberal arts education is nothing more than the Baptist expression of the freedom and responsibility of the individual (soul freedom) within the context of education.  If we believe that all truth is God's truth, then the study of science, mathematics, the Bible, and literature all contribute to and deeply impact a person's relationship with God.  OBU—a university that speaks openly about the integration of faith and learning—has been until recently a leading institution in this regard.

However, as our survey of the history of the movement has proved, fundamentalism is fundamentally opposed to academic freedom.  Ralph Elliott was removed from his position at Midwestern Seminary because he published a book that took a non-literal approach to the early chapters of Genesis.  Strikingly, despite the fact that fundamentalists had packed the seminary's board with sympathizers in order to have Elliott fired, he was able to reach a theological understanding with the trustees.  It was only when he denied their request that he withdraw the book from further publication (in other words, that he censor himself), that he was dismissed.

Shorter University, a Baptist liberal arts university in Georgia, is in the midst of the same struggle.  To date, sixty-seven—let me give you that number again, 67—members of its faculty and staff have resigned because they have refused to sign a lifestyle statement instituted by the school's new fundamentalist leadership in an effort to purify the faculty.  Shorter has long been affiliated with Georgia Baptists and has an even longer tradition of Christian witness in North Georgia.  Despite this, Shorter's fundamentalist president Don Dowless has called for the school to return to its "Christian roots" (the same call made by fundamentalist leadership in the SBC in the 1980s and '90s) and is willing to risk the loss of school's accreditation in order to do so.

At OBU, we have seen another version of the Elliott story.  In 2010, a philosophy professor was dismissed with no regard to the guidelines and principles established in the faculty handbook.  The occasion for his dismissal (if not a full-fledged reason for it) was his publication of an article in which he briefly mentioned that his argument hinged upon a non-literal reading of the days of creation in Genesis.  This is not a controversial opinion within conservative Christianity, yet leaving the possibility open for evolutionary theory is apostasy within the fundamentalist worldview.

The Future of Oklahoma Baptist University
What then is the future of Oklahoma Baptist University?  In his memoir of the Genesis Controversy, Elliott tells the story of walking into a meeting with Midwestern Seminary president Millard Berquist—until then a fervent supporter of academic freedom and Elliott himself—as he prepared to surrender to fundamentalist pressure:
Dr. Berquist reached the conclusion that "saving the institution" was dependent upon "giving in."  I strongly affirmed that to do so was a serious mistake.  I suggested that the institution would deteriorate and that Dr. Berquist would, in effect, never be the "real" president again.  As we stood together, he put his arm around me, and in tears said, "Ralph, we are going to end on different sides of this matter."
     The personal separation was very painful, but even more painful was the fate of the institution.  The declining nature of the institution is now history.  My personal friendship with Dr. Berquist continued.  Several years after my dismissal from the faculty, we met for lunch when I made a brief visit to Kansas City.  He was tired and worn, and still president in name.  His comment was, "Ralph, you were right.  I haven't really been president of the seminary since that day, and can hardly wait for my retirement." [1]
Much can still be said about the "real" OBU.  Many of the faculty who model a distinctively Christian, distinctively Baptist liberal arts education still teach there.  Even though some have retired early to avoid the same fate as the two professors who were unjustly and unethically dismissed, OBU has yet to experience a Shorter-type debacle.  OBU President David Whitlock still has the ability to refuse BGCO manipulation and to restore OBU to its academic and Christian heritage.  Damage caused by corrosive fundamentalist influence has been done, but it is not irreversible.  It is for this reason that Save OBU advocates the separation of Oklahoma Baptist University from the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

But neither David Whitlock nor the faculty members will save OBU.

It is to the alumni, the Baptists conservative and moderate, and those who believe that a university can be both distinctively Christian and rigorously academic to continue to pressure the school's leadership to return to its Baptist values.
May God bless OBU.


  1. Ralph Elliott, The Genesis Controversy and Continuity in Southern Baptist Chaos: A Eulogy for a Great Tradition (Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1992), 43-44.

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