Smyth & Helwys volume reflective of split over biblical interpretation

by Richard N. Ostling, posted Tuesday, April 17, 2001 (18 years ago)

EDITORS' NOTE: Reprinted in full by permission of the Associated Press.

NEW YORK (BP)--The part-way schism in America's biggest Protestant denomination, the 15.9 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, is heating up again.

In it, a self-described "moderate" minority charges that conservatives (which it calls "fundamentalists") have taken control of seminaries and denominational agencies in order to enhance leaders' power.

There are power games aplenty, to be sure, but the fight revolves around matters of religious principle. In particular, the conservatives believe all details in the Bible are factual history and want teachers and policy-makers to defend that view, while the moderates favor flexibility in interpreting the Bible.

In addition, those running the denomination fall to the right in political attitudes.

One element in the split is a publishing house in Macon, Ga., named Smyth & Helwys. This company was founded a decade ago by moderates to compete with the official Southern Baptist publisher in Nashville, Tenn., which they find unacceptably right-wing.

Now the young firm is launching an ambitious 31-volume "Smith & Helwys Commentary Series" on the Bible. The Southern Baptists would never have sponsored the newly issued first volume, which covers 1 Kings and 2 Kings. Author Walter Brueggemann, a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., may be prolific, but he isn't even a Baptist.

More important, he's way too liberal for Nashville.

The books of Kings cover the death of David and the rise of Solomon in 962 B.C. down through the divided kingdoms of northern Israel and southern Judah, to the fall of Judah to Babylon in 587 B.C.

Is this accurate history? Brueggemann tells us that "to term this literature 'history' in any modern sense of an accurate 'factual' account of that past is widely recognized to be deeply problematic."

In his view, the details are "not consistently reliable," the material is often "confusing and unclear," and the books don't always confirm what is known from the limited sources we have outside the Bible.

He says this narrative doesn't intend to be history as modern readers understand that term. Instead, it's better understood as "theological commentary and not factual reportage."

Conservative Baptists would reject that rigid either-or choice. To them, the Bible is both fact and commentary.

Getting down to specifics, Brueggemann doubts Solomon's kingdom reached from the Euphrates River in the north to the borders of Egypt (1 Kings 4:21). To him, this is an "imaginative expansion" of the actual territory and came from the ancient promise God gave Abraham in Genesis 15:18.

He also thinks the depiction of Solomonic splendor in 1 Kings 10 doesn't necessarily describe the actual situation but the king's place "in the imagination of Israel."

On the other hand, Brueggemann sees more credibility in these accounts than do the radical skeptics of the "minimalist" school, who claim the whole business is fiction.

On politics as well, Brueggemann's provocative comments follow a liberal line.

Solomon's kingdom is "a parable for the affluent success and domination of the U.S. as the last superpower," he writes. The "surface appearance" of the realm is impressive, but underneath, barely hidden, lies a "dangerous and growing gap between wealth and poverty."

So 1 Kings "illuminates our own distorted economy dependent on bloated military expenditure to maintain a consumer economy of seemingly limitless indulgence."

The story in 1 Kings 11 ends sadly with Solomon straying from fidelity to the one true God through involvement with foreign women and their gods. For Brueggemann, this passage raises the question of whether political dissent, revolution, and even terrorism may be means through which God may terminate power.

That doesn't seem likely in the case of the Irish Republican Army fighting Britain or the Palestinian conflict against Israel, he figures. But he does see biblical parallels in the Berrigan brothers' protests at U.S. military installations, or the successful revolutions that brought down the Shah of Iran and the apartheid regime in South Africa.


Ostling writes about religion for the AP and is a former senior correspondent with TIME magazine. He and his wife, Joan, are the authors of "Mormon America," a 1999 HarperSanFrancisco release about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Download Story