Prayer language debate: whose history is correct?

by James A. Smith Sr., posted Monday, February 26, 2007 (12 years ago)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)--Can Southern Baptists adopt elements of charismatic theology and still be considered Baptist?

How Southern Baptists answer this question -— prompted by recent debates about policies regarding speaking in tongues and “private prayer language” at the International Mission Board and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary -- may turn on the historical record.

Is there historical evidence that Baptists were willing to embrace elements of charismatic theology while remaining in the Baptist fold?

For Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, the answer is yes. The 18th-century Sandy Creek Baptists, based in North Carolina, held to elements of what may be regarded today as charismatic theology and were able to unite with Charleston Baptists, based in South Carolina, whose theology rejected such views. Both Baptist movements, according to McKissic, were willing to set aside their theological differences in order to cooperate together in missions.

To advance a similar coalition in Southern Baptist life today, McKissic convened the Sandy Creek-Charlestonian Convergence last December. About 100 Baptists and other Christians from about a dozen states attended the meeting and developed several strategies to gain acceptance of their views in the SBC.

In April, McKissic will host a “Baptist Conference on the Holy Spirit” to explore various interpretations of spiritual gifts in Southern Baptist life.

McKissic has argued for “latitude” among Southern Baptists on tongues and private prayer language in correspondence to various SBC leaders, as well as a position paper published to explain the rationale for the Sandy Creek-Charlestonian Convergence. In each, McKissic grounds his argument for religious liberty in these matters on the Sandy Creek-Charleston Baptists analogy. Among McKissic’s objectives is an amendment to the SBC’s statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message.

McKissic’s historical claims to buttress his argument for latitude in the SBC on spiritual gifts rests on the scholarship of two Baptist church historians, Leon McBeth and Walter Shurden. At least for several other Baptist church historians interviewed by the Florida Baptist Witness, the historical conclusions arrived at by McKissic in defense of liberty on certain charismatic theology are suspect.

McBeth retired in 2003 after teaching 43 years at Southwestern Seminary as distinguished professor of church history. He also has served on the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ Baptist Distinctives Committee.

Shurden is professor of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., where he also directs The Center for Baptist Studies. He previously taught church history and was dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s school of theology. The Georgia Baptist Convention ended its 172-year relationship with Mercer in 2006 in the wake of several controversies regarding liberal theology.

Although McKissic references both McBeth and Shurden as sources in his paper, “Why Call a Sandy Creek-Charlestonian Baptist Roundtable?” he cites only McBeth’s book, “The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness.” McBeth, however, relies upon lectures by Shurden for the Sandy Creek-Charleston Baptists analogy.

Quoting McBeth, McKissic writes, “[Both] the order of the Charleston and the ardor of Sandy Creek contribute[d] to the synthesis that made up the Southern Baptist Convention. Creative elements from both traditions have enriched Southern Baptist life and, like two streams merging into one river, currents from each can still be identified and traced. The merging of these traditions [brought tensions] which continue today; Southern Baptist[s] are still trying to maintain balance between two streams of their heritage, the order of Charleston and the ardor of Sandy Creek” (text McKissic did not include from the original text is supplied and shown in brackets [ ]).

McKissic also asserts, paraphrasing McBeth, “The Separate Baptists’ most distinctive feature was their emotional style preaching and worship. Outcries, epilepsies, and ecstasies attended their meetings. Shouting, weeping, and falling down in a faint were not uncommon. They often danced in the spirit in worship. Women assumed a more prominent role among the Separate Baptists. There were elderesses and deaconesses, and some women also preached and prayed in public. The role of women at Sandy Creek was initially problematic for the Charlestonian Baptists.”

McKissic cites this passage of McBeth’s book in an Oct. 13, 2006, letter to his fellow Southwestern trustees, adding, “The word extacies [sic] is an obvious cognate of the word ecstatic, which is the word I have used on numerous occasions to describe the use of a private prayer language.... Clearly, the Sandy Creek tradition involved these manifestations, much to the embarrassment and indignation of the high-church Charlestonians. Yet those who disagreed with the Sandy Creek followers saw the importance of maintaining unity and good-will for their Christian fellowship. Therefore, they neither disassociated from them, nor did they seek to silent their witness.”

But, are these descriptions of Sandy Creek Baptists historically accurate, and are they relevant to a call for latitude on tongues and private prayer language? To answer these questions, the Witness interviewed three Baptist historians, including Walter Shurden.

Since McBeth relied upon Shurden’s analysis, the Witness interviewed Shurden via e-mail concerning some of McKissic’s historical claims and applications of the Baptist historian’s analysis. In his comments, Shurden generally rejected application of his Sandy Creek-Charleston analogy to the current debate in SBC life about tongues and private prayer language.

When asked if there is any historical evidence that Sandy Creek Baptists spoke in tongues or private prayer languages, Shurden responded, “I know of none in historical sources.”

Asked if his use of the word “charismatic” was to merely suggest the persuasive nature of their preaching, rather than charismatic theology, Shurden told the Witness, “I am not completely comfortable with your words ‘to merely suggest the persuasive nature of their preaching.’ Sandy Creekers seriously advocated personal religious experience in salvation, in worship, in preaching, and in every area of their lives. However, I think that the answer to your question is ‘yes.’ Sandy Creekers were what I would call ‘little c charismatics.’ I know of no evidence to suggest that they spoke in tongues as in what I would call ‘large C Charismatics’ today.”

With regard to his description in the lecture of Sandy Creek Baptists as “semi-pentecostals,” Shurden told the Witness, “The current debate within the SBC cannot be imposed upon my language. Nor can my language be used in a partisan way in the contemporary SBC debate. I was speaking poetically, trying to contrast the restrained, somewhat orderly spirituality of the Regular Baptists with the unrestrained, somewhat disorderly spirituality of the Separate Baptists.” Charleston Baptists were also known as Regular Baptists, and Sandy Creek Baptists were also known as Separate Baptists.

Baptist historian Gregory Wills agrees that the Sandy Creek-Charleston analogy is not particularly helpful in the current SBC debate and “is pretty well suited to mislead as much as to illuminate.”

Wills, professor of church history and director of the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention at Southern Seminary, told the Witness, there is reason to doubt that “outcries, epilepsies, and ecstasies” were a customary part of Sandy Creek Baptists’ meetings. Although “it is historically unassailable that these things occurred primarily during times of revival,” to the extent these practices did exist they are “not relevant to the question of charismatic gifts.”

Wills added, “Some of the Separates in their early years introduced novel practices, such as appointing eldresses and apostles, and apparently permitting women to lead in prayer or engage in exhortation. The Separate churches came to doubt the scriptural propriety of such practices and dispensed with them.” He added that he could find only two churches that believed in women elders/pastors.

Contrary to the suggestion of McKissic, Wills said, “The Sandy Creek and Charleston traditions were not very different. They had different names because they had different origins.... Separates and Regulars united because they recognized that they believed the same New Testament doctrines, taught the same New Testament standards of behavior, and established the same New Testament order in their churches.” Their differences, he said, mostly related to “style of preaching and worship.”

The main doctrinal difference was on the question of a general versus particular atonement in the doctrine of salvation. But even this difference was not that great, Wills told the Witness. “Both groups were Calvinist in their understanding of Scripture teaching. All the early historians testify to this fact,” adding that in “modern terminology” Separate Baptists were “four-point Calvinists.”

For his part, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Seminary, rejects any suggestion that elements of charismatic theology have ever found a permanent home among Baptists historically.

In an interview with the Witness, Patterson talked extensively about the current debate in SBC life about tongues and private prayer language, while declining to address the particular controversy last August involving McKissic’s seminary chapel sermon advocating private prayer language.

Acknowledging isolated historical examples of Baptists who held “charismatic leanings,” Patterson said, “Overall, consistently, for all the years of Baptist theology, whether we are talking about Anabaptists, whether we are talking about British Baptists, or whether we are talking about American Baptists and certainly Southern Baptists have rejected the charismatic interpretation of spiritual gifts.”

Noting that differences of interpretation on spiritual gifts is one reason why different denominations exist, Patterson invoked a baseball analogy, suggesting Baptists and charismatics are not on the same denominational teams: “Why would I want to wear a Red Sox uniform if I want to play for the Yankees?”

“For us to become charismatic in our emphasis now would be a major, new departure for Southern Baptists,” Patterson said, while affirming religious liberty for those who hold such views.

“There’s a difference between arguing for religious liberty and agreeing that divisiveness can be brought into the denomination in a leadership role. I may be proven wrong on this in the long run, but I don’t think so -— I think that Southern Baptists pushed with their backs to the wall are going to say, no, we are not charismatics and we will not have people in leadership roles who embrace that.”

Patterson added, “I think that a part of religious liberty is that Baptists have a right to define themselves over against Methodism and over against Anglicanism and over against Catholicism and over against the Charismatic movement.”

While advocates for liberty on tongues/private prayer language have argued that latitude on that issue is required in the same way it is on differences of interpretation on Calvinism, Patterson disagreed.

“God knows, I’m no Calvinist. But the fact of the matter is that there’s never been a time in Southern Baptist life when a more Calvinistic and a less Calvinistic position did not co-exist together. From the outset, we’ve had both.... It’s a tension we’ve lived with since our inception.” In contrast, he said, “there’s no such history of charismatic thinking” among Southern Baptists.

As to calls to amend the Baptist Faith and Message to address the controversy over tongues and private prayer language, Patterson said he hopes that does not happen, believing the current statement -— revised in 2000 -— should “take us nicely, like previous statements have, 25 to 50 years into the future.”

Still, the need to amend the Baptist Faith and Message may depend on “how much these folks want to push on it. I can see a situation where they would eventually push the convention into” resolving the matter in the BF&M, Patterson said.

McKissic, nevertheless, maintains that it’s time for the SBC to adopt a formal statement offering acceptance of various viewpoints on spiritual gifts, tongues and private prayer language.

In a Sept. 14, 2006, letter to Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page and the SBC Executive Committee, McKissic outlined why he believes it’s necessary to accommodate within the Baptist Faith and Message various views on spiritual gifts.

McKissic urged in the letter that an investigative study committee be constituted to consider adding a position statement to the Baptist Faith and Message addressing “spiritual gifts, private prayer language and speaking in tongues.” Because Southern Baptists are diverse in their viewpoints regarding spiritual gifts, McKissic wrote, “The Southern Baptist tent should be large enough to include cessationist, semi-cessationist and the continualist viewpoints. I believe that we could unify our convention by acknowledging in the context of the Baptist Faith and Message that Baptist scholars and lay people have diverse viewpoints and they all are within the boundaries of acceptable evangelical scholarship.”

McKissic concluded his letter asserting that with the Conservative Resurgence’s establishment of the inerrancy of the Bible in SBC “churches, seminaries, agencies and boards,” what is now needed is a “fresh breeze of the Wind of God stirring among God’s people.” McKissic promised that if the SBC Executive Committee fails to act, “I will be compelled to bring a resolution to the floor of the San Antonio 2007 Convention, asking the convention to empanel an investigative study committee to report back to the convention concerning these matters.”


James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.

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