FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – During the tumultuous period of the 1980s and 1990s within the Southern Baptist Convention, theological conservatives and moderates clashed over the topic of biblical inerrancy. At the forefront of this struggle on the side of the conservatives was Paige Patterson, then president of the Criswell College in Dallas.
Two significant debates occurred between Patterson and moderate leaders in 1981—one with Cecil Sherman on Feb. 11 and the other with Kenneth Chafin on June 6.
Jason Duesing, vice president for strategic initiatives and assistant professor of historical theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, presented research on the two debates Nov. 12 in a paper titled “Debating Paige Patterson: 1981 Southern Baptist Inerrancy Debates with Cecil Sherman and Kenneth Chafin.”
“On a denominational level, for Southern Baptists, the Inerrancy Controversy of the late 20th century was the greatest and most violent collision that denomination had ever seen,” Duesing said.
“In 1981, two theological debates took place that revealed the ideas at stake in this war over truth. These debates allowed the “people in the pew” to see the extent of theological disparity that existed between the average Southern Baptist and the existing Southern Baptist leadership.”
Citing audio of the debate as well as personal correspondence between Patterson, Sherman, and others, Duesing provided new insight on the Patterson-Sherman debate, which went unreported in the denominational press. He also addressed the much-publicized Patteson-Chafin debate at the annual convention of the Religion Newswriters Association of America just prior to the meeting of the SBC in Los Angeles.
As a result, Duesing said, these two debates “allowed Southern Baptists to see firsthand what the moderate leadership really believed about the Bible, and it propelled them to action.
“Over the next 20 years, conservatives led a recovery of theological integrity in the denomination’s agencies and seminaries. For the moderates, the highly organized plan of the conservatives proved too much to master, and they simply grew weary of debating Paige Patterson.”
Duesing will present his research at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Baltimore, Md., Nov. 19. The theme of this year’s meeting is "Evangelicalism, Inerrancy, and the Evangelical Theological Society: Retrospect and Prospect."
During a question-and-answer period following Duesing’s presentation, one student asked if the current debate in the SBC over Calvinism could result in a split similar to what was seen over the issue of inerrancy in the 1980s.
“Southern Baptists have always discussed Calvinism at some level, and admittedly the rhetoric has increased in recent years,” Duesing said. “And depending on which state convention or association you go to, you’re going to find differing perspectives on that even now.
“I don’t think, personally, that it’s the type that will create another rift or a split. I don’t think it’s anywhere near this level of anything like [the inerrancy controversy]. It appears to be the case that there is a younger generation coming who know what they believe about this, whether Calvinist or non-Calvinist, but that really isn’t the top-tier concern for them. I choose to be hopeful about that in terms of whether it will lead to a greater split.
“Partly, too, speaking of what’s going on in the greater culture, I think we’re coming to a place where we’re really not going to have a whole lot of time to sit around and fight about things like that. … We’re going to be looking around for any Southern Baptist who will stand with us on religious liberty issues and other kinds of things. I don’t think we’re going to have a lot of time in the future to really let Calvinism be as divisive as perhaps it appears to be right now.”