I suggest the following weaknesses with these terms as often used. First, so little regard has been given to careful definition in the use of these terms that some of them may be unredeemable. Even for those of us who try to use the words with precision, the dilution caused by the recklessness of others can push a word beyond the point of no return.
Second, even if used precisely, these words do not address the full spectrum of issues now at play in the Southern Baptist Convention. Thus, two people may legitimately both be fundamentalists, and yet they may still find themselves aligned differently within the SBC. Why? Because other issues not related to fundamentalism may have asserted themselves, prompting realignment around different answers to new questions.
Third, fixation upon such schemas as liberal-conservative and the resulting oversimplification of Baptist belief have led people to sketch oversimplified visions for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. If one can plot a course of reconciliation of this one set of issues, it is thought, one can bring about the dawning of a newfound unity among Southern Baptists. I do not deny that such a day of unity is good or even possible, but I submit that conflicting visions for the future of our convention arise out of differences on many questions, not just one. The current predominant practice of labeling is unsatisfactory.
However, facile and naive suggestions that we might drop labels are untenable. It is no more possible to discuss theology without theological labels than to write the great American novel without using any nouns or adjectives. Some of the old labels will necessarily endure. We might wish to replace them, but find that there are no acceptable alternatives. Adding other labels will at least narrow the scope of these terms and provide some incentive for using them with greater accuracy.
So, here are some suggested labels for present-day use in the SBC:
- This is probably what the most astute of us have meant by the term liberal. Higher-Critics are those who have adopted the higher-critical method of biblical studies. These are people who may question the integrity, stated authorship, and given dates of biblical books. They may question the veracity of biblical historical accounts, especially as related to miraculous events. They may be strongly influenced by a Wellhausian view of the development of the biblical text. Higher criticism is incompatible with what most Southern Baptists mean by inerrancy.
- Inerrantists, technically speaking, are those who affirm something like the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I do not know that this must neccesarily be the only definition of inerrancy—I suppose it is possible to craft what one believes to be a better definition. Yet such a definition must remain within the "common-sense" parameters of inerrancy: A rejection of claims that the Bible is in some way so primitive, culture-bound, textually corrupted, or philosophically biased as to contain inaccuracies in the text. Inerrancy allows for the recognition of different literary genres in the Bible and embraces sound hermeneutical principles in dealing with those genres. In common-sense terms, inerrancy and higher-criticism are counter-movements against one another.
- Baptist Sectarians
- Baptist Sectarians are those who believe that the various distinctive doctrines of the Baptist tradition are certain enough and important enough to warrant the deliberate and separate existence of Baptist churches. Although they may do so with varying levels of charity toward others, Baptist Sectarians affirm the superiority of Baptist doctrine (especially ecclesiology) over that of other religious traditions.
- Baptist Ecumenicalists
- Baptist Ecumenicalists are those who, while they affirm the various distinctive doctrines of the Baptist tradition, believe them to be tenuous enough or insignificant enough that they are subject to compromise in the pursuit of Christian unity. Not all Baptist Ecumenicalists are thoroughgoing in their ecumenism—even if the Baptist distinctives do not rise to the level of certainty and importance to warrant division in their view, they may regard other doctrines as being important enough to do so. So, for example, some may be willing to unite with Presbyterians, but not with Quakers. Others may be willing to unite with nondenominational evangelicals, but not with mainline protestants.
- Academic Libertines
- Academic Libertines are those who would, in effect, fold the idea of academic liberty into the Baptist distinctives. Academic liberty is the concept that some people who have achieved a certain level of academic achievement ought to be relatively free from (stifling) oversight with regard to the conclusions that they draw and teach within their field. An Academic Libertine may not agree with what a professor is teaching, but such a person would be reluctant to tie the continued employment of a denominational employee to adherence to a doctrinal standard. Indeed, many Academic Libertines would suggest that such a level of oversight is in some way incompatible with Baptist doctrine.
- Accountabilitists are those who would insist that all denominational employees discharge their duties in accord with the doctrinal standards set by the congregations that ultimately employ the employees. Accountabilitists would argue that the liberty of the congregations to set those standards is absolute, and that the obligation of the employees to conform to the standard is unbounded.
- I'm not going to bother to define this one. It has been done to death.
- Arminians would fit within this penumbra. Anti-Calvinists would fall here. Non-Arminian, Non-Anti-Calvinist Non-Calvinists would also fit in this group.
- Disciplinarians are those who advocate a return to a stricter Baptist ecclesiology, generally marked by a call for a renewal of church discipline in Baptist churches.
- I really need a better term for this one. Stoddardian may be a little perjorative. Perhaps someone can help me find a better word. I mean by this term those who, like Solomon Stoddard, care little for efforts to secure, as much as possible, a regenerate church membership. Such folks may argue that access to the privileges of church membership (e.g. ordinances) are means to win the lost to Christ.
I am an inerrantist, sectarian, accountabilitist, non-Calvinist disciplinarian. How about you? And are these labels good ones?