Herschel Hobbs and the Old SBC

There was nothing unusual about the Rev. Herschel Hobbs rising to speak at a tense moment in the Southern Baptist Convention.

After all, he held the president's gavel in the early 1960s, when Southern Baptists flirted with schism. He guided the writing of "The Baptist Faith and Message," a 1963 tract that came as close as anybody has ever come to creating a doctrinal statement for this fiercely anti-creedal flock. When he died on Nov. 28, the 88-year-old Hobbs remained a legend as a pastor, writer and orator.

Yet one of the most symbolic events in his career was a moment of painful failure.

The knives were out at the SBC's 1980 assembly in St. Louis, the second year of a fundamentalist surge to control America's largest non-Catholic denomination. After days of infighting, Hobbs decided he had to say something.

Southern Baptists, he said, shared a deep respect for scripture, even if all could not agree to march under the banner of "biblical inerrancy," the belief that the Bible is without errors of any kind. Above all, it would be wrong to try to create a standardized, mandatory set of interpretations of the Bible.

Beware the lures of "creeping creedalism," warned Hobbs, voicing a familiar theme.

A few voices began booing and the rumble became a roar that drove Hobbs from the pulpit. It took awhile for some observers to realize what had happened. A few wiped away tears.

"They're booing Herschel Hobbs," said a veteran Baptist editor. "Am I at the Southern Baptist Convention? ... They're booing Herschel Hobbs! What is happening to us?"

The rules had changed -- forever. Southern Baptists entered a political age defined by issues too divisive to be settled by a patriarch's appeals to the ties that bind.

"No one likes to be booed," said Hobbs, years later. "I still can't express how I felt except that it was a real feeling of sadness. ... I had never, ever, seen us leave a convention, no matter how bitter the fighting had been, without having some kind of reconciliation at the end, some kind of love feast."

Seen in hindsight, "The Baptist Faith and Message" contains the seeds of a civil war that has lasted 17 years. It's opening lines say that the Bible has "God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter."

The SBC's current leaders say this endorses "biblical inerrancy." Others note that the document doesn't use those words. Truth is, neither side finds it easy to live with a tension described in its preamble.

"Baptists emphasize the soul's competency before God ... and the priesthood of the believer. However, this emphasis should not be interpreted to mean that there is an absence of certain definite doctrines that Baptists believe, cherish and with which they have been and are now closely identified."

The key question: How do these free Baptists choose which, if any, "definitive doctrines" are binding? The answer: They vote on it.

Today, "moderate" Southern Baptists wrestle with sexuality, the role of faith in public life and the mixed blessing of having one of their own, Bill Clinton, in the White House. Meanwhile, the SBC's hierarchy has learned that those who agree the Bible is without errors may still disagree about what it says. Many moved on to debating another divisive issue -- whether John Calvin was right that God ordains only a certain number of souls to be saved.

In his latter years, Hobbs looked on with a growing sense of sadness. It's hard to find consensus in a political war zone.

"My generation had its battles to fight to keep the convention together and, well, we won ours," said Hobbs, before drifting away to mingle with older pastors at one of his last SBC gatherings. "This generation is going to have to fight this one and live with the results. I won't have to fight much longer. I'll be long gone to heaven before this one is done."