Paige Patterson’s Anatomy of a Reformation: The Southern Baptist Convention, 1978-2004

A few years ago, Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the leading architects of “the conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote a little book entitled Anatomy of a Reformation: The Southern Baptist Convention, 1978-2004.  It’s been placed online for free now (see the link) and I would encourage any of you that would like an insider’s look at “The Controversy” to click the link provided and check it out.

I was born in 1974, meaning I was too young to appreciate most, but not all, of The Controversy.  So a good bit of the affair (though, again, not all) has been a matter of study for me and not experience.  I believe that all Southern Baptists have at least some responsibility to understand The Controversy, because, if we do not, we will not understand much that is good and much that is frustrating about the Convention today.

My major qualm with Patterson’s book is stylistic and probably generational (and, therefore, almost completely unimportant).  Patterson writes and speaks in a grand style that perhaps more than a few younger ministers might find off-putting.  “The Baptist kingdom of our evangelical Zion” would earn guffaws if I used such a phrase in the presence of my pastor friends or, I daresay, in the presence of First Baptist Dawson.  It’s a bit too flowery and grandiose for my tastes.  His metaphors are too cumbersome (“This perception included two general features: a general distrust for the pot itself (the bureaucracy) and the suspicion that someone had visited Deutschland and returned with a Tubingen gourd and poisoned the life-giving gospel stew that the pot was supposed to be warming.”) and, in many cases too Texas for my taste (is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” really a West Texas thing?!).

Furthermore, while I cherish the Baptist principle of local church autonomy, I’ve been impacted enough by the whole Baptist catholicity movement to find Patterson’s strong celebration of Baptist individualism a bit disconcerting:

“J. B. Gambrell, known as the great commoner, served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1917 to 1920. Sagely he had observed that, Baptists never ride a horse without a bridle. This expression was Gambrell’s folksy way of focusing on the fierce autonomy of every entity in Southern Baptist life. Believers are priests before God who voluntarily associate with a church comprised of similarly committed saints. Churches are autonomous, voluntarily associating with other churches in local associations, state fellowships (conventions), and a national fellowship (the Southern Baptist Convention). None of these fellowships has any organic connection to the other. In fact, Baptists fear connectionalism the way medieval society feared the plague. Gambrell’s observation was intended to caution any entity spawned by the churches that it was not to see itself as a wild stallion roaming the Red Desert Basin of Wyoming but rather as a domestic quarter horse carefully bred to work for the churches. Agencies and institutions were bridled with a bit in their mouths and a saddle cinched tight. If they worked well and served the churches, they would eat well from the Cooperative Program trough. But Baptists would never mount up without the reins in their hands.” (p.2)

But this too is a matter of preference and style, and I agree with the general point.  I was, all in all, impressed with Patterson’s efforts at balance in this book.  He is not out to oversimplify, though perhaps this has happened a bit (i.e., “the evident piety of [the] lives” of the conservative preachers), and he is not out to demonize, though perhaps some things have been stated too strongly (i.e, I have yet to become convinced that the 1963 BF&M is so very neo-orthodox).  In fact, he is more than transparent at a few points in this book and he realizes that conservatives also made mistakes during the tumultuous years of the The Controversy.

I did find it amusing to hear Patterson juxtapose “the entrenched ‘good ol’ boy’ system” of the 60’s and 70’s Convention with the “popular movement” of the conservative resurgence, primarily because it could be argued that the Convention possesses a “good ol’ boy system” today that would rival any of the “good ol’ boy systems” that have ever graced the face of the earth!  But then, how does one get rid of “good ol’ boy systems”?

I do feel that Patterson has romanticized a bit of what he thinks the resurgence achieved.

“Here, however, is at least one instance of a grassroots referendum, which not only returned a convention to the doctrines and practices of its founders but also through its revised confession of faith sent a timely message to the watching ecclesiastical and secular worlds.”

“The doctrines and practices of its founders”?  Two current phenomena make this claim a bit hard to swallow:  the rejection of regenerate church membership and the often shrill and caricatured depictions of Calvinist theology.  The resurgence certainly corrected a number of wrongs, first and foremost among them being a creeping low-view of Scripture.  But I am not so sure that it returned us to the vision of our founders.  There is a great deal of evidence to suggest otherwise.

Patterson is also concerned about the coming generations:

“In addition, there is the realization that a new generation that knew not Criswell, Lee, Rogers, or Pressler, will now rise to leadership.  It is entirely possible, although I think unlikely, that those who follow will squander the gains made.” (p.17-18)

Perhaps.  Or it could be that the coming generations may appreciate the gains that were indeed gains but may yet see more clearly (no doubt standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before “Criswell, Lee, Rogers, or Pressler”) to bring in even more gains and an even greater return to the vision of our founders.

Again, this is a helpful book.  It is, as all such accounts of controversies are bound to be, idiosyncratic.  I believe, though, that this little book will be read with great benefit to the reader.  Finally, the annotated bibliography that Patterson provides is very helpful and most appreciated.

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