Take Down that Flag of Biblical Orthodoxy

June 24, 2015

Across the nation, politicians and corporate leaders are suddenly rising together to condemn the Confederate battle flag as a racist symbol. It's an amazing shift to watch, especially as politics in states like South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi have quickly changed so that criticizing the flag is no longer political suicide. This week looks like the worst week for the Confederate battle flag since General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox!

The scrutiny of the Confederate flag has also raised questions about memorials, statues, and even highways honoring Confederate leaders. There will likely be some statues removed (especially in state Capitol buildings) and some roads and schools renamed. But perhaps the most interesting example raised is at a seminary.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote a column yesterday addressing the racism of the school's founders: James P. Boyce, Basil Manly, Jr., and John A. Broadus. Boyce, the seminary's first president, owned slaves, served as a chaplain for the Confederate Army, and served in South Carolina's Confederate legislature. Manly and Broadus joined Boyce and William Williams (whom Mohler didn't name) as the four founding professors of the school. All four owned slaves, and Broadus also served as a chaplain for the Confederate Army.


In his column, Mohler condemned the racism of the three men.

"The Southern Baptist Convention was not only founded by slaveholders," Mohler wrote, "it was founded by men who held to an ideology of racial superiority and who bathed that ideology in scandalous theological argument."

Mohler went on to rightly call the racist beliefs of the founders of Southern "heresy."

"[R]acial superiority in any form, and white superiority as the central issue of our concern, is a heresy," he wrote. "To put the matter plainly, one cannot simultaneously hold to an ideology of racial superiority and rightly present the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Despite his clear condemnation of the racist theology of the three men as "heresy," Mohler affirmed the three men and defended leaving their names on buildings at Southern.

"I gladly stand with the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in their courageous affirmation of biblical orthodoxy, Baptist beliefs, and missionary zeal," Mohler wrote before specifically praising Boyce, Manly, and Broadus.

"I intend to keep those names on our buildings and to stand without apology with the founders and their affirmation of Baptist orthodoxy," Mohler added.

Mohler condemned the founders of the seminary for their racist heresy, but still praised their "biblical orthodoxy." Can people who owned slaves and viewed slavery as justified by the Bible actually represent biblical orthodoxy?

Interestingly, Mohler defined "heresy" quite carefully - and appropriately - in his column. And in doing so, he made it a serious charge.

"Not every doctrinal error is a heresy, though all doctrinal error is to be avoided," Mohler wrote. "A heresy is the denial or corruption of a Christian doctrine that is central to the faith and essential to the gospel."

Yet, he presents the founders of Southern as men with a "courageous affirmation of biblical orthodoxy" while also holding a "heresy" that is "central to the faith and essential to the gospel." If that's "biblical orthodoxy," then biblical orthodoxy isn't worth praising. 

(photo from Mohler's website)
"Biblical orthodoxy" remains a key buzzword for Mohler. He linked it to the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and the fight for biblical inerrancy. His focus on inerrancy also emerges as he invoked the phrase to back a belief in a literal Adam and Eve, support a literal reading of stories in Genesis, and condemn same-sex marriage. By Mohler's own examples, biblical orthodoxy lies at the heart of how he reads scriptures. Can people who believed the Bible justified slavery really be affirmed for biblical orthodoxy? 

I addressed this issue late in my sermon during the Churchnet Annual Gathering in April. Here's the key passage:
For too long it’s seemed the approach to biblical interpretation in many churches and denominations has been to merely tack on amendments to our stories about the Bible. “P.S. keep reading the Bible the same but now no more supporting slavery.” “By the way, keep reading the Bible the same, but we should probably stop slaughtering Native Americans.” “P.S. keep reading the Bible the same but let’s stop lynching black people.” But if I read the Bible in such a way that I think slavery or genocide or Jim Crow is okay, then I need to not just change my position on those but I also need to figure out to read the Bible differently.
Surely we cannot separate the racist theology of the founders of Southern from their beliefs about the Bible. To affirm their interpretations as "biblical orthodoxy" is to affirm heresy that we cannot affirm. That doesn't mean their names should be chiseled off buildings on Southern's campus, but it does mean we must not remain chained to their way of reading the Bible.

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