Genesis: A Common Baptist Battleground, Part 1. The Elliott Controversy

This post is intended to serve as the first in a series that looks at prevailing points of contention among Southern Baptists. If there is a particular point of controversy that you would like to see addressed, scroll down to the bottom and leave a comment.

In 1961, a popular, young professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary named Ralph Elliott released a book published by Broadman Press. In it, he took a progressive view on the book of Genesis and demonstrated an acceptance of higher criticism.

He viewed the biblical narratives in a skeptical light, writing, “We must learn to think of the stories of Genesis—the creation, the fall, Noah’s ark, the tower of Babel—in the same way as we think of the parables of Jesus; they are profoundly symbolical stories, which aren’t to be taken as literally true” (emphasis mine).

Think through that carefully. Stories from the Old Testament—stories to which the New Testament refers to as historical—Elliott declared to be taken only symbolically.

He determined that the Hebrew word “Adam,” was not a personal name in the first chapters of Genesis, but rather “must have meant ‘mankind.’ . . . In all probability, the Priestly writer simply exaggerate the ages in order to show the glory of an ancient civilization.”

Elliott had embraced the documentary hypothesis—the view that it was unreasonable to think that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, but rather four redactors (the Jahwist, the Elohist, the Deuteronomist, and the Priestly sources—categorized as JEDP) had pieced together the text, all the while integrating their own unique writing methods, agendas, and personalities into the text. While this interpretation was pervasive among theological moderates and liberals, it has been almost universally relegated to the dustbin of dismissed and abandoned biblical interpretation.

Perhaps most disconcerting, Elliott argued that in Genesis 22, Abraham didn’t really hear God, for God would never have commanded Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice (contra Gen 22:2). Instead, “What had been a thought of meditation gripped the inner being of Abraham until he thought he heard it as a clear call from God.”

Unsurprisingly, the book was not received well by a large number of Southern Baptists. K. Owen White wrote a scathing review, titled “Death in the Pot,” which was published and reprinted in Baptist newspapers across the country. White’s critique served to notify Southern Baptists not only that which was deemed acceptable by Broadman Press and the Sunday School Board at that time, but what was being taught in Southern Baptist seminaries.

Rebutting the common argument that seminary professors should be granted academic freedom—the freedom to pursue the truth wherever it may lead without fear of reprisal—White wrote, “let it be said that we gladly grant any man the right to believe what he wants to—but, we do not grant him the right to believe and express views in conflict with our historic position concerning the Bible as the Word of God while he is teaching in one of our schools, built and supported by Baptist funds.”

In 1962, White took to the convention floor in San Francisco and made a motion that “the messengers of the Convention, by standing vote, reaffirm their faith in the entire Bible as the authoritative, authentic, infallible Word of God.” His motion was unanimously adopted.

Further, at White’s behest, the messengers approved a motion (despite significant opposition), stating,

That we express our undivided and unchanging objection to the dissemination of theological views in any of our seminaries which would undermine such faith in the historical accuracy and doctrinal integrity of the Bible, and that we courteously request the trustees and administrative officers of our institutions and other agencies to take such steps as shall be necessary to remedy at once those situations here such views now threaten our historic position.

The messengers’ concern did not rest merely in the historic Baptist position. They also approved a recommendation for the president of the convention, Herschel Hobbs, to gather presidents of their respective state conventions for the purpose of presenting a statement similar to that of the Baptist Faith and Message adopted in 1925. The intention of such a statement was made explicit—to serve as guidelines to the various agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Initially, a motion had been made by Ralph Powell naming Elliott and his book, which sought to “instruct the Sunday School Board to cease from publication and printing the book, The Message of Genesis, by Dr. Elliott, and that they furthermore recall from all sales this book which contradicts Baptist conviction.” (He withdrew his motion at the request of Earl Harding before messengers could vote on it.)*

The die had been cast and the lines drawn.

*Author’s note: This is fascinating history to me. The annuals of SBC yearly meetings are not intended to provide commentary on the events of the meetings, but instead, are written as a sort of play-by-play. This motion and subsequent withdrawal have piqued my attention. What this a power move from the platform? Was it something utterly innocuous? I’m planning to look into this a bit further, but would be happy to be relieved of the research if you already know. Drop it in the comments.