A “Motion” for Southern Baptists on the Interpretation of Scripture

With the Southern Baptist Convention happening in my hometown and as a first-time attender, I decided to post a paper I wrote a few years ago on Southern Baptists and biblical interpretation. In the paper, I argue that Southern Baptists and pre-critical exegetes, such as Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas, have much in common. And thus, believing in the truthfulness and authority of the Bible can exist alongside thinking critically about the Bible.

The introduction is copied below and the whole paper is available for those interested (Southern Baptists – A People of the Book)

Southern Baptists and Pre-Critical Exegesis


            As the first decade of the twenty-first century draws to a close, the discipline of biblical interpretation finds itself in a state of flux as postmodernism[1] continues to challenge the modern worldview.  Perhaps, most significant for biblical studies has been postmodernism’s frontal assault on the modern vision of objective or universal truth.  On this front, numerous ‘new’ theories of interpretation have opposed the historical-critical method of interpretation, the prevailing method of modern biblical scholarship, and its search for a biblical text’s one true meaning.  Theologians and exegetes, such as Karl Barth, Hans Frei, Brevard Childs, Stephen Fowl, Gustavo Gonzalez, and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza have each, in their own way, offered alternative ways of interpreting Scripture. 

            Regularly, an antagonist of these ‘new’ theories of interpretation is the so-called conservative fundamentalist.[2]  While conservative fundamentalists usually are not defined in any specific terms, the label is designed to distinguish them as the prototypical modern interpreter who relies precisely on the mindsets and methods in question.  In this paper, I am going to assume to speak for my particular Christian denomination, which is frequently if not always, placed within this faction, namely Southern Baptists.  My primary purpose is to establish that when one considers the Southern Baptist doctrine of Scripture, as defined in our own official statements this is, in many respects, a case of mistaken identity.  I also have a secondary purpose for this paper and that is to call Southern Baptists to reexamine our habit of biblical interpretation in light of our own understanding of Scripture.  All too often, what has passed as Southern Baptist interpretation defies what we claim about Scripture, or in more colloquial terms, we do not practice what we preach.  I contend that if Southern Baptists practice exegesis according to our own doctrine, our interpretation should correspond most intimately not with modern or post-modern exegesis, but with the works of Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas.

            To accomplish these tasks necessitates beginning with the works of Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas.  By examining what David C. Steinmetz describes as the pre-critical exegetical tradition,[3] I identify a simple but fundamental doctrine of Scripture and from this I construct a two-fold exegetical theory.  With this historical perspective, I examine the Southern Baptist doctrine of Scripture, illustrating the similarities between our understanding of Scripture and that of the pre-critical tradition.  As would be expected, there will be instances of divergence, but in studying their works, Southern Baptists may surprisingly find comfort and reassurance.[4]  In conclusion, I briefly outline a way forward for Southern Baptists that embraces the doctrinal similarities and adopts a pre-critical exegetical theory as the foundation for our interpretation of Scripture. 

[1] I am using postmodernism in the most general sense in that it comes after modernism.  Of course, even in this general sense it still conveys distrust in the ideas of modernism.

[2] For example, Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998), 1.

[3] David C. Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” Theology Today, 37 (1980): 27-38.

[4] As a supplement to this engagement with the pre-critical understanding of Scripture, I have included an appendix, which examines the exegetical methods of Augustine and Aquinas.  With Southern Baptist congregations specifically in mind, my desire is to reveal that engaging their writings can enrich both our understanding of the nature of Scripture and our interpretation of Scripture.


2 thoughts on “A “Motion” for Southern Baptists on the Interpretation of Scripture

  1. Hey Chad Interesting paper. Being that I never tag myself with any denomination it is interesting to see what everyone thinks is right. Im reading a new book “Follow Me” by David Pratt. Gutsy little book that I’m pretty sure most evangelicals will not totally agree with. The idea Of following Jesus is so much more than the unscriptural “Inviting him into your heart” catch phrase and going to church listening to a good sermon and giving 10%. Following Jesus revolves around my death. The simple truth that I no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in me. We must lose our lives. That road goes against every DNA molecule in our flesh but it is nevertheless, what Jesus requires and what Matthew 7:23 will reveal. On that narrow road we follow Christ in all His power. We can them love people as He loves them. He is always close, never far And never has to “show up” As I hear so often these days. He is IN us. 🙂

    Have a great week!

    Shalom Stan


    1. Stan, thanks for the thoughts. I agree that following Jesus is about being crucified with Christ and him living in, through us. Salvation in this respect is complete change – new creation.

      I have not read Pratt’s “Follow Me” but I did read “Radical” which makes many of the same points. My dad mentioned “Follow Me” yesterday and said he was really being challenged by it.


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