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To the Fountain: Weighing Scripture and Tradition

Around the dawn of the fifth century A.D., a scholar of the church by the name of Jerome did something that was rather controversial in his day: He produced the official Latin translation of the Bible, which become known as the Vulgate. That in itself wasn’t controversial. The controversy lay in the fact that he ignored the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint and instead utilized manuscripts in the original Hebrew that he had at his disposal.

Many of Jerome’s contemporaries thought this action unwise, but he desired to go to the sources, demonstrating a philosophy that in the Renaissance became known by the Latin phrase “ad fontes,” which means “to the fountain or source.”

Throughout the course of church history, we’ve seen by the grace of God the spirit of ad fontes rise up intermittently in the church as needed. Each time, I believe God has been drawing His church and the watching world back to the only true repository of knowledge and truth, the Scripture.

At the dawn of the 16th-century Reformation, it rose up in Erasmus and carried over into Luther, giving rise to the cherished principle of sola scriptura, Latin for “Scripture alone.” This principle affirms that the Bible is our only authority for faith and practice.

I would argue that the Southern Baptist Convention had an ad fontes moment of its own through the Conservative Resurgence of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. I believe those men and women of God who sacrificed greatly and stood strongly time and time again at convention after convention realized that without the Bible the church is powerless and adrift and cannot please God. They led the SBC back to the Source, namely the Word of God, the Bible. What a fountain it is!

Due to our fallenness, we must continually and intentionally anchor ourselves to this Source. Like gravity pulls us from the lofty ledge down into the pit, sin pulls us from the Scripture. If we are not careful, over time we can find ourselves wandering, becoming increasingly ruled by our own desires, traditions, reason and institutions.

Perhaps we are at this point and on the verge of needing another ad fontes moment in SBC life. There is much debate over the condition and direction of the SBC and its churches, but I believe a large and vocal portion of the discussion is pushing from the wrong source.

Instead of pushing from Scripture, they are pushing from denominational identity and brand loyalty. In fact, on many occasions I’ve read “Presbyterian” used almost as a slur when talking to or about other brothers who are daring to question the current majority Southern Baptist understanding, for example, in the area of church leadership. The implication is that you’re not really Baptist if you believe or do something that resembles what some non-SBC denomination has traditionally believed or done.

The logic goes like this: We shouldn’t go that way because that’s how the Pentecostals or the Catholics or the Presbyterians or the Methodists or fill in the blank go. On the affirmative side, it goes like this: We go that way because that’s how Baptists go.

It reminds me of a time back at an SBC church I served in Kentucky as associate pastor. The Lord’s Supper was coming up and the senior pastor and I were planning to serve it by having the people come up front to receive the bread and cup instead of the traditional way of passing them from pew to pew. When we approached the deacon body with the plan, their response was basically, “No way! That’s too Catholic.” Never mind whether the plan would have been biblically permissive or not, it wasn’t traditional Baptist enough.

To insinuate or explicitly say we should avoid a belief or practice because it doesn’t square with traditional or current majority Southern Baptist approaches is painfully illuminating. It reveals that in some circles, Scripture has been replaced by tradition as the authority.

Tradition and majority are not infallible. Certainly, majority doesn’t automatically mean right, à la Numbers 13-14, and tradition can take us amiss as Jesus noted in Matthew 23. To go even further and judge people, churches and parachurch groups based on their level of traditional Baptist identity is reprehensible. That, my friends, is tribalism instead of biblicism. It’s letting the cart pull the horse.

Scripture is our sole source and fountain of authority. It’s the norm of norms that is not normed. In other words, it’s the inerrant, infallible, sufficient Word of God that is the sole rule of our faith and practice. Therefore, denominational tradition and identity must bow down to it. Wasn’t that the ultimate goal of the Conservative Resurgence anyway?

I desire to be biblical more than “Baptist.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m decidedly and confessionally Baptist and proudly Southern Baptist, but upholding Baptist tradition is not my goal. Upholding the Word of God is. Where the two intersect, I gladly cling to the tradition, and where they diverge, I gladly jettison the tradition. Nevertheless, I gladly stand next to any brother in this convention who upholds the Baptist Faith and Message and maintains biblical Baptist distinctives, such as the inerrancy, sufficiency and authority of the Bible; the necessity of Gospel proclamation to every person; the salvation and security of the believer by grace through faith in Jesus; believer’s baptism by immersion; the priesthood of the believer; congregational polity; and cooperation. I long for SBC unity around such things for the sake of the Gospel and God’s glory because it’s so good for brothers to dwell together in unity, even denominationally (Psalm 133).

Perhaps the SBC is at a serious crossroads as some prognosticate. There’s certainly extremism on both sides, but whether we are or not, the key question for the SBC, state conventions, regional associations and local churches remains the same as we seek to move forward: Should we seek to do the most “Southern Baptist” thing or should we seek to do the most biblical thing? Some want to push us back to the tradition. I pray we’ll have an ad fontes moment and be pushed back to the Source, the Fountain, the Scripture.

-This article appeared originally at Baptist Press on Tuesday, May 3, 2011 and can be accessed at http://bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=35204.

3 Comments

  1. Ben,

    Awesome article. I’m currently preaching through 1 Timothy and have spent some time in chapter 3 teaching my traditional baptist church the biblical meaning of elder and how I believe leadership according to Scripture is a plurality of elders of which the Pastor is an equal among other qualified men to lead the church, not the deacon body. I’ve also discussed that if the church wants to grow and encourage the people to live godly, they must consider following this model of leadership. You can imagine the mixed review. The people who aren’t good old crusty traditionalists love the teaching and support what Scripture says, however, the few who oppose only oppose for one reason, “It’s not Baptist”. Go figure!! Great article. Preach on.

    • Shane, thanks stopping by to comment! We have to constantly guard our hearts against the temptation of developing a theology based upon observation instead revelation. I pray you’ll continue to preach the Word and that your congregation will be tender there in South Carolina.

      As for the plurality of elders, the amazing thing is that most churches utilize a plurality but just don’t use the biblical terminology of elder. Some have a staff of elders they simply call pastors. Others have deacons that function biblically as elders. As I alluded to in the article, I think we’ve went away from the word elder simply because Presbyterians have used the term and have made up an unbiblical dichotomy of teaching elder and ruling elder. At any rate, we shouldn’t throw out a good biblical term because some denomination has run amuck with it. Furthermore, I think that some scoff at the idea of having “laymen” serve in the office of elder, but there’s no biblical warrant for not having nonvocational elders in the church as well.

      Admittedly, the word pastor is more “Baptist,” but the word elder is more biblical, whether you’re arguing for a single-elder or a plural-elder model. Blessings!

  2. Thanks, Ben, for the article.

    It does seem we are at a crossroads in the SBC. If the denomination is to be a part of accomplishing the Great Commission and will exist in the years ahead we must go back to the Source (as you say) and base our theology and methodology on Scripture alone. Sure, we can learn from the wisdom of leaders God has given us over the past 150 years and give thanks for them, but we must be dedicated to be being Biblically-sound in all we do.

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