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A Hill On Which To Die: One Southern Baptist’s Journey

Judge Paul Pressler

Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1999, 355 pages.

This is an excellent book about a subject that has been close to my heart for many years. Pressler, along with Paige Patterson, was one of the chief architects of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), whereby the seminaries and key agencies of the Convention were taken out of the hands of theological liberals, and placed under the oversight of evangelical conservatives. Thereby, the liberal tide within the SBC was turned. Because of the efforts of these two men, along with many of like-mind within the denomination, today seminaries like Southern (Louisville, Ky.) and Southeastern have conservative evangelicals like Al Mohler and Paige Patterson, respectively, as presidents. In fact, evangelicals are presidents of all six SBC seminaries.

A few biographical notes on Pressler himself: he was elected to the Texas Legislature in 1957. He practiced law with the firm of Vinson and Elkins before becoming a judge of the 133rd district court in 1970. Pressler served as Justice for the 14th Court of Appeals until his retirement in 1993. His family’s roots in the Baptist faith go back many generations.

As I said, this has been a subject dear to me for a long time. Although I am not now a Baptist, I grew up in a Baptist church and went to Baylor University (graduating in 1968). It was not until later that I had a theological “awakening” and became attuned to the issues involved in the debates about the inerrancy of Scripture, and the dangers of theological liberalism. I read the 1976 book, which brought all of this into the national spotlight: The Battle for the Bible, by Harold Lindsell. Therefore, when Pressler, Patterson, and others began the battle to retake the SBC in 1979, though I was no longer a Baptist, I was very interested in the developments within the SBC. I started cutting clippings relating to the battle in the SBC from the newspaper, and compiled quite a file. In Texas, the Baptists receive a lot of news coverage, even though mostly biased in a liberal direction. Each year, I eagerly anticipated the annual Convention, which included the election (or reelection) of a SBC President, and rejoiced as the conservatives began piling up consecutive victories in electing presidents: Adrian Rogers in 1979, Bailey Smith in 1980 and 1981, Jimmy Draper in 1982 and 1983, Charles Stanley in 1984 and 1985, etc. By the mid to late 1980s, the battle was pretty much won.

The significance of the election of a conservative SBC president rests in the fact that the president appoints key offices, such as the trustees of the Baptist seminaries and the heads of the various agencies, such as those involved in interface with the government and public affairs, missions activities, and the publication of literature used in Sunday schools. (Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that, as the SBC president, with his one power, appoints the Committee on Committees, which in turn nominates members of the Committee on Nominations, and this committee nominates members of the governing boards of all SBC agencies and institutions). Realizing the implications of this fact, Pressler saw that by electing conservative SBC presidents, the key areas of liberal influence could be reclaimed, and the liberal direction in which they were going could be reversed, particularly in the Baptist seminaries. As trustee seats came up for reappointment, conservative SBC presidents could in only a few years, cause a complete change in the makeup of those institutions, as conservative trustees could in turn appoint conservative presidents of their respective seminaries, and ultimately conservative professors. Professors whose teachings were out of line with the doctrinal statements of the seminaries and historic Baptist positions, could be dismissed. And so, this was the plan that was adopted and ultimately consummated.

One thing that needs to be made clear is that this was not a struggle over just raw power. Pressler and other conservatives had long heard the stories of how Baptist institutions had diluted or corrupted the faith of countless students by teaching liberal theories about the nature of Scripture. Students who took issue with their professors’ liberal views were mocked in class by the professors themselves. The liberals were in power, and the concerns of the conservatives were ignored. It was to reverse this situation that Pressler and his allies sought power, not for its own sake, but to prevent the Baptists from going the way of the other mainline denominations, which have been weakened as they increasingly abandoned traditional Christian teachings regarding the authority of Scripture, the necessity of the atonement, eternal judgement, etc.

Another thing that needs to be made clear is that this was not a battle over the interpretation of Scripture, but rather over the nature of Scripture. The liberals were very effective in convincing the media that this was a battle over how to interpret Scripture, and they never tired of accusing the conservatives of wanting to enforce conformity of interpretation. But the real issue was the nature of Scripture: is it the Word of God to man, or the word of man about God? If it is the former, it is authoritative, trustworthy and unchanging. If the latter, it may contain errors and is subject to being “modified” in the light of current sociological, scientific, or psychological knowledge. However, since the liberals controlled the Baptist press, and had sympathizers in the secular news media, they were very effective in convincing both the public and many conservative Baptists, that this was a power struggle by “fundamentalists” to force their particular interpretations upon all Baptists. I know many Baptists who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture and the historic doctrines of the faith, but who had been swayed by their “dear pastor” and the press (Baptist and secular) into believing the power-struggle and forced-interpretation ploys of the liberals. So the struggle by the conservatives was made doubly difficult by the fact that the liberals did not want to discuss the actual issues, because they knew they were out of step with the Baptists in the pew, and their hope for victory lay with hiding the true nature of the conflict. And they were very successful at this. As Pressler says:

The conservative movement was not motivated by a desire for power or the promotion of the conservative leaders’ personalities. Many people in the liberal movement tried to make that an issue . They did everything they could to divert the issue from that of theology to trying to make conservatives look as bad as possible. Some liberals charged that we were in the conservative movement for personal greed and personal power…The issue was not the autonomy of the local congregation…(nor the) priesthood of the believer…(nor) the promotion of a conservative political agenda…(nor the) interpretation of Scripture… The issue was and is the complete, absolute, total accuracy and integrity of the revelation that God has given us in His Book—the Bible. This is the hill on which to die!” (pages 153, 155, 157-160).

So the conservative versus liberal distinction has to do with their views of the nature of Scripture, and of course a low view of Scripture ultimately leads to a weakening or even repudiation of the key doctrines of the faith as well. Another category important to this story is that of the moderates. Moderates are generally conservative in their views and understanding of Scripture and the doctrines of the faith, but as Pressler put it, they are not likely to want to oppose the liberals. They are more accommodating of variant views. Or a moderate may be a liberal who prefers to call himself moderate, because few want to be perceived as a “liberal” in the conservative Southern Baptist denomination. The term “moderate” just has a more gentle, soothing, reasonable sound to it.

In reading the book, one thing that comes out very clearly is Pressler’s love for the Lord. From his early years, wherever he was, whether at prep school in New Hampshire, college at Princeton, or law school at UT, he always quick to unite with a church and become actively involved, and to institute Bible studies among his schoolmates. He had a fervent love for the lost, and actively supported missions. One time he and his wife even smuggled Russian-language Bibles into Russia when on a trip there. Having spent a lot of time in the north, he had witnessed how years of liberal domination had weakened the church’s witness, and he did not want to see that happen to his beloved SBC. Pressler says: “When we started, those of us in the conservative movement did not realize the sociological ramifications of what would occur. We were interested in winning souls for Christ. We were motivated to direct our own institutions so that we would not finance the destruction by our employees (i.e. seminary and college faculties) of those principles in which we believed” (page 245).

Well, you might say: “why should I be interested in this story? I’m not a Baptist.” Well, neither was Dr. Francis Schaeffer, and listen to his interest in the happenings in the SBC, as Pressler relates a conversation a friend of his had with Schaeffer not long before Schaeffer’s death:

They were talking together at the Christian Booksellers Convention in Dallas. Dr. Schaeffer asked Jess about the conservative movement in the SBC…(Jess) stated that he did know me (Pressler). Dr. Schaeffer told him to tell me that he prayed for me and the others in the conservative movement every day because the future of evangelical Christianity in America depended on what happened in the SBC. He said it was the only group that had the numbers and resources to influence American society for good and win a large segment of the American population to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Learning about this comment gave me an awesome sense of responsibility (page 263).

Or perhaps you think the problems in the seminaries and colleges were overstated. If so, let me direct you to Appendix B of the book, titled “A Delineation of Possible Problems” (pages 323-351). It consists of a report prepared by Pressler in 1985 after a Baptist executive had requested that he set forth some examples of possible areas of theological problems in SBC institutions. Included is enough documentation to make any evangelical’s skin crawl.

One of the most appalling examples is a study of “Changing Views of Southern Seminary Students” which constituted a master’s thesis by a Southern Baptist Seminary student in 1976; the paper was approved by three professors at the seminary (each of whom later became vocal opponents of the conservative movement). The paper interviewed Southern students at four levels to see how theological views changed as they progressed through the program, beginning with diploma students, then to first-year students, next to final year students, and finally to PhD-ThM students. If you look at the chart on page 346, you will see that certainty about the existence of God went from 100% (of diploma students) to 63% (of PhD-ThM students). Belief in the divinity of Christ went from 100% to 63%; belief in Biblical miracles from 96% to 37%; belief in Jesus’ virgin birth from 96% to 32%; and belief in the absolute necessity of Jesus Christ as Savior from 100% to 59%. In other words, the longer a student studied at Southern, the less orthodox and evangelical he became in his theological beliefs. And the three faculty members who oversaw the thesis must not have found fault with the student’s methods or results, as the paper was approved by them.

An item of particular personal interest is found in chapter 30, titled “My Heroes of the Resurgence.” In this chapter, Pressler highlights specific individuals who deserve special attention for their part in the resurgence, and one familiar name jumps out:

Marty Angell. The youngest person on this list, he was a student at Baylor University during many of the hectic days of the conservative resurgence. He fearlessly stated his position in classes and as a result spent a great deal of his time defending his position before deans and the president of the university. His graduation was at times in doubt. As a college student and thereafter, Marty made a tremendous contribution (page 278).

Marty was a member of my church (an independent Bible church), and went before our assembly several times during that trying period to inform us of what was happening at Baylor, and to seek the support of our prayers. I am glad to say that he did graduate, so that aspect ended happily. However, as a Baylor alumnus, I am greatly saddened to be reminded of the part Baylor played in active and hostile opposition to the conservative resurgence in the SBC (since Baylor’s trustees were appointed by the Texas Baptist Convention, rather than the SBC, the conservative victory did not favorably impact Baylor).

Pressler and the conservatives did win the battle, but not without cost. The costs to Pressler included his health, reputation, and financial well being. In addition, during the period of the controversy, he also had to deal with his son, who had a severe health problem from which he has still not recovered. However, as he said:

Many other people suffered far more than I. Some lost their churches because of the intervention of denominational leaders. Others have had their reputations blackened because they had the temerity to stand against those who had been running the convention. All I can say is, “Praise God.” The convention has been returned to its biblical base and those who perpetuated such things have been repudiated. The liberals have now started building their own organizations and I think they will get out of the SBC if and when they can find the support to do so. Originally I wanted to hold everything together and be conciliatory. Now I believe we should bid them farewell, if that is what they want to do. I have lost my desire to work with those who fought the battle in the manner of some of them.

Pressler concludes his book with the following:

The SBC controversy was a hill on which to die. Many did die—if not physically, in other ways. It was a hill that had to be won, and won it was. I am grateful for the many, many young people who will not be damaged in our Southern Baptist institutions by liberal teachers but instead will go forth with hearts aflame for God. I am grateful for the increased mission activity. I praise God, for only He could have brought about the present result. I am delighted to put my involvement behind me and to leave the hill which has now been recovered from others who had captured it (page 306).

I strongly recommend this book, and am glad the story is being fully told. There are portions that contain considerable details about Baptist organizations and personalities. However, skim through those portions if you must, but you will be richly rewarded from reading this first-hand account of the conservative resurgence in the SBC. As Tim LaHaye said in comments on the book jacket: “This book reveals many inside details of the most important religious event of the 20th century…Anyone concerned about the work of God in our generation should read this book.”

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)

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