Ralph Elliott fired in the "Genesis" controversy
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Time Period
10/25/1962
Description
Ralph Elliott's book, The Message of Genesis, was the tipping point for a clash between theological conservatives and moderates in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that had been building since the 1920s. In July 1961, Elliott published The Message of Genesis, in which he challenged the historicity of Genesis chapters 1-11, including the creation of man, the global flood, and the supernatural destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Elliott and his defenders believed the incorporation of higher critical theory did not substantively change the message of the gospel. His critics, however, accused him of toying with heretical beliefs. In October 1962, Elliott was fired and he spent the rest of his career as part of the mainline American Baptist Churches USA. The "Genesis" controversy led SBC leaders to become even more suspicious of "liberal" seminarians and foreshadowed the conservative resurgence of the 1970s and 1980s in the SBC.
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Narrative
Ralph Elliott's book, The Message of Genesis, was the tipping point for a clash between theological conservatives and moderates in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that had been building for some time. In 1925, tension between the two factions over the issue of evolution had led to the first iteration of the SBC's statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM). The authors of the BFM attempted to assuage both sides, affirming that "man was created by the special act of God," but avoiding an explicit statement of the age of the earth or the means of creation.

The tension between theological conservatives and moderates remained, however, and led to the purge of 13 moderate faculty members at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1958. Several of them ended up at the newly established Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, including Hebrew professor Ralph Elliott, who was named the head of the Old Testament department. In July 1961, Elliott published The Message of Genesis with the SBC's Broadman Press. In the book, Elliott challenged the historicity of Genesis chapters 1-11, including the creation of man, the global flood, and the supernatural destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Elliott and his defenders believed he was merely introducing the latest in higher critical theory to Baptists without substantively changing the message of the gospel.

His critics, however, accused him of toying with heretical beliefs. Houston Pastor K. Owen White, in a widely circulated sermon titled "Death in the Pot" (2 Kings 4:40), labeled Elliott's beliefs as "liberalism pure and simple." At first, the trustees of Midwestern defended Elliott's prerogatives, as did the SBC's Sunday School Board, which oversaw Broadman Press. But at the SBC's annual convention in June 1962 in San Francisco, the conservatives managed to elect several of their own to the board of Midwestern, which then forced Elliott out in October 1962. Elliott spent the rest of his career as part of the mainline American Baptist Churches USA, but the controversy didn't stop there.

The San Francisco convention commissioned a study committee to create a new version of the Baptist Faith and Message, which it released the following year. The statement reiterated much of the 1925 version and failed to do much to assuage either conservatives or moderates. Notably, the study committee had been composed exclusively of the elected presidents of the SBC's state conventions rather than of seminary professors or theologians. The sponsors reasoned that the committee, thus comprised, would more closely represent the will of the Baptist laity. In short, the conservatives did not trust its seminarians, suspecting them of "doublespeak," or teaching theological liberalism in class while disguising their true beliefs in other settings. The episode foreshadowed the conservative resurgence of the 1970s and 1980s in the SBC, when the conservatives would take over not just a seminary or two, but the entire denominational apparatus.
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Biographies
Criswell, W. A.
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Southern Baptist Theological Seminary- Digital Commonwealth
Web Source(s)
http://www.sbts.edu/resources/files/2010/07/sbjt_071_spr03_wills.pdf
Web Page Contributor
Paul Matzko
Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History

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