The Need for Reformation
In The Southern Baptist Convention:
How We Lost Our Way Along the Path
The chief ground
of gladness and joy is,
When God restores to us
pure and sound doctrine;
For no scarcity of wheat
ought to terrify and alarm us
As a scarcity of the word.
On July 7-10, 1941, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the famed physician-turned-minister of Westminster Chapel, spoke at a private conference of distinguished English evangelicals at Kingham Hill School near Oxford, England. The attendees had gathered to discuss the downward slide of theology in British evangelicalism. Lloyd-Jones was assigned to deliver one of the main addresses. "The Doctor," as he was affectionately called, believed that the evangelicalism of his day was in serious difficulty. He was deeply concerned that the dearth of theology in the pulpits and colleges would severely weaken evangelicalism in the years to come. Yet he also believed the leaders of the evangelical movement were unaware of the grave danger. It, therefore, fell upon him to provide a meaningful diagnosis. In his address, with surgical precision, Lloyd-Jones explicated what he considered to be the most pressing theological problems in the church of his day: (1) The liberal church was anemic because it substituted philosophy for theology. (2) The evangelical church was weak because it ignored biblical scholarship. (3) Indeed, up to 90 percent of evangelicals were not concerned about doctrine. Instead, they were wrapped up in subjectivity and experience as lodestars for their faith. (4) Thus, biblical theology and accurate exegesis were absent from all liberal and most evangelical preaching. (5) Most evangelicals lacked any system of theology at all, and even resisted the use of logic in thinking of spiritual things. After laying out these points, Lloyd-Jones then traced these weaknesses back to their historical sources. He believed that if the Christian leaders received an accurate diagnosis of the problem, they could then look for an applicable cure.
The parallels with American Christianity today are striking. As we enter the twenty-first century, it is not difficult to observe that evangelicalism in our country is also in serious trouble. Numerous observers have warned us over the last ten years that American evangelicals have all but forsaken their biblical and theological heritage.
David Wells, in particular, has demonstrated with devastating detail that, in today's typical evangelical church, the unchanging foundation of the Word of God has been replaced by the ever-changing assumptions of modernity. Thus, the modern church values pragmatics over the eternal verities of the Word of God. Our preachers peddle pop psychology, rather than the healing balm of Christ's redemption. Our sermons are relevant, topical, humorous, poignant, dramatic – anything but biblical. Theology itself has been dismissed as irrelevant, dusty and unimportant. Unfortunately, in all too many pulpits, these are not generalizations. They are true.
This retreat from Biblical preaching in evangelicalism is especially ironic, given that the hallmark phrase of America's best-known evangelical, Billy Graham, is "The Bible says..." Indeed, in the 1950s, Carl F. H. Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today, could assert with confidence and vigor: "'The Bible says' is not a mere Graham platitude nor a fundamentalist cliché: it is the note of authority in Protestant preaching, lost by the meandering modernism of the past generation, held fast by the evangelical movement." At that time, evangelicalism could at least mount an argument for the right to claim the mantle of the sixteenth century reformation over and against the enlightenment and all that it embodies. Now, evangelicalism itself is lost in a morass of meandering modernism.
Examples that shock the conscience are not hard to find. The seeker-sensitive movement, by its very nature, is a bow to modernistic assumptions. Thus, many churches are now offering Friday night or Saturday night services to replace or supplement the Sunday morning worship time. Why? So church members can now get church out of the way early, then have the rest of the weekend to use as they wish. One Saturday churchgoer explained, "If you go to Sunday school at 9:00 A.M., then to the 11 A.M. service and leave about 1 P.M., your day is pretty well shot." Other seeker-sensitive churches have decided to forego offering communion as part of their worship services. Instead, they provide worshipers the opportunity to partake of the elements as they walk out the door after the conclusion of the service. Why? So that those who have not committed to Christianity will not feel excluded by the process. Others, using the same logic, go the opposite direction and invite Christians and non-Christians alike to partake of the Lord's Table, hoping that the drinking of the cup and eating of the wafer will assist in making unbelievers feel comfortable with this basic Christian ritual.
Many seeker services have even given up on preaching, offering instead dramatic skits, modern music, multimedia and other means of communication to entertain the audience. Even if preaching is offered, it is typically packaged in short, fifteen to twenty minute "talks" or "discussions" attempting to show that Christianity is a comfortable religion and Christians are "OK" people – normal, just like every one else in the world.
In his book Ashamed of the Gospel, John MacArthur cites the following examples from newspaper clippings about the preaching of seeker-sensitive churches:
Each of us can probably add our own examples to MacArthur's list.
Of course, it is not just the seeker-sensitive crowd that has abandoned expositional preaching. The charismatic churches have replaced the eternal prescription of "thus sayeth the Lord" with emotionalism, sensationalism, and a God-as-a-bellhop mentality. The pragmatic churches have replaced sound doctrinal teaching with a plethora of five- and seven-step programs heavy-laden with the best contemporary notions psychology and marketing have to offer, sprinkled of course with a few out-of-context Bible verses, on virtually every subject – from salvation to dieting, from parenting to treatment of depression.
Thus, despite the variety of approaches offered by these perspectives, the bottom line is that Scripture is decentralized, hard truths are ignored, sin is soft peddled, and grace is perverted. It is not an exaggeration to say that modern evangelicalism has traded its Scriptural birthright for a mess of modern, cultural pottage. Our preaching, our evangelism, our music and our worship have become self-centered rather than God-centered. As a consequence, evangelicalism has lost its passion for God.
These same trends are evident in our own Southern Baptist Convention. Paige Patterson made this point early in 2000 at a conference designed to articulate the fundamentals of the faith for the 21st century. In the keynote address he cited the shallowness of the evangelical pulpit and the shallowness of praise and worship as causes for concern. He warned, "If we don't do better, we will raise a generation of theological illiterates." He proclaimed that the church today needs preachers who will explicate the word of God verse by verse, explaining the truth of the Bible. Patterson is absolutely right, at least in his diagnosis.
The problems are well known. First, many of our churches have a weak theology. Consider, for example, the doctrine of salvation. In many Southern Baptist churches, regeneration (or being born again) has simply lost its meaning. No longer does it refer to a divine act of the Holy Spirit in giving a sinner a new heart and a new life, and bringing that person from spiritual death to spiritual life. Instead, being born again is simply a synonym for what happens when a person "makes a decision to accept Jesus Christ into his heart as personal Savior." Or worse, it means to "come forward" or "walk down an aisle."
This was driven home to one of us (Allen) forcefully recently when a friend casually mentioned that his brother-in-law wanted to get saved, but he had to wait until Sunday when he could go to the local Baptist church and "walk forward" to the front to receive Christ. It apparently did not occur to him that he could believe and repent and be converted in his own home. Still further, the common twentieth century Baptist view of eternal security is fundamentally flawed. We dip 'em and drop 'em, and take comfort in the fact that they are saved even though they never darken the door of a church again. After all, "once saved, always saved." In this way, we ignore – to the eternal loss of many – that the flip side of God's preservation of the saints is the biblical teaching of the saint's perseverance in Christ. We have forgotten the historic Baptist belief that those who do not persevere are not carnal Christians; they are not Christians at all!
Predictably, this weak theology leads to weak evangelism. Much of what is called evangelism in our Baptist churches is shallow, manipulative and decision-focused. The principal tools of the trade are altar calls (in which the pump is primed by well-placed counselors who set the example in walking to the front of the church) and the "sinner's prayer," in which the person "invites Christ into his life." Then, we give immediate assurance to the person who prays the "sinner's prayer" that he or she is eternally secure in salvation. Never mind the life and practice tests of 1 John. (Cf. 1 John 5:13; "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.").
Of course, the inherent result of a weak soteriology and weak evangelism is a weak membership. We base membership on a "profession of faith," rather than evidence of a changed life. Our churches baptize preschoolers and accept professions of faith from couples living in open sin. By inviting so-called carnal Christians into our fellowships, we populate our rolls with unregenerate church members.
The result of a weak membership is a demand for weak worship. Our congregations have not learned to go beyond the pabulum of shallow praise choruses so prevalent in our worship services today. The self-centered nature of these choruses is manifest. The one doing the praising is more central than the one praised in such choruses as "I Bless You," "I Just Want to Praise You," "I Only Want to Love You" and so on. This is not God-exalting worship! It is man exalting! Woe to those who are more impressed with our "love for God" than God's love for us!
One newspaper advertisement for a church in Tampa, Florida boasts of its "casual worship." What an oxymoron this is! How can worship – acknowledging the "worth-ship" of Jesus Christ, the Holy One, God of very God, light of very light – be casual? This type of worship approach is defended as an attempt to be all things to all people. What it really represents is an attempt to co-opt the world's values. For churches that have lost their biblical moorings, adapting worship practices to the world is not an irrational response to a worldly church membership. The problem, of course, is that it is an acutely unbiblical response.
Given these appalling facts, is it any wonder that the greatest segment of converts to the Mormon church comes from Southern Baptist congregations? And, is it any wonder that most of our Southern Baptist churches have a stagnant or declining membership? The Wall Street Journal reported in 1990 that, of the 14.9 million members of Southern Baptist churches (according to an official count), over 4.4 million are "non-resident members." This means they are members with whom the church has lost touch. Another 3 million hadn't attended church or donated to a church in the past year. That left about 7.4 million "active" members. However, according to Sunday School consultant Glenn Smith, even this is misleading, because included in this "active" figure are those members who only attended once a year at Easter or Christmas. The only conclusion to be drawn is that our Southern Baptist Convention is a denomination of unregenerate church members!
This, then, is the diagnosis: contemporary evangelical churches as a whole, and a large number of Southern Baptist churches as a subset (dare I say the majority?), are devoid of biblical and theological thinking, have abandoned a high view of the sufficiency of Scripture, and have traded in biblical values for modern notions of modernity. In our judgment, evangelicalism is collapsing of its own weight.
What, then, is the prescription? Before we look at the cure for our present condition, we must first understand how we got here. One of the defining marks of modern man is a slender sense of history. We will never understand where we are today without also understanding how we got here. This is because the present condition has its roots in the past. It is a product of the errors of the past.
Where did we go wrong? How did we go wrong?
One answer that is often given is that our ministers no longer preach expositionally. There is too much topical preaching and too much psychological preaching. This was the answer Paige Patterson offered at the 2000 "Fundamentals" conference.
Another answer is that we have lost sight of the holiness of God. Contrary to modern notions, love is not the only attribute of God that bears on the question of who will be saved and on what basis. Holiness matters because God's eyes are too pure to look upon sin (Hab. 1:13). Holiness matters because, without holiness, no one will see God (Heb. 12:14).
Still another answer is that we have grown too self-centered. We think too highly of ourselves. Thus, modern man believes he is deserving of God's mercy and that God must simply excuse his sin.
Another answer is that twenty-first century Christians have lost the capacity to believe in ultimate truth. Contemporary notions of truth as relative have crept into the church. Thus, we have couples living together outside of marriage wanting to join the church and getting upset when the church won't admit them into membership without repentance and a change of lifestyle.
Yet another answer, and a related one, is that American Christians have lost an understanding of the law as a necessary precursor to salvation. The Puritans believed in law preaching because they understood that the gospel is meaningful only to sinners who recognize their sinfulness. They recognized that the Holy Spirit ordinarily uses a confrontation with the demands of the law to bring sinners to know their helplessness before God and their need for salvation (cf. Mt. 19:16-22).
Still another answer is that we have lost our emphasis on doctrine and theology, choosing instead to focus on the "practical" application of Scripture – without the doctrinal content from which the practical application should flow. As David Wells has put it, "the anti-theological mood that now grips the evangelical world" is "severing the link to historical, Protestant orthodoxy."
All of these answers are true. And yet, none is complete. The heart of the matter is that evangelicals lost their way when they abandoned the God-centered doctrinal foundation of Calvinistic theology and replaced it with a theological stew of man-centered belief systems. In other words, the evangelical church lost her stability when she deserted her theological roots in the doctrines of grace. As Charles Spurgeon observed during the English Baptist Downgrade Controversy in the late nineteenth century, Calvinism is an inherently stabilizing force in orthodox Christianity.
As discussed earlier, evangelical Calvinism is biblical Christianity. Therefore, it takes the Word of God seriously, as the very words of God. Its hallmarks include a Godward theology, an emphasis on the holiness of God, the preaching of the law as a means of pointing to grace, an emphasis on repentance as an element of conversion, and the use of expository preaching.
Yet all would agree that only a minority of Baptist churches consider themselves "Calvinistic" in orientation. We have wandered far from these "old paths" that our founders used to walk.
When did the great shift from our doctrinal foundation take place? In English Baptist life it has been persuasively argued that the "downgrade" (as Charles Spurgeon called it) began in the early nineteenth century, when the Baptist Union got rid of its Calvinistic statement of faith in favor of a watered-down, broadly evangelistic confession to which Arminian Baptists could happily subscribe. In American evangelicalism at-large, the downgrade probably occurred in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Mark Noll has made the case that modernism entered American Christianity through the universities during this time frame. Several factors led to this advance. The first was a revolution in American higher education in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The 1870s saw an amazing influx of funding for older universities such as Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Columbia, and newer universities such as Johns Hopkins, Stanford and Chicago. Much of this funding came from wealthy entrepreneurs such as Ezra Cornell, Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller. As more money came into the universities, so did more students. Nearly unnoticed amid this great influx of dollars and students was the steady weakening of traditional Christian influence. In 1886 at Harvard, compulsory chapel attendance was abolished. Businessmen replaced clergymen on boards of trustees and professional educators replaced ministers as university presidents. Another part of the academic revolution was the growing appeal of the German model of academic life, which emphasized the priority of specialized, advanced scholarship over the traditional emphasis in the universities of character formation.
The second factor was the rise of Darwinism. Charles Darwin published his Origin of the Species in 1859. By postulating that the universe came into existence by random chance, Darwin's theory of evolution questioned the legitimacy of pointing to the design of the universe as a proof of God's existence. In addition, Darwin's successors, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley, suggested that evolutionary theories could provide a framework for a whole philosophy of life. In their view, humanity was inexorably advancing from the simple to the more complex, from the primitive to a sophisticated state of existence. In this view, while Christianity may have helped primitives to cope, moderns could do fine without it. In fact, Andrew D. White, the first president of Cornell University, argued in a book entitled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1895) that organized religion actually stymied the advance of science and therefore the progress of humanity! Many Christians of the late nineteenth century sought to accommodate Christian faith to a belief in some form of evolution. Sadly, among them were Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield and northern Baptist A.H. Strong.
As a result of all this, American seminaries were open to new approaches to interpreting Scripture, particularly the new "higher critical" theories that had come over from Germany. These theories transformed the Bible from the God-revealed source of authority for faith, practice and life into "a problem demanding increasing attention and generally increasing controversy."
Fortunately (and providentially) Southern Baptists were largely immune to inroads from theological liberalism. This was due to several reasons.
First, Southern Baptists were still largely located in the reconstructed South. As a result, they were more isolated than their northern brethren and, therefore, more unified.
Second, unlike their English Baptist counterparts, Southern Baptists had not watered down their confessions of faith, many still holding strongly to the Philadelphia Confession, a slight modification of the Second London Confession of 1689, or the New Hampshire Declaration of Faith, an only somewhat less Calvinistic confession of faith.
Third, Southern Baptists generally had not watered down their doctrinal Calvinism. They still walked along the old paths that acted as an inherent check on theological meanderings. As John Broadus declared in 1891:
The people who sneer at what is called Calvinism might as well sneer at Mont Blanc. We are not in the least bound to defend all of Calvin's opinions or actions, but I do not see how anyone who really understands the Greek of the Apostle Paul or the Latin of Calvin and Turretin can fail to see that these latter did not interpret and formulate substantially what the former teaches.
Fourth, James P. Boyce and the other founders of Southern Seminary (at that time, the only Southern Baptist seminary) had the foresight to establish the Abstract of Principles as its statement of faith and require faculty members to agree to its tenets before being allowed to teach at the seminary. This ensured that Southern Baptist pastors, in their training, learned nothing but orthodox doctrine.
Thus, in our own Southern Baptist Convention, the shift occurred later, in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1899, Southern Seminary professor E. C. Dargan could still write, in a small book published by the Sunday School Board and designed to teach basic doctrine to Baptist young people, that election was God' choosing those who will be saved, that God made his choice before the foundation of the world, and that God's choice in election is not on the basis of foreseen faith or repentance, but God's sovereign, free, untrammeled, gracious acting on his own initiative. Similarly, in 1900, J.M. Frost, first president of the Sunday School Board, could still write that "Baptists are one in contending for the faith; one in their history and in the heritage of their fathers; one in their purpose to preach the gospel of the grace of God among all nations...." This unity, however, would not last long into the new century.
It has been said that a cataclysmic shift occurred in the seventeenth century in the area of philosophical thought, when Rene Descartes taught that the starting point of all knowledge was not God but man. Through his famous cognito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"), the individual consciousness was set up as the final criterion of truth. Centuries later, a no less monumental shift occurred in the realm of theological thought in the Baptist world. Through the dynamic leadership of Edgar Young Mullins, the starting point of theological reflection was shifted from God to the self. This departure from the shared Calvinist heritage of the past has had disastrous consequences that are still with us today.
Winston Churchill once said of the Soviet Union that it was riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a mystery. The same could be said for E. Y. Mullins. Mullins virtually single-handedly kept the SBC a calm place to be as the storm of the modernist controversy raged in other denominations. Yet, at the same time, his own theology of experience moved the denomination away from the Calvinism of the past and contributed to the storm's inevitable coming to the SBC after Mullins' lifetime of service had been completed.
Mullins was born January 5, 1860, in Franklin County, Mississippi. His father Seth Mullins was a Baptist preacher and schoolteacher. When reconstruction hit Mississippi after the Civil War, Seth Mullins moved his family to Corsicana, Texas.
Mullins early demonstrated a love for learning and reading, inspired by his father's example. He entered the first cadet class at Texas A&M at age 16. After graduation, he worked as a telegraph operator to save money for a legal education. He showed no interest in following in his father's footsteps. In fact, Mullins was not converted until 1880, when he attended worship services in Dallas. He was shortly thereafter baptized by his father at the Corsicana church. A few months later Mullins felt a "definite call to the ministry," and within the year he had departed for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. There, Mullins studied under James Boyce and John Broadus.
In 1885, Mullins graduated from Southern Seminary, and his peers thought so much of him that they chose him to speak at the graduation ceremony. He delivered an address entitled "Manliness in the Ministry." He then took up his first pastorate in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Before accepting the call, Mullins had wanted to become a missionary to Brazil. He had written to the Foreign Mission Board seeking an appointment, but he never received a response. In Harrodsburg, Mullins married Isla May Hawley and the couple had two sons. Both died in childhood.
In 1888, Mullins was called as pastor of the Lee Street Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He served this church for seven years. He then accepted a position as associate secretary of the Foreign Mission Board, but soon moved on to become pastor of Newton Centre Baptist Church in Boston. This church was identified with the northern Baptists, and was in close proximity to Newton Theological Institute, Harvard, and Boston University. Mullins thrived in the rich intellectual environment and loved his ministry in Boston. However, conflict in Louisville would soon propel him back to the South.
In Mullins' absence, his alma mater had been thrown into its second great theological crisis (behind the Toy controversy). The third president of Southern Seminary (behind Boyce and John Broadus) was William H. Whitsitt, who took office in 1895. In scholarly articles, Whitsitt argued (correctly) that Baptists emerged from seventeenth-century Puritanism. He thus rejected the commonly held view of Baptist historic successionism – that Baptists could trace their history all the way back to John the Baptist. However, his position created a firestorm of controversy, and in 1898, the seminary trustees accepted Whitsitt's resignation as president. In searching for a new president of the seminary, the trustees wanted someone untainted by the Whitsitt controversy. They turned to Mullins, who had been outside the mainstream of Southern Baptist life during his time in Baltimore and Boston. After receiving the seminary's invitation to become its fourth president, Mullins paid a visit to Louisville to confer with the faculty and decide whether to accept the job. While there, he contracted an illness, and when he arrived back in Massachusetts, he collapsed into his wife's arms, almost in delirium from excessive fever, unable to speak. For weeks, Mullins was bedridden. Finally, when he was out of danger, his wife asked him about the presidency of Southern Seminary. Mullins said with tears in his eyes, "The task is mine – ours." They wept together. In 1899, Mullins took office as Southern Seminary's fourth president.
Under Mullins' leadership, the seminary grew in both enrollment and reputation. The faculty doubled in number. Mullins moved the school to a new campus. Mullins also became active in denominational life, becoming one of the SBC's most formative influences.
Mullins was a remarkably successful Baptist administrator. He served on the "Committee on Denominational Efficiency," which issued a report in 1914 urging the various boards and agencies of the denomination to remember "the unity of their common cause and the necessity of their cooperation with each other." Out of this concern, in 1917, came the SBC Executive Committee. Also, in 1925, under Mullins's leadership, the SBC launched its "Seventy-five Million Campaign," which resulted in the creation of the Cooperative Program. The Cooperative Program was and remains the lifeblood of Southern Baptist agency activities.
Mullins served as SBC president from 1921-1924. He was the primary architect of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message. He was also instrumental in setting up the Baptist World Alliance as a worldwide fellowship of Baptists.
Mullins developed a serious illness after visiting Poland in 1927. He was too ill to attend that year's Southern Baptist Convention meeting, even though it was in Louisville, his hometown. Mullins died on November 23, 1928, and was buried in the seminary's burial ground.
Theologically, Mullins remains shrouded in controversy. It legitimately can be said of him that he represented both continuity with the past and, at the same time, a fundamental break from the past in Southern Baptist life.
On the one hand, as Mark Noll has commented, Mullins guided the SBC "in drafting a conservative confession in 1925 and steered it away from evolution." Under his determined leadership, Southern Baptists avoided the painful divisions of the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy. In the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, the SBC remained true to its confessional heritage.
But, as Noll also notes, "Mullins ... defined Christian life in terms of experience rather than doctrine, a move associated since the beginning of the nineteenth century with Friedrich Schleiermacher, who is often called the father of modern Protestant liberalism." This emphasis on experience is apparent even in Mullins' contribution to The Fundamentals, where he asserted that "Christian experience" is a bridge to philosophy and a "point of contact" with the specific philosophy of pragmatism.
Unfortunately, Mullins' emphasis on experience over doctrine led to later doctrinal decline in the Southern Baptist Convention. As current Southern Seminary president R. Albert Mohler has written, Mullins "set in motion a decisive change in the seminary's theological direction." Mullins' textbook, Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression "charted a course away from Boyce's theological system" of classical Calvinism.
While pastoring in the north, Mullins had come into contact with the theology of Schleiermacher, the pragmatism of William James and the personalism of Borden Parker Bowne (a professor at Boston University). For Schleirmacher, the essence of theology was not the systematic presentation of revealed truth, but reflection upon religious experience. For James, the founder of pragmatism, truth and experience were inextricably linked. From Bowne, Mullins gained a critical appreciation for the centrality of the person as the starting point for theological understanding. (Under the old system, the starting point was, of course, God.) Mullins drew upon both James and Bowne in his Fundamentals article.
In fact, Mullins' entire theological system was under girded by an emphasis on religious experience. Mohler argues that "this shift from biblical revelation to religious experience as the starting point and critical principle for theology represented a revolution from the influence of James P. Boyce and Mullins' other teachers at Southern Seminary." As Sean Michael Lucas has observed:
Mullins met the challenge of modernism by arguing that Christians had an experience that science could not understand nor analyze. This experience of Christ [preceded] any real understanding of facts and even could transcend understanding.... In order to demonstrate the truth of various doctrines, one did not need intellectual proof; rather, one simply pointed to the reality of Christ in the soul. Doctrines such as the deity of Christ and the authority of the Scriptures were settled by Christian experience. For Mullins, experience of Jesus Christ preceded doctrinal understanding.
Mullins did not seem to realize that his mediating pragmatism was an inherently unstable basis for religious authority and that it pointed toward theological relativism, since personal experience is diverse by its very nature. (Your experiences of life are different than mine, but we both have God as our point of contact.) He also did not seem to understand that personalism is dangerous, in that it denies the importance (if not the existence) of any truth not rooted in personality. Lucas has observed that Mullins' approach to apologetics involved significant concessions to modernism, which Mullins himself failed to recognize, but which were fleshed out by later Southern Baptist theologians.
This, however, did not make Mullins a theological liberal. Instead, Mullins sought to defend evangelical convictions against liberalism and modernism. He sought to build a bridge between the Reformed theology of the past and the modernism of his own day. But because of his reliance on religious experience, Mullins' theological system and his defense of the faith shared a common starting point with the modernists -- the human self.
Mullins affirmed the inspiration and truthfulness of the Bible. However, he held to a dynamic model of inspiration rather than a plenary verbal one. At the same time, however, he accepted a division between scientific and religious knowledge. To him, religious truth in the Bible is secured by divine revelation mediated through the experience of the biblical writers and mediated again through the religious experience of the reader. Thus, there was no claim of inspiration connected to what he saw as non-religious issues. This viewpoint of less-than-full inerrancy left Mullins free to negotiate during the years of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy.
For example, Mullins never declared himself on the issue of evolution. During the Scopes trial, he refused to help either William Jennings Bryan or Clarence Darrow, despite requests for assistance from both sides. Mullins vehemently denied to representatives of Darrow that he was an evolutionist. Nevertheless, both Albert Mohler and David Dockery believe Mullins secretly affirmed "some sort of theistic evolution," but "only to the extent that such a position would not threaten the supernatural element in the Bible, nor identify him as an evolutionist." Mullins strongly defended the supernaturalism of the Bible, but he resisted those who wanted the SBC to take an official stance on evolution.
Mullins told the 1922 Southern Baptist Convention:
"First, we will not tolerate in our denominational schools any departure from the great fundamentals of the faith in the name of science falsely so-called. Second, we will not be unjust to our teachers, nor curtail unduly their God-given right to investigate truth in the realm of science. Firm faith and free research is our noble Baptist ideal. Third, we will be loyal to every fact which is established in any realm of research, just as we are loyal to the supreme fact of Christ, His virgin birth, His sinless life, His atoning death, His resurrection and present reign."
Mullins' vacillation and lack of precision of language (some say purposeful) on these critical issues permitted both conservatives and moderates in the 1980s SBC inerrancy debate to claim him as an ally. The problem was that both parties could marshal support for their claim from Mullins' writings.
Given his general theological stance, it should come as no surprise to learn that Mullins adopted a mediating position with respect to the doctrines of grace. Regarding election, he argued that God chose certain persons for salvation because of their potential influence upon other persons. Yet he continued to advocate election and expressly denied that our election is based on God's foreknowledge of an individual's response of faith. On the other hand, he rejected limited atonement and irresistible grace. Mullins thus rejected and at the same time reinterpreted the Reformed heritage of the Southern Baptist founders and his former professors Boyce and Broadus. Mullins' mixed position on the doctrines of grace led to a rejection of those doctrines by his successors. In 1978, Herschel Hobbs sought to draw on Mullins' legacy by revising Mullins' The Axioms of Religion. In the revised edition, Hobbs undoubtedly spoke for many in declaring:
God's purpose in election is to save not a few but as many as possible. Frank Stagg says, "One is strangely insensitive to the throb and pulse beat of the whole New Testament if he thinks that each man's fate is determined for him in advance. This is not a 'rigged' television show. God is not playing with toys or manipulating gadgets; he is seeking men who stand in awesome freedom where they may accept or reject the salvation which God alone can offer....
God's foreknowledge as to those who would or would not believe does not mean that he caused it. He offered every incentive for man to believe. The final choice lay with man. God in his sovereignty set the condition. Man in his free will determined the result.
Mullins' focus on experience also led him to focus on something he called "soul competency." This was interpreted by Mullins to mean that each individual person is independently competent to determine matters of religious importance. He claimed that this notion defined Baptist identity. Moderates of a later day seized upon this idea of "soul competency" to suggest that their methods of interpreting the Bible were just as valid as the literalism of conservatives.
Mohler offers the following retrospective on the influence of Mullins upon the generations that followed him:
The central thrust of E.Y. Mullins's theological legacy is his focus on individual experience. Whatever his intention, this massive methodological shift in theology set the stage for doctrinal ambiguity and theological minimalism. The compromise Mullins sought to forge in the 1920s was significantly altered by later generations, with personal truth inevitably gaining ground at the expense of revealed truth.
Once the autonomous individual is made the central authority in matters of theology – a move made necessary by Mullins' emphasis on religious experience – the authority of Scripture becomes secondary at best, regardless of what may be claimed in honor of Scripture's preeminence. Either personal experience will be submitted to revelation, or revelation will be submitted to personal experience. There is no escape from this theological dilemma, and every theologian must choose between these two methodological options. The full consequences of a shift in theological method may take generations to appear, but by the 1960s most Southern Baptists were aware of a growing theological divide within the denomination, and especially its seminaries....
Mullins's attempt to forge a mediating theological paradigm for Southern Baptists eventually failed because mediating positions are inherently unstable. Delicate compromises established in one generation are often abandoned in short order as new generations assume leadership.
The emphasis on soul competency is, as Mullins must have both hoped and expected, the most enduring element of Mullins's legacy. The concept does underscore the necessity of personal religious experience – including repentance and faith – to the Christian life. But soul competency also serves as an acid dissolving religious authority, congregationalism, confessionalism, and mutual theological accountability. This too, is part of Mullins's legacy. As American Baptist church historian Winthrop S. Hudson asserted: 'The practical effect of the stress upon soul competency as the cardinal doctrine of the Baptists was to make every man's hat his own church."
The irony should not be lost that the modernism that Mullins fought so diligently to keep out of the front door of Southern Baptist life, he allowed in through the back door. (Indeed, modernist tendencies were already in the door at Southern Seminary during Mullins' tenure through the teaching of missions professor W. O. Carver.) Thus, Hudson's prediction has proven true: In today's Baptist circles, "every man's hat" is his own church. Mullins left Southern Baptists with a theological confusion that still saddles us today. As Lucas rightly comments, "For over seventy years, Southern Baptists have harvested the shallow discipleship and vapid theology that resulted from sowing Mullins' theological seeds of experience."
What is interesting is that both liberal/moderate Baptists and (for lack of a better phrase) conservative, non-Calvinistic Baptists reflect that theological confusion. For all their differences (which we do not minimize), the two perspectives are alike in that their theologies are inherently unstable. Liberalism runs by nature to an intellectual abandonment of the doctrinal content of the faith. A conservative, non-Calvinistic system runs by nature to a practical ignoring of the doctrinal content of the faith. In the end, there is no difference. Perhaps we will see that, another generation or two down the line, conservative, non-Calvinistic Baptist theology will end up being virtually indistinguishable from liberal theology. As Charles H. Spurgeon recognized in his day, the downgrade always ends up in the same place.