In October I attended the Baptist Union of Southern Africa‘s assembly in Cape Town as a voting delegate representing Crystal Park Baptist Church Benoni. The assembly was organised by the Western Province Baptist Association and was hosted by Strandfontein Baptist Church.
The Baptist Union of Southern Africa comprises of more than 600 churches from every part of our country bringing together a rich diversity of racial, cultural, generational and socio-economic backgrounds. According to its constitution the Baptist Union of Southern Africa “function[s] through its Assembly”.
Since joining the Baptist Union of Southern Africa I’d heard stories of great debates and the debaters of yesteryear but had yet to witness any kind of exchange at an assembly. In fact, I began to despair that there was nothing left for which anyone felt passionately enough about to discuss on the open platform of an assembly floor.
A statement entitled Unity in Diversity was proposed. It acknowledged that “the diversity which exists within our Baptist family presents a great challenge” and that our “theological diversity… …has led to divisiveness”. It affirmed “our unity in Christ” while acknowledging “different theological emphases”. It was clearly stated that this unity “is based on our common understanding and proclamation of the kerygma and our commitment to historic Christianity, an evangelical theology and our Baptist distinctiveness – in particular, the authority of the Scriptures and the direct Lordship of Jesus Christ.”
And then it happened. When delegates were asked to speak for or against the statement Charles De Kiewit, pastor of Central Baptist Church Pretoria, walked to the front of the hall, spoke into the mic, and suggested that our unity can only flow from the “authority of the Scriptures” and how they are to be “interpreted by the historical-grammatical method”.
The what? Basically the historical-grammatical method defines how we interpret our Bibles. As a method of interpretation it emphasises discovery of the Biblical author’s original intended meaning in the text and is embraced by virtually all evangelical Protestant exegetes and scholars.
The historical-grammatical method stands in opposition to other methods of interpretation; which, for simplicities sake, I’ll nail down to four: the historical-critical method, the allegorical method, the reader-response method and the trajectory method. To understand something of what happened next it may be helpful to define the opposing methods:
The historical-critical method is used mainly by academic scholars and institutions. It attempts to discover the sources and factors that contributed to the making of the text treating the Bible as any other text.
The allegorical method assumes that the Bible has various levels of meaning: the allegorical sense, the moral sense, the anagogical sense and the spiritual sense. These meanings take precedence with respect to interpretation over the literal sense.
The reader-response method places emphasis on how the book is perceived by the reader, not on the intended meaning of the author. As such, interpretations can be contrary to Scripture without any formal foundation in the text.
The trajectory method seeks to locate varying ‘voices’ in the text and to view these voices as a progressive trajectory through history, even to the present day. So if homosexuality was banned in the Old Testament, yet only frowned upon in the New Testament, it can be considered ‘kosher’ in our modern day and age. Postmodern commentators favour reader-response and trajectory methods and this was the root of Charles De Kiewit’s amendment.
That’s the technical stuff, how did things play out on the assembly floor? A number of delegates contested the amendment; amongst them John Benn, of Westville Baptist Church; John Basson, of Meadowridge Baptist Church; Craig Duvel, of Pinelands Baptist Church; and Reuben Ihlenfeldt, of Bethany Emmanuel Baptist Church. Opposition to the amendment was varied. Some where concerned that the statement was now exclusive rather than inclusive. Others implied that ‘the Reformed camp’ was being divisive. There was an anxiety expressed that the amendment might impact our Statement of Belief. Whilst those opposing the amendment were very vocal and very passionate they were also gracious in their rebuttal and the general mood of the debate was cordial.
After many voices were heard the assembly voted; and to my surprise the vote was carried in favour of the amended statement. Things got a little muddy when some delegates claimed that they’d not been given enough time to be heard. A proposal to reopen the debate in a subsequent session also failed.
So what? Does this make any difference?
Firstly, to me it does. The Baptist Union of Southern Africa has placed a line in the sand; and praise the Lord for that. I’m happy to note that whilst many of the mainline denominations around us have an increasingly divergent view of Scripture we Baptists seem to be heading in the other direction.
Secondly, to others it does. It may be that some decide to leave, or distance themselves, from a Baptist Union of Southern Africa which is more theologically conservative than they’d like. But those that stay stay knowing that they are a band of brothers, knit closer together by a common understanding of God’s Word to His people.
Thirdly, to the Baptist Union of Southern Africa it does. An organisation which develops an increasing capacity to tackle the theological, racial, cultural, generational and socio-economic issues of our day is the kind of organisation Baptists will want to be aligned to. God willing, the first debate of many.
Mark Penrith serves as pastor of Crystal Park Baptist Church Benoni. He studies theology at the Baptist Theological College, serves on the executive of the Baptist Northern Association and the Baptist Union of Southern Africa. This article was written in his personal capacity.