A report of “aberrant” theology in the Baptist World Alliance by a Southern Baptist Convention study committee is false, claims the “German Baptist theologian” cited as an example of why Southern Baptists ought to pull out of the BWA.
Erich Geldbach, professor of ecumenical studies at the Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, accused one member of the Southern Baptist Convention/Baptist World Alliance Study Committee of distorting the truth, bearing false witness and having no right to judge the BWA in a statement obtained by EthicsDaily.com.
Geldbach urged others who were present at a 1997 meeting of Baptist theology teachers in Vancouver, Canada, to also come forward and refute the committee’s account. “If the other factors the Committee lists are as false and shallow, then the pull-out of the SBC is, indeed, motivated by other considerations,” he said.
The SBC/BWA study committee’s report, released Dec. 17, includes the following account:
“In a theological workgroup, Dr. Ken Hemphill was asked to deliver a paper on ‘The Great Commission of our Lord.’ After a superb paper, one respondent chosen by the BWA to participate replied, ‘I am not even sure that there is any such thing as the Great Commission, but if there is I am confident that Jesus never said it.’ The moderator of the session not only did not take issue with this German Baptist theologian, but also protected him, allowing him to refuse to respond to certain questions about universalism. This instance represents one of many but gives the reader an understanding of what Southern Baptists have been supporting by their [BWA] funding for the past 25 years.”
Geldbach said the “German Baptist theologian” can refer only to him, because he was asked to respond to a paper by Hemphill. He also said the account must have come from Paige Patterson, now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the only member of the study committee who attended the Vancouver meeting.
Geldbach said neither the direct quote attributed to him nor other details in the paragraph are true, but are rather “a complete distortion of the truth.”
Geldbach produced what he said is a full text of his comments at the Vancouver meeting. “Nowhere in my response is there any such foolish statement as the direct quote of the Committee implies,” he said. “This is neither my language, nor could I identify with this theological trash. It represents wishful thinking on part of those who try to find arguments for their pull-out.”
Geldbach said he was invited by people in charge of planning the conference, including a prominent Southern Baptist, and was not “chosen by the BWA.” He confirmed that the moderator did not take issue with him, but he added it would not be standard procedure for a moderator to do so, particularly because the statement alleged by the study committee never occurred.
Geldbach said the question about universalism, which was asked by Patterson during a discussion period, “was not a genuine question, but a trap.”
“As I did not want to be so impolite as to say that it is not my custom to answer fictitious questions, I turned to the moderator and whispered to him to take the next question so that I would have some more time to think of an appropriate answer.”
The next question was addressed to someone else, and time ran out before the moderator returned to Geldbach, which Patterson took as a slight. Geldbach said he later tried to explain what happened in a private conversation, but Patterson became “furious” and would not listen.
Geldbach said he heard over the next several months that Patterson gave a wrong account of the incident in letters sent to various persons. He said he confronted Patterson about the letters at a BWA commission meeting, and Patterson promised to send him a copy but never did.
Geldbach said another respondent to Hemphill’s paper from Latin America quipped that he would not be as critical as Geldbach because he wanted to enroll at Southwestern Seminary, where Hemphill was president at the time, to get his Ph.D. Some people laughed or smiled, Geldbach said, but he felt sorry about the statement “because it demonstrated that people are afraid to say what they truly mean for fear of retaliation.”
Geldbach said several participants approached him after his response to say they found Hemphill’s address ill-researched and lacking substance. “The Committee must now call Hemphill’s paper ‘superb,’ thereby using the former president of SWTBS as a scapegoat for Paige Patterson’s own ambitions,” he said.
Geldbach described Patterson as possessing behavior “of one who distorts the truth, bears false witness and therefore has no right to be as judgmental as he and the Committee is of the BWA and its activities.”
In the manuscript he provided of his response to Hemphill’s paper in Vancouver, Geldbach challenged statements that the Great Commission from Matthew 28 is “the central focus of the entire seminary experience” and should be “the heart of theological education.”
Geldbach said he disagreed with Hemphill’s literal reading of the Gospels and epistles attributed to Paul, adding that he believes the New Testament shows that evangelism can take several forms that vary according to context.
“My conclusion is that we should not try to distill one particular form of evangelism from the New Testament, but leave open the option to have a great variety of approaches which differ from country to country, from culture to culture, from continent to continent,” he said. “As we enter the next century—and I would like to go on record by expressing my amazement why we talk so much about it—Christianity must become more decentralized or, as was pointed out yesterday, ‘de-colonized’ and much more context-oriented to prevent it from losing its relevancy.”
Geldbach criticized numbers-based evangelism and church growth methods popular in the United States, which are based on the assumption that homogenous groups grow the fastest. Those methods, he said, don’t result in “a church as Paul described,” with a mixture of cultures, races, gender and class. Such methods, he continued, instead introduce “a kind of apartheid, preferably the middle class, white, male-dominated sections of society.”
Geldbach said biblical evangelism isn’t based just on numerical “success” but should also address issues of justice, war and concern for the poor.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.