Among Christians, the word heresy must be used with care and precision. Not every doctrinal error is a heresy, though all doctrinal error is to be avoided. A heresy is the denial or corruption of a Christian doctrine that is central to the faith and essential to the gospel. The late theologian Harold O. J. Brown defined heresy as a doctrinal error “so important that those who believe it, who the church calls heretics, must be considered to have abandoned the faith.”
That sets the issue clearly. Premillennialists consider postmillennialists to be in error, but they do not consider postmillennialists to be heretics. Those who deny the Trinity, on the other hand, are heretics, and the believing church must consider non-trinitarians to have departed the faith. The same must be said of those who deny the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ. Far more can be said about heresy, but the word must be used with care and accuracy.
Protestants, rightly standing with the Reformers, have insisted that justification by faith alone is also central to the gospel of Christ and essential to any proclamation of that gospel. Martin Luther, for example, considered justification to be articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae — the article by which the church stands or falls, and so it is.
Today, we just recognize and condemn another heresy that has reared its ugly head in recent days, and murderously so. The killing of nine worshippers gathered at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina is a hideous demonstration of the deadly power of this heresy. The young white man charged with the killings has not, as yet, claimed a theological rationale for his acts. Nevertheless, he has been exposed as a young man whose worldview was savagely warped by the ideology of racial superiority — white superiority — and the grotesque and wretched ideology that drove him is now inseparable from the murders he is charged with committing.
If the reach of that ideology could be limited to a few fringe figures, we could allow ourselves to be less concerned. But the ideology that was represented in Dylann Roof’s reported words as he killed and in the photographs and evidence found on his Internet postings is not limited to a small fringe. You do not have to hang a flag representing the apartheid governments of Rhodesia or South Africa to be a racist.
The ideology of racial superiority is one of the saddest and most sordid evidences of the Fall and its horrifying effects. Throughout history, racial ideologies have been driving forces of war, of social cohesion, of demagoguery, and of dictatorships. Race theory was central to the Nazi regime and was used by both sides in the Pacific theater of World War II. In that theater of the war, both the Japanese and the Americans claimed that the other was an inferior race that must be defeated by force. The Japanese claimed racial superiority as central to their subjugation of other Asian peoples.
At the same time, many white Americans claimed and assumed the superiority of caucasian skin to black and brown skin — or any other color of skin. The main “color line,” as Frederick Douglass called it in 1881, has always been black and white in America. While this is a national problem, and theories of racial superiority have been popular in both the North and the South, it was the states of the old Confederacy that gave those ideologies their most fertile soil. White superiority was claimed as a belief by both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, but it was the Confederacy that made racial superiority a central purpose.
More humbling still is the fact that many churches, churchmen, and theologians gave sanction to that ideology of racial superiority. While this was true throughout the southern churches, Southern Baptists bear a particular responsibility and burden of history. The Southern Baptist Convention was not only founded by slaveholders; it was founded by men who held to an ideology of racial superiority and who bathed that ideology in scandalous theological argument. At times, white superiority was defended by a putrid exegesis of the Bible that claimed a “curse of Ham” as the explanation of dark skin — an argument that reflects such ignorance of Scripture and such shameful exegesis that it could only be believed by those who were looking for an argument to satisfy their prejudices.
We bear the burden of that history to this day. Racial superiority is a sin as old as Genesis and as contemporary as the killings in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The ideology of racial superiority is not only sinful, it is deadly.
I gladly stand with the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in their courageous affirmation of biblical orthodoxy, Baptist beliefs, and missionary zeal. There would be no Southern Baptist Convention and there would be no Southern Seminary without them. James P. Boyce and Basil Manly, Jr. and John A. Broadus were titans of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
But there is more to the story. Boyce and Broadus were chaplains in the Confederate army. The founders of the SBC and of Southern Seminary were racist defenders of slavery. Just a few months ago I was reading a history of Greenville, South Carolina when I came across a racist statement made by James P. Boyce, my ultimate predecessor as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was so striking that I had to find a chair. This, too, is our story.
By every reckoning, Boyce and Broadus were consummate Christian gentlemen, given the culture of their day. They would have been horrified, I am certain, by any act of violence against any person. But any strain of racial superiority, and especially any strain bathed in the language of Christian theology, is deadly dangerous all the same.
In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination publicly repented of its roots in the defense of slavery. In 2015, far more is required of us. It is not enough to repent of slavery. We must repent and seek to confront and remove every strain of racial superiority that remains and seek with all our strength to be the kind of churches of which Jesus would be proud — the kind of churches that will look like the marriage supper of the Lamb.
I am certain that I do not know all that this will require of us. I intend to keep those names on our buildings and to stand without apology with the founders and their affirmation of Baptist orthodoxy. But those names on our buildings and college and professorial chairs and endowed scholarships do not represent unmixed pride. They also represent the burden of history and the urgency of repentance. We the living cannot repent on behalf of those who are dead, but we can repent for the legacy that we would otherwise perpetuate and extend by silence.
I will not remove those names from the buildings, but I bear the burden of telling the whole story and acknowledging the totality of the legacy. I bear responsibility to set things right in so far as I have the opportunity to set them right. I am so thankful that the racist ideologies of the past would rightly horrify the faculty and students of the present. Are we yet horrified enough?
I will not remove those names from the buildings, but I could never fly the flag that represented their cause in battle. I know full well that today’s defenders of that flag — by far most of them — do not intend to send a racial message nor to defy civil rights. But some do, and there is no way to escape the symbolism that so wounds our neighbors — and our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Today, most who defend that flag do so to claim a patrimony and to express love for a region. But that is not the whole story, and we know it.
And now the hardest part. Were the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary heretics?
They defended all the doctrines they believed were central and essential to the Christian faith as revealed in the Bible and as affirmed throughout the history of the church. They sought to defend Baptist orthodoxy in an age already tiring of orthodoxy. They would never have imagined themselves as heretics, and in one sense they certainly were not. Nor, we should add, was Martin Luther a heretic, even as he expressed a horrifying antisemitism.
But I would argue that racial superiority in any form, and white superiority as the central issue of our concern, is a heresy. The separation of human beings into ranks of superiority and inferiority differentiated by skin color is a direct assault upon the doctrine of Creation and an insult to the imago Dei — the image of God in which every human being is made. Racial superiority is also directly subversive of the gospel of Christ, effectively reducing the power of his substitutionary atonement and undermining the faithful preaching of the gospel to all persons and to all nations.
To put the matter plainly, one cannot simultaneously hold to an ideology of racial superiority and rightly present the gospel of Jesus Christ. One cannot hold to racial superiority and simultaneously defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints. So far as I can tell, no one ever confronted the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with the brutal reality of what they were doing, believing, and teaching in this regard. The same seems to be true in the case of Martin Luther and his antisemitism. For that matter, how recently were these sins recognized as sins and repented of? The problem is not limited to the names of the founders on our buildings.
I do believe that racial superiority is a heresy. That means that those who hold it unrepentantly and refuse correction by Scripture and the gospel of Christ must, as Harold O. J. Brown rightly said, “be considered to have abandoned the faith.”
We cannot change the past, but we must learn from it. There is no way to confront the dead with their heresies, but there is no way to avoid the reckoning that we must make, and the repentance that must be our own.
By God’s grace, this is the best I know to say. By God’s grace, may I not die with heresies unknown to me, but all too known to my children, and to my children’s children.
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Image of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina, Sunday, June 21, 2015, used by permission, AP News Photo.
I was asked by Religion News Service for a comment on the Confederate Battle Flag issue yesterday. This was my statement in full:
“Symbols matter, and sometimes they matter in different ways to different people. For most people in the South, the Confederate Battle Flag does not now represent racism or any reference to rebellion against the Union. Nevertheless, every symbol has a historical context and associations. For this specific flag, the most immediate context is the civil rights movement and resistance to its central goals. As Christians, we are called to love God and to love our neighbors. Some of our neighbors–and some of our own brothers and sisters in Christ–are deeply wounded by this flag. They see it as a denial of their essential humanity and as a statement of racial superiority. For that sufficient reason, gospel-minded Christians should support taking down the flag. Love of neighbor outweighs even love of region, and it certainly requires that we disassociate ourselves from any hint of racism, now or in the past.”
News articles drawing from that statement have now appeared in The Washington Post and other major media, but that is the full statement.