Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler gave qualified support for a view of history called the "trail of blood" that traces an unbroken succession of "true" churches back to the New Testament era.
The Roman Catholic Church makes a similar claim of an unbroken line of bishops stretching back to the apostles. In 2000 Mohler called Catholicism a "false church" that teaches a "false gospel" and labeled the papacy a "false and unbiblical office."
A caller on last week's "Ask Anything Wednesday" of "The Albert Mohler Radio Program" wanted to know how to respond to people who say the Baptists are the only New Testament church and are not of a Protestant heritage.
Mohler said an "honest" reading of "credible history" makes it clear that Baptists as they are known today grew out of a movement of English separatists who rejected liturgy and theology of the Church of England.
Characterized by a "regenerate" church membership demonstrated through believer's baptism, Mohler said, that Baptist tradition is traced through establishment of the Philadelphia Baptist Association in what became the United States, which this year celebrates its 300th anniversary.
"You have some, back in the 19th century, who were claiming that Baptists were the only true Christians and the Baptist church had always existed throughout time," Mohler continued.
"There's a part of that argument I agree with," Mohler said. "God's always had a faithful church, the Lord has always protected a remnant in his church, but to say that church was always constituted exactly like a Baptist church and identified as a Baptist church throughout the ages doesn't make any sense. It's just not honest."
One of Mohler's predecessors at Southern Seminary was forced out of office for reaching a similar conclusion. William H. Whitsitt, the seminary's third president, wrote in 1896 after researching primary sources in the British Museum that Baptist baptism by immersion was "introduced in England in the year 1641."
That didn't set well with "Landmark" tenets promoted by J.R. Graves, editor of the Baptist & Reflector, today the official news journal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Graves, a controversialist who waged battle against churches in his day that baptized infants, insisted that without an unbroken succession of immersions from the apostolic era, there would be no basis for declaring Baptists the "true" church.
Whitsitt's colleagues at Southern Seminary agreed with him privately, but remained silent as the president endured attacks from the religious press. Whitsitt resigned in 1899, after just four years as president, to save the seminary from further damage.
Moderates who created new agencies in response to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention chose Whitsitt as namesake for their Baptist Heritage Society formed in 1992. The society gives an annual "William H. Whitsitt Courage Award" to honor courage and "intellectual integrity" in the face of opposition.
As to whether Southern Baptists are Protestants, Mohler told the caller there is "a yes and a no" to the question.
"If the word Protestant means non-Roman Catholic and from the Reformation heritage that protested against the Roman Catholic Church, then yes we're Protestants," Mohler said. "If you mean Protestant as in the contemporary usage, in which that means more the mainline Protestant denominations over against the more evangelical denominations, I'd have to say no, we're more evangelical. But the word Protestant shouldn't, I suggest, be used in such a limited sense."
"Do Southern Baptists or Baptists trace their line from Anabaptists?" Mohler continued. "Well not directly; no, not at all. The Anabaptists were associated with what is known as the Radical Reformation, and they're now more represented by the groups known as Mennonites and the Amish rather than by Baptists. But was there influence? Almost surely so. We know that John Smyth, one of the very earliest of the Separatist Baptists, had some influence on the Anabaptists. It's a small world sometimes, and there's a lot of influence, but there's no direct pedigree."
The question of Baptist origins hasn't completely receded to the bookshelves of history.
Last November the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention tightened guidelines for missionary candidates to require them to be baptized "under the authority of a local church that practices believer's baptism alone."
Critics of the change, led by a blogging IMB trustee from Oklahoma, viewed it as part of a creeping Landmarkism intent on imposing dogma more restrictive than parameters of the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, the SBC's official doctrinal statement.
Opponents to both the baptism guideline and a sister policy banning missionaries from use of a "private prayer language" claimed victory last week in San Antonio, Texas, when the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a statement declaring the Baptist Faith & Message "the only consensus statement of doctrinal beliefs approved by the Southern Baptist Convention" and "sufficient in its current form to guide trustees in their establishment of policies and practices of entities of the convention."
Others questioned the significance of the vote, which some messengers apparently believes was nothing more than an affirmation of the Baptist Faith & Message, and how it would be implemented.
"We had a discussion about the meaning of our confessional statement, and some have interpreted that discussion to mean the seminaries and the institutions have been instructed to not go beyond that statement in their hiring and their hiring policies," said Florida Baptist Witness editor James Smith, a guest on Mohler's Wednesday radio program. "That's in fact not what the statement said."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.