Recently my brother Stephen was able to talk with a professor of church history about a very important aspect of American church history, the Crawford Toy controversy. This controversy, involving liberal teaching from an Old Testament interpretation and languages professor, was one of the first instances of major influence in the church from uniformitarian and Darwinian philosophies. Here is a quick account of Stephen’s conversation on this important topic.
I just completed two small interviews with Dr. Greg Wills from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on the Crawford Toy controversy. They combine to give an intriguing lesson of how liberal criticism, uniformitarianism, and Darwinism can be a lethal combination to Christian scholarship and orthodoxy. Toy was one of the first professors of the newly established Southern Seminary. After studying in Germany, his interpretation of Scripture was influenced by German critics and Darwinism. The most radical change that took place was his understanding of the inspiration of Scripture. Dr. Wills and I have discussed this at length. Actually, as I heard Dr. Wills describe the progression that the liberal views had on Dr. Toy, I was hearing almost exactly the same thing we have seen with some scholars of our own time. Just as we have heard scholars such as Peter Enns say that the Apostle Paul was mistaken and wrote in error about Adam, Toy did not attempt to reinterpret what he knew to be the correct interpretation of Genesis; he just said that its history was wrong. Toy actually believed that the days in Genesis were normal days. He just didn’t believe, on the basis of evolutionary thought, that they could be. The writer of Genesis must be in error. Toy believed that God had not inspired the historical aspects of Scripture, but only the religious truth contained within it. There are many today who still say that the Bible only “contains” the Word of God rather than actually being the Word of God.
The amazing part of this history is how its effect was seen not only in Toy but in the whole of the Southern Baptist Seminary. While concerned about his influence in the seminary, it took some time before then-president James. P. Boyce actually acted on Toy’s neo-orthodox views. The damage was largely done. Many students of the seminary had already learned his views on the inspiration of Scripture and many had accepted them. These were the next leaders and professors of the Southern Baptist Convention and seminaries.
While it was not just one man who brought liberalism into the Southern Baptist Convention, the impact of Crawford Toy on seminaries and the Convention itself was significant. For generations the seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention were engaging with different levels of liberal theology and the Convention itself was changing amongst the development of liberal thinking. At the forefront of this liberal thinking were views of Genesis and the acceptance of evolution and millions of years. Not until the conservative resurgence, a movement in the 80s and 90s, did we see a push to bring conservative theology back to Southern Baptist seminaries. Unfortunately, many other seminaries, including many outside the Southern Baptist Convention, are still plagued by liberal thinking and remain spiraling in the continued effect of Toy’s view of the doctrine of inspiration.
While we can be thankful for men such as Dr. Al Mohler and Dr. Paige Patterson and the great stance that they have made in recent years to stand on the authority of the Word of God, we must continue to learn from history. Millions of years and evolutionary thinking, unless corrected or dealt with, can cause a lasting negative influence on seminaries and whole church denominations.
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This item was written with the assistance of AiG’s research team.