In 1969, the publication of the first volume of the Broadman Bible Commentary created doctrinal controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention. Because the denomination’s Sunday School Board published the commentary, the book was widely read by many Baptist pastors and laypeople. Theologically conservative Baptists objected to the Genesis commentary by British author G. Henton Davies, who applied higher-critical methodology to the foundations of the biblical narrative. He viewed the biblical patriarchs as a mixture of reliable history and tribal archetype narratives.
Davies referred to the Genesis account of the Flood as a “double account” that “represents the Israelite transformation of a Canaanite account … originally circulating in the Babylonian or eastern area of the Fertile Crescent.”1 He thought preposterous the idea that Noah could have gathered pairs of all the world’s animals into his Ark. Furthermore, he insisted that the scope of the deluge must have been local, not worldwide, in its scope, contrary the textual evidence. Davies even raised ethical objections against a global flood:
Is God such a being that he would destroy the first mankind and so bring his first experiment with man to an untimely end? . . . The question of the historical value of the flood story must be considered in the light of the moral and theological problems of the account.2
When the 1970 Southern Baptist Convention assembled in Denver, the majority of messengers concluded that Davies’ commentary was “out of harmony with the beliefs of the vast majority of Southern Baptist pastors and people.”3 Major points of contention among Baptists were Davies’ unqualified endorsement of the source-theory Pentateuch scholarship, his views on the Noahic Flood, and his interpretation of Genesis 22 that cast Abraham in an unethical light. Davies argued that Genesis 22 was not a testament to the patriarch’s obedience — as affirmed by Hebrews 11:17 — but “the climax of the psychology of his life.”4 Davies, unwilling to recognize that a good God might command Abraham to willingly sacrifice his own son, paralleled the entire story to the Judges 11 account of Jephthah, who presumed foolishly upon divine providence and sacrificed his own daughter.
Two months following the Denver Convention, the SBC Sunday School Board, in compliance with the convention, voted to withdraw the commentary and appointed a committee to make recommendations for a revised version that would display “due consideration of the conservative viewpoint.”5 The Board ultimately settled upon Southern Seminary’s Clyde T. Francisco, John R. Sampey Professor of Old Testament Interpretation.
Francisco’s scholarly acumen and healthy reputation with local churches were important factors that convinced the Sunday School Board to request that he write the Genesis commentary for a revised printing, which saw publication in 1973. Though Francisco was more tactful in handling higher-critical themes, he differed substantially with Davies only in his interpretation of Abraham’s obedience in Genesis 22. Unlike Davies, Francisco favored a literal interpretation of the passage, insisting that the sacrifice of Isaac was a genuine test of faith given to Abraham by God, not a personal psychological quandary.
Like Davies, Francisco was not inclined to affirm the universality of the Noahic Flood, and he likewise assumed that the biblical and Babylonian Flood stories shared a common literary antecedent. Francisco employed a distinctly higher-critical hermeneutic in his exegesis of Genesis 6:
It is apparent that God did not tell the Hebrews the story of the flood that they might write it down. They used a story they already possessed to teach what God had put on their hearts about his dealings with man. Valid interpretation, therefore, must distinguish between the original revelation and the cultural vehicle through which it was expressed.6
Francisco acknowledged that a plain reading of the biblical text suggested a worldwide Flood, but he posited that such language was the probable result of the received tradition:
When the writer received the story, the flood was already being described as universal. He certainly did not take the account of the flood and universalize it for his purposes. He used the story as he received it in order to teach the ways of God with men. He would not have been led to use a story that was not rooted in the actual history of man. On the other hand, the original story could have gained accretions in its transmissions.7
Not wishing to incur the wrath of conservatives within the denomination, Francisco appealed that he found no theological problems with a figurative reading of the Genesis narrative. He emphasized that such texts should be understood more as literary poetry than prose.8 Ultimately, however, Francisco’s rewrite only served to further antagonize conservatives in the denomination. The growing dissatisfaction of many Southern Baptists toward the denomination’s organizational leadership laid the foundation for the groundswell that became the conservative resurgence.
1 G. Henton Davies, Genesis, in The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 1, General Articles; Genesis-Exodus, ed. Clifton J. Allen (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1969), 117.
2 Ibid., 117-118.
3 “Board Votes to Withdraw, Rewrite Commentary, Cancel Two Quarterlies,” Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine, 27 August 1970, p. 24.
4 Davies, Genesis, 198.
5 Ben L. Kaufman, “Author Won’t ‘Give Up’ Views in Book,” Rocky Mountain Baptist, 7 May 1971, p. 3.
6 Clyde T. Francisco, Genesis, in The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 1, rev. ed. General Articles; Genesis-Exodus, ed. Clifton J. Allen (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1973), 107.
7 Ibid., 139.