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Baptists’ Way(ward) Identity

May 20, 2012

In my estimation, the best available history of the +400-century Baptist movement is David Bebbington’s Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People (Baylor University Press, 2010).  Bebbington is an internationally known evangelical scholar who has made valuable contributions to the field of Christian history.  His recent installment on Baptist history is surely one of his most ambitious projects, seeing as how the field has been severely lacking in sufficiently comprehensive and contemporary treatments.  My assessment of his book’s thesis is that Baptists stem from a diverse history of controversy and factionalism, yet their common commitment to a believer’s church and evangelism resulted in their rapid global expansion.

For Bebbington, special emphasis ought to be placed on “diverse” when describing the idea of “Baptists.”  His penultimate chapter, “Baptist Identity,”  is largely dedicated to categorizing seven contemporary strands in Baptist life, which he lists as liberals, classic Evangelicals, premillennialists, charismatic renewalists, Calvinistic, Anabaptist aficionados, and High Church (p.265-71).  He concludes that Baptists “have a multifaceted identity” (p.284), and further stated:

[Baptists] originated as radical repudiators of medieval idolatry but went through many subsequent convolutions. They turned into Evangelicals and remain overwhelmingly so. They held contrasting and often conflicting views on social questions. They developed diverse understandings of the church and of the ideal relations of the church and state. Their global spread generated far more variety. Hence it is not surprising that, in the twentieth century . . . their heritage became a contested area in the largest of the national denominations, the Southern Baptists. Nor should it be unexpected that there were at least seven identifiable streams of life in the world-wide Baptist community at the opening of the twenty-first century. . . . In the end, therefore, the Baptist identity, a phenomenon of the flux of history, may elude definition. [emphasis mine]

Emphasis on the diversity of the tradition is a theme that has also been trumpeted by accomplished Baptist historian, Bill Leonard, who surveyed the kaleidoscope of Baptist groups in the American context in his 2005 book, Baptists in America, and recently reflected on the past and future of the movement in The Challenge of Being Baptist: Owning a Scandalous Past and an Uncertain Future (2010).  Leonard, a former Southern Baptist professor who now teaches at Wake Forrest University’s School of Divinity and frequently contributes Opinion columns for the Associated Baptist Press, notably debated/dialoged with Southern Seminary’s Gregory Wills at Union University’s 2006 “Baptists in America Conference: Baptist Ways or Baptist Way?

Thomas J. Nettles, the elder statesman of Southern Seminary’s Church History stable of professors, has offered detailed critiques of both authors in the March 2012 issue of The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (aka, “JETS,” not to be confused with the football or hockey teams).  His book reviews of Baptists through the Centuries and The Challenge of Being Baptist are thorough treatments, but most notable is his critique of each author’s conclusions regarding “Baptist identity.”

Regarding Leonard, Nettles writes:

As usual, reading a work by Bill Leonard creates frustration and provokes creative thought. He is too narrow in his discussion of Baptist identity (and thus, ironically, too diffuse) and does not recognize the ongoing broad areas of theological agreement that existed among confessional Baptists in spite of their many disagreements. He is too nebulous in his view of the importance of the issue of biblical inspiration and its implications . . . He wants to transport Baptist views of liberty of conscience in society into the church as a principle of doctrinal freedom.
[JETS, March 2012, p.225-26]

Regarding Bebbington, Nettles writes:

In my view, Baptist identity can be stated clearly in terms of historic orthodoxy, Protestant evangelicalism, confessionalism, and a theologically integrated separatist ecclesiology. . . . Bebbington resists that kind of certainty in moving toward an alignment of ideas that constitute Baptist identity. . . .

Some persons and events that have appeared within the circumference of Baptist life, so my view would assert, have taken positions that place them outside that circumference– we should make no attempt to embrace them by changing the idea of what a Baptist is. A person who denies the necessity of the new birth before baptism is not a Baptist; the person who denies the deity of Christ is not a Baptist; the person who prefers subjective personal autonomy over the authority of Scripture is not a Baptist, for he cannot hold a Baptist ecclesiology principally but only as a present tradition of convenience; a person who rejects Christ’s death as a satisfaction for our sin for all who receive him by faith is not a Baptist. Bebbington, not as a theologian, but as a historian, would not endorse the drawing of such lines as warranted by a historical study of Baptist identity. Baptist principles, as few and as broadly conceived as they may be, in Bebbington’s summary, are neither universal among them nor unique to them (p.285). . . . it seems that at the end, [Bebbington] wants the reader to be less certain, rather than more certain, as to what a Baptist is.  What else does “elude definition” mean?
[JETS, March 2012, p.230]

Bebbington, Leonard, and Nettles have each offered forth their own definitions of “Baptist identity,” although their conclusions differ starkly in important key areas.  In my estimation, Bebbington’s attempt to categorize seven neat-and-tidy strands of contemporary Baptists was the low-light of an otherwise insightful and helpful history; pages 265-71 promote a flawed idea that was poorly executed in expression.  And as much as I respect Leonard’s scholarly precision in the art of description, I believe his conclusions on Baptist identity suffer from a pick-and-choose mentality that elevates “liberty of conscience” over all else and misapplies the principle of “separation of church and state” to the denominational level, resulting in a network of churches who are free to teach and practice whatever they desire yet still benefit from the resources of a larger network of churches without a clear doctrinal standard for cooperation.

No one should be surprised that I am most persuaded by the central argument of Nettles that Baptist Identity ought to be defined as theological at its core.   On that point, I am both biased and convicted.  Nevertheless, I cannot go quite so far as Nettles ventures when he asserts that theological liberals have no claim on the Baptist name.  There is a sense in which we have to concede (with a somber heart) that there are strands within the ever-evolving Baptist tradition that may not necessarily be within the “Orthodox” tradition.  Though, in our estimation, these strands may have long since departed from “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” they nevertheless remain, like the wayward cousins who congregate amongst themselves at the family reunion.

Obviously, theological distinctions ought to limit the bounds of fellowship, and the liberal trajectory inevitably leads the nominally religious to abandon the tradition altogether.  Some notable moderate Baptist denominations (which may not actively champion liberalism yet disdain any resemblance of “creedalism”) have downplayed the significance of fellowship boundaries and have thus underminded the entire notion of theological unity in favor of practical cooperation and some loosely defined notion of “togetherness.”  Theologically confessional Baptist denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention have earned the scorn of a more politically-correct world for placing “exclusive” limitations on fellowship.  Both strands, however, have some historical warrant to make claim on the name of “Baptist,” even if their contemporary faith and practice may have long since departed from the tradition of their forerunners in centuries past.  I affirm with Nettles that there ought to be a theologically firm “Baptist Way,” yet I nevertheless admit that there already are various “Baptist Ways” which exist in our present context.

Bebbington’s conclusion that Baptist identity is “a phenomenon of the flux of history, [which] may elude definition” is a cop-out statement unworthy of a scholar of his ilk, and Nettles was right to contest it.  Bebbington would have been wiser to actually define the issue historically, draw attention to the source material he actually presented in his book, and conclude that “Baptist identity” (much like “beauty”) can be defined in the eye of the beholder.  The earliest Baptists defined their identity in a very particular way, the liberal Baptist advocates of the Social Gospel defined it in a far different way, and today various Baptist groups have diverse (perhaps even contradictory) definitions of what it means to be a Baptist.

The future of the Baptists’ identity will surely be determined by which group of Baptists is able to maintain their most cherished convictions while also reaching out to a world that is increasingly lost and spiritually confused.

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