Christian Identity and Baptist Distinctives

[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on July 9, 2008.]

A few days ago, I posted on the topic of The Gospel and Baptist Identity. I shared some concerns I have about those who divorce, often unintentionally, our ecclesiastical identity from the good news. Beginning with this post, I want to move from description to prescription with a short series that I hope will make a constructive proposal about the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. These posts are more or less expansions of my classroom lectures on Baptist identity and distinctives.

Though most discussions of Baptist identity understandably focus upon Baptist ecclesiological distinctives (regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion, etc.), it is important to note that Baptist identity is not exhausted in these distinctives. Baptists are first and foremost a type of Christian, which means Baptist identity is one expression of Christian identity. To say it another way, our Baptist identity is fundamentally a Christian identity that is nuanced by that cluster of ecclesiological beliefs that we refer to as Baptist distinctives.

Because our Christian identity is essential to our Baptist identity, we share a number of convictions with the wider catholic tradition, whether in its Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant forms:

1. Baptists believe in the Triune God who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
2. Baptists believe that this Triune God created the world good, but that his good world has been corrupted because of the sin of the first human beings.
3. Baptists believe that Jesus Christ is the unique God-Man, the incarnate Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, both truly divine and genuinely human.
4. Baptists believe that God is redeeming the world and rescuing lost sinners through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
5. Baptists believe that every human being will spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell, and each person’s eternal destination is based upon how that person responds to God’s revelation in Christ.
6. Most Baptists believe that all Christians everywhere are adopted into God’s family and are part of his universal church, a group which includes all presently living believers as well as all the redeemed of all the ages.
7. Baptists believe that all of these truths are taught in the Bible, which is God’s authoritative written word to humanity.

It is probably not enough to argue that Baptists are merely one type of Christian. To be most precise in our understanding of Baptist identity, we need to recognize that Baptists are a certain type of Protestant Christian. The Baptist movement began among third generation English Protestants with historic roots in Puritanism and Separatism and ecclesiological affinity (whether intentional or not) with some Continental Anabaptists. Though most of us argue that the early church was substantially baptistic in its ecclesiological beliefs, and though many of us concede that some baptistic distinctives were at times embraced by some groups that predated the reformations of the 16th century, the ecclesiastical movement with which modern-day Baptists identify began, in at least two stages, during the first half of the 17th century.

Because of our historic milieu, Baptists embrace a number of convictions that are embraced by most other Protestant Christians:

1. Baptists believe that salvation comes by grace through faith and that sinners are justified by faith rather than by good works.
2. Baptists believe in the supreme authority of Scripture, arguing that the Bible is the ultimate norm for faith and practice and is thus of a greater authority than traditions, creeds, confessions, and individual opinions.
3. Most Baptists believe in only two ordinances (or sacraments), baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and reject a sacerdotal understanding of salvation.
4. Baptists believe in the priesthood of all believers, claiming that every believer has direct access to God as a result of the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ.
5. Baptists argue against the existence of a special priestly class of Christians, arguing that all believers are spiritually equipped for the work of the gospel ministry within their unique vocations.

Baptists are Christians. Even more specifically, Baptists are a type of Protestant Christian. The vast majority of our beliefs are not unique to Baptists, which is a good thing; when too many of your beliefs are different from other Christians, what you have is likely an alternative to Christianity.

Having established that most of our beliefs are shared with other types of Christians, I want to briefly consider those beliefs that are typically associated with Baptist Christians. There are at least five distinctives that are uniquely emphasized by Baptists:

1. Regenerate church membership
2. Believer’s baptism by immersion
3. Congregational church polity
4. Local church autonomy
5. Liberty of conscience

Note that all of these distinctives relate in some way to ecclesiology. This is no accident: remember that Baptist identity is fundamentally a Christian identity that is nuanced by that cluster of ecclesiological beliefs that we refer to as Baptist distinctives. The Baptist movement is, at its core, an ecclesiological renewal movement within the wider Protestant Christian tradition.

It is true that each of the above Baptist distinctives are embraced by other types of Christians, with varying degrees of consistency. But it is also true that these convictions are only embraced, in toto and consistently, by baptistic Christians. I would argue that when you find a local Protestant Christian church that emphasizes the above five distinctives, you have a theologically Baptist (or baptistic) church. This remains true even if the word “Baptist” does not appear on the church building’s sign or the pastor’s letterhead.

I hope to tease out these five distinctives over the course of the next few weeks, with emphasis on each distinctive’s relationship to the gospel. I hope to show that Baptists are Protestant Christians who honestly believe our unique identity is not only substantially like New Testament faith and practice, but is also the most consistent application of the gospel to ecclesiological matters. In other words, I will be arguing that our Baptist distinctives are nothing more or less than the ecclesiological fruit of the good news as it is embodied in local churches.

The Gospel and Baptist Identity

[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on July 6, 2008.] 

It seems to me that there is an unhealthy false dilemma that has arisen in the discourse within the Southern Baptist Convention over the last few years. There are some Southern Baptists who talk quite a bit about the gospel. There are others who talk about the importance of Baptist identity. Particularly in the SBC blogosphere, these two emphases are often pitted against each other, whether intentionally or not. This is surely not healthy.

The great shame of the false dilemma between the gospel and Baptist identity is that I doubt very many people actually believe one to the exclusion of the other. I have no doubt that the vast majority of “gospel Baptists” strongly affirms Baptist identity. But it seems sometimes like gospel Baptists divorce the gospel part from the Baptist part, or at the very least like they are a bit embarrassed by the Baptist part. I think this happens for at least two reasons. First, as a general rule, gospel Baptists spend most of their energy debating and defending the good news, not ecclesiology, which is the most visible aspect of Baptist identity. Second, many gospel Baptists are willing to cooperate at various levels with gospel-centered evangelicals in other traditions, which raises the ire of Baptists who are suspicious of other types of believers.

I also believe that the vast majority of “identity Baptists” believes the gospel; it would be very bad news if they did not! But it seems sometimes like identity Baptists also divorce the gospel part from the Baptist part, or at the very least like they are suspicious about too much talk about the gospel without giving due deference to Baptist distinctives. I think there are also at least two reasons for this tendency. First, as a general rule, identity Baptists tend to emphasize the differences that Baptists have with other Christians rather than commonalities. Second, because identity Baptists spend most of their time debating and defending ecclesiology rather than the gospel, other Baptists get the impression that identity Baptists are more concerned with the jots and tittles of Baptist principles than they are with the main thing: the good news of Jesus Christ.

The dilemma is further complicated by code language, arrogance, and sectarian tendencies in both streams of thought. For some gospel Baptists, the word “gospel” is really code language for five-point Calvinism. Take, for example, Together for the Gospel, where the lineup of speakers (including the Baptists) at least suggests, even if unintentionally, that the conference is really Together for Calvinism. Other Calvinists are quite intentional, bandying about Spurgeon’s infamous dictum that Calvinism is nothing more or less than the gospel itself. Though very few Calvinists will go so far as to argue that non-Calvinists are non-Christians, there is a discernable sectarian streak among some Calvinists who equate the gospel with their own theological convictions.

For some identity Baptists, the phrase “Baptist identity” is really code language for Landmarkism, or at least Landmark-like interpretations of some Baptist distinctives, particularly baptism. Blogs, articles, papers, and conference addresses indicate that there are some Baptists who think “Baptist identity” really means their personal interpretation of Baptist distinctives. (This is most curious in a tradition that has, as a general rule, been quite diverse because of our emphases on freedom of conscience and local church autonomy.) It is also clear that some identity Baptists are uninterested in cooperating with other Christians at almost any level, though I trust very few would go so far as to argue that non-Baptists are non-Christians. There is a discernable sectarian streak among some identity Baptists who assume-or at least imply-that real Baptists are the ones who agree with their opinions, even on matters not tightly defined by the Baptist Faith & Message.

So how do we move past this unfortunate impasse? I would humbly suggest to my fellow Southern Baptists that all of us do a better job of clearly articulating the gospel and grounding our Baptist identity in that gospel. We must reconcile the gospel and Baptist identity.

We have to clearly define and proclaim the gospel. All Southern Baptists, regardless of their views about Calvinism, must believe and preach the good news of all that God has done through the person and work of Jesus Christ, even if we articulate aspects of that good news in slightly different ways. We cannot downplay the holiness of the Triune God who created all things. We cannot go soft on human sin in general and our own sin in particular. We cannot deemphasize Christ’s incarnation as the God-Man and his position as the final Adam. We cannot ignore the saving work of Christ in perfectly fulfilling God’s law, paying the penalty for sin on the cross through his own shed blood, absorbing the wrath of God on our behalf, defeating the powers of darkness in his atoning death and victorious resurrection from the dead, and securing the final redemption of the cosmos. We cannot undermine the truth that sinners are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And we cannot downplay the need of every person on earth to personally repent of their sin and trust in the finished work of Christ for their salvation. All Southern Baptists must embrace and proclaim these truths, lest we find ourselves clinging to individual pieces of the gospel rather than the entirety of the good news.

Southern Baptists must also define and defend our Baptist identity as the ecclesiological fruit of the gospel. A regenerate church membership includes the people created by the gospel as they covenant together in a local visible community. Believer’s baptism by immersion visually depicts the gospel, is the public, personal owning of the gospel, and identifies a believer with the people created by the gospel. Healthy congregational church polity is the gospel lived out in community by gospel people. Responsible local church autonomy reflects the freedom of gospel people in a specific gospel community to pursue gospel ends. Defending religious liberty for all protects the freedom of the gospel to be commended, believed, and embodied by present and future gospel people. The priesthood of all believers means that the people of the gospel minister that gospel to one another and to those who do not yet believe the gospel, because of the continuing mediation of the final High Priest who is at the center of the gospel. Redemptive church discipline protects the integrity of gospel communities by rescuing gospel people who have strayed and removing from the community those people who show no evidence of embracing the gospel. It is not enough to proof-text Baptist distinctives; our identity must be grounded in the gospel itself and commended to others as the most consistent application of that gospel to all ecclesiological matters.

This post is not intended to answer every question about the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. But it is intended to start what I pray is a healthy conversation that can help to bridge the gap between different types of Southern Baptist conservatives. If we are to move forward and embrace a Great Commission Resurgence, we must be sure that we know who we are, that we know why we are, and that we know what to preach to others as we make disciples of all people and baptize them in the name of our Triune God. We must be a people of the gospel. And we must be a Baptist people. And I believe that we can humbly, but firmly, argue that we are the latter because we embrace the former.

Carl Henry and Baptist Identity

These days, it seems as if everyone is talking about the late evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003). Greg Thornbury has authored a widely acclaimed new book titled Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F.H. Henry (Crossway, 2013). Thornbury, Collin Hansen, and John Starke recorded a conversation for The Gospel Coalition about a famous encounter between Henry and Karl Barth. A few months ago, Jason Duesing wrote an online essay honoring Henry in 100th year of his birth. The Carl Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is hosting a major academic conference later this year, among other Henry-related scholarly activities. If you’re not familiar with Henry, he was a founding faculty member of Fuller Theological Seminary, the first editor of Christianity Today, and one of the architects of postwar neo-evangelicalism. His book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) offered a broadside against the fundamentalist tendency to divorce evangelism and social engagement, while his six-volume God, Revelation, and Authority (1976–1983) was one of the most important works of evangelical theology written in the second half of the 20th century. Though he is known primarily as an evangelical theologian, Henry was a Baptist. In fact, for much of his adult life he was a Southern Baptist. In 2004, Russell Moore wrote an article for The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology titled “God, Revelation, and Community: Ecclesiology and Baptist Identity in the Thought of Carl F. H. Henry.” Moore concludes that Henry was a convictional Baptist, but his ecclesiology was underdeveloped in his writings, in part because of his historical context. Simply put, few neo-evangelical theologians wrote on ecclesiology other than in the broadest strokes, in part because of the parachurch nature of postwar evangelicalism. I would say it like this: Henry was a conservative evangelical who held to Baptist ecclesiological convictions; the accent, however, was on the former aspect of his identity. By contrast, I consider myself an orthodox Baptist, which also makes me, by definition, a type of evangelical. I would encourage you to read Moore’s excellent essay to learn more about Henry’s Baptist identity. Henry himself discusses this topic in his essay “Twenty Years a Baptist,” which has most recently been reprinted in Why I Am a Baptist (B&H Academic, 2001), edited by Tom Nettles and Russell Moore. For an excellent short introduction to Henry’s thought, including his identity as an evangelical and Baptist theologian, see Al Mohler’s chapter on Henry in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, edited by Timothy George and David Dockery (B&H Academic, 2001).

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