Baptist Theology: A Short Review

I recently read Stephen Holmes’s new book Baptist Theology (T&T Clark, 2012). Holmes, who teaches at University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is one of my favorite theologians writing today. Baptist Theology is part of T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series, which offers brief accounts of various ecclesiastical traditions for students or outside observers. I’ve been looking forward to reading this particular book for months, and it did not disappoint.

Holmes divides his book into an introduction and seven short chapters. As a general rule, he does a fine job of summarizing Baptist history and interacting with many of the most influential interpreters of the Baptist tradition (though Tom Nettles and Walter Shurden are curiously absent.) Holmes notes the wide diversity among Baptist theologians and the impossibility of advancing anything approaching a definitive summary of Baptist theology. All projects such as Baptist Theology are provisional, to some degree constructive, and necessarily nuanced and caveated (to invent a term) because of the wide array of Baptist beliefs and practices. Holmes writes from a perspective informed by evangelical convictions about Scripture and salvation, British Baptist sensibilities concerning ecclesiological matters and ecumenism, and a broadly Barthian read on the wider Reformed tradition.

I don’t agree with everything Holmes advocates—not surprising, since we’re both Baptists. I think he misunderstands nineteenth-century Landmarkism, ascribing to them a soteriological exclusionism to which they did not hold. I also disagree with his egalitarian views of church leadership, particularly his argument that Baptist polity should inevitably lead us to full inclusion of women in pastoral leadership. (I remain a convinced complementarian for exegetical and biblical-theological reasons.) I also articulate the meaning of baptism somewhat differently than Holmes. I’m less sanguine than Holmes concerning the British Baptist “recovery” of evangelical sacramentalism, which I see as being a mixed bag that varies from interpreter to interpreter. I also reject the open membership position that is common among churches affiliated with the Baptist Union of Great Britain.

Having registered some disagreements, let me say that I agree with Holmes far more often than I disagree with him. I very much resonate with his discussion of the Baptist vision of the church, especially his emphasis on a covenantal understanding of church membership (a common theme among British Baptists that I heartily affirm). I find his theological accounts of congregational freedom and liberty of conscience to be quite compelling. I especially appreciate his balanced approach to the tension between individualism and community in the Baptist tradition. It seems to me that the Baptist tradition, when at its healthiest, emphasizes the individual-within-community rather than a (too-common) democratic individualism or a (über-trendy) postmodern communitarianism. His discussion of Baptists and ordination is also very interesting; Baptists have never quite figured out how to approach ordination, though, in an arguably ironic twist, those of us in America appreciate the tax benefits that ordination brings.

I love Holmes’s discussion of mission and holiness in the Baptist tradition. I like his reading on the centrality of mission to Baptist identity and history, a point I also make in my own teaching and writing. His point that Baptists have had a far more significant impact on missiology than systematic theology is well-taken (though he mistakenly identifies the Dutch Reformed missiologist David Bosch as a Baptist). His discussion of the holiness of the church is also very helpful, particularly since it addresses a serious area of neglect or confusion in many contemporary Baptist churches. I especially resonate with his emphasis on the corporate nature of sanctification and the role that the church plays in conforming us to the image of Christ.

I think Baptist Theology is a helpful volume for Baptist pastors and other ministry leaders in North America. While the British provenance of the book will mean that Holmes (perhaps) misunderstands some aspects of Baptist life on this side of the pond, it also provides him with a location to (perhaps) offer some helpful perspectives that we Yanks don’t always consider. For seminary classes that emphasize Baptist identity, I think it provides an insightful middle position that should elicit some stimulating conversation among students who are used to reading similar volumes by SBC-affiliated conservatives or ex-SBC moderate Baptists. A fruitful assignment might include asking students to write a comparative review of Baptist Theology, Stan Norman’s The Baptist Way, and Bill Leonard’s The Challenge of Being Baptist.

For the Record: Nathan Finn on Being Baptist (Part 1)

[Editor’s note: Nathan Finn is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies here at Southeastern. He is known as a top-shelf classroom instructor, a prolific writer, and a student of all things Baptist. In this interview, we ask him questions about eight of the most significant and/or controversial issues arising in Baptist life today. Part 2 (questions 5-8) will appear here tomorrow morning.]

1. Baptist identity seems to be a hot-button issue in some SBC circles. How do you understand Baptist identity?

This is a great question. I’ve written a great deal on this topic over the years, most recently in a nine-part series on my personal blog that attempts to tie Baptist identity and distinctives with the gospel. First of all, we need to understand that there is no such thing as a normative Baptist identity. Presbyterians have the Westminster Confession and Roman Catholics have their Catechism, but we can’t point back to a particular document and say “that’s the authoritative statement of Baptist identity.” As a tradition that has emphasized freedom and autonomy, sometimes perhaps too much so, we have to be careful to distinguish between description and prescription. So descriptively, I’d say there are many Baptist identities, even within the SBC. The tricky part is articulating a view of Baptist identity that reflects biblical emphases and is compelling to Baptist Christians.

I argue that when Baptists are at their best, our identity is simultaneously catholic, reformational, evangelical, and radical. By catholic, I mean Baptists share certain core convictions with all professing Christians, particularly concerning the Trinity, Christology, and basic anthropology and eschatology. By reformational, I mean we share certain beliefs with all traditional Protestants, especially concerning the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and the centrality of justification by faith alone. Our identity is also evangelical because we hold to a conversionist understanding of salvation and embrace the imperative to intentionally share the gospel with others. And our identity is radical because we embrace a view of the church (especially the local church) that was considered radical until the last couple of centuries because it rejects any version of Constantinianism and embraces a believer’s church and credobaptism.

2. Do you think there is such a thing as a uniquely Baptist understanding of doctrines such as Scripture, salvation, last things, etc.?

For me, this is closely related to the last question. I wouldn’t say there is a “uniquely” Baptist understanding of these things-again, we want to stand with other types of believers in these areas. But it would be true to say that there are definite tendencies in the way that most Southern Baptists (and many other Baptists) approach these doctrines. For example, most all Southern Baptists affirm a view of the Bible that is common to many conservative evangelical Protestants; it’s not unique to Southern Baptists, but most of us are on the same page. The same could be said of salvation-virtually all Baptists argue that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There are different nuances (the Calvinist-Arminian debate sticks out here), but even in those cases we agree on more than we disagree and our debates aren’t unique to Baptists. On eschatology, we pretty much all agree on the basics, though we debate some of the particulars; again, our core convictions and our debates are common to other Christians. The only area where Baptists really stand apart is in our ecclesiology.

3. We hear a lot about Baptist distinctives. What are the Baptist distinctives?

The Baptist distinctives are those eccesiological views or tendencies that are uniquely emphasized by Baptists. The earliest Baptists simply attempted to take the principle of sola scriptura and apply it to eccesiological matters. They would say that when local churches are brought under the lordship of Christ as it is revealed in Scripture, those churches will look a particular way. I’d argue that wherever you find these views, you have a Baptist (or perhaps better, baptistic) Christian, even if that identity isn’t affirmed in an overt way.

I’d argue Baptists have four unique emphases: a regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion, congregational freedom, and a free church in a free state. We believe that local churches should be communities of presumably regenerate individuals who’ve covenanted to walk together under Christ’s lordship for the sake of the gospel. We believe that only those who can give a credible salvation testimony should be baptized by full immersion and become church members. (I’d also argue only baptized believers should participate in the Lord’s Supper, but many Southern Baptists argue baptism shouldn’t be a prerequisite to communion.) We believe that the whole congregation should come together to make the most important decisions of the church (congregationalism) and that every church is a local outpost of the kingdom that is free to pursue Christ’s agenda for that body (local autonomy). We believe that God alone is Lord of the conscious and that authentic Christianity best thrives when full religious liberty is extended to all citizens in a particular land. Different Baptists will nuance each of these distinctives in different ways, but we’re pretty much agreed on the basics.

4. Which Baptist distinctive do you believe is most threatened in our contemporary context?

They’re all threatened to some degree, but I think congregationalism is far and away our distinctive that is most threatened. I think there are many reasons for this. Some Southern Baptists are overreacting to unhealthy manifestations of congregationalism: the tyranny of the majority, reckless congregational votes to terminate pastors, full church votes on even the most mundane matters, etc. Others are convinced congregationalism is incompatible with pastoral authority, often because they’ve experienced bad congregationalism, incompetent pastoral leadership, or both. Many are convinced congregationalism isn’t as efficient as other polity models-it takes time for a church to come together and seek Christ’s will for the body. Still others believe that congregationalism is simply not as biblical an option as some sort of pastoral rule, whether by a single pastor or a plurality of pastors (or elders).

We need to admit that congregationalism as we practice it isn’t a perfect reflection of the New Testament. In the apostolic era, they had apostles who exercised authority over the whole church. Yet we also see that the congregation often made certain key decisions, particularly the setting apart of elders and deacons and the final act of church discipline. I call the New Testament model “apostolic congregationalism.” Since most Baptists agree that the apostolic office didn’t continue past the original apostles, we’ve attempted to adapt what we can of New Testament polity to a world without apostles. I’d argue this is a pastor-led congregationalism, where the pastor or pastors lead the body through the ministry of the Word but the whole church at the very least sets apart pastors and deacons, practices church discipline, and (for the sake of prudence) approves of the budget and important church property matters. Everything else can be contextual from congregation to congregation.


The Gospel and Baptist Identity Series

Over at my personal blog, Christian Thought & Tradition, I recently concluded a nine-part series titled The Gospel and Baptist Identity. In that series, I attempted to offer a constructive proposal about what I think is a healthy way to articulate Baptist identity in the early years of the twenty-first century. I received some helpful feedback, for which I’m very thankful. This is an expansion of what I’ve been teaching my Southeastern Seminary students for five years and what I hope to one day further develop into a book-length project.

Below, you will find links to each of the individual posts in the series. I hope the series will help spur on further discussion among Southern Baptists about the relationship between the good news and healthy ecclesiology.

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Introduction

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: What is the Gospel?

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Pondering Baptist Identity

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Four Categories of Baptist Beliefs

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Covenanted Gospel Membership

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Confessor Baptist by Immersion

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Christocentric Congregationalism

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Cooperative Autonomy

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Free Churches in a Free State