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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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.

Andrew Fuller and Southeastern Seminary: A Tradition

As regularly readers probably know, the major emphasis in my scholarly research right now is Andrew Fuller and his circle of friends in the Northamptonshire Association, ca. 1760–1820. In 2007, I wrote an article for the Midwestern Journal of Theology on Robert Hall Sr., a British Baptist pastor who mentored Fuller, William Carey, and their friends. In 2011, that article was reprinted as the introduction to a new edition of Hall’s Help to Zion’s Travellers (BorderStone Press), which I edited. This volume was one of the first broadsides against hyper-Calvinism published by a British Particular Baptist. Hall’s views influenced Fuller’s own arguments in the latter’s important treatise The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1785; second edition published 1801). I’ve also published one journal article on William Carey, with a second essay currently under review with a journal.

More recently, I’ve turned my attention to Fuller himself. Lord willing, in the next couple of years I will publish a journal article and a couple of book chapters related to Fuller (they’ve all been written and are forthcoming). I’m also editing two volumes in the critical edition of The Works of Andrew Fuller. I hope to complete the first volume, a critical edition of Fuller’s Strictures on Sandemanianism (first published 1810), by the end of 2014. If you’ve never heard of the Sandemanians (or Glasites) before, check out this Wikipedia entry. Other possible Fuller-related projects are still in the planning stages.

In studying Fuller’s life and thought, I’m actually standing in a long line of Southeastern Seminary scholars that dates to our earliest years. Pope Duncan taught church history at Southeastern from 1953–1960 before serving as the president of two colleges in South Georgia (God’s Country!) and Stetson University in Central Florida. Duncan wrote a Th.D. dissertation at Southern Seminary in 1917 titled “The Influence of Andrew Fuller on Calvinism.”  John Eddins, who taught systematic theology at Southeastern from 1957–1993, also wrote his Th.D. dissertation on Fuller at SBTS. The title is “Andrew Fuller’s Theology of Grace.” James Tull taught systematic and historical theology at Southeastern Seminary from 1960–1985. Though his influential dissertation at Columbia University was on Landmark ecclesiology, Tull wrote a chapter on Andrew Fuller’s theology for his book Shapers of Baptist Thought (Judson Press, 1972; reprint, Mercer University Press, 1984).

Though he is better known for his tenure as president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Phil Roberts taught evangelism at Southeastern from 1990–1994. During that time, he wrote the chapter on Andrew Fuller in Baptist Theologians (Broadman, 1990), edited by Timothy George and David Dockery. That chapter was reprinted in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (B&H Academic, 2001), a condensed version of the earlier book also edited by George and Dockery. Fuller also factored heavily into Roberts’s dissertation at the Free University of Amsterdam, which was published as Continuity and Change: London Calvinistic Baptists and the Evangelical Revival, 1760–1820 (Richard Owen Roberts, 1989).

The tradition has been renewed in recent years. In 2007, my friend and sometime doctoral classmate Paul Brewster defended a widely praised dissertation at SEBTS titled “Andrew Fuller (1754-1815): Model Baptist Pastor-Theologian.” Brewster’s thesis was revised into a monograph titled Andrew Fuller: Model Pastor-Theologian (B&H Academic, 2010). You can read my review of Brewster’s excellent book at the Credo Magazine website. Brewster, himself a model pastor-theologian in Indiana, has also published journal articles on village preaching by Fuller and other British Baptists and Fuller’s theological method. He also has written several forthcoming articles and book chapters related to Fuller. In addition to his pastoral duties, Brewster teaches for Liberty University and serves as a Fellow of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, a think-tank affiliated with Southern Seminary.

I’m also excited about current and prospective doctoral students at Southeastern who are interested in Fuller and related topics. One of our current Ph.D. students, who completed his M.Div. at a sister seminary, intends to write a dissertation on Fuller’s understanding of preaching. Two prospective doctoral students, one from SEBTS and one from a sister seminary, are applying into our doctoral program this fall with the intention of studying topics related to Fuller’s thought and legacy. Lord willing, these fellows and others will continue the six-decade tradition of Southeastern Seminary faculty and doctoral students studying the life and thought of Andrew Fuller.