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.

Worth Pondering

From Stephen Holmes, a Baptist theologian on the divinity faculty at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland:

Whilst humility is remembered as a theological virtue, conservatism will remain an appropriate theological stance, and historical theology, which is to say the patient, careful and respectful study of the writings of the doctors of the Church, will continue to be a central part of theological work.

Stephen R. Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Paternoster, 2002), 164.