[This is the first of two posts that will interact with David Dockery’s new book, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal (B&H Academic, 2008). This first post is a relatively detailed summary of the book. In the second post, I will interact with some of Dockery’s key proposals. You can purchase the book for $9.99 from LifeWay Christian Resources.]
Over the past twenty-five years or so, Union University President David Dockery has been engaging some of the most pressing issues facing the Southern Baptist Convention. In his articles, conference addresses, chapel messages, and books, Dockery has been consistently charting a course for the future of the Convention. Much of that material has now been brought together and synthesized as Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, a book-length agenda for the SBC.
Dockery begins with an introduction titled Southern Baptists: Past, Present, and Future. He recounts the origins of the SBC as a sectional denomination, discusses the various theological and cultural movements that shaped Southern Baptist identity, and describes the evolution of the Convention into a modern denomination during the mid-20th century. He also addresses how the Convention’s theological identity shifted from a principled conservatism shaped mostly by pastor-theologians to a progressive pragmatism nurtured by denominational programs. This shift contributed to the rise of progressive theology in the 1960s and 1970s, which in turn inspired periodic conservative backlash. These two competing visions collided in the Conservative Resurgence that began in 1979 and captured control of the denominational bureaucracy. After a helpful discussion of the varieties of Southern Baptist conservatism and the tensions that result from this diversity, Dockery concludes his introduction by calling for “a new generation that will be both convictional and cooperative (12)”. Such Southern Baptists will build a consensus around the gospel, pursue a renewed Baptist identity, and recommit to the cause of missions and evangelism. The rest of the book fleshes out Dockery’s call.
The first true chapter is devoted to renewing various “markers” of Southern Baptist identity. Dockery first discusses the primacy of Scripture, arguing that Baptists have historically been thoroughgoing biblicists. He then outlines an evangelical doctrine of Scripture that hinges upon the inerrancy and sufficiency of the canonical texts. Dockery also discusses the place of doctine, arguing that Southern Baptists need to differentiate between primary and secondary doctrines by faithfully searching Scripture and looking to Baptist history and the wider Christian tradition for guidance. He then discusses the role that global missions has played in Baptist history in general and the SBC in particular. Dockery closes the chapter by discussing how cooperation fuels our mission endeavors. He argues for a gospel-driven consensus within the SBC that balances a passion for the truth with a call to love others and that models Christian unity before the watching world.
The second chapter focuses on the gospel, calling for a Southern Baptist consensus on the good news of all that God has done on our behalf through the person and work of Christ. Dockery begins by noting how programmatic cooperation in the SBC contributed to the decline of the gospel among our churches. He then argues from Scripture that the gospel is based upon God’s sovereign initiative to save sinful humans, though he is careful to argue that individuals are responsible for responding to God’s divine intitiative. Dockery then discusses how the issue of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility has been debated throughout church history, particularly in the debates between Calvinists, Arminians, and those who pitch their tent between the two positions. He argues that Southern Baptists must reject hyper-Calvinism, Pelagianism, and “consistent” Arminianism, while focusing on the proclamation of the gospel to all men. Dockery then provides a lengthy explanation of the gospel message itself, including God’s creation of all things, humanity’s creation in God’s image, humanity’s fall into sin, God’s provision for salvation through the person and work of Christ, God’s actual salvation of men and women when they look to Christ as Lord and Savior, and God’s ulimate redemption of the entire created order. He closes the chapter will a call for a Southern Baptist consensus around these fundamental truths.
Chapter three focuses on worship among Southern Baptists. Dockery begins by noting the genuine diversity of worship styles among North American Christians, including Southern Baptists. He then provides a brief overview of how Baptists have worshiped over the last 400 years, with particular emphasis on the role that revivalism has played in shaping our worship and the central place of preaching in our corporate worship. Next, Dockery helpfully outlines six different worship styles, most of which are present within sectors of the Southern Baptist Convention. The chapter closes with a call to renew Southern Baptist worship. Dockery calls for Scripture-saturated worship, including text-driven preaching, a high degree of congregational participation in praise, prayer, singing, giving, and confession, and a greater appreciation for the ordinances od baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Dockery finishes with seven suggestions for renewing worship: (1) recognize that worship is a primary function of the church; (2) realize that worship is not passive but active; (3) understand that worship is a response to the person and work of Jesus Christ; (4) emphasize that worship is primarily spiritual and symbolic; (5) rediscover the significance and importance of the Lord’s Supper; (6) help people realize the need to prepare for worship; (7) show a greater appreciation for the centrality of the local church as the place for corporate worship. Dockery is convinced that the renewal of Baptist worship will help facilitate renewal in every other area.
Chapter four is titled Serving Church and Society: A Vision for Baptist Education. This is a topic Dockery has extensively addressed in other works, most notably Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society Through Christian Higher Education. After an historical overview of Baptist higher education, including early schools, theological traditions, and ten shaping influences, Dockery discusses how our Baptist distinctives inform our approach to higher education and how certain tendencies within the Baptist tradition threaten higher education. He argues for wedding Baptist identity with a deeper commitment to the historic confessional tradition of the church. Dockery then proposes five keys to a renewed vision for Baptist higher education, including a closer connection with the churches, a commitment to academic freedom within a confessional context, the formative role of higher eduction in Baptist identity, a focus on students, and developing faculties that are communities of scholars who are also devoted churchmen. Dockery closes by proposing a view of theological (seminary) education that is theologically driven, is connected to the church, is pursued in service to the church and on behalf of the church, that consciously weds theology and practice, and helps facilitate renewal within the SBC.
Chapter five focuses on rediscovering our theological heritage for the purpose of contemporary renewal. Dockery begins with an overview of the unique theological emphases of the first three centuries of Baptist history prior to the formation of the SBC. He then traces the development of Southern Baptist theology through the writings of six theologians: John L. Dagg, James P. Boyce, Basil Manly Jr., B.H. Carroll, E.Y. Mullins, and W.T. Connor. The general trend moves from Scripture to experience, along with the waning of doctrinaire Calvinism. Dockery then discusses Southern Baptist theology since the mid-20th century, dividing his discussion into pre- and post-Conservative Resurgence tendencies. He notes that prior to 1979, the Convention was divided between conservatives and moderates, the latter including both theological progressives and those who tolerated them, including many who were individual conservatives. There was no real confessional center to the SBC, leading to a series of theological controversies and the breakdown of the older, theologically based consensus in favor of a more pragmatic consensus. Since 1979, the shift has been back toward the older consensus’s focus on the truthfulness of Scripture, though the Convention remains internally divided on any number of issues. But our commitment to biblical inerrancy provides us with the foundation to move forward toward a new consensus within the SBC.
The final chapter is titled Praying for Church and Convention Leaders: Character, Conviction, and Cooperation. Dockery calls for Convention leaders who exemplify godly character. He also calls for leaders with strong theological convictions, in particular a commitment to biblical inerrancy and sufficiency and an appreciation for the heart of the historic Baptist confessional tradition, though not necessarily total doctrinal uniformity. He then argues for a renewed cooperation built around our renewed confessionalism, with genuine humility and Christ-centered unity driving us every step of the way. Dockery concludes this chapter, and the book, with a review of all that he has discussed and a call for these priorities and emphases to guide us in a new Southern Baptist consensus and renewal, for the glory of God, the health of our churches, and the sake of those who do not yet know Christ.