[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.