Recurring Themes in Baptist History

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Nearly every semester, I teach a course at Southeastern Seminary titled Baptist History: Heritage, Identity, Polity. Like any subject that you study historically, Baptist history is characterized by a number of recurring themes. Some of these themes represent perennial debates among Baptists, while others speak to historical developments that continue to influence Baptists to the present day. I try to highlight these themes during the course of the semester in my lectures and in our class discussions.

While there are no doubt other themes that could be highlighted, I point to six as being particularly important. These topics come up in class again and again because, well, they come up among Baptists again and again!

1. Reform vs. Restoration: Some historians interpret Baptists as a reform movement that arose among English Protestants, while others see them as a restoration movement that sought to bypass earlier movements and return to the purity of New Testament Christianity. Furthermore, how Baptists themselves have understood their own identity as reformers or restorationists has varied at different points in history. How one approaches this issue necessarily affects his or her understanding of Baptist identity.

2. Calvinism vs. Arminianism: From their earliest days, Baptists have enjoyed no consensus on doctrines such as predestination, the extent/intent of the atonement, the relationship between divine grace and human belief, and the eternal security of those who believe. Some Baptists have been strong Calvinists, while others have been convictional Arminians. Many Baptists (including most Southern Baptists today) have attempted to argue that a position between Calvinism and Arminianism is the most biblical position. While this is an important topic that should be considered first and foremost from a biblical perspective, historically, there is no such thing as “the Baptist view” of the doctrines of grace.

3. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Church Membership: While all Baptists affirm believer’s baptism, there is no unanimity in terms of how baptism relates to the Lord’s Supper and church membership. Historically, most Baptists have argued that believer’s baptism is prerequisite to church membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper. However, many Baptists believe that believer’s baptism should not be prerequisite to communion. A small but growing minority of Baptists believes that believer’s baptism should not be a requirement of church membership. This spectrum of views was already present by the middle of the seventeenth century.

4. The Relationship between Church and State: Baptists have historically championed full religious liberty and church-state separation. However, Baptists have frequently disagreed about the implementation of this principle. Some Baptists want religious liberty within the context of a broadly Christian nation, while others want the state to take a secular (though not secularist) approach and remain neutral on religious matters. In America, this particular theme has been a point of tension from the 1960s onward. Some Baptists accuse the Supreme Court and sometimes legislative bodies of advocating secularism while other Baptists accuse political conservatives of rejecting, or at least downplaying, the importance of church-state separation.

5. The Centrality of Missions: From the eighteenth century onwards, missions has been arguably the defining theme in Baptist history. Nearly every theological and methodological debate among Baptists has been related in some way to the desire of Baptists to obey Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20. As much as any denomination, Baptists are a tradition defined by a high level of commitment to evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. We have certainly witnessed this theme play in some of our family discussions in recent Southern Baptist life.

6. Increasing Denominationalism: As Baptists became more committed to missions, they were forced to develop increasingly elaborate denominational structures to better facilitate cooperation for the sake of missions. Sometimes, denominationalism has served as a catalyst to missionary efforts. At other times, denominational structures have arguably hindered effective missionary advance due to alleged bureaucratic expansion. For some Baptists, their denominational identity is part and parcel of their wider Baptist identity, while other Baptists see themselves as only partially—perhaps even peripherally—part of a Baptist denomination.

Again, I have little doubt there are other themes that could be highlighted, but these are the ones that stand out to me. To my thinking, it is impossible to understand Baptist history—or contemporary debates about Baptist identity, denominationalism, etc.—without some familiarity with these six recurring themes.

Celebrating Creation: A Conversation with BioLogos

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Two weeks ago I attended a “Celebrating Creation” conference hosted by the BioLogos Foundation. As many readers know, BioLogos is an organization of evangelicals who accept theistic evolution (or evolutionary creationism, EC, as many prefer to call it). Evangelicals hold to a wide range of views concerning creation and evolution, and I’ve had the privilege of engaging with a number of groups representing positions across the spectrum, including intelligent design proponents (ID) and old-earth creationists (OEC). Similarly, I’ll always be grateful to Answers in Genesis (a young-earth creationists organization, YEC) for the opportunity a few years back to float down the Grand Canyon on an eight-day rafting tour and hear them present the case for the young-earth view. Personally, I hold to old-earth creationism. I affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve and believe the original couple were the special creation of God. When the invitation came from BioLogos to attend this event, I was glad to take part. I’m thankful to Debra Haarsma, Jeff Schloss, and Jim Stump of Biologos for the opportunity. Here are a few of my takeaway thoughts.

1. BioLogos deserves a place at the table, taking part in the conversation. Evangelicals need to hear what they have to say. They represent a minority view among evangelicals, and they realize it. However, significant evangelicals of the past–such as B. B. Warfield and John Stott–held to versions of evolution. And today evangelical thinkers such as Alister McGrath embrace some aspects of evolutionary theory. I still believe that the issue of a historical Adam and Eve present EC proponents with a herculean (and perhaps impossible) theological task. But they are saying some things we evangelicals need to hear. The claims made by EC advocates can be discussed, challenged, and (when appropriate) opposed, but the adherents themselves should not be vilified.

2. EC advocates recognize that they have theological work to do, particularly on the issue of a historical Fall. As the various speakers made their presentations, their candor and transparency was refreshing. We heard from a number of speakers (Denis Alexander and Jeff Schloss) who wished, one way or another, to affirm a historical Adam and Eve within an evolutionary context. In this area, evolutionary creationists face challenges. The latest findings in genetics place human origins in Africa rather than the Middle East, and the evidence indicates that humans descended from a community (of perhaps several thousand individuals) rather than just a solitary couple. Invited guest Jack Collins demonstrated the important role that the original couple play in the biblical narrative. I was glad to hear the BioLogos representatives acknowledge the significance of this matter.

3. EC advocates utilized ID and OEC arguments on several important points. All too often advocates of the respective views have been unwilling to acknowledge points of agreement, instead choosing to stress the areas of disagreement. This conference was different. Several speakers made arguments that parallel those made by ID and OEC advocates. They observed that the Big Bang theory lends itself readily to a theistic interpretation. Time and again presenters noted the fine-tuning of the universe. They acknowledged that, at present, all attempts to account for the origin of life have failed. These are talking points generally made by ID advocates. Some took care to distinguish evolutionary creationism from naturalistic Darwinism and from the atheistic nihilism that Darwinism so often produces. Old-earth creationists such as Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana were referenced in positive ways.

4. We need a Christian understanding of evolution, not an evolutionary interpretation of Christianity. There are plenty of examples of those who have attempted to interpret Christianity through the lens of evolution. (I’m thinking now of modernists such as Harry Emerson Fosdick or Teilhard de Chardin.) The results have not been pretty. Modernists during the late 19th and early 20th centuries attempted to accommodate Darwinism by shoehorning Christianity into a naturalistic framework. The outcome was a complete capitulation to the spirit of the age and the Gospel was lost. The members of BioLogos seem to be keenly aware of these past disasters. But they note that evangelicals cannot pretend that the scientific evidence is going to disappear. Jeff Schloss rightly pointed out that even YEC proponents accept that some type of mutability of species occurred after Noah’s flood. As recent articles in the New York Times and the journal Nature illustrate, Darwinism–as a paradigm–is in serious trouble. But evolutionary theory is not going away.

So without agreeing with the EC position, I am thankful for the BioLogos Foundation. They are prodding evangelicals to examine the findings of genetics and geology in ways that do not appear to be glib and dismissive. Let the conversation continue.

This blog is cross-posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com

Book Notice: God’s Design for Man and Woman (by Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger)

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God's Design picMany of the influencers in the West are working to blur the lines between genders, and apparently now are enjoying a significant amount of popular approval. Even the notion of gender is up for grabs. (Witness Facebook’s recent announcement that its users can select from over 50 gender options.) The culture is awash with “gender questioning” (one of Facebook’s new options). We are naïve if we think that we, or our churches, will not be affected by this cultural shift. Responsible resources are needed to equip Christians living in this gender-neutral culture.

For this reason, we are grateful to Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger for writing an excellent book that presents Scripture’s witness to God’s design for man and woman, God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Crossway). They address God’s intentions for man and woman in the home, but also in church and society. They are clear about the importance of the topic: “Biblical manhood and womanhood is too important a subject not to think through carefully as a Christian. While it is undeniable that there’s no current consensus on this issue in the church, the probable reason isn’t that Scripture is inconclusive or conflicted.” (14-15) The authors believe, instead, that Scripture is clear and consistent on the topic. Thus, they see Scripture as the source and guide for clear thinking and loving application on what it says about man and woman, individually and in their relationships together.

In the book, the Köstenbergers seek to provide a biblical-theological treatment of God’s design for man and woman. That is, they trace the biblical storyline to see what God has said about man and woman throughout the ages. The structure of the book illustrates this helpful approach:

Introduction

Chapter 1: God’s Original Design and Its Corruption (Genesis 1–3)

Chapter 2: Patriarchs, Kings, Priests, and Prophets (Old Testament)

Chapter 3: What Did Jesus Do? (Gospels)

Chapter 4: What Did the Early Church Do? (Acts)

Chapter 5: Pauls’ Message to the Churches (First Ten Letters)

Chapter 6: Paul’s Legacy (Letters to Timothy and Titus)

Chapter 7: The Rest of the Story (Other New Testament Teaching)

Chapter 8: God’s Design Lived Out Today

Appendix 1: The Three Waves: Women’s History Survey

Appendix 2: The Rules of the Game: Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology

Appendix 3: Proceed with Caution: Special Issues in Interpreting Gender Passages

In Chapters 1–7, then, the biblical-theological teaching on man and woman is presented. Each chapter contains discussion of key passages and the relevance of those passages for today. Controversial texts such as 1 Tim 2:15 (“she will be saved through childbearing”) receive special attention. On this text they conclude that “save” refers not to religious salvation but to spiritual preservation from falling into error, namely Satan’s deception (pp. 212–19). Chapter 8 contains a summary of the key points from the book and application points for churches, married and single men and women, including the biblical roles and activities for men and women. The three appendices provide interested readers with resources and arguments for further study into this important and controversial topic.

Since this book is about God’s design for men and women, nearly everyone will benefit by reading it. Pastors, small-groups, married couples, singles, and students pursuing clarity on this topic will especially benefit. The Köstenbergers begin their introduction with a testimony of God’s grace to them through the lives of faithful men and women who, in their relationships together, showed the power and beauty of the gospel (pp. 15–16). We can be helped by this book to do likewise.