Book Review: Baptists and the Christian Tradition

Baptists and the Christian Tradition: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity. Editors Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, R. Lucas Stamps. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2020. 400 pp.

A number of Protestant traditions are engaged in renewal projects. The North American Anglican is a publication dedicated to the renewal of Anglican tradition, and organizations such as the Seabury Society share this dedication. The Davenant Institute is another such institution, seeking to draw on the history of the magisterial Reformation to renew contemporary Protestant theology. In the land of Baptists, we have the Center for Baptist Renewal and books such as Baptists and the Christian Tradition.

To this author, such a project is essential to the future of American Christianity. Our churches are often experiments in detachment from history, and we have had enough trials to make generalizations about the results. Churches that are detached from history become insular, distrustful of the wider Christian community, and often heretical. And so I am glad to see a book like Baptists and the Christian Tradition.

Baptists and the Christian Tradition is not a short book — there are 15 chapters, a forward, an introduction, a conclusion, and an appendix, all totaling to 379 pages in my edition. The topics covered are diverse, including the highly specific (see chapter 12, ‘Southern Baptists, Evangelicalism, and the Christian Tradition’) and the highly general (see chapter 1, ‘Baptists, the Unity of the Church, and the Christian Tradition’).

The diversity in topics is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I believe that almost all Christian readers will find something of value in this book. Any Protestant would benefit from the first chapter on the unity of the church — after all, it is not only Baptists who have displayed a propensity for fracture and schism. Similarly, the chapters on classic interpretation of Scripture and Sola Scriptura are useful topics worth revisiting in a collection such as this. As someone who was raised in the Baptist tradition, I greatly enjoyed the chapters on the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as my childhood did not emphasize historic Baptist teaching on the subject. But on the other hand, many chapters are highly tuned to intra-Baptist fights in the English-speaking world, and most readers of publications such as The North American Anglican will struggle to find them relevant to their interests and concerns.

Those are some specific remarks about the book itself — but there is a more interesting topic to be discussed, all of which is part of the Center for Baptist Renewal’s mission. The CBR is a Baptist organization dedicated to ressourcement, or ‘theological retrieval.’ This is a mode of doing theology that, as Gavin Ortlund (another Baptist theologian) put it to me in conversation, uses historical theology for the sake of contemporary constructive theology — or, perhaps a bit too simply, learning from church history.

This may sound like a standard way of doing theology, but for many of us it is surprising to hear of this trend in Baptist and evangelical theological circles. In my own journey into Christianity, I became convinced I could not be a Baptist; I simply did not see Baptist theology in church history. This is of course just a report of my own beliefs, hardly an evidentiary claim. But I think my experience is not uncommon, and so a natural question arises: what happens when Baptists start engaging seriously with the history of our faith?

The easy answer is that they stop being Baptist, and that was my own experience. But this isn’t just an easy answer — it is lazy. The existence of an institution like that Center for Baptist Renewal challenges many of our common beliefs about Baptists — most notably, that Baptists care little for church history — and perhaps we could conclude that these beliefs were always caricatures. But this would be too quick. When presented with thoughtful, faithful Christians who are engaged in church history, we should not assume that they will always agree with us, but we should also not assume that both sides are equally right or that the disagreements do not matter.

If I had to give just one reason to read Baptists and the Christian Tradition, it would be this: I better understand how Baptists think. I read their words, considered their arguments, and came to different conclusions, but I now see why they hold the beliefs that they do. While this did nothing to lessen our serious disagreements about church history or theology, it did something to me as a reader — it made me more sympathetic to a position that I ultimately reject.

‘Sympathy’ too often is taken to mean pity. But this is not the case — at least, it wasn’t the case when Adam Smith and David Hume wrote forcefully about the necessity of sympathy to our moral lives. Sympathy, for both Smith and Hume, was a kind of common feeling, an ability to share an affective experience. More broadly, we can think of sympathy as the ability to understand another’s beliefs and actions. We can be sympathetic to positions that we reject, of course; in fact, that is why sympathy is important. If we all agreed, there would be no need for sympathy in our common lives.

In the pages of Baptists and the Christian Tradition we see a sympathetic project. Every writer in this volume wants his or her readers to be sympathetic to the Christian tradition, even if Baptists will sometimes greatly diverge from the historical consensus of the church. And the Anglican reader, for example, will likely become more sympathetic to the best of the Baptist tradition by reading this book.

Yet, there are some outstanding issues. I do not question any of the writers’ commitments to the basic creeds of Christianity, but we know — and the writers often acknowledge — that Baptists do not uniformly display a commitment to the creeds. Some object to the creeds as creeds, but others go further and object to the content of the creeds. What can a Baptist do to prevent these people from teaching, or from spreading these false beliefs? Even if we grant that Baptists can, in a manner consistent with their own principles, successfully argue that Christians ought to accept the content of the creeds, in what way can the faithful Baptist enforce this standard? (This is not just a hypothetical; just consider the influence of Wayne Grudem’s deficient and likely heretical Trinitarian theology in American Christianity!)[1]

This question raises further questions about Baptist beliefs — for instance, how Baptists can remain truly committed to their congregationalist polity while also forming powerful, extra-ecclesial institutions? Consider the case of the Southern Baptist Convention, which often stresses that it is not a denomination in the traditional sense. In Amy Carter Whitfield’s chapter on denominational structures, for instance, the voluntary nature of SBC affiliation is stressed. Yet the SBC has seminaries, trains future leaders of local churches, and serves as a powerful policy and publicity force for Baptists. When controversies arise in American Baptistry, it seems that the go-to strategy is to pressure seminaries to act. In Anglicanism this sort of action might be done through the bishops, and in Presbyterianism this would be done through presbyteries and synods. American Baptists find themselves in an odd position where they recognize in practice the need for centralized authority for some issues, yet their doctrine is congregationalist in nature. This is not a new controversy; the history of American Baptistry includes several disputes about missionary boards and seminaries.

This article is not intended to be a litany of complaints against Baptist theology — far from it. I have come to appreciate the best of the Baptist tradition, and reading this book in conjunction with Hankins & Kidd’s Baptists in America proved fruitful. But reading Baptists and the Christian Tradition convinced me that ultimately Baptist theology rests on a profound mistake. By elevating the local church, Baptists find themselves unable to properly navigate issues that go beyond individual congregations. Enforcing doctrinal standards is one challenge. Engaging in a project of renewal is another — the very project of the Center for Baptist Renewal is challenged by Baptist tenets. The challenge for any Baptist renewal, I contend, is determining how to convince other Baptists to join your cause without resorting to extra-ecclesial or extra-scriptural authority or public bullying campaigns.

This is the odd consequence of reading Baptists in the Christian Tradition. By reading it and considering these arguments, I am more sympathetic to the Baptist way of thinking. By trying to understand the logic of Baptist theology, I have become more sure in my own convictions — that is, I have become more confident that we should not be Baptists.

  1. For the uninitiated, Wayne Grudem has proposed a view known as ‘Eternal Subordination of the Son’ (ESS) in his remarkably popular Systematic Theology. Opponents of ESS, including Carl Trueman, have argued forcefully that this view contradicts Nicene Trinitarianism.

 



Jared Henderson, PhD

Jared Henderson is a writer based in Austin, TX. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut.


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