BOOK REVIEW: Southern Baptist Identity
It has often been said that, thanks to the battles of the last generation in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to return the convention to a commitment to biblical inerrancy, we can be grateful that theological discussions in the SBC can be conducted on that basis. We do not spend our time debating and arguing the veracity of the creation narrative or whether the teachings of Paul on gender roles and homosexuality are culturally conditioned. We have been set free to have robust theological debate on the basis of a firm reliance on scripture, and our disagreements are family ones among brothers and sisters in Christ. David Dockery has contributed greatly to the family discussion in this presentation of essays, compiled from two conferences held at Union University, where he presides. The topics addressed are the ones we ought to be discussing, not allowing less important issues to sidetrack us. I was privileged to attend the second of these conferences, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to review this important book.
In the preface, Dr. Dockery discusses our heritage, and the challenges it poses for the future. He also points out how postmodern thinking and the loss of our programmatic identity as Southern Baptists pose risks to our future cooperation. It is precisely this loss of a programmatic identity that points to the need for a renewed consensus on which to base our future cooperation. His itemized steps focus primarily on the authority of scripture, but they begin by pointing out the importance of our heritage as Baptists. This neatly provides the rationale for the content that follows.
Dr. Dockery has organized that content into two parts. The first part, “Theological and Historical Perspectives,” is composed of chapters written, as the heading suggests, by theologians and historians. An essay by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. asks if we as Southern Baptists have a future together. He concludes that we do, and in this chapter introduces the concept of “theological triage” (p. 31) as a way of categorizing our disagreements by their ultimate importance as we continue debate. Though itself often the subject of debate, this concept of triage is an important contribution to our ongoing discussion in the SBC.
The outstanding Baptist theologian R. Stanton Norman seeks to answer the question, “What makes a Baptist a Baptist?” He does so with thoroughness, helpfully identifying the “constituent elements of Baptist distinctives,” (p. 44) and ecclesiological distinctives rise to the top as primary. Gregory Wills contributes an essay offering a historical perspective. He begins with the recent controversy surrounding inerrancy, but then goes on to trace the history of Baptists, and again, ecclesiology surfaces as a prominent distinction.
Timothy George follows with a chapter asking, “Is Jesus a Baptist?” The Beeson Divinity School Dean offers three strategies by which our cooperative work can continue. Russell Moore’s chapter, “Learning from Nineteenth-Century Baptists,” is an application of the life and work of T.T. Eaton (1845-1907) to our current situation, offering many helpful insights. Paige Patterson contributes an essay discussing what we can learn from the Anabaptists. James Leo Garrett, Jr. closes Part 1 with a discussion of the beginnings of Baptist belief, beginning with the church fathers and the early creeds and continuing through the Reformation to the English Puritans.
Part Two, “Ministry and Convention Perspectives,” is a wide-ranging discussion of the state of our cooperative union, from the perspective of those serving in all areas of denominational life. These perspectives originate from the Executive Committee to our publishing house to the seminaries, and all the way up to the local church, the top of the ladder in SBC life. Jim Shaddix offers a pastor’s perspective on the future of the traditional church. Michael Day gives a somewhat radical picture of the future of associations and state conventions, suggesting that theological and mission-focused affinity will soon trump geographic proximity in these organizations.
Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer address the way in which we see our mission, given by our Savior, to take the gospel to every nation. Richard Land discusses the nature of religious liberty, a hallmark of Baptist identity since the Anabaptists, and Nathan Finn outlines those things that should mark our cooperation into the future, primarily a recovery of our identity as Baptists. Part Two begins with an essay by Morris Chapman, past president of the Executive Committee, discussing the nuts-and-bolts of our cooperative, yet independent, work together as Southern Baptists.
The content of these essays, though varied in background and intent, hold together well on the basis of the overall purpose of the book, which is to call us back to a family discussion about who we are as Southern Baptists. Though at times they can seem to veer off topic, as a whole the book accomplishes the purpose set out in the introduction, namely to call us back to a discussion of what it is that sets us apart from our brothers and sisters in Christ who hold to other traditions.
The distinctives that emerge consistently from the essays in this volume are baptism by immersion, a regenerate church membership, and a commitment to the idea of a free church in a free state, with no power vested in either to interfere with the other. These are the ideas that make us Baptists, and this volume is supremely helpful in focusing us on these discussions, to the exclusion of those things that would distract us.
Throughout the excellent essays contained in this collection, one theme continually resurfaces as the definitive distinctive of Southern Baptists: ecclesiology. More than anything else, the way that we approach the function and work of the church sets us apart from the rest of the evangelical world. It is here that our discussions as Southern Baptists ought to be focused, because it is here that our true unity lies. When we seek uniformity on issues not foundational to our identity as Baptists, the result will be bickering, infighting, fracture, and perhaps ultimately the dissolution of our great cooperative union.
As illustration, one need look no further than the cautions put forth by Dr. George in chapter four. In the first strategy he identifies, “Retrieval for the Sake of Renewal,” he argues that we must not ignore our history in seeking to be New Testament Christians, but that all of our history ought to be understood and embraced only as it lines up with the clear teaching of scripture. To that end, he addresses the question, “Are Baptist Calvinists?” His approach to that issue can teach us a great deal as we look at the discussions currently ongoing within our convention of churches.
His answer to the question speaks directly to us in these discussions, and his answer ought to be the end of them, at least as they are now dividing Baptist from Baptist within our confessional denomination. He says, simply, “some are and some are not, and it has been thus among Baptists for nearly 400 years.” (p. 95) This ought to be understood by every Calvinist in the SBC who believes and writes that to be less than fully Calvinistic is to flirt with the heresy of Pelagius. By the same token, it ought to be taken to heart by every “traditionalist” who believes in his heart that the convention, in order to survive, must be purged of all those who hold to all five of the Dordtian responses to the students of Arminius.
In an article first written at my request for another blog, and recently republished in Baptist Press, Paige Patterson addressed the relationship between Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention by pointing to the split that occurred between the General and Particular Baptists in eighteenth century England, and the disastrous results for both camps. The General Baptists lost their doctrinal emphasis and headed into universalism, while the Particular Baptists became anti-missionary hyper-Calvinists. The emphasis of each group balanced the other, and without each other, both became irrelevant in fairly short order.
This is a clear warning for the Southern Baptist Convention. Both Calvinists and “traditionalists” need to appreciate the contribution of the other without insisting on uniformity. We are a confessional people, and the confession adopted by our convention is big enough to contain both groups.
What is needed in the SBC today is a vigorous discussion of the topics addressed in this excellent book. Issues of ecclesiology are being minimalized in churches large and small across our convention, and this is where the energy we have for debate must be expended. Our very existence as Baptists is at stake, yet we are being distracted by debates that matter less. In the process, we are in danger of losing the distinctives that make us Baptist.