In a recent foreword to a book on Baptist church doctrine, James Leo Garrett Jr. offers a somber word. He says, “The twentieth century was not the finest epoch in Southern Baptist history with respect to ecclesiological practice.” Referencing decades of emphasis on efficiency and unchecked church growth, Garrett laments a century that largely “found that ecclesiology was a weakness.”
While I do not agree fully with Garrett’s bleak assessment, I do think that Baptists in the twenty-first century have an opportunity to recover how believers should understand what the Bible says about churches—and that is a hopeful task. In short, regardless of the past, what matters most for the future is what we do with the time that is given to us.
In 1994, the now late Baptist philosopher and seminary dean, L. Russ Bush, gave an address titled “The History of the Future.” In it, he gave a helpful reminder, “We are living and making the history of the future. What we teach and do today will be what future Christians consider to be their heritage.”
Bush counseled against novel theological innovation “merely for the sake of newness,” for what we establish in the present will become the doctrinal foundation of the future. With this in mind, I am encouraged when I think about the present state of those working in Baptist theology. For many writing and teaching these truths today are engaging in the task of biblical recovery rooted in tradition rather than contemporary rootless invention.
For example, just this year we saw the arrival of The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement by Anthony Chute, Nathan Finn and Michael Haykin. This wonderfully engaging introduction to the work of God among people in Baptist churches is as enjoyable to read as it is informative.
The authors write with refreshing conviction and humility and yet attempt not to use “history to pressure others into conforming to a particular position” but rather to “provide a history that informs the reader of how Baptists have reached their conclusions.” The authors brilliantly achieve their goal, which makes this book a strong asset for laying a historically conscious foundation for understanding how believers have gathered in Baptist churches and why that matters. The story of the Baptists in history is a story that requires regular retelling.
Also this year, Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman edited Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age. Designed as a basic textbook on Baptist polity for students, pastors, and church leaders, this book is unique in that it makes the case for the vitality of church leadership and structure at a time when many believers dismiss these matters as largely unimportant. Dever and Leeman are joined by a short-list of veteran pastors and accomplished Baptist scholars who show why churches should recover bygone yet biblical doctrines of church practice.
For example, in a chapter on the need for regenerate church membership and church discipline, Thomas White concludes, “Without meaningful church membership, discipline will do more harm than good. Without the proper execution of discipline, meaningful membership can never be maintained. Without both of these practices, our churches will not properly reflect the glory of God or bear a strong testimony for the gospel. And our members will not take church seriously.”
Therefore, as I reflect on the present state of the recovery of Baptist theology for the future, I am encouraged by publications like these because they are representative of the following trends:
- The present discussion of Baptist theology understands that the Baptist ship is not the only group of churches who have set their sails in a Great Commission direction. Many today would agree with Carl F.H. Henry’s description of the single strength of Baptist identity—its “Bible-relatedness.” That is, Baptists have long been those who desire to conform the core of their tradition to the Bible and the Bible’s mandates for mission. Joyfully, these Baptist churches seek to work, wherever possible, with other traditions that desire to do the same.
2. There is no presumption that Baptists articulate or practice their tradition with perfection. Chute, Finn and Haykin conclude their volume this way. “The entire Baptist story consistently comes back to three key interrelated themes: promoting liberty of conscience, following Christ’s will in our individual lives and churches, and proclaiming the gospel everywhere. Baptists have not always lived up to these ideals, but when we have been at our best, we have embodied them.” Baptist theology built upon this kind of humility will serve future generations well.
3. These two books are a part of a larger and growing Baptist conversation that could not come at a better time. John Broadus, founding faculty member of Southern Seminary in the latter half of the nineteenth century, remarked that even in his own day there was “a widespread and very great ignorance as to Baptists.” That was saying something in a day when Baptist theologians roamed the nation like Marvel’s Avengers—defending their distinctives wherever they were threatened. Thankfully, today we, too, have a growing cadre of superheroes, like the authors of these two new books and many others preparing to join them, able to give us a helpful guide to combat our own ignorance as to the Baptist tradition.
4. The task of recovering a healthy understanding of church doctrine is not the end but merely a means to the end. When J.L. Dagg, another nineteenth-century Baptist theologian, said, “Church order and the ceremonials of religion, are less important than a new heart,” he was right, but he also did not mean that recovering doctrines of the church has no value. Indeed, the establishment of healthy churches only serves to ensure the potential of the regeneration of many more new hearts around the globe. For as churches are strengthened and seek, in cooperation with other churches, to fulfill the Great Commission, we will see even more the knowledge of the glory of God among all peoples as the waters cover the sea. This is the end of any recovery of Baptist theology.
Baptists today are living and making the history of the future. If the twentieth century left some ground uncovered in terms of faithful church practice, then those of us in the twenty-first have all the more reason to recover faithful practices to build a strong foundation for future churches. Making the history of the future in the present is an encouraging and hopeful task.
This article originally appeared in the Southern Baptist Texan on December 23, 2015.