Making the History of the Future

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:

  1. 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.

Upon this Rock: Introduction Now Available

In 2010, B&H Academic published Upon this Rock: A Baptist Understanding of the Church. A volume of many contributors (including coeditors Malcolm Yarnell and Thomas White), Upon this Rock examines Article VI on “The Church” of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message statement and related issues of ecclesiology at the local and national level.

Here is Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message:

VI. The Church

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.

Recently, B&H Academic has made available for free my introduction to the volume, “The Duty of Baptists to Teach Their Distinctive Views?”. You can learn more about the volume here and also read my chapter here.

Where the Streets Had No Name: Carroll, Boyce, Broadus & the Duty of Baptists

When B. H. Carroll set out to establish the new tract of land in Fort Worth that would serve as the main campus home of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he had the opportunity to name the streets that surrounded the “Seminary Hill” property.

Deciding to honor Southern Baptists’ two most influential pioneers of theological education, as well men of significant personal influence for him, Carroll named the northern street Broadus Avenue and the southern street Boyce Avenue.

The story of James P. Boyce (1827-1888) and his paradigm shaping address “Three Changes in Theological Institutions” has been told (and needs to be retold often). As Jason K. Allen has recently put it, before Boyce “was Southern Seminary’s man, he was Southern Baptists’ man for theological education.”

Likewise, but perhaps less well known, John A Broadus (1827-1895) served to leave his mark on the founding era of Southern Baptist seminary development. As David Dockery argues, Broadus (along with son-in-law A. T. Robertson) developed “one of the most influential streams of thought impacting and influencing Baptist theology for the last 140 years.”

Broadus, like Boyce before and Carroll after him, also rose to prominence as a key denominational statesman during a time when statesmanship was needed. Carroll had a particular regard for Broadus going so far to say that Broadus was “the foremost Baptist left in the world when Spurgeon died.”

A forgotten, but surprisingly prescient, approach to questions regarding the necessity and future of Baptist denominational identity can be gleaned from the words of Broadus when he addressed the American Baptist Publication Society’s 1881 meeting in Indianapolis. Broadus titled his sermon “The Duty of Baptists to Teach their Distinctive Views.”

Interacting with Broadus’ address and asking a few questions of my own, I wrote the following five part series of articles for the Southwestern Seminary faculty blog, Theological Matters.

Adapted from my introduction to “Upon this Rock: The Baptist Understanding of the Church” (B&H Academic, 2010), parts 1 and 2 have been posted in previous months and part 3 appeared yesterday. Look for parts 4 and 5 in the coming weeks.

Part 1: Healthy denominationalism or denominational ultraism?

Part 2: Are some commands in the Great Commission more important than others?

Part 3: Are the most useful churches the ones strongest in their denominational convictions?

Part 4: Are unbelievers most helped by believers who trust the Bible?

Part 5: Are Christians ever excused from teaching and obeying clear commands in the New Testament?

Photo Credit: Seminary Hill map, Dec. 1909, Box 12, File 27, E.Y. Mullins papers, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, James P. Boyce Centennial Library, Archives and Special Collections.

Ben Affleck is the Batman and Charles Spurgeon Still Speaks: Footnotes from Class this Week

In my Baptist history class this week I began to make the case that the most important reason for the study of church history is that it can change your life.

One of the ways I argue for this is to bombard the students with the claim, followed by seven supporting statements, that the study of church history is one of the most effective tools of personal sanctification outside of the Bible. History humbles. And its fixed facts are no respecter of persons, intellects, or achievements.

Thus, an early but difficult step we must take in the sanctifying study of church history is to admit that there is much we do not know.

As I’ve written elsewhere, just as Martin Luther quipped to Desiderius Erasmus, “Your thoughts of God are all too human,” the student of the history of Christianity soon realizes that there is a similar humanness to our thinking with regard to God’s work in eras other than our own. We are more equipped to discuss the world of popular culture than the near-ancient worlds of Christian history. We know with little effort that Ben Affleck is the new Batman, but wrestle to admit we really haven’t ever read a sermon by Charles Spurgeon.

The encouraging truth here is that the two worlds are not that different and ancient, when known, can help the modern. Knowledge of the old serves to warn us of the perils of our current situation, while at the same time giving a promise of hope that change can come. Studying the revival that was the Reformation reveals that the intervention of God in the lives and hearts of men and women can drastically change all that is accepted as the status quo. In all ages, sin is still sin and man is still man, but God is still God and there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl 1:9).

These warnings and promises from the past, however, benefit us only when we first admit we do not have the knowledge of such warnings and promises. The admission of our ignorance can not be fully absolved by small confessions to the Google Search Engine or to Wikipedia in private anonymity. Rather, we should turn to God and ask for his help so that we can gain refining instruction from those who have gone before, both in the Bible (1 Cor 10:11) and the ensuing history of Christianity.

When we find that our lives are changed much by a nineteenth century sermon and less informed by the latest Hollywood mega-deal, we will realize the sanctifying blessings that come from the humbling of history. What a joy then to share with others why and how we’ve discovered that Spurgeon is the Batman we need.

Photo: Grave of C. H. Spurgeon, West Norwood Cemetary, London, May 2013.