Baptists and the Christian Tradition? A Faculty Address

In 2017, Midwestern Seminary President, Jason K. Allen, inaugurated the Midwestern Seminary Faculty Address to allow members of the faculty to deliver a formal, academic presentation to his or her peers, offering an opportunity to build collegiality and recognize the research and study interests of each professor.

On February 14, I had the privilege of delivering the second faculty address on the topic, “The Thorough Reformers? Baptists, the Consensus Quinquesaecularis, and the Future.” This paper will comprise the core of my chapter in the forthcoming volume, Baptists and the Christian Tradition, edited by Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps for B&H Academic.

What follows is the introduction to my address followed by the remaining outline. To hear the entire address you can below watch the full video recording or listen to the audio.

Introduction: The Thorough Reformers?

“Of all the persecuted sects, the Baptists stand forth as most prominent, simply and only because they aim at a more complete and thorough reform than any others ever attempted.”[1] John Quincy Adams, pastor of Baptist churches in New Jersey and New York, said this in a published series of lectures that reflected a widespread sentiment among Baptist churches in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Namely, that Baptists were the most consistent Protestants and thus all other corners of the Christian tradition should conform to their views.

The idea of Baptists as the “thorough Reformers” gained in popularity during these days of ascendant ante-bellum Landmarkism, but continued even after that Successionist tradition faded from prominence. So much so, that non-Landmarkers also used this idea of thoroughness as a defense of Baptist distinctives.

Yet, while at its root the idea of “thorough Reformers” conveys fidelity first to Bible-priority over tradition, and has proved helpful over the last 500 years to strengthen the Christian tradition in a number of areas, some of which we will explore, the idea also has proved unhelpful. Some of the “thorough Reformers” have been too thorough, communicating a tradition exclusivity—a kind of “truer Christian.”

In that thoroughness there is an irony as Baptists have long been the persecuted minority, a dissenting group fleeing the cathedrals and courtrooms of tradition exclusivity, whether in Europe, England, or the Colonies. Yet, when in the nineteenth century they finally arrived at a place of stability and influence, they found that they had fled back to the high fences of the “this way is more true” ideology they once subverted. In these expressions, Baptist contributions to the Christian tradition have caused more conflict than aid.

In this paper, I aim to review how Baptist contributions to the Christian tradition have been both helpful and unhelpful with a view toward identifying how present and next generation Baptists should make future contributions. To begin, I want to present a brief survey to review the history of the relationship of Baptists and the Christian tradition.

1. It’s Complicated: Baptists and the Christian Tradition
2. Seated Around the Fire, Building on a Consensus Quinquesaecularis
3. Resetting Landmarks: Unhelpful Baptist Contributions
4. A High View of a Low and Free Church: Helpful Baptist Contributions
Conclusion: The History of Future Baptist Contributions

[1] John Quincy Adams, Baptists, the Only Thorough Religious Reformers (New York: Sheldon & Co., 1876), 21.