Is There a Baptist Contribution to Political Theology?

This week I am attending the annual meeting of the Research Institute of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, where I serve as a Research Fellow. We are led by the capable Andrew T. Walker who directs our work for the purpose of bringing together Southern Baptist thinkers from across a wide array of disciplines to think critically about issues facing Southern Baptists and, more broadly, evangelicals. This year we are meeting in Dallas, Texas to discuss issues related to the intersection between Baptist Identity and Public Witness.

Over two days, we are hearing nine fellows present papers on diverse topics related to this year’s theme. Each presentation is followed by a prepared response from another fellow who then moderates a time of discussion. I was asked to respond to a fine paper given by Matthew Y. Emerson on the topic, “Is There a Baptist Contribution to Political Theology?”

Here is a condensed version of my response:

A Response of “Yes! And …” not “No! But …”

Is there a Baptist contribution to political theology? Matthew Emerson identifies a tradition among Baptists of affirming “God’s ordination of government, religious liberty, and dissent,” as contributions to political theology. I agree with this description. I have overall appreciation for Emerson’s paper and even more, filled with admiration, for the task of developing a commentary on a Baptist political theology, given the space constraints, is not a small task, yet Emerson was up to it and has served us well.

If you are familiar with that great animation show of the 1980s, Voltron, then you will understand when I say that I see my response here more as my joining forces with Emerson as a fellow pilot of a “Baptist Tradition” robot lion of sorts, in a collaborative effort, rather than as a critic. To put it another way, this is a response of “Yes! And …,” rather than a response of “No! But …”

The answer to this session’s question is not whether Baptists contribute to political theology,[1] for they have and do throughout their history. The issue is what kind of contribution have they made? Baptists, much like in all areas of their relationship to the Christian tradition, have made helpful and unhelpful contributions.

Emerson has done well to shine light on the way the Early English Baptists[2] contributed in a helpful way, and, time permitting, he could have explored how Baptists from other eras and regions contributed in similar helpful ways.[3]

Yet, we could also explore the ways Baptists have made unhelpful contributions—the fringe-anarchist Anabaptists, the hyper-Calvinist Baptists, the pro-slavery Baptists, the down-grade Baptists, the Primitive Baptists, the Landmark Baptists, the liberal and post-liberal Baptists, the Social Gospel Baptists, the Fundamentalist Baptists, the Ecumenical Baptists, the anti-Evangelical Baptists, the Westboro Baptists, and, even, at times, Southern Baptists.  All of these, for the most part, would espouse a similar commitment to religious liberty and the relationship of a Christian to the government, but this shared affirmation did not impact the other ways they each contributed, or continue to contribute, unhelpfully to the public square, other churches, or their neighbors.[4]

In 1994, L. Russ Bush, academic dean of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in his presidential address to the Evangelical Theological Society, 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.”

Therefore, since this is a Voltron-like response of joining forces for good, I want to focus on how Baptists of today can make helpful contributions to political theology, for what we teach and do today will be what future Baptists consider to be their heritage.

How can Baptists make helpful contributions to political theology while continuing to advocate for religious liberty and the like? I add to Emerson’s work with three brief suggestions framed in terms of relationship.

[1] The relationship of ecclesiology to political theology or “When Baptists act like Baptists”

Baptists can make a helpful contribution to political theology when they act like the best of their forebears in terms of their understanding and cultivation of a biblical ecclesiology. Yes, as Emerson notes, the Baptist development of ecclesiology often was born out of a desire to dissent from the state, and that remains one contribution of Baptists. But there is more in terms of what a healthy ecclesiology can bring to bear on the public square.

What I do not mean is that ecclesiology is the ultimate doctrine. As nineteenth century Baptist theologian, J. L. Dagg said, “Church order and the ceremonials of religion, are less important than a new heart.”[5] Rather, a care for ecclesiology allows a tradition to care for the gospel and to provide a habitat for fellowship.

First, Jonathan Leeman helpfully describes the relationship between church and state as “set on a landscape where politics and religion are wholly coterminous, like two circle lenses placed perfectly on top of one another. The public square is nothing more or less than a battleground of gods. And the church is a political institution inhabited by citizens of heaven who bear a distinctively political message: Jesus is king …. [T]he church’s most powerful political activity is being the church and proclaiming its unique message.”[6] For when Paul writes to Timothy to instruct him in “how one ought to behave in the household of God,” Paul describes the local church as the “pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

Second, Matthew Lee Anderson notes that another way ecclesiology can shape political theology is by connecting the shared experience of believers who are also citizens. He explains, “the church’s life together is the soil from which political theology springs, for the questions posed by living together make us attentive to the many ways in which our communal experience shaped our knowledge of God.” Therefore, “[a] greater emphasis on communal life would go a long way toward closing the unfortunate gap between politics and theology.”[7]

[2] The relationship of other doctrines to political theology or “When Baptists act like Roman Catholics and Presbyterians”

Baptists can make a helpful contribution to political theology when they act like Roman Catholics and Presbyterians in terms of a renewed priority of the doctrine of God, and the doctrine of man.

Often Baptists have been content to accept a separationism of doctrines in their history. While orthodox in terms of their doctrines of God and man throughout their confessions of faith, at times they have sought to reinterpret them when it came toward the application of those doctrines on matters of social concern—particularly on slavery in the nineteenth century and civil rights and the pro-life movement for much of the twentieth century.  Yet, as the Evangelical (and Baptist) theologian Carl F. H. Henry noted, “Christians are less than faithful to Christ’s lordship over all political concerns if they imply that no moral choices flow from Christ’s lordship in matters of political decision.”[8]

Baptists can learn from Roman Catholics given their longstanding commitment to religious liberty, the dignity of marriage, and the sanctity of human life, as well as the Presbyterian articulation of common grace and providence—all of which is rooted in a developed doctrine of God and doctrine of man.[9]  While perhaps Baptists would formulate some of these doctrines differently or arrive at different conclusions, Baptists could contribute more to political theology with a more developed theology proper and anthropology.

[3] The relationship of the Kingdom to political theology or “When Baptists act like Jesus”

Baptists can make a helpful contribution to political theology when they act like Jesus and focus most on the coming Kingdom.[10]

Jesus modeled petition to God the Father by praying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). As Baptists live in the already/not yet of the Kingdom, they can provide helpful contributions to public theology when they pray and live this way.[11]

One day soon, “every knee will bow” (Phil 2:10) and there will be no more public square. The Kingdom of God will reign on earth as it has in heaven. All of this will take place “to the glory of God the Father.” Until then, each day is a day of grace and a day of salvation where God, in his patience, tolerates a world that worships things created by humans and other futile systems and philosophies. Yet, whoever bows in their heart now (Rom 10:9-10) that Jesus is Lord will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).[12]

When Baptists keep this reality front and center, they can contribute to political theology in a way that is eternally (not just temporally) effective. Carl Henry modeled well this balance, “We are not enjoined to try to turn [the] state into a Christian government. But by its evangelistic task in society the church seeks to stimulate human beings voluntarily to recover the whole moral content of divine revelation and to inform humanity’s conscience according to God’s transcendent absolutes …. As churches proclaim a gospel calling for personal decision they can legitimately also, as a part of their evangelistic objective, attempt to win the nation for Christ.”[13]

The history of the future of Baptist contributions

Is there a Baptist contribution to political theology? Yes, though in the past there have been both helpful and unhelpful contributions. What matters most is what kind of contributions are Baptists today making and to what end?

As Timothy George said, “Yes, by all means, let us maintain, undergird, and strengthen our precious Baptist distinctives … but let us do this not so that people will say how great the Baptists are but rather what a great Savior the Baptists have, what a great God they serve.”[14]

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[1] In terms of a definition of political theology, Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theory (Cambridge, 1996), 4, states “The modern use of the term ‘political theology’ is generally held to being with the Politische Theologie of Carl Schmitt (1922) …. It should not be restricted to programmes which, like the majority of contemporary essays, conceive theologico-political discourse as critical, even subversive, of other political discourses. Civil religion, too, counts as part of the genre, as well as those attempts, of which this is one, to combine critical and constructive elements …. The term is, however, overextended when it is embraced by an approach to theology which has no interest in political questions as such, but merely professes an ecclesial antifoundationalism, the political content reduced to the banal reminder that theology must relate to some community of discourse.”

Malcolm Yarnell, “Early American Political Theology,” in First Freedom (B&H Academic, 2016), 50n2, expands to say that “The very term political theology seems like an oxymoron to the modern mind. The Enlightenment advocated separating politics from theology, and American scholars for the most part adopted that program as part and parcel of separating church and state. The religious contributions in history to the public square were thereby suppressed. Religion, for atheistic humanist and evangelical Christian alike, became a private matter, and any religio-political discourse brought dire proclamations regarding the betrayal of the Baptist tradition. For instance, with the rise of evangelical involvement in American politics, Billy Moyers decried a conspiracy that would lead to both ‘theocracy’ (the rule of the state by the church) and ‘civil religion’ (the rule of the church by the state).”

[2] For an evaluation of some of the confessions Emerson uses, the Baptist Center for Theology & Ministry has helpful comparative documents for both the key General Baptist and Particular Baptist confessions of faith.

[3] See Yarnell, “Early American Political Theology,” 49-79, as one example wherein he presents a major and minor tradition among American Baptists: (1) the ‘Virginia tradition’ “emphasizes individual freedom and the separation of church and state,” and (2) the ‘South Carolina tradition’ “emphasizes divine providence, human constitutionalism, and social order in a way that universal religious liberty might be moderated.”

[4] Jonathan Leeman, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (IVP, 2016), 14, explains that churches “err in one of two directions. Either they falsely claim to be spiritual, not political, and so fail to take the stands that they should …. Or they convince themselves that political advocacy in the public square is their most important work and distract themselves from their primary mission: being the church.”

Carl F. H. Henry, “The Evangel and Public Duty,” in The Christian Mindset in a Secular Society (Multnomah, 1984), 126, “Political commitments can become readily captive to principles or preferences alien to the church when evangelical movements align themselves uncritically with one specific political party and promote the election or defeat of candidates only on the basis of a highly selective agenda of legislation instead of working through all parties to promote a cluster of logically related commitments.”

Baptists often give our strongest energies, and even more our hope, in advancing whatever perspective of political theology we think best only to wind up like C. S. Lewis’s “ignorant child who wants to go making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea,” in “The Weight of Glory,” Theology, 43 (Nov 1941), published in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses  (HarperOne, 2001), 25.

[5] J. L. Dagg, Manual of Church Order (Charleston, SC: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1858), 12.

[6] Leeman, Political Church, 14, continues, “The church wields the keys of the kingdom in order to speak for heaven on earth by affirming the what and the who of the gospel. And the church’s life is held together by justification by faith alone, the most powerful political force in the world today for flattening hierarchies and uniting one-time enemies.” See also his explanation of the local church as an “embassy on the international map,” 374-385.

[7] Matthew Lee Anderson, “Can there be an Evangelical Political Theology?,” Comment Magazine (Fall 2012). There is much more to explore here, and I commend Leeman’s Political Church as a good place to start.

[8] Henry, “The Evangel and Public Duty,” 126-127.

[9] Anderson, “Can there be an Evangelical Political Theology?”  notes that the Reformed tradition has contributed “much of the best evangelical political theology” due to its long tradition of moral theology, “emphasis on common grace, and the doctrine of creation.” He notes the work of Richard Mouw, Count Nicholas Wolterstorff, Jonathan Chaplin, and Francis Schaeffer as examples. See also The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, November 20, 2009, and the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement, “In Defense of Religious Freedom (2012),” in Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty, ed. Timothy George and Thomas G. Guarino (Brazos, 2015), 137.  See also “Respect For the Human Person,” Catechism of the Catholic Church.

[10] Yarnell, “Early American Political Theology,” 79, “The solipsism that accompanies undue emphasis on freedom and the tyranny that accompanies undue emphasis on social order stand over American Christian political theology as warnings against any hope in purely human constitutions. Rather, we expectantly hope for the eschatological perfection that will only come with the gracious return of our King Jesus.”

[11] For a further expansion of this idea see O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, 3, “A theologian who begins with the political discourse of the Kingdom of God will prove bona fides by demonstrating how it illumines the topics that responsible theology attends to: repentance and forgiveness, the Incarnation, the sharing of the life of Godhead in the Spirit, justification and adoption, creation and the renewal of the world, the life of the Church and its ministry of word and sacrament.”

[12] Portions of this paragraph are adaptions from Jason G. Duesing, “The End of Religious Liberty,” in First Freedom, 255-256.

[13] Henry, “The Evangel and Public Duty,” 123-124.

[14] Timothy George, “Why I am an Evangelical and a Baptist,” in Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Why We Belong (Crossway, 2013), 109.