On Being Baptist

Founders Journal · Summer 2000 · pp. 23-29

On Being Baptist

Terry A. Chrisope

My obligations as a teacher of Baptist history recently led me to examine a volume entitled Beyond the Impasse: Scripture, Interpretation, and Theology in Baptist Life. This collection of essays was edited by Robison B. James and David S. Dockery and was published by Broadman Press in 1992. As I read through the essays in this volume, a disturbing pattern gradually became evident: it seemed that those who were advocating greater freedom or looseness in doctrinal and theological matters were grounding their position in the claim of being Baptist. For example, Robison James takes to task Albert Mohler for not including any particularly Baptist distinctives in Mohler’s suggested imperatives for the current situation among Southern Baptists (p. 120). James then goes on to set forth several of what he calls “nonnegotiable features of Baptist identity,” such as “the equal priesthood of believers,” “democracy within the church,” “free cooperation,” and “the right of individual interpretation.” One gains the uneasy feeling in reading such statements that the alleged freedom of the Baptist position is being used to bolster a stance that is not at all Baptist because it ultimately serves to undermine historic Christianity. In response, I believe that several observations need to be made.

In the first place, it desperately needs to be pointed out that the most important thing about being Baptist is being Christian. A Baptist is, by definition, simply a variety of Christian. It follows that a Baptist’s identity as a Christian is more fundamental than his identity as a Baptist: he is first a Christian, then, as it happens, a Christian of Baptistic persuasion. A Christian, in turn, is a person who, adhering to a particular world view (in this case, the belief system set forth in the Bible), commits himself to God in repentance (a turning from the anti-God mentality and lifestyle of the fallen world to a mentality and lifestyle of submission, obedience, and service to God) and in faith (trust in Jesus Christ as God’s means of forgiving human sin and restoring people to a right relationship with God). The Christian is expected by God to publicly identify himself with Jesus Christ and with a local community of Christian believers. It is with regard to this latter question–the nature of public identification with Jesus Christ and the nature of the local Christian community–that Baptists hold distinctive views. The former–what it means to be a Christian–belongs to the essence of Christianity. What is disturbing is that some leaders in Baptist circles seem willing to use Baptist “distinctives” to undercut essential Christianity.

It is Christianity in its essence, as a religion of supernatural revelation and redemption, that is under attack in the centers of Western culture at the end of the twentieth century. The bases of this attack are naturalistic philosophical assumptions leading to an evolutionary and relativistic view of history (this view is sometimes known as historicism or historical consciousness) and, deriving from this outlook, the received conclusions of a certain type of biblical criticism. The great danger in Southern Baptist circles–and it is a genuine danger in SBC academic life–is that a spirit of accommodation or capitulation to the philosophical commitments of the surrounding culture will prevail. This would result in the evaporation of any distinctively Christian content from Christianity, leaving only a culture religion. The process of accommodation and capitulation may be observed at work historically in the so-called mainline Protestant denominations, several of which no longer adhere to anything resembling historic biblical Christianity. The same process has been at work in SBC life during the twentieth century, and the outlook which it promotes did gain dominance in some SBC agencies and institutions for a while. Some individuals and factions seek for themselves the freedom to continue propagating this outlook in Southern Baptist life. Arguably what is at stake in these developments is the very essence and existence of Christianity as originally conceived (and not just Baptist distinctives): is Christianity a supernatural religion of divine revelation and redemption or is it something else? If the essence of Christianity is misconceived, the continued existence of historic Christianity is put in jeopardy wherever the misconception prevails.

If the nature or essence of Christianity is at stake in the modern intellectual struggle, it is disingenuous to use planks from the superstructure of alleged (or genuine) Baptist distinctives–as some are doing–to seek the freedom to promote views which will alter, undermine or destroy the underlying foundation of historic Christianity. The superstructure will not stand without the foundation. Yet it is not uncommon to find the claimed “freedoms” of the Baptist position set forth and utilized in such a way that divorces them from the full content of historic Baptist belief and life.[1] A Baptist is not merely a person who happens to believe in “soul competence,” the priesthood of believers, baptism by immersion, or other “distinctives”; a Baptist is first of all a person who receives in faith the revelation which God has given in Scripture and the redemption which God has provided in Jesus Christ. A Baptist will of course go on to affirm other truths as well, but without this foundation, one’s position is not Christian and therefore cannot be authentically Baptist. For the most important thing about being Baptist is not adhering to Baptist distinctives but being Christian.

Secondly, it should be noted that several of the Baptist distinctives to which some make their appeal do not lie at the center of the Christian faith. Rather, they constitute the desirable conditions under which the Christian faith is best adhered to and promoted. For example, religious freedom or separation of church and state may be dearly-won and dearly-held Baptist convictions, and one can hardly be considered Baptist without them. Yet these convictions–and the political realities to which they point–do not lie at the heart of biblical Christianity; the gospel does. Christianity may flourish in their absence, as the New Testament itself bears witness. The early English Baptists of the seventeenth century certainly did not enjoy the conditions of freedom of religion and separation of church and state (though they themselves adhered to these convictions, and their own churches were independent of the English state), but they founded their churches and multiplied in number nevertheless. These conditions were not necessary to their existence as Baptists but would have provided a more favorable environment in which to live and minister, not only for themselves but for others as well.

Not only do these convictions not lie at the heart of Christianity (one does not find them explicitly set forth in the New Testament), but it is also true that one may adhere to them and not be a Christian at all. Benjamin Franklin probably would have agreed with both these ideals, and Thomas Jefferson fought to put them into practice in Virginia, yet neither man was a Christian. It is thus possible to be supportive of these civil conditions for which Baptists have long struggled without being either Baptist or Christian.

Some authors, however, seem to confuse convictions about these ideal civil conditions with the heart of the Christian faith or Baptist belief. A recent example is provided by H. Leon McBeth’s book, The Baptist Heritage.[2] McBeth’s third chapter is entitled “Defending the Faith,” but the chapter does not deal with the defense of the Christian faith, as one might be led to expect by the chapter title. The chapter rather treats the Baptist struggle for religious liberty in England during the seventeenth century. This is most peculiar, for religious liberty does not define the heart of the Christian faith in general nor of the Baptist version of it in particular, both of which have flourished in its absence. It is uncertain, however, whether McBeth recognizes this, for his chapter title suggests that he has elevated this single element of Baptist Christian conviction to the point where it constitutes “the faith.” What Baptists in England were struggling for in the seventeenth century was the advantageous civil condition of liberty to adhere to, practice, and propagate the Christian faith in a way that differed from that of the established church (the Church of England). What these Baptist churches regarded as constituting the Christian faith my be found in their confessions of faith, such as the Standard Confession of 1660 or the Second London Confession of 1677 and 1689. In these confessions there will be found much about God and man, sin and salvation in Jesus Christ, and the proper constitution of gospel churches. There will also be found articles dealing with liberty of conscience as involving freedom from coercion or persecution by the civil and religious authorities. But the latter could hardly be said to form “the faith” as Baptists understood it. “The faith” was the Christian faith, which Baptists held in common with other Christian believers. Civil liberty of conscience, in contrast, was that condition which Baptists believed should be enjoyed by all people as providing the most favorable environment for the exercise and propagation of Christian faith and for the making of personal faith commitments. Thus liberty of conscience was a civil condition in which Christian faith could best be exercised (at least in human judgment); it did not itself constitute Christian faith. It is therefore dangerously reductionistic and belies a serious misunderstanding of Baptist belief and of the Christian faith (and perhaps indicates an underlying agenda) to speak of the struggle for religious liberty as “defending the faith.” The freedom which Baptists sought was freedom to believe and practice the Christian faith in a biblical way; but “the faith” was something more than the freedom they sought for its exercise. And it is extremely doubtful that these Baptists would have regarded liberty of conscience as allowing church members to be recognized as faithful Christians while rejecting the historic content of the Christian faith, in the fashion of some proponents of this Baptist distinctive in our own day.

Third, it should be observed that it is not unbaptistic (i.e., it does not violate the “priesthood of believers” or “freedom of conscience”) to require adherence to definite doctrinal standards in order for Baptists to associate together or cooperate in the work of God’s kingdom. If it is true that any professing Christian or church is free to believe as he or it sees fit (under God), then it is also true that any Christian or church is free to associate or cooperate with those of “like faith and order.” For support of this position, appeal may be made not only to a figure like theologian James P. Boyce, but also to his twentieth-century successor E. Y. Mullins.

James Petigru Boyce (1827-1888) was one of the founders of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, eventually located at Louisville, Kentucky. In proposing the establishment of a seminary for Baptists in the South, Boyce argued in 1856 that such an institution should be (among other qualities) confessional. That is, the seminary should adhere to a definite standard of doctrinal belief and all faculty should be required to subscribe to it without mental reservation. In making his case, Boyce articulated three points. First, the obligations imposed on churches by Scripture to uphold true apostolic teaching presupposes the use of something like creeds. Only in this way can truth be distinguished from erroneous interpretations of the Bible. Second, Christ and the apostolic churches seem to have utilized doctrinal confessions in order to express or test declarations of faith. This practice may be observed in the New Testament. Third, Baptists have historically used confessions of faith in this same two-fold way. Despite appearances or claims to the contrary, the Baptist position has been simply that liberty of conscience requires that civil disabilities not be imposed as a means of dealing with differences of belief. Boyce then applied his argument to the situation at hand, urging the adoption of a test of doctrine for the new Baptist seminary:

You will infringe the rights of no man, and you will secure the rights of those who have established here an instrumentality for the production of a sound ministry. It is no hardship to those who teach here to be called upon to sign the declaration of their principles, for there are fields of usefulness open elsewhere to every man, and none need accept your call who cannot conscientiously sign your formulary.

In accord with Boyce’s recommendation, an Abstract of Principles (a brief doctrinal statement in twenty articles) was adopted for the seminary, which opened in 1859 in Greenville, South Carolina. It is still in use.[3]

A successor of Boyce as professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was E. Y. Mullins (1860-1928). Mullins also served as president of the seminary and as president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1921-1924. In his presidential address at the Southern Baptist Convention held in Kansas City in May 1923, Mullins treated the question of the relationship between science and religion (Darwinian evolutionary theory was a matter of heated controversy at the time). After noting the theoretical nature of evolutionary thought, Mullins went on to affirm the supernatural aspects of Christianity:

We record again our unwavering adherence to the supernatural elements in the Christian religion. The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself through man moved by the Holy Spirit, and is our sufficient certain and authoritative guide in religion. Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit. He was the Divine and eternal Son of God. He wrought miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead. He died as the vicarious atoning Saviour of the world and was buried. He arose again from the dead. The tomb was emptied of its contents. In His risen body He appeared many times to His disciples. He ascended to the right hand of the Father. He will come again in person, the same Jesus who ascended from the Mount of Olives.

Upon making this forthright declaration in support of revelational, redemptive, and supernatural Christianity, Mullins applied his principle to Southern Baptist educational institutions:

We believe that adherence to the above truths and facts is a necessary condition of service for teachers in our Baptist schools … We do insist upon a positive content of faith in accordance with the preceding statements as a qualification for acceptable service in Baptist schools. The supreme issue today is between naturalism and supernaturalism. We stand unalterably for the supernatural in Christianity. Teachers in our schools should be careful to free themselves from any suspicion of disloyalty on this point … We pledge our support to all schools and teachers who are thus loyal to the facts of Christianity as revealed in the Scripture.

According to the record of the proceedings, “that part of the President’s address referring to ‘Science and Religion’ was adopted as the belief of this body and ordered printed in the Convention Annual.”[4]

Two years later, when the convention met in Memphis, the Committee on Statement of Baptist Faith and Message, of which Mullins was the chairman, presented its report. Claiming that “any group of Baptists, large or small, have the inherent right to draw up for themselves and publish to the world a confession of their faith whenever they may think it advisable to do so,” the committee offered a revised version of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith for adoption by the convention. Appended to it was the statement on science and religion which Mullins had presented in 1923. Other members of the committee recommending adoption of the confession were S. M. Brown, W. J. McGlothlin, E. C. Dargan, and L. R. Scarborough. After rejecting an amendment to the confession, the convention adopted the Baptist Faith and Message on May 14, 1925.[5]

This history certainly demonstrates that the leaders and people of the Southern Baptist Convention have regarded it expedient at times to publish a statement of their beliefs and to require teachers at educational institutions to adhere to such a statement. Indeed, the requirements set forth by Mullins sound very much like the “creedalism” which some proponents of “freedom” in the convention profess to abhor. Yet it is instructive to note a strange inconsistency here. Robison James has insisted on several “nonnegotiable features of Baptist identity.” Walter Shurden has identified “four freedoms” which constitute Baptist identity. Do we not have here what may perhaps be called (not without some irony) a “liberal fundamentalism”? These men have specified several alleged features of Baptist life on which they are unwilling to compromise. Is there any difference between such a stance and that of the so-called fundamentalists who have specified several elements of Christian belief on which they are unwilling to compromise? If there is any difference, it is difficult for some observers to discern it.

It is doubtful whether the Baptist distinctives really serve the purposes to which some proponents put them. In any case, the central question becomes clear when it is put in this form: is it truly “Baptist” to allow individuals and organizations the freedom within professing Christian circles to promote with impunity that which will undermine and eventually destroy historic biblical Christianity? Or, to put it another way, can individuals and organizations abandon historic Christianity and still legitimately call themselves Baptist? If Baptists are truly Christian, the answer ought to be self-evident.