What does it mean to be Baptist? “Ask any Baptist this question and you will receive as many answers as there are Baptists” (43). While some might claim Baptists are those who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture, others might cling to the soul freedom and the authority of religious experience. Some argue they originated during the English Reformation, while others contend that we draw upon our history as the Second Front of the Magisterial Reformation an entire century earlier. Some might even still contend that Baptists have existed since Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. Sadly, Baptists are a people who cling to a shared history and identity while not necessarily agreeing upon which particular shared identity that might be.
“From time to time there has been a need for Baptists to once again reflect on who they are and what they believe, particularly in light of what can be called the historic orthodox consensus throughout the history of the church” (11). In response to that need in our day, David Dockery, President of Union University, has edited this compilation of articles and presentations by several leading Southern Baptist voices on the topic of Southern Baptist identity. University and seminary presidents, pastors and former convention presidents, and others serving at the denomination level join together to revisit our shared history, recognize the challenges of our contemporary culture, and set forth a unified identity for the future of the people called Southern Baptists.
In the monumental task of discerning a unified identity of Southern Baptists, each author necessarily brings one’s own personality, experience, and unique perspective. Yet as one reads the various authors, three general streams of consensus begin to yield themselves to the reader. Amidst the myriad of voices, experiences, and research, readers come to recognize the common threads of regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, and congregational church polity. “These three principles,” according to Al Mohler, “are an irreducible minimum of Baptist identity” (27).
The clearest, and most consistent, principle of Baptist identity is that of regenerate church membership. Hearkening back to the earliest of Baptists, whether one finds their origins in the sixteenth century Anabaptists or the seventeenth century English Separatists, one discovers the vital distinction between a state-church and a church of professing believers. “If there is any one defining mark of the Baptist, it is the understanding that membership in the church comes by personal profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” (26).
The second principle is that of believer’s baptism. Baptists were forged during a time of widespread paedobaptism. While the Roman Catholic and Reformation churches were baptizing infants into the “covenant community” based upon an interpretation that looked at baptism through the lens of Old Testament circumcision, Baptists have always understood it to be the first step in obedience for new believers. “In the New Testament baptism is the first command of Christian discipleship” (85). New Testament baptism, then, is the outward expression of the eternal transaction that has taken place in the life of the believer. This eternal immigration from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of God is not predicated upon a child’s birth into a family that happens to live in a nation where infants are baptized into the state church. It is only accomplished when that child (or adult) responds to the gospel in faith and repentance. Therefore, baptism must follow conversion.
The third common principle among Baptists is that of congregational church polity. Rather than a structure that requires churches to submit to a centralized leadership agency or personnel, Baptists maintain that each local expression of the church is autonomous and, according to New Testament guidelines, not subject to the rule of one or few, but to the corporate leadership of the Holy Spirit through his people. “Congregationalism affirms that it is the covenanted community that must take responsibility for the ordering of the church, for the preaching of the gospel, and for everything else that God has assigned to the church in this age” (27).
Regenerate church membership and believer’s baptism have long maintained lofty status within the discussion of Baptist theological distinctives. It may be surprising, then, to read of such unity throughout the book’s various authors on the importance of congregational church polity. The contemporary argument that it is not efficient enough to work in the modern context and must be replaced with an empowering of the church staff echoes arguments in support of Presbyterian church governance, which was refuted by Baptists on the grounds that all believers were indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The contemporary argument that pastors know best how to run the church, and that rather than boards or committees chaired by lay leadership, churches should be governed by boards of pastors of other churches, echoes arguments in support of Episcopalian church governance. This was refuted by Baptists who maintained that churches were autonomous and not under the controlling hand of any external agency. Though this method of church governance has come under criticism seemingly from all sides, and perhaps due to that criticism, the authors contend that congregational polity is a characteristic of a Baptist church.
Chapter Seven, “The Roots of Baptist Beliefs,” by James Leo Garrett, was tremendously insightful, as the author traced the annals of church history in order to provide the much-needed historical development of Baptist beliefs. He displays the theological contributions to Baptist thought of the early ecumenical councils (Trinitarian and Christological doctrines), the medieval sectarian and reforming groups (their “anti-ascetical, anti-sacramental, and primitivist intentions”), the magisterial Reformers (the supremacy of Scripture, justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all Christians, memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper, church discipline, and the doctrine of predestination), the Anabaptists (believer’s baptism, church discipline as necessary, New Testament superiority, and religious freedom), and the English Separatists (humanity’s Adamic disability, the Bible as the rule of faith and practice, the priesthood of all Christians, and congregational polity) (195). For those researching the doctrinal development of the Baptists, this chapter is without equal.
Jim Shaddix’s chapter, “The Future of the Traditional Church,” brought incredible insight into the underlying reason for the exodus that occurs for many young Baptists between the Youth Department and the Young Adult Class – lifeless Christianity. “Our children are not running from our lifeless style and form; they’re running from something intangible… They’re running from a lifeless Christianity. And they’re so turned off by it that they’re running to nothing as an alternative” (205). And this repellant cannot be removed by updated worship and building styles, or pragmatic principles. He states prophetically, “Our irrelevance doesn’t come from forms and styles. Our irrelevance comes from a hollow, lifeless religion that is devoid of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power and absent of biblical direction” (214). The solution then is not an alteration of methods and marketing, but rather a return to sound doctrine and the faithful, expository preaching of God’s Word.
In light of current conversations within the Southern Baptist Convention, one cannot help but take notice of the thread of Calvinist discussion that weaves its way throughout the search for Southern Baptist identity. The Doctrines of Grace have long held a place in Baptist theology and history. Garrett writes, “John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination…had an impact on the theology of many Anglo-American Baptists” (144). Neither has Calvinism, however, been the sole soteriological understanding of Baptists. Timothy George asks, “Are Baptists Calvinists? Historically and empirically, the answer to this question is: some are and some are not, and it has been thus among Baptists for nearly 400 years” (95). This book – with its diversity of authors and contributors – lends a vital and seemingly absent voice to the current traditional Southern Baptist soteriological debate: Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike have always existed side-by-side for the propagation of the gospel at home and abroad. Both sides of the debate need one another. Neither perspective finds more credibility than the other from the Baptist Faith and Message. “There is room for a variety of views within the SBC on how divine sovereignty relates to human responsibility and freedom” (112).
Seeking to establish a credible, historical, and theological foundation upon which Southern Baptists can agree is a monumental and daunting task. However, it is vitally important. This book, and every other similar endeavor hinges on one distinctive that has yet to be discussed in this review, although it undergirds the entire discussion. Baptists are known as the people of the book. The Conservative Resurgence displayed the vast importance of a shared commitment and submission to the Holy Writ. Without a common foundational understanding of the complete truthfulness of scripture, there simply can be no common ground to stand upon. This, then, is the primary identity of Southern Baptists. All other distinctives flow from this foutainhead of authority. Regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, and congregational polity all flow from this stream – that the Bible “is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation as its end, and truth without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore Scripture is totally true and trustworthy (Article I, Baptist Faith and Message).”