What is Baptist theology and what difference does it make in the church? (Bobby Jamieson)
In the recent issue of Credo Magazine, “The Trinity and the Christian Life: Why a Triune God Makes All the Difference,” Bobby Jamieson has written a review article titled, “What is Baptist theology and what difference does it make in the church?” The article is a review of Stephen Holmes’ new book, Baptist Theology.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013).
Here is the introduction to Jamieson’s article:
The words Baptist Theology may seem an oxymoron to some, and not without reason. As Stephen Holmes points out in the introduction to his new, Baptist Theology (T&T Clark, 2012), Baptist theological contribution has been “much less significant than their numbers might suggest.” Further, unlike, say, Reformed theology, there is no thickly developed, self-consciously Baptist tradition of biblical interpretation and confessional commentary (1).
Of course, this poses certain challenges to someone who would write a volume defining “Baptist theology” in a series featuring works on Reformed theology, Lutheran theology, and so on. Thankfully Holmes, a Baptist minister and senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, rises to the challenge and then some.
Holmes begins by acknowledging that an introduction to Baptist theology “is inevitably both partial and creative”: partial not just because of the cultural situatedness of the writer but also because the writer must judge what is central to the tradition and impose an interpretation on that basis; and creative “because there is no settled tradition to report” (2-3). Thus, after surveying various proposed accounts of Baptist theology, Holmes offers his own, namely, that there are “two foci around which Baptist life is lived: the individual believer and the local church.” Holmes argues that the practice of believer’s baptism demonstrates “an intense individualism,” and the stress on congregationalism by Baptists “provides a focus on that community as the context in which God has promised to be active” (6). Holmes elegantly summarizes this vision as follows:
God, through the Son and the Spirit, calls individual believers into covenanted relationship in the local church, and equips them to build up one another within the local church, and to hear and obey the ongoing missional call to make every other human person a believer. This is Baptist theology. (7)
The first three chapters of the book provide a concise overview of Baptist history. In chapter 1, Holmes treats Baptist beginnings, surveying the English Reformation, the Separatist movement, and the beginnings of the Baptist movement in seventeenth-century England. Chapter 2 is a survey of Baptists in North America from Roger Williams in the 1630s to the recent “conservative resurgence” among Southern Baptists. And chapter 3 briefly recounts Baptist history since 1800 in Britain, continental Europe, and the Majority World.
The rest of the book is more properly theological, though still with an appropriately historical bent. Chapter 4, “Baptist Perspectives on Ecumenical Theology,” surveys Baptist contributions to doctrines shared with other Protestant traditions, which essentially includes everything but ecclesiology. Holmes’s main point is that “on most shared ecumenical doctrines, Baptist theology is not distinctive, although the theology of individual Baptists might be” (69).
Chapter 5 presents a positive statement of Baptist ecclesiology, treating believer’s baptism, the primacy of the local church, congregational church government, the independence and interdependence of local churches, the role of the Word of God and the Spirit of God, and church leadership. And chapter 6 offers a perceptive account of Baptist stances on liberty of conscience and religious toleration, focusing on Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, E.Y. Mullins, and Nigel Wright.
In chapter 7 Holmes fleshes out his account of Baptist ecclesiology through the tightly interwoven themes of mission and holiness. Holmes’s account in this chapter of the church as the necessary context for sanctification is particularly apt and much-needed. For instance: “For Baptists, spiritual direction is an irreducibly communal activity, performed by the whole church for each member of the church, and insertion into the community of God’s people is not an impediment, but a necessary spur to true holiness” (155). The book concludes by offering an apologetic for why engaging Baptist theology and identity is worth the effort. Holmes writes that to attempt to narrate Baptist theology is “also to attempt a work of purification: it is to try to identify the places where we have failed to be faithful enough to the biblical call, to try to spot distortions that leave us conforming to the world, not the vision of Christ-like living” (162).
Read the rest of this review in the recent issue of Credo Magazine:
The Trinity and the Christian Life: Why a triune God makes all the difference
One of the dangers every church faces is slipping, slowly and quietly and perhaps unknowingly, into a routine where sermons are preached, songs are sung, and the Lord’s Supper is consumed, but all is done without a deep sense and awareness of the Trinity. In other words, if we are not careful our churches, in practice, can look remarkably Unitarian. And such a danger is not limited to the pews of the church. As we leave on Sunday morning and go back into the world, does the gospel we share with our coworker look decisively and explicitly Trinitarian in nature? Or when we pray in the privacy of our own home, do the three persons of the Trinity make any difference in how we petition God?
In this issue of Credo Magazine, we have brought together some of the sharpest thinkers in order to bring our minds back to the beauty, glory, and majesty of our triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we do not merely want to see him as triune, but recognize why and how the Trinity makes all the difference in the Christian life. Therefore, in this issue Fred Sanders, Robert Letham, Michael Reeves, Scott Swain, Tim Challies, Stephen Holmes, and many others come together in order to help us think deeper thoughts about how God is one essence and three persons, and what impact the Trinity has on who we are and what we do as believers.
Matthew Barrett, Executive Editor