Clarification on the Need for Baptists to Learn Our History

In the comment thread of my post last week on the need for Baptists to learn our history, my friend Evan Stewart responded with what I took to be a fairly negative reaction. One cause for this was, I think, possibly due to a genuine theological difference as I am convinced of the regulative principle of worship whereas Evan seems to be more influenced by the normative principle. Other than this, however, I think that my earlier post may have lacked sufficient clarity in a few key issues, which I hope to briefly address here.

1. The study of Baptist history (as I replied to another commenter) doesn’t solve ALL problems that Baptists have. Also, simply knowing Baptist history doesn’t NECESSARILY solve ANY problems that Baptists have. The value of studying Baptist history, again, is to benefit from the wisdom of those who have gone before us. So, for example, if a certain Baptist is considering whether or not he should join a paedo-baptist denomination, it would be helpful, I believe, if he knew why Baptists historically decided to abandon the paedo-baptist tradition in the first place. If a certain Baptist was thinking through how he should view the idea of modern-day extra-biblical prophecy, it would be helpful to know of early Baptist responses to the Quakers, etc. Evan said: “Before we begin a history lesson in denominational tradition and history we must preface this kind of study with a study of Biblical orthodoxy.” I entirely agree with this statement and think that it was definitely a careless oversight on my part to assume that current Baptist churches would be teaching their members how to discern Biblical orthodoxy in the first place. This thought leads, also, to my next point:

2. I was NOT asserting that we should accept any belief or practice merely on the fact that we find such a belief or practice within the stream of Baptist history. Indeed, it would be impossible to accept all historic Baptist beliefs and practices, simply because Baptist history is not monolithic and some Baptist traditions specifically contradict other Baptist traditions. This is seen at the outset of the modern Baptist movement arising in the early 1600s in which one finds both General Baptists, who believed that continuing reformation led them to embrace Arminian soteriology, as well as Particular Baptists, who remained more Calvinistic. One cannot even simply pick one of these traditions (General or Particular) and follow it all the way through, for, as historian H. Leon McBeth indicates, in the eighteenth century “The General Baptists fell into extreme liberalism, Arianism, and Socianism… Particular Baptists fell into extreme conservatism, hyper-Calvinism, and Antinomianism, and their churches withered under the arid blasts” (McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 199). During his ministry, Charles H. Spurgeon had to deal with both of these groups- the Socianians and the hyper-Calvinists- and I think that it is instructive to see how his remedy for these errors was solid, Biblical, Gospel preaching (see John MacArthur’s Ashamed of the Gospel and Iain Murray’s Spurgeon V. Hyper-Calvinism).

3. Our study of Baptist History should make us more rather than less willing to engage in informal associations for the sake of the Gospel. Evan wrote: “Yes, teach Baptist history, but let us Baptists remember not to inadvertently abandon our other brothers and sisters in Christ who worship under a different and sometimes rival denomination.” Again, I wholly agree with this statement. In teaching Baptist history, we must be on guard against the prideful human tendency to look down upon others with different convictions. At the same time, when we become convinced that certain Biblical truths have become either lost or severly under-emphasized in the contemporary church environment, we must be personally uncompromising in these truths. I believe that we have a great present-day model in these areas in Dr. Al Mohler and Mark Dever, both of whom wrote articles in the preface for the historic Baptist polity collection I have linked from my blog, both of whom are leaders in the SBC, and both of whom also are founding members of the inter-denominational Together for the Gospel conference. In this, Mohler and Dever are acting in accordance with a major stream within Baptist history, as the earliest Particular Baptist church continued to have fellowship with the independent (paedo-baptist) Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey church [Haykin, Kiffin, Knollys and Keach, 29] and the early Particular Baptist leader William Kiffin used his influence to rescue 12 General Baptists from the death sentence during the persecution under Charles II [Haykin, 47]. The Southern Baptist Convention itself was founded in order to help different local churches unite for the cause of spreading the Gospel, although from early on some churches within the convention had different perspectives on how strong they should adhere to the Calvinistic Baptist tradition, as seen in the fact that the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (founded 1859) was organized with an Abstract of Principles that does not mention the extent of the atonement.

In summary, a study of Baptist history should be based on a clear understanding and firm commitment to the Biblical Gospel. This understanding and commitment should motivate Baptists to seek to learn from strands within our tradition that have been similarly committed to Gospel preaching and sound Biblical theology. With God’s glory in the Good News of Christ as our guiding principle, our study of Baptist history should promote, rather than exclude, working with others from different traditions who are similarly committed to the Gospel, without compromising our own Biblical convictions.

-SDG

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7 Comments on “Clarification on the Need for Baptists to Learn Our History”

  1. Barry Says:

    I’m not sure why anyone would resist learning the history of a movement.

    A distinction does need to be made, however, when you are talking about historical perspective. Whose history are you following?

    Often times when a person wishes to elucidate a history they have an agenda or a bias that drives them which means that the history lesson might very well be skewed.

    Is the historical perspective taught in seminary schools today broad-based or is there a more narrow, channeled picture that they wish to show to students.

    As a student, that’s one of the first things I’d want to know about. If I wasn’t getting an honest appraisal of, say, the Reformation period and all of its sides then I would say I’m being offered propaganda and not history.


  2. Barry,

    While it’s true that history professors should strive to give an accurate picture of their subject, neither glossing over nor unjustly criticizing any aspect of history under consideration, I think that it is important to note that no professor (indeed, no human being) can be completely neutral. What I appreciate from a professor, therefore, is for him to diligent consider his own influences and presuppositions he has formed, and then to let those things be known at the outset of the class so that even while he is trying to give an even-handed account, I am better informed on how I may listen with a critical ear, carefully evaluating all information presented, likewise seeking awareness of my own influences and presuppositions.

    In Christ,
    -Andrew

  3. Barry Says:

    Agreed.

    Most professors are down to earth from what I’ve found. On the other hand if the school itself has an inherant philosophy that it wants to emphasize… what is taught could be skewed. Can you imagine how long an instructor would last at BJU if he or she were neutral or ambivalent about Mormons or Catholics?

    But, a potential student usually has a handle on that before they have even attended a particular college–I would hope.

    I was fortunate to go to the school I did–there were so many diversifying views from students and teachers it was impossible not to find oneself automatically looking at an issue from all sides.

    History is an amazing discipline.

    Peace.

  4. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    Traditions=History

    But it is sometimes myth, sometimes propaganda and sometimes the naked truth. What we have in the SBC is denial and it is not unlike what someone might find in Mormonism.

    Gatekeeper phenomenon happens when those in authority can control the flow of information. Now with the advent of new technologies, libraries of information and misinformation are available. It would seem then that we should be hyper-vigiliant to defend the truth of history. We can see the effect of skewing “historic coverage” in the news. Even current history is easily manipulated. The tragic story is that one word of untruth takes a thousand to undo it. Who will undo it? Remember the proverbs and take a clue from the instruction on the unfaithful messenger. We commonly attach the meaning of the Gospel to those verses understanding that a messenger is a witness. The Gospel message is historical and our Faith is an historical one, therefore it is of paramount importance that history remain an integrous discipline in Christian education within and without the local church.

  5. Evan Stewart Says:

    I appreciate the clarification, Andrew. You are right in noting that my initial response was more negative in criticism. I think, from your clarification, that you and I are in more agreement as to how a historical knowledge of Baptist history can be beneficial to the average SBC church member.

    I think you are also correct in noting that between us there is “a genuine theological difference as I am convinced of the regulative principle of worship whereas Evan seems to be more influenced by the normative principle”. I think our history will help us be more encouraged in our understanding of orthodoxy and encourage us to defend our convictions of Scripture. The disagreement caused by our difference of worship principles centers more on the how-to of worship as dictated by historical precedence, as you noted.

    I greatly appreciate your clarification, “With God’s glory in the Good News of Christ as our guiding principle, our study of Baptist history should promote, rather than exclude, working with others from different traditions who are similarly committed to the Gospel, without compromising our own Biblical convictions.” Although, by knowing you, I could have inferred this from your previous article, I think this added clarification is a wise addition.

  6. Jon Edwards Says:

    And part of that history certainly includes the pre-tribulation rapture. To see the real skinny on its short history, Google “Pretrib Rapture Diehards.” You will never be the same again! Jon

  7. Barry Says:

    I did Jon. I’m still the same.

    I’m not sure this is still on-topic. Perhaps it is.

    The two big facets in using scripture as an aid to vaildating or offering a historical perspective on a movement are the translation and to a bigger extent the interpretation. In my own amatuer glances I’ve seen it in every movement I have waded into thus far. It seems to me that most every movement takes its root in discord and so interpretation of scripture is utilized to validate the claimant’s desire to begin anew. The problem I see is that, in many cases, the interpretation can run the gamet from being a bit of a stretch to being ridiculous or delusional.

    If you think about it, a person can almost find anything in the bible to validate whatever direction they want to go off in.

    If someone wanted to find scripture to start a new movement which would make it a sin to wear flip-flops while driving a car, limiting cell-phone use, using non-stick cookware, wearing a ring on one’s thumb or having a tatoo then I’m pretty sure they could find it and if they evangelize effectively enough they might have a following and thus a new movement is born.

    Learning a movement’s history is quite a journey.


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