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.