The technical bits: What do I mean by Baptist? (and Southern Baptist?)

This is a technical follow up to a non-technical post to clarify what I mean when I call myself a “baptist”. For that post, click here.

Side note: This is an incredibly long clarification (particularly in comparison with the others).

When someone says they are a Southern Baptist, particularly when they are trying to be apolitical, it may be difficult to find where along the spectrum they lie. I grew up during the period of time known as either the conservative resurgence or the fundamentalist takeover, depending upon which side of the lines you were. However, my early childhood was in Midland, TX where, at First Baptist Midland, Missions was a heavy focus, but we seemed to, at least from my perspective, eschew most of the debates. My later elementary and middle school years were spent at a Metropolitan “mega church” in Texas. This had the advantage of insulating me in the youth group (which almost functioned like a church in itself) away from any significant denominational controversy that may or may not have been going on in the rest of the church. Being in Texas, there also another angle to the politicking as the BGCT (Baptist General Convention of Texas) had a unique perspective in conversation with the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) functioning much more autonomously than many of the state baptist conventions often did. My high school years were spent in a small church led by a pastor who had his seminary education as music minister, thus again I felt mostly spared of the controversy (or more correctly was blissfully oblivious to it despite having two uncles and a cousin who were at the time baptist ministers). I attended an undergraduate institution that, despite being headed by a member of the committee who formed the somewhat controversial Baptist Faith and Message 200 (Mark Brister was president at the time of OBU), was under the shadow (and still arguably is) of the great Oklahoma Baptist worker Herschel Hobbs. Hobbs was in the somewhat unique position of being a theological conservative who, nevertheless, did not agree with some of the tactics being employed in the national convention that were characterized by the period in the late 80s and 90s. I concluded my US education at a interdenominational seminary located on an Alabama Baptist (and essentially a Southern Baptist) University, attending a church there that was clearly deeply on the side of the conservatives/fundamentalists (again depending on which side you are on). So, where does this leave me? Well there are a few things that can be said about me.

1) The Baptist Faith and Message: I unequivocally accept the BFM (Baptist Faith and Message) of 1963. I don’t know of a Southern Baptist around today who would not say that. Where the trouble begins for some is the revised BFM 2000. There are some very significant changes between the two. Unlike some commentators, particularly those who prefer the 1963 version, I do think that some of the changes are necessary and altogether positive. Like any document of this sort, it has its problems, but most are minor enough, especially when talking about the day to day work of the church. However as a result of this, many churches have decided either to affirm both statements, or simply offer both to congregants without a clear demarcation as to which they accept. Considering the emphasis on priesthood of believers and autonomy of the local church that Baptists have always affirmed, (including in both of these statements I think), this seems the right approach, but I’m not sure. After all, shouldn’t a church provide some guidance? At any rate, I haven’t fully decided where I would come down on the issue, and maybe that’s where I should be, at least now: in some tension over it. At any rate, at some point in the near future I may have to make a decision and I will do so honestly at that time. But at this point, I like to keep the conversation open and it seems picking one is closing that conversation. At any rate, if you’re wondering what the potential problems are, here’s a side by side comparison of the two documents by someone in the BGCT. I want to preface that by saying that I don’t think they are being entirely fair at all points, nor do I think they acknowledge the positive changes that are going on, particularly with regard to the 2000’s attempt to acknowledge the SBC’s past failings with regard to race relations and trying to set those right. Nevertheless it does highlight the differences and the commentary gives some of the concerns of those who prefer the 1963 document, not all of which I think are valid.

2) All of the controversy in the SBC has led many in the denomination, particularly those from Texas, to feel a stronger tie to the state convention than the national convention. Let me be clear, I remain committed to the Southern Baptist Convention. Nevertheless, I do feel the stronger ties to the BGCT than to the SBC and when I have encountered other Southern Baptists from Texas outside of the state, I have found that generally they have the same ties. That being said, were the BGCT to actually split from the SBC, a prospect that I doubt would ever actually occur, I don’t know where I would side as I don’t think split offs are generally a good idea. Ever. So even though I feel a stronger affinity for the BGCT, were such a divide to occur, I think I might actually remain with the SBC rather than go with the BGCT. Again, though, I don’t know what I would actually do in that actual situation, something that I doubt I will ever need to grapple with.

3) For those outside the Southern Baptist denomination, my identification as a Baptist carries with it some key distinctives both sacramentally and theologically. First sacramentally, those in the SBC don’t talk about “sacraments” because such a term carries with it a lot of theological baggage, including that they are “dispensations or grace” and/or “mediations of Christ”. Instead we refer to “ordinances”. By that term we mean that these are ritual, or ritual like things, that Christ ordained the church do during his earthly ministry. As a result baptists, like most Protestants, tend to limit these to 2 ordinances: the Lord’s supper (called communion or Eucharist in other denominations) and baptism. For the Lord’s supper, most baptists take what is essentially a Zwinglian interpretation. That is to say we do not accept transubstantiation (Roman Catholics) or consubstantiation (Lutherans), but interpret it as a type of remembrance, embracing the lines of Jesus “Do this in remembrance of me.” While some like to play this off against the Calvinist “Spiritual presence” of Christ, such a distinction is unnecessary. Surely baptists, who believe Christ is always present by the Holy Spirit, do not deny a spiritual presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper. For most baptists, myself included, this doesn’t mean that Jesus is present in a special way, but instead that we are aware of his continued presence in a special and unique way during the Lord’s Supper that we aren’t aware of otherwise.

In contrast to most church denominations around today, Baptists have a decided preference for baptism of believers by immersion. There are a number of reasons for this. For most baptists, the primary reason is that this is how the early (New Testament era and immediately following) church likely performed baptism. By the time of Augustine of Hippo, there apparently had existed some debate over whether baptism should be exclusively for believers, or could be extended to infants of believers. We know this because Augustine was not baptized as an infant, despite being born to a Christian mother (who considered a childhood baptism for the young Augustine), but Augustine himself later advocated for an infant baptism driven in large part of his discovery of the doctrines of the perseverance of the saints and Original Sin. However, unlike Augustine and the Church a few generations after the earliest church, most Baptists (including myself) do not believe in baptismal regeneration, which is to say that baptism has no effect, one way or the other, on your salvation. It is something done out of obedience. Aside from the argument that “that’s how the early church did it” and argument, there are other reasons for promoting Credo-baptism (baptism of believers) by immersion as the primary method. As far as credo-baptism there are three arguments: First, while the New Testament is pretty clear, as far as most denominations are concerned, that baptismal regeneration is not a valid doctrine, baptism and salvation tend to go hand in hand. Second, baptism exists as a confession, and it is impossible to confess something that one doesn’t personally hold to. Third even most denominations that practice paedo-baptism (baptism of infants and small children) admit it is not effective (i.e. not genuine) until and unless the candidate later places faith in Christ; so why engage in something before it can be effective (and particularly if it might not ever be effective)? As far as baptism by immersion is concerned, there are also a few arguments beyond the “that’s what the early church did” model: First, the word baptism actually means immerse or submerge. In the Greek of the same time period the word we translate as baptism was used in other writings of ships that were wrecked at see and people who fell into bodies of water. Second, the “teachings of the twelve disciples,” while not considered Scripture, is nevertheless an early church document that gives insight into how the church should perform certain practices and it advocates immersion (in running water) wherever this is possible because of the third reason. Third, no other form of baptism presents as clear a visual representation of death and resurrection. One’s old self is “buried” in the water and we are resurrected with Christ as we come up out of the water in a new life.

4) And this is now a little unwieldy, but there are certain key baptist theological distinctives. First there is a stronger emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. The result of this is that baptists by and large advance a liberty of conscience (we shouldn’t impose a particular set of beliefs on anyone) even though most of us nevertheless evangelize and talk about these things. Also we accept a specific type of polity (church politics) which emphasizes the autonomy of the local church (as opposed to a national or global convention) which is run through a democracy: every member gets a vote on all significant decisions. There are other distinctives, but these are the main ones.

5) And this is a big one, but doesn’t require much explanation. Baptists come together as a denomination of sorts primarily for the sake of evangelism and missions.

Ok, well that was kind long, but I think I’ve laid out my position as clearly as I can by what I mean by “baptist.” To go back to the initial post click here. If you want to know more about baptists, or my particular perspective, ask below in the comments.


Background and Focus of this blog: the non-technical part

This post comes to you in two parts. I’ve given a more general part first, and then, I’ve put up a series of longer technical clarifications to the distinctives I lay out here. That way, if you don’t want to mess with the technical stuff, just don’t read the follow up. If you are interested, though, click the hyperlinks (highlighted in red) throughout the post, or just read through and then click to see each of the other more technical posts.

The Non-Technical Post

In my first post I had mentioned that this project had its primary focus and audience in the Church. By that, I meant the worshiping community of believers in Christ who come together in order to glorify God, which means, for the most part, those who are not academic theologians, the “laity.” This post will address the other two aspects I want to give as part of an introductory orientation: the Background, and the rest of the focus.

First the background. Like any project of this sort, no one comes to it with a genuinely “blank slate.” Even though we can’t avoid being influenced by our experience, we can identify where the potential for influence is and so hope to be a little more honest in our approach. For me, I can identify about three distinct influences that are particularly relevant to this project, which I can identify with three stages of my life.

Perhaps the most unsurprising influence, and most lasting, is my upbringing. I was brought up in a fairly traditional Southern Baptist and evangelical background. In large part I’ve stayed mostly true to this. I am still an ordained Southern Baptist minister, and I’ve grown to embrace my baptist heritage more than I thought I would, helped in large part by my attendance at baptist liberal arts college. My identity as an evangelical has also been reaffirmed throughout my life, and I have consistently placed myself within the company of other evangelicals; for more on what I mean by evangelical and baptist see the “Technical section” by clicking the links.

The second major factor in my theological heritage is a “reformed” and interdenominational perspective. Now, let me be clear: I do NOT mean a Calvinist perspective. Unfortunately the term has been co-opted to a very specific form of the Reformation. Let me also be clear, “reformed” in the broad sense I am using it is not exclusive to Protestants. Instead, by “reformed” I mean that perspective that is informed by the historical figures related to the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. While this includes figures like John Calvin and Thomas Cramner, it also includes, perhaps more fundamentally, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and even Counter-Reformation figures like John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, but more on how exactly I nuance this is also given in the “technical” section. My interdenominationalism has, to some extent, long been part of my history. While I certainly hold to certain Baptist preferences, some of these, in particular the idea of freedom of conscience, have led me to embrace a strong sense of the Church beyond my particular denomination. Much, but by no means all, of this has been informed by my time earning an MDiv degree at Beeson Divinity School. For a good example of doing interdenominational work in the Baptist tradition check out my friend Steve Harmon, whom I met in our joint time at Beeson, over at his blog, Ecclesial Theology.

The third major factor is fairly recent, and is largely informed by my present time here in London and at King’s College London. Being in  the most urban setting I have ever lived, and in perhaps one of the more secularized, can certainly impact one’s vision of the church: reinforcing some aspects, like interdenominational and evangelical sensibilities, while reminding one of the importance of more everyday and non-“churchy” language (this post excepting). At King’s College London, the current theological project is something called Transformation Theology. While I am certainly sympathetic to the project, and even think that it asks and tries to answer a lot of the right questions in what I think is mostly the right way, I have certain misgivings about the project. I do not entirely agree with some of the underlying assumptions behind it, again more specifics below, but do view it as a generally positive movement in theology. Therefore it might be best to say that I am doing theology in dialogue with Transformation Theology, but ultimately as one slightly outside of it. (Again for more detail see the technical post).

Now that my background has been addressed, I can begin to very briefly address the focus of this project. Of course the focus is primarily upon God and, as was discussed last time, upon His Church which exists as the Bride of Christ. Within that I want to bring a way of doing a theology blog that is maybe a little different. While certain aspects will approach the theology blog in a style that is fairly typical, such as addressing specific doctrines or ideas as well as current events, I wanted to bring some more interaction into it. This is where I need the help of those of you reading. I want the direction of this blog to be largely shaped by where the readers are. I don’t want this to be a theology to the Church, but a theology for and with the Church. Thus, I will try to keep my language mostly non-technical in the posts, but I also want to know where you are at. What questions do you want to see addressed? What topics interest you? Do you agree or disagree with things I say? Leave comments and hopefully, after some time, the posts will be heavily driven by the comments thus creating a type of partnership in this theological project between me and the readers. With that in mind, before I get to the technical part, let me ask you this question:

What do you think is the most important issue facing the Church right now Please leave a comment below. Hopefully I’ll be able to address some of that in my next post. If you can’t think of what that might be, then let’s make it more personal. What is the biggest issue or question you face, as a Christian RIGHT NOW? Be as specific and personal as you like.

What is ‘Why Theology’

‘Why Theology’ is a theological engagement that I’m beginning. It’s not necessarily a new way of doing theology, but it does have a unique focus, background, and specific audience. Let’s look at each one of these features to try to get a better feel for what ‘why theology’ will hopefully mean over the next few posts. Today, I’m going to look at the audience, which for this blog will hopefully be the primary focus.

Even though ‘why theology’ will be informed from an academic study of theology, it does not have other academic theologians as its audience. This is not theology for the sake of theology. Instead, as all theology should strive to be, it is a theological and philosophical project aimed primarily at those in the church. In other words, it hopes to be a “layman’s theology.” Successful predecessors in the past have been those like C. S. Lewis who sought not merely to give an apologetic of the Christian faith, but to help understand the unique what the Christian faith actually means.

In my own personal experience, I have been somewhat frustrated by the level of theological literature and education readily available to those not academically trained. With the exception of Lewis and a few others, much of it is either extremely basic, meant only as an apologetic (defense of the faith), or incredibly dense and technical. Certainly there are a lot of pastor’s who try to bring theological discourse into the pulpit on Sunday morning, but that is often too little, or too difficult to follow. While there are various “laymen’s academies” out there, these are often inaccessible for the majority of Christians who would like to deepen their faith. I’m hoping that with this blog, and some other projects that will take a little longer to get off the ground, I’ll be able to bridge that gap, maybe even offer something between the C. S. Lewis-esque type of thinking and the more technical systematic theology of someone like Karl Barth (yes I know he disliked the term “systematic theology” but that’s what it is). With that in mind I have two questions for you, the reader.

What to expect from the blog: The first question has to do with expectations. If this project proves to be successful it will probably take a few weeks to get really going with a more or less set schedule. I would like to blog at least once a week, if not multiple times a week, but what do you expect? If you have no real expectation, what would like to see? Any particular topics or formats? What type of frequency? Etc.

Quick Question: Are there any resources you have found particularly useful in deepening your faith or knowledge as a Christian that aren’t particularly technical? For me, one resource has been How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. What about you?