Baptist and general resources
There are a couple of interesting volumes that have been produced in recent months that Baptists might appreciate. But first, and more generally, may I draw your attention to a new bi-annual journal called Unio Cum Christo: International Journal of Reformed Theology and Life? Never knowingly undersold, it intends to show itself an international scholarly and practical journal for the global Reformed community; to encourage deeper fellowship, understanding, and growth in faith, hope, and love in the Reformed community at large; and, to support small and isolated Reformed witnesses in minority missional situations. It is a proper journal, weighing in at 332 pages, costing $20-35 for a year depending on your status, and sponsored by Westminster Theological Seminary and International Reformed Evangelical Seminary. The first number contains a long and stirring editorial by editor-in-chief Paul Wells, followed by sections on biblical studies (on the theme of witness), historical theology (covering a great deal of chronological and geographical territory), contemporary issues (persecution the topic du jour), an interview and a series of book reviews (including a stimulating brief review of Metaxas on Bonhoeffer by William Edgar). Surveying the contributors, one finds a few of the usual suspects, but also an interesting range of writers from a variety of backgrounds and differing degrees of reputation (not bad or good so much as better and less well known). Both the editorial committee and the board reveal a genuinely and refreshingly international scope (though it must be said that Baptists appear to be at a premium!). These strengths are evident in the opening number, and I hope will be sustained in coming years (the second number focuses on the text of Scripture). Those with the requisite interests, appetites and capacities are likely really to enjoy this new journal. I hope it does much good in its sphere, and holds its tone and line for as long as the Lord grants it life.
Then, on to Baptist books. The first is called Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age (amazon.com / amazon.co.uk), edited by Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman. This is a spirited study and defence of a robust and well-defined church polity (authority structures and government) from Baptist convictions. It is neither brief nor shallow, but substantial and thorough, academic in timbre. It is nevertheless both enjoyable and profitable.
An array of historians and theologians – many of whom are also pastors – blend their notes within and among the nineteen essays that make up this work. Five broad elements are addressed: congregationalism, ordinances, membership and discipline, elders and deacons, and inter-church relationships. In reading, careful attention must be given to definitions, which should not be assumed. For example, the mantra of “congregational rule that is elder led” must be fairly handled. Indeed, the tensions between those two phrases are evident in the book itself. British readers should also recognise that the book arises primarily out of a Southern Baptist environment, which means some strands of the discussion are less relevant in a conservative evangelical British context.
Even so, what we have here drives us back to first principles. From a careful hermeneutic base it offers a fairly coherent, consistent, cohesive pattern for Baptist churches without being overly prescriptive. It is deeply-rooted Baptist high churchmanship, sometimes wrestling with difficult questions (such as the nature of apostolicity). It gives the lie to crass assertions or accusations casually tossed off that Baptists have no ecclesiology, while poking a necessary finger in the eye of those Baptists who have not bothered to cultivate it.
This is, then, a volume that will both confirm and challenge those of Baptist convictions especially. We must work through and work out the principles and practices raised here if we are to be faithful to God’s word and our heritage.
The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement, edited by Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn and Michael A. G. Haykin (amazon.com / amazon.co.uk) is another work of a more academic tone, but of a very different outlook, being intended primarily – as far as I can tell – for students within American (Southern) Baptist seminaries, and more in light of the so-called Reformed resurgence. This is one of those catch-all introductions to a subject, with all the strengths and weaknesses of the genre, buttressed and mollified or undermined and exaggerated by the qualities of the editors and contributors. In this case, the strengths are more buttressed and the weaknesses less exaggerated, but all present and correct.
The book is divided into four sections, covering the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the nineteenth century, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and Baptist beliefs. The three editors each take the reins for a particular period, and then, presumably, combine for the rest. With minimal footnotes, and with a brisk tone and at a good pace, the book carries us through the events, personalities, sermons, churches, tensions and efforts of Baptist history. Excerpts from sermons and documents are scattered throughout to give some flavour from primary sources. There are even a few pictures for those who weary of words. Depending on your appetites and predilections, you will either be delighted or devastated at the inclusions or exclusions. The recommended reading must fill in the gaps.
Sadly, Baptists outside America will find the book less and less useful as it advances, because the focus is more and more on the States and its distinctive groups, denominations, interests and battles. In addition, the concern for ‘balance’ sometimes leads to the inclusion of what seem to me to be rabbit trails or aberrations of greater or lesser degree. Although the closing historical chapters make every effort to give a global sense, it is still a survey through American eyes. Of course, as the stream of Baptist history broadens, one has to sit on a particular island in order to take one’s view – the ever-widening topic makes a complete and thorough survey almost impossible in a book of this order.
The chapter on identity and distinctives is also fascinating. After a little to-ing and fro-ing on the Baptist attitudes to confessions of faith, the authors suggest that Baptists are marked by regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, congregational polity, local church autonomy, religious freedom. To all of which the only answer can be, “Yes, but …”. It is undeniably true that many Baptists (especially the kind of Baptists who are likely to be reading this book) do hold to such distinctives, and those who give others this textbook might think that they should. However, the issues over what these things look like in practice, and who embraces them, and how many are embraced at any particular point and in what way, even by those who call themselves Baptists, make this a quite surprising absolutism. I don’t disagree that it should be so, more or less, but I query whether or not it is so. The conclusion suggests that promoting liberty of conscience, following Christ’s will in our individual lives and churches, and proclaiming the gospel everywhere, are the three interrelated themes of Baptist history that crop up again and again. Again, that’s frustratingly exclusive and maddeningly broad at the same time. Up to a point, it is indisputable; in other respects, it leaves much to be desired.
So much for the inherent strengths and weaknesses of books like this and this book in particular. It is an introduction to its topic, and should not be assumed to be anything more. If you are an American Baptist history student, or indeed a student of American Baptist history, this will be a fine volume for you. Others will find much of real value and genuine interest, but will feel more as if we are looking over the wall than playing the game.