Theologians of the Baptist Tradition
by A Review by Mark Devine
October 2001

(Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001)

Baptist Theologians! That must be a misprint. Aren't Baptists the ones who don't do theology? Aren't they the ones who say, "Hey, you believe your way and I'll believe my way. Live and let live, I say. Evangelism and missions unify but theology divides, right?"

So goes the impression many have regarding Baptists and theology. But with the publication of this 400-page volume from Broadman & Holman, such views appear at least misleading if not downright false.

Fourteen authors combine efforts to introduce readers to seventeen Baptist theologians while George and Dockery provide introductory and concluding chapters designed to put Baptist theologizing into historical context and point the way for the future of Baptist theology. A biographical sketch, along with an exposition of major theological emphases and an evaluation is provided for each theologian, from the eighteenth century English systematician John Gill to the still active author of the widely used textbook Christian Theology, Millard Erickson.

Baptists Are Theological

In his foreword to L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles' Baptists and the Bible, W. A. Criswell wrote, "Baptists and the Bible naturally go together." Similarly, after reading Theologians, it becomes evident that, for much of Baptist history and for an impressive array of our most influential leaders, Baptists and theology naturally go together as well. However a-theological some Baptists have been, this volume exposes the presence of a stream of Bible-centered, preaching-oriented, and mission-minded theological concern too deep and too persistent to dismiss.

From the signing of the Abstract of Principles by every professor of the first Southern Baptist Seminary in 1859 to the C.H. Toy and Mathew Martin controversies, Baptists have let their theological colors show. From questions regarding the orthodoxy of Frank Stagg's view of atonement to the recent conservative resurgence and the battle for the Bible in our own day, Baptists have repeatedly and self-consciously shown themselves to be a theologically shaped and committed people.

Baptists have cared deeply about their beliefs. They have agonized over the precise wording and articulation of biblical truth. And they didn't think they were betraying their Baptist-ness by doing so. Just the opposite. Baptists have used doctrinal instruments such as confessions of faith both to demonstrate and nurture unity among themselves regarding cardinal truths of God's Word and also to make plain the tolerable limits of confessional diversity within their ranks. Whether local church, associational, state, or national in scope, Baptist bodies have embraced their happy duty to confess their faith publicly, formally, and in writing.

In continuity with all the great and lasting Christian communities, Baptists have recognized that the depth and sustainability of fellowship among believers depends, at least in part, upon shared convictions. Theologians opens to us much of the rich history of the Baptist struggle to articulate who they are and who they are not theologically. The theological character of Baptists has emerged from and been shaped by systematic theology, biblical exegesis, and expository preaching.

John Gill defined theology as "the gathering out of Scripture the principles of evangelical truth and arranging them in an orderly method to show their connection, harmony, and agreement."1 James Petigru Boyce, Augustus Hopkins Strong, and Millard Erickson have attempted exactly that in their systematic theologies. The efforts of John A. Broadus and Archibald Thomas Robertson represent an extraordinary tradition of profound exegetical labor and accomplishment foundational to the theological identity of generations of Baptist pastors and teachers. In W.A. Criswell and Charles Haddon Spurgeon we find the pastor/preacher theologians who hammer out their theologies "on the anvil of the hearts of the masses over decades."

Orthodox Heirs Of The Reformation

Theologians also reveals a certain historic protectiveness by Baptists of their distinctive beliefs and emphases such as believers baptism, religious liberty, and the separation of church and state. However, just as prominent has been Baptist awareness of belonging within the wider Christian family, the church of Jesus Christ extended in time as well as space. Baptists have understood that one must be Christian to be Baptist.

Baptists have consistently affirmed the great historic orthodox formulations of the councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) as well as the great watershed insights concerning salvation and faith of the 16th century Reformation era.

Baptist confessional activity has often sought first to demonstrate not difference from but continuity with non-Baptist communities of faith on an array of doctrinal matters from the person and work of Christ to the doctrine of God to justification by grace through faith alone.

From John A. Broadus' translation of Greek Orthodox preacher, John Chrysostom's (c. 347-407) writings to James Leo Garrett's sustained interaction with the entire history of theological development, Baptists have found ways to take their place within the global body of Christ without compromising their distinctive identity. And while Baptists have tolerated considerable diversity on a whole range of issues from the qualifications for participation in the Lord's Supper to a variety of millennial views, Baptists have felt compelled to limit diversity according to their comprehension of biblical teaching on the great truths of the faith.

Believing And Doing

Perhaps the most striking and consistent characteristic of Baptist theologizing evident in Theologians is the sustained connection between theology and the life and mission of the church. Baptist theologians have been preachers, pastors, evangelists, and missionaries. Charles Haddon Spurgeon and W.A. Criswell, whose theological influence among Baptists has been profound, were not academics but preachers.

John A. Broadus, an original faculty member and one-time president of Southern Seminary was an expert in both Latin and Greek but was equally well known for his devotion to personal evangelism and perhaps best known for his book On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons and for his own masterful command of the pulpit. Broadus' prize student A.T. Robertson became the greatest biblical scholar in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention but also understood his service as a Greek grammarian primarily for its usefulness to preachers and tested his work through a lifelong commitment to a heavy preaching schedule.

Baptists have established and sustained theological seminaries in order to equip and train ministers for service to the church. Baptist theology has emerged out of the quest to live holy lives within local covenant bodies of believers and to obey the Great Commission of our Lord to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. Perhaps the most conspicuous recurring concern among Baptist theologians has been the determination that theology must first prove faithful to the Bible and then prove itself in life. The words of John Leadley Dagg (1794-1884), the first widely read Southern Baptist theologian, faithfully represent the sentiments of most Baptists:

"The study of religious truth ought to be undertaken and prosecuted with a sense of duty, and with a view to the improvement of the heart. When learned, it ought not to be laid on the shelf, as an object of speculation; but it should be deposited deep in the heart, where its sanctifying power ought to be felt. To study theology, for the purpose of gratifying curiosity, or preparing for a profession, is an abuse and profanation of what ought to be regarded as most holy."2

Like Bush and Nettles' book on Baptists and the Bible, George and Dockery's volume will serve as a permanent and essential contribution to an accurate comprehension of the people called Baptists.

Fascinating biographical details from the lives of influential Baptist leaders, ranging from the humorous and poignant to the tragic and outlandish, provide a window into the colorful and amazing "personality" of Baptists. More substantively, this survey of historic Baptist theological seriousness provides a corrective to certain reductive construals of Baptist identity while issuing a challenge for all Baptists to embrace theological responsibility as a constituent element of our duty to the God who has saved us through His Son.

1 Timothy George and David S. Dockery, eds., Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001), 17.
2 Ibid., 55.

Mark DeVine is associate professor of Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri.

This article reprinted by permission from SBCLife

 

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