Sunday, May 17, 2009

Baptist Dinstinctives, Number One: Baptists and the Bible

The first question that should be asked when one talks about Baptists is, I would think, what is a Baptist? I asked "what makes being a Baptist different than being a Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, or Catholic?" of my 7-12 (which is way too big of a range, by the way!) and the following were all they could come up with: Baptists believe the Bible; Baptists believe in the gospel; Baptists baptize people; Baptists pray to Jesus; and Baptists believe in the trinity. Hmmm... even though these things are all true about Baptists, at least good Baptists, methinks they haven't been taught very well about what it means to be a baptist, even though they go to Prairie Baptist Fellowship. Somebody isn't doing their job maybe? Who would that be? Ah, yes. That would be me. At least they didn't say anything about steeples, poorly sung hymns, awkward pews, overweight blue haired ladies, fights over music, splits every five-ten years, or pastors with ties!

Well somebody is working on changing that. I'm teaching on Church History in Sunday School now and will emphasize what it means to be a Baptist and the how and why they developed historically. One might think that these highschoolers and junior highers wouldn't be interested in "Baptist distinctives". I certainly thought so. But oddly enough, I took a poll with 10 potential topics I could cover or emphasize related to church history and had them write, on a scale of 1-10, how interested they were in each topic. What was number 1? Baptist distinctives, with mostly 10s! I felt fairly sure that it would rank fairly low. Obviously I'm not as smart as I thought I was! Hopefully, by time I finish this class, they know what it means to be a baptist and how that is different from being a Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Methodist. I also hope they will be able to gain an appreciation for Baptists historically. If I find out, 30 years ago that some of them are thoughtful and godly Presbyterians I will rejoice and praise God. I care so much more about whether they love and serve God or not than if they are Baptists or not. But, as I told them, there are two things I hope they can understand from my teaching on the subject. 1) I want them to understand that the differences we as Baptists hold to are important, and 2) I want them to understand that they have many godly brothers and sisters who are not Baptists! So, with those same goals in mind, let me begin my postings on the so-called "Baptist distinctives".

There are many different lists of the Baptist distinctives and I could list them all for you and argue why some of them are and why some of them aren't really Baptist distinctives. But that sounds tiresome to me so I will skip that part. I will go with the list Mr. Banz provided a few years ago in the Baptist History class I took with him. They are, as he suggests, as follows:

The Peerless Authority of the Bible / The New Testament as the Basis of Ecclesiology

Liberty of Conscience & Separation of Church and State

Priesthood of the Believer

Regenerated Membership

Autonomy of the Local Congregation

Congregational Polity

Two Ordinances: Baptism and Communion

Faith as a Prerequisite of Baptism

Baptism by Immersion

Two Church Officers: Elder (or, sometimes, Pastor) and Deacon

My format in this series of posts will be to take one distinctive from this list at a time and 1) explain what it means and how it is distinctive, 2) explain how this distinctive works (or should) itself out in practice, 3) give some thoughts as to why this distinctive is good, and 4) give some thoughts as to potential problems, difficulties, challenges and dangers to the distinctive at hand. The first distinction on my (or, more accurately, Mr. Banz's list) is: "The Peerless Authority of the Bible / The New Testament as the Basis of Ecclesiology"... so here goes:

The Peerless Authority of the Bible / The New Testament as the Basis of Ecclesiology

Explanation of the Distinctive

When one of my kids said that believing the Bible was a distinctive of being a Baptist, he was not wrong, obviously, because Baptists don't believe the Bible, but because so do Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans etc.... Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, Jews, and even many liberals would say that they believe the Bible. The Baptist distinctive is not "belief in the Bible." The distinctive has more to do with the exclusive nature of the Bible in regard to Ecclesiastical authority. To understand what this means and why this was so important to the earliest Baptists, try and imagine yourself in England in the early stages of the 1600s. The Protestant Reformation has been raging for going on 100 years (October 31st 1517, if you begin with Luther and the 95 theses). England is Protestant, but the Church of England is the dominant church. One of the main themes, very close to the most important one, of the Reformation had been the idea of Sola Scriptura in contrast to the Roman Catholic practice and belief in the Church itself as the primary authority. When you, however, compare the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, you still see a lot of similarity. And who was the first "head of the Church of England"? The quite ungodly King Henry VIII. Even with continuing changes, reforms, and evolution within the Church of England, the ultimate authority still looks very much like it is the Church, not the Bible. The King is King James who insists upon the "divine right of kings." In combination with the renewed interest and emphasis upon the Bible brought on by the Protestant Reformation, the Bible has been translated into English (until 1611, the Geneva Bible, then the King James Version) and widely dispersed throughout the country. People read their bibles and one of the first issues they deal with (as did the Anabaptists before them) is that, in Scripture, only believers are baptized and that (seemingly) by immersion, not sprinkling.

What does one do when the church and the Bible (seemingly) disagree? For Baptists, the answer has always been to go with the Bible. But this is not the full extent of this distinctive. Here is an enlightening quote from one of the very first Baptist doctrinal statements by one of the most important "Baptist Fathers", Thomas Helwys' Declaration of Faith in 1611 [all spelling and punctuation siq except where noted]:

That the scriptures of the Old and New Testament are written for our instruction, 2 Timothy 3:16 and that we should search them for they testify of CHRIST, John 5:39. Therefore they are to be used with all reverence, as containing the Holy Word of GOD, which is our only direction in all things whatsoever (bold mine).

Note how the Bible is not merely "our guide in all things" but our only
guide. This is the foundational principle of the distinction. Tradition is not guide to church practice. We've always done it this way cannot be a guide. The Pope cannot be a guide to church practice. The Bible, and the Bible alone provides the authority for Faith and Practice for a Baptist.

How this Distinctive works out practically

This distinctive can be seen in Baptist churches not only by a very strong emphasis upon the Bible, but by the incessant need to justify all practice (as well as theology) from the Bible. Baptists look at the New Testament to answer how they should do church. Baptists are not only against Church practice and theology that is contradicted by Scripture, like Luther, but against anything not found in Scripture. The emphasis on the Bible prejudices them (somewhat oddly considering the fact that instructions concerning tongues and as well as the practice of speaking in tongues are found in the New Testament) against the sign gifts because this is supposedly a form of revelation and thus authoritative. This distinctive is foundational to many of the other distinctives , such as the "only 2 ordinances" one. Many Presbyterians teach that the preaching of the Word is a sacrament. Baptists do not find this belief taught and practiced in Scripture and thus it cannot be such.

This distinctive should result in a great deal of flexibility and fluidity in areas not addressed by Scripture. For instance, what songs and what music style do you sing? Baptists, if consistent, do not rely upon tradition as authoritative. A consistent Baptist will never appeal to anything, other than the Bible, as authoritative. Dr. Willsey once talked about a GARB conference of some kind he attended once which wanted (and I think did - if he reads this, which apparently he has done before *gulp*, he can affirm or correct me as need be) to define themselves doctrinally with the "Reformation Doctrine of Justification." This is NOT being a Baptist! A Baptist cannot prove something by saying "Baptists have always believed this," or by appealing to the Protestant Reformation! When they do, they cease to be consistent Baptists.

Theoretically then, Baptist should be fairly fluid in practice, since the New Testament does give us a good deal of flexibility in "how we do church", and fairly stable in theology, since the Bible doesn't really change and isn't added to. Of course we are all humans with our own presuppositions and preunderstandings and contexts and we make mistakes etc etc, so we, as good Baptists, should always be reexamining our views on what the Bible teaches. But unless our understanding of Scripture changes, generally, the theology of a consistent Baptist remains relatively stable.

Why this Distinctive is Good

There are a lot of good things about this distinctive. A few are:

1) Since Baptists appeal to God's Word as their authority, they should be less susceptible to leaders or teachers who lead them astray. A pastor is only considered authoritative as he is accurately teaching Scripture. This keeps the leadership of a/the church accountable to the people and the Bible.

2) As already hinted at, this should free us from the tyranny of tradition. This does not mean we can't have tradition or that tradition cannot be helpful, meaningful, or worshipful. But if a tradition, such as a steeple on top of a building, is no longer culturally relevant or communicative, Baptists should be able to abandon it without any real problems.

Now for many of you, this may seem quite the opposite from normal Baptist practice, but although you may argue with me, I do not believe that consistent Baptists are quite as enslaved to tradition as some think. Today, many Baptists (by theology) do not call or consider themselves Baptists either because they don't want to be associated with some Baptists or because they don't like what the term communicates - it doesn't communicate what they would want it to. This is quite consistent with being a Baptist! If nothing in Scripture calls you to label yourself a Baptist you are very free to adjust. This is, in my opinion, more indicative of being a "real Baptist" than those who cling to the name on the sign because its always been there.

3) This distinctive causes churches to focus upon and strongly emphasize the importance of EVERYONE reading the Bible for themselves. If the Bible is the authority and not the church or the pastor, everyone reads it (or should). This is why "Berean Baptist" is such a common name for a baptist church. They really tend to like that church....

4) This helps keep Baptists from "going liberal". This is not to say that Baptists don't or can't go liberal. They do and they can. But when a church begins to teach things Baptists see as contrary to the Bible, Baptists have tended historically to break off from said church. As you can probably see, this characteristic is both a blessing and a curse and will thus also be listed in the next section.

Challenges and Problems for those who hold to this Distinctive

Although I do like and hold, with some reservations which will be explained, to this distinctive, it does create some problems and challenges which a Baptist church or Baptist individual would do well to think carefully about. The below challenges do not indicate what I believe are necessary problems but typical problems for those who hold to this belief.

1) If the Bible is the only authority, how do we determine which or who's interpretation of the Bible is right? The Bible may be fairly clear on a lot, but there are a lot of less clear issues that produce a multitude of interpretations. We can't all interpret the Bible however we want to, can we?

2) The emphasis on the Bible far too often, and I am guilty of this, leads to a underemphasis on the Holy Spirit. Nuff said.

3) The emphasis on the Bible as the only authority is a big reason why Baptist churches are so famous for splitting over minuscule disagreements. I can see this in the very foundations of Baptist theology as I read the earliest Baptists. They tended to characterize other Christians very harshly. Instead of recognizing the fact that there are other believers who understand some things in the Bible differently, they tend to accuse them of "not believing the Bible." This is good when churches have departed from the faith, but bad when they are genuine and faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

4) Baptists have tended, at least today and at least in my observation, to underemphasize the importance of the church as a community of faith and overemphasize the importance of the individual. The emphasis on everyone reading the Bible for him/herself can lead to each person being their own determiner of truth and practice. This works very well in America, by the way. Baptist preachers very rarely emphasize "obey your elders". Submission for the good of the community is sometimes more rare than it ought to be. Baptists in America can be accurately characterized, far too often unfortunately, by hyper-individualism.

Concluding Remarks

I could list many more positives and problems if I had the time, but this is already WAY WAY WAY WAY too long and I'm not sure anyone is still reading. If you are, please accept my sincere apologies. Once I get the blogging bug I tend to go overboard.

As ALWAYS, comments and discussions are not only welcomed, they are begged for. I see no point of blogging on these matters without interaction.


Pat Park said...

Well written Matthew. You're right it was a bit long for the average blog reader, but you presented it well. I look forward to seeing how this foundational distinctive is seen in the establaishment of those to follow. Thanks for presenting the positives and negatives. It was a very fair look at how this distinctive plays itself out.

Sabrina said...

this was a good read - no joke (i'm probably exposing my nerdy side with that statement). thanks for being so thorough!

"...many Baptists (by theology) do not call or consider themselves Baptists either because they don't want to be associated with some Baptists or because they don't like what the term communicates what they want it to. This is quite consistent with being a Baptist!"i laughed at that, because if it is true, i'm more baptist than i thought.

faithbornfromdoubt said...

Thanks for the positive comments... although the sentence bri quoted was quite a ghastly sentence, grammatically, and has since been edited. Thanks!

Sabrina said...

yeah, it did look funny. i almost didn't quote it. ha! and somehow they didn't insert the space between your quote and my comment...

theone withabeard said...

The paradox of not wanting to be called Baptistic for reasons a true Baptist would like is truly interesting. It would seem that Baptists could readily lead the charge in adjusting our statement of and communication of beliefs away from being completely tied to enlightenment thinking, since the reformation is supposedly not authoritative for us. Not that we want to rush into changes too quickly, but contextualizing should be an easier thing for a Baptist than for more traditionally-developed groups.

Sabrina said...

Intriguing point, Nate. Gotta love the irony, since it seems Baptists are really slow at contextualizing!

Anonymous said...

it's 70 degrees out and sunny on a late holiday afternoon and i'm reading your lengthy tome on baptist distinctives! ha! now if that isn't dedication i don't know what is.

very, very good points matthew. i guess i forgot how the emphasis on the Bible as the only authority would negate the role that tradition would play in labeling something 'baptist.'thank you for taking the time to write this and helping me recall and cement the things i learned in the class.

i feel like i'm in school again though as i see you have posted another blog. man, i'm already behind in the reading schedule!

About Me

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Tacoma, Washington, United States
"It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt." Fyodor Dostoevsky. I'm a Northwest Baptist Seminary graduate (MDiv) and current student (ThM). I plan on someday going to Africa and teach Bible and Theology at a Bible College or Seminary level. I hope to continue my studies and earn a PhD, either after I go to overseas for a few years or before. I'm a theological conservative, but I like to think outside of the box and challenge conventional thinking and consider myself a free thinker. I am currently serving in my fourth year as a Youth Pastor at Prairie Baptist Fellowship in Yelm Washington. My blogs will reflect my thoughts on both seminary and ministry life, though not (of course) exclusively. I enjoy literature and occasionally try my hand at writing stories and poems. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes..." Paul