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Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Baptist Book Review #1 Theologians in the Baptist Tradition

Global Baptist life is going through a period of renaissance in terms of publishing books concerning various strands and chapters in Baptist life and thought. As Jim West has noted in his blog, the global Baptist tradition will officially be 400 years old in 2009 and this seems to be reflected in publishing efforts in the U.K., Canada, the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere. Although budget and time constraints will prevent me from responding to all these efforts (although if people want to submit books to me, they shouldn’t hesitate!), I am going to review as wide a selection of these publishing efforts as possible from time-to-time as 2009 draws closer. Even negative reviews, like the following, should serve to help all of us with limited resources avoid unwise purchases.

Timothy George and David Dockery, eds., Theologians in the Baptist Tradition. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001.

Reviewing this volume gives me no pleasure. I had very little pleasure in reading it either. The first edition, Baptist Theologians (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991), was sprawling, uneven, and clearly driven by the agenda of the so-called “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention, especially in terms of the opening and concluding essays by the editors and the selections of figures included. Nonetheless, there were some excellent articles in that volume, including selections on Walter Rauschenbusch, E. Y. Mullins, George R. Beasley-Murray, George Eldon Ladd, Andrew Fuller, Dale Moody, Eric Charles Rust, A. H. Strong, and W. O. Carver. The inclusion of African-American Baptist liberation theologian J. Deotis Roberts was important, although the essay on his thought was quite poor. Significantly, all these chapters except the ones on Fuller, Mullins, and Strong are gone from the new edition. In this second edition, the editorial agenda is not simply the promotion of a very restricted definition of “evangelical” Baptist thought, but of conservative Calvinism as the only true Baptist tradition.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre defines a “tradition” as an argument over time, in part over what does and what does not belong in the tradition. Perhaps “conversation” is a better term than “argument,” since the participants in the tradition need not always be doing verbal combat. Baptists have been characterized by many disparate voices in their ongoing conversation. To switch metaphors, the Baptist tradition is a large river fed by many tributaries of sub-traditions. Few would guess that from reading this volume. The only strongly anti-Calvinist voices included are that of Frank Stagg and Herschel Hobbs, and, in part, this is because contributor Robert Sloan gives Stagg such poor marks, complimenting him only on his work as an exegete in the narrow sense.

I do not really understand how the chapters on E.Y. Mullins, Frank Stagg, or Herschel Hobbs’ fit the clear editorial agenda. Humphrey Fisher’s chapter on Mullins is excellent and one of the few helpful chapters in the work. Since I cannot understand how this inclusion fits with the editorial agenda outlined in the opening and concluding chapters of this work, I assume that retaining this essay is a favor that Timothy George bestowed on Humphreys, who teaches at Beeson Divinity School where George is dean, but that still leaves no explanation for the retention of Hobbs.

Baptists have always been influenced by pastor-theologians, as well as (or even more than) professional academic theologians. Therefore, the editors’ inclusion of such voices as that of John Gill, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Andrew Fuller, and John Bunyan are not surprising. What is surprising is the inclusion of W.A. Criswell and Herschel H. Hobbs, both prominent Baptist pastors in the generation just passing, but neither of whom merits inclusion as theologians, particularly when so many other voices are omitted. Both Criswell and Hobbs were very well educated at Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and both were influential in different strands of Southern Baptist life during their lifetimes. But they simply were not profound thinkers in the way that many Baptist pastor-theologians were who might have been better selections. A reader new to Baptist life would never know from this volume about pastor-theologians such as Robert Hall, Sr. (1728-1791), Robert Hall, Jr. (1764-1831), the brothers Robert (1764-1842) and James Haldane (1768-1851), Dan Taylor (1738-1816) or John Clifford (1836-1923) in the U.K., or John Leland(1754-1841), Harry Emerson Fosdick(1878-1969), Carlyle Marney(1916-1978), Edwin McNeil Poteat, Sr.(1861-1937), Edwin McNeil Poteat, Jr.(1892-1955) or George W. Truett (1867-1944) in the U.S.A.–not to mention pastor-theologians outside the U.S./U.K. axis.

Where are the powerful voices of African-American Baptists in this collection? If they were inadequately represented in the first edition by a poor exposition of the thought of J. Deotis Roberts, here they are missing altogether. The reader is left completely ignorant of the likes of Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Thurman, Samuel D. Proctor, Wyatt Tee Walker, Gardner C. Taylor or even Martin Luther King, Jr., not to mention more recent African-American Baptist thinkers such as Emilie Townes, David Emmanuel Goatley, the late Prathia Hall, James H. Evans, George Cummings, Willie James Jennings, or Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham.

Hispanic, Asian, African, and women’s voices are equally missing from this very narrow selection of Baptist voices. Doubtless it is the editors’ extreme antipathy to any influence by liberation theologies that causes them to overlook Hispanic Baptist voices such as the late missiologist Orlando Costas, C. Rene Padilla, Samuel Pagan, or younger theologians such as the prolific Miguel de la Torre. Asian and African Baptists have written less in English, but the editors could have at least mentioned the need to find and translate such voices.

Like most Christian traditions, Baptists have been very male dominated, but recent historians have been recovering the voices of Dorothy Hazzard (d.1764), evangelist Martha Stearns Marshall (18th C.; exact dates unknown), Anne Dutton(1692-1795) (a British Calvinistic Baptist), and several 19th C. voices such as Anne Steele(1717-1778) (a.k.a.Theodosia), Ann Hasseltine Judson (1789-1826), Henrietta Oden Feller(1800-1845) of Sweden and Canada, and Marianne Hearn(1804-1909) (a.k.a. Marianne Farningham) of Britain, to name a few. It is, perhaps, too early to evaluate the work of current theologians among Baptist women (e.g. Elizabeth Barnes, Sheri Adams, Elouise Renich Fraser, or my own teacher, Molly T. Marshall), but what about such figures from the early 20th C. as Helen Barrett Montgomery (1861-1934), “Libby” Griffin(1851-1926), or Muriel Lester(1883-1968)? Both editors have included some female voices at the institutions they lead (Beeson Divinity School for George and Union University for Dockery), so I cannot simply conclude that they believe women should play absolutely no role in shaping Baptist theology, but they are servants of the “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention and that movement, as a whole, is deeply anti-woman. Inclusion even of conservative Calvinist women (e.g. Dutton or Steele) would violate the agenda this book serves to further. The denominational powers to which the editors must answer evidently were even more afraid of examples of female Baptist theologians than they were of including a few non-Calvinists such as Mullins, Stagg, and Hobbs. As a result, women are even more silenced in this book than in Baptist life through the centuries.

Theological conversation sometimes must become argument because the issues involve high stakes. The editors could have maintained their partisanship with more integrity by entitling this volume, Theologians in the Conservative Calvinist Strand of Baptist Tradition or something similar. They could have said that they take their stand with Calvinist Baptists over Arminian Baptists, and with very conservative evangelicals over liberal, neoorthodox, or even progressive-evangelical Baptists. In such a fashion they could have honestly told the readers that the Baptist theological tradition has included streams they oppose instead of giving the impression that these voices and their clones are the only legitimately “Baptist” ones.

Because we Baptists have no dominant early founder, no Luther, Zwingli, Calvin or Wesley, the Baptist theological tradition is a large one with many differing, even conflicting, strands. It may be too large for any one volume collection or overview. But future generations of Baptists are ill-served when not exposed to the many different creative voices: to Christocentric liberals like William Newton Clarke, Harry Emerson Fosdick, or Langdon Gilkey, Eric Rust, E. Glenn Hinson, or Kenneth Cauthen; neoorthodox voices like William Hordern, Dale Moody, Elizabeth Barnes or David Mueller; Social Gospel and Liberation voices like Walter Rauschenbusch, Clarence Jordan, John Clifford, Tommy Douglas, Henlee H. Barnette, Jorge Pixley, Athol Gill, Howard Thurman, Peter Paris, or Sheri Adams; creative post-liberal and post-conservative voices like Molly Marshall, James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Paul Fiddes, Frank Tupper, Stanley Grenz, Clark Pinnock, Elizabeth Newman, etc. An adequate account of Baptist theologies would have to include smaller tributaries, too: even in U.S. life alone, this would include voices from Seventh Day Baptists, General and Free Will Baptists, the ethnic-German Baptists of the North American Baptist Conference, the ethnic-Swedish Baptists of the Baptist General Conference, and others.

Further, Baptists have been primarily Biblicists and our theologies have been as deeply influenced by creative biblical scholars as by systematic or dogmatic theologians. The first edition of this volume did a better job of indicating that with chapters on H. Wheeler Robinson, George Eldon Ladd, and G.R. Beasley-Murray, although the chapter on Robinson focused more on his role as an interpreter of Baptist life and thought than on his work as a very influential Old Testament scholar. The current volume’s only nod in that direction is Dockery’s chapter on the Broadus-Robertson tradition, itself inadequate in treatment. H. Wheeler Robinson might be too “liberal” for the editors, but what possible reason could there have been for omitting the chapters on Ladd and Beasley-Murray who have influenced wide ranges of biblical scholars and others, inside and outside Baptist life? The only reason I can think of for omitting these excellent chapters in the revised edition is that the chapter on Ladd was written by Molly Marshall and the selection on Beasley-Murray by Alan Culpepper, figures who are persona non grata at Broadman & Holman, the volume’s ever-more-rightwing publisher. A truly catholic volume on biblical theologians in Baptist life would be greatly appreciated. It would include both a wider selection of biblical scholars, but also a far more judicious chapter on Frank Stagg, who, while hardly beyond criticism, is completely undeserving of the hatchet job that former Baylor president Robert Sloan does on him in this volume.

In short, this volume errs in a few places by its treatment of those included (e.g., Stagg), by an opening chapter which sweepingly condemns most current theologies as “transcendence starved” (while never admitting to differing models of transcendence!), and a concluding chapter that celebrates the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC in notes of pure triumphalism. But its greater errors are those of selection. This gives a false and narrow portrait of Baptist theology, like painting a single room and declaring it to be the whole of a great mansion. The flaws should serve as inspiration to others to describe the other rooms and, eventually, the entire house. Save your hard-earned dollars for better volumes.

August 13, 2006 - Posted by | Baptists, books

4 Comments

  1. So would ~2019 be the 500th anniversary of Anabaptism? Is there an acknowledged year of beginning for us?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | August 13, 2006

  2. Anabaptists (with direct descendants in Mennonites, Hutterites & Amish and influence on Baptist and Brethren beginnings) are usually given the birthdate of 17 January 1525 when Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock led a group of about 15 former disciples of the Reformer Huldrych Zwingli in an act of adult/believers’ baptism at the house of Felix Manz. They used a bucket and dipper and poured water over the head of a kneeling person 3x-using the Trinitarian baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19-20. That’s the first known adult/believer’s baptism of someone born in “Christendom” since the 4th C.

    Since all gathered there had been christened as infants, their opponents called them “Anabaptists” or “re-baptizers,” failing to acknowledge that these Swiss Brethren didn’t accept infant Christenings as baptism in any biblical sense.

    Notice that they did not use immersion–and most Mennonite and Hutterite groups still use pouring or effusion to this day. Baptists also did not baptize by immersion until 1642. The issue was baptism FOLLOWING belief/conversion and not amount of water. Immersion was later adopted by Baptists (and Trine Immersion by the Dunkers/Church of the Brethren), Disciples and other Believers’ Church groups as the most appropriate symbol of dying and rising with Christ (Rom. 8; Col. 2) as well as being a literal translation of the Greek baptizo as “I dunk.”

    So, Anabaptists turn 500 in 2025.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 13, 2006

  3. You should take hold of the DELIGHTFUL little book by Fritz Blanke- “Brothers in Christ”. It’s a great resource on Anabaptist beginnings.

    Comment by Jim | August 13, 2006

  4. Thanks, the Blanke book is a classic. I have probably read more secondary lit. on Anabaptist history than most Baptists and a fair amount of primary sources, too, thanks to Herald Press’ Classics of the Radical Reformation series.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 13, 2006


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