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

Baptist Book Review #2

Once again, helping global Baptists celebrate our upcoming 400th birthday (2009) with study, celebration for the best in the tradition, repentance for the dark side of the tradition, I present a review of one of the many new books by and about Baptists. This one was so much more enjoyable to read than the previous entry.

William H. Brackney, A Genetic History of Baptist Thought (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2004). $40.00

William H. Brackney knows much about Baptists. Not just one kind of Baptist (e.g., Southern Baptists or African American Baptists), but many kinds of Baptists around the world. In part, this is because Brackney has lived and worked among more different kinds of Baptists than maybe any other living scholar. A native of Washington, D.C., Brackney grew up in a church that was, like many in the D.C. area, dually-aligned with both the American and Southern Baptists, so he already knew that Baptists came in more than one “flavor,” (which is more than some Baptists ever learn). A church historian and historical theologian specializing in post-Reformation Christianity and Believers’ Church/Free Church traditions, Brackney graduated from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (American Baptist–now renamed Palmer Theological Seminary), and earned his Ph.D. in history and religion with distinction from Temple University. He has taught at American Baptist institutions both of the more evangelical persuasion (e.g., his alma mater, EBTS) and of more “liberal” heritage (e.g., Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School), Canadian Baptist schools (e.g., McMaster Divinity College, where Brackney spent time as dean), has been visiting scholar in Southern Baptist and British Baptist contexts, has chaired commissions for the Baptist World Alliance, and is a trustee of the Moscow Baptist Seminary. At the time this book was written, Brackney was Professor of Religion and Director of the Baptist Studies Program at Baylor University (founded by Texas Baptists) and also taught as Adjunct Professor of Church History at Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor’s divinity school affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Just this summer, Brackney has accepted a new post as Professor of Theology and Ethics and Director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia (Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches/Canadian Baptist Ministries).

This book is part of a series of books on Baptists being put out by Mercer University Press in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the movement. It has a strange title. Brackney talks about Baptist “genes,” as a metaphor for those collection of characteristics that make Baptists of all stripes (liberal or conservative, African-American, Southern, British, Seventh-Day, etc.) truly “Baptist.” By focusing on a “genetic” history of Baptist thought, Brackney is able to look “organically” at the development of Baptist theology, at all the places that connect this disparate tradition, so that one sees not just the differences, but what also connects folk as widely disparate as Landmarker J. R. Graves and liberal icon Harry Emerson Fosdick. Brackney casts his net widely for sources, too: studying Baptist confessions of faith, hymns and hymnwriters, influential pastor-theologians (and editors of Baptist newspapers), as well as the major writing theologians of academic institutions. Further, in studying the academic theologians, Brackney doesn’t just look at the published writings of individuals, but examines particular educational institutions (e.g., Bristol or Stepney/Regent’s Park in the U.K., Acadia vs. McMaster in Canada, Brown University, Newton Theological Institute, the University of Chicago Divinity School or Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the U.S.A.) to see if they developed particular traditions in Baptist theology and how those traditions changed over time.

The result of all this meticulous work is, quite frankly, the most complete and useful secondary source on Baptist theology I’ve ever read. Yes, I have a few disagreements, no interpreter of Baptist life and thought could read something of this length and scope without wanting to dialogue about several places in the work where one reads things in a slightly different way. But I am not going to say much about those places because I don’t want to distract from the many excellent features of this work. Among those many strengths:

  • It is the first work of this kind written by a white scholar which takes the African-American Baptist tradition seriously AS a THEOLOGICAL tradition. Brackney rightly quotes Harvey Cox in summarizing after his survey: “Black churches [in this case Black Baptist churches] do not exist to provide a theological challenge to white churches, or to supply some kind of inspiration to white Christians. They exist to bring the hope of the gospel into lives of people whom history. . . has tried to rob of hope.” African-American Baptist theology culls mainstream Baptist “genes” and re-shapes them through the Black experience to produce perhaps the purest form of contextualization seen to date in Baptist thought.
  • Likewise the British and Canadian traditions and variations are taken very seriously, unlike the typical Southern Baptist account which talks about Baptist life in England only to get the story started in North America and then moves to concentrate on white Baptists in the U.S. South almost exclusively.
  • By concentrating on hymns, too, one sees the lived theology of Baptist laity. Here is also one of the few places where women are given credit as shapers of Baptist thought.
  • Pastor theologians are treated as seriously as academic theologians working in universities or seminaries.

One major weakness is that this work still concentrates only on the Anglo-American world, but Brackney is already at work on a sequel to cover Baptist thought as it has developed in other parts of the globe. Another weakness is that, even though women were marginalized by the tradition, we are discovering more who were influential than Brackney’s account notes, although he is correct that, even today, more Baptist women are to be found pursuing doctorates in biblical studies or church history than in theology per se. Finally, except for reasons of length, I cannot see the justification of dealing with doctrinal theology apart from theological ethics–something which seems to distort the shape of the Baptist tradition.

Nevertheless, here is one of the few books that would be worth $40.00 paperback! Break open your piggybanks and order all 592 pages worth, today. By the time you are done, you will have a far greater appreciation for the many dimensions of Baptist thought (at least in the UK and North America) from 1609 to 2000. I eagerly await the sequel on Baptist thought elsewhere in the world.


August 21, 2006 - Posted by | Baptists, books

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