An Electronic Baptist Journal Bridging Yesterday and Today
[Vol. 12, No. 7]
Editor: Bruce T. Gourley, executive director, Baptist History & Heritage Society
The Baptist Studies Bulletin (BSB) is a free online journal produced by the Baptist History & Heritage Society (BH&HS) and offering scholarly analysis, informed editorials, book reviews, and special features for subscribers. You may access previous issues to or subscribe or unsubscribe from the BSB. Republishing of articles is allowed, but please provide credit and a link back to the Baptist Studies Bulletin.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
“Success: What Does it Look Like?”
by Bruce T. Gourley
by Richard F. Wilson
“Baylor University’s Baptist Studies Center for Research”
Using the Resources of the Present to Preserve the Past
Success: What Does it Look Like?
by Bruce T. Gourley
Name the year in which the following events took place: The first Ford F-Series pickup rolled off the assembly line. Kentucky beat Baylor for the NCAA Men’s Basketball championship. The World Health Organization was founded. The Presley family moved to Memphis. The Supreme Court ruled that religious instruction in public schools violates the U.S. Constitution. Babe Ruth died.
Give up? All of the above events took place in 1948, the year to which Southern Baptists of 2013 have returned. More specifically, baptisms in the fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination long in decline, have regressed to 1948 levels. At the same time, Liberty University in Virginia, a Southern Baptist school, is moving in the opposite direction: last year the fundamentalist school reached the 80,000-student mark in their online program. At the rate Liberty is growing, it should be larger than the SBC in a couple of decades.
What do the tales of the SBC and Liberty University, theological twins traveling divergent statistical paths, tell us about success in Baptist life of the twenty-first century?
Should baptisms, the twentieth century standard of Baptist progress, be removed from the pinnacle of the Baptist success equation? (Church historian Bill Leonard, speaking last month to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, recently framed the act of baptism as historically secondary to the experience of grace as the prerequisite for Baptist Christian community.) Should the numbers of students enrolled in Baptist educational institutions replace baptisms in formulating success in the world of Baptists?
“Success” as a word appeared in the mid-sixteenth century, shortly before Baptists emerged in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. Originally meaning “what comes next,” the word eventually evolved to signify the accomplishment of one’s goals.
Historically, Baptists for most of their first two centuries were a tiny, minority sect struggling to survive against persecution directed at them from establishment churches and theocratic governments. In such a context, their goals were simple, albeit at times puzzling to outside observers.
First and foremost, the sect sought to merely survive. Opposed by most other Christians, who often considered Baptists heretical, the handful of early Baptist congregations struggled to keep their faith communities intact at a time when being a Baptist often led to fines, imprisonment, and confiscation of property. Recruiting new converts was difficult. Why, after all, would anyone want to sign up for a life of persecution? That Baptists survived their early years was a success in and of itself.
Secondly, Baptists from the beginning set out to enact a dangerous concept that had been theorized by a handful of philosophers but had never truly been put into practice: freedom of conscience. The concept was anathema to Catholic and Protestant leaders, whose religious institutions depended upon forced conformity of their adherents. Monarchs, ever striving to control their subjects, also hated the idea. When Baptist co-founder Thomas Helwys demanded that King James I (he of King James Bible fame) grant liberty of conscience to his subjects, the king threw Helwys in prison, where he died within a few years.
Yet for Baptists, publicly advocating freedom of conscience was worth the price of persecution precisely because of their conviction that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” a phrase repeatedly used in Baptist confessions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and hearkening to scripture. “For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience,” the Apostle Paul asked in 1 Corinthians 10:29. Furthermore, to the astonishment of many, Baptists fought for freedom of conscience not just for themselves, but for everyone, even those with whom they disagreed.
From belief in freedom of conscience arose certain heretical convictions that outside observers came to most closely associate with the sect known as Baptists: believer’s baptism, voluntary faith, local church autonomy, religious liberty for all, and church state separation. In the life of Baptist individuals, believer’s baptism testified to the experience of grace and the start of a new life devoted to the transformation of self, others and society through Christ-given freedom.
We, of course, know the rest of the story. Baptists did survive, and their once heretical convictions have, in the modern era, become widely accepted truths among many contemporary Protestant Christians. (A frequent exception being religious liberty for all and church state separation, beliefs that Baptists made certain were established in the new American nation, but that many contemporary American conservative evangelicals–a majoritarian group seeking privilege and favoritism with government–now denounce.)
Thus for early Baptists, success was achieved–eventually. And their accomplishments were on behalf of all persons, not merely themselves.
Yet during the past two hundred years, one might argue that Baptists have often overshadowed their own historical contributions by focusing on lesser, inwardly-directed measurements of success.
Rather than championing God-bestowed dignity and equality among humanity, majoritarian Baptists are too often intent upon domination of others. Instead of investing in doing Christ’s work among needful humanity, many Baptist congregations largely spend their resources internally. Rather than measuring their work in lives transformed by Christ-given freedom (Galatians 5:1), baptism counts are the holy grail of success. Instead of fostering the growth and expansion of the God-given human mind, too many Baptists imprison the mind with dogma.
What should success look like in Baptist life today? While the times and circumstances have obviously changed, early Baptist identity may provide a deeper well from which to address the question. Early Baptists succeeded in transforming individuals and society, a nation and the world, religion and government. A more modest, if no less important, goal in the twenty-first century might be the transformation of a church’s neighborhood. Many congregations have the resources to work throughout their neighborhoods in providing healthy food, alleviating basic medical illnesses, fostering growing and inquisitive minds, mentoring children, promoting healthy family life, breaking down racial and ethnic barriers, teaching financial skills, and modeling holistic faith. Whether or not transformative neighborhood ministry and witness increases church membership (and baptisms) is secondary; the Baptist heritage is outward-focused, not inward-directed.
What if Baptist identity in our modern era could be lived outside of the church building, as in centuries past?
What if, fifty years from now, Baptists come to be known as a people who are about the business of transforming lives, rather than counting baptisms?
Rick Wilson is a teaching theologian at Mercer University, where he is chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity. Rick also is the current chair of the Commission on Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance, and a member of the First Baptist Church of Christ at Macon, Georgia, where he has served as a deacon and a Sunday School teacher. His passions include the post-war recovery of Liberia, creative cooking, and the mysteries of professional baseball.
“Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same thing by their secret arts” (Exod 7:11, rsv).
Manipulation of the masses and intimidation of blocs with the potential for influence-by-example have long been tools of tyrants. If not the tools of tyrants, they are, at least, the tools of those who seek to control others for whatever reasons. Or, more generously, manipulation and intimidation may be among the best tools a reformer thinks can be mustered to break the blockade of a status quo.
Two words—Biblical Authority (BA)—capture the secret arts of those in Christian circles who seek to manipulate and/or intimidate in these times of political and social change. I capitalize the phrase not out of respect, but to demonstrate how people attempt to speak or write In Capital Letters when they lack the persuasion of critical faith and reason needed to bear witness to their convictions of heart and mind.
A short stroll through the halls of history will remind an attentive reader that claims of biblical authority were attempts to drive a wedge between a stagnant status quo and a vibrant possibility of new ways of being, thinking, and hoping. In Matthew’s casting of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assails the status quo, “You have heard that it was said to men of old . . . . But I say to you,” as a way “to fulfill” “the law and the prophets” (Matt 5:21 passim, and 5:17). The words of Jesus invite an expansive, not restrictive, reading of scripture. The teacher was no tyrant. Nor did he seek to manipulate or intimidate. He was a reformer whose expansive understanding of the law and the prophets made some in his day claim, “he taught as one with authority” (Mark 1:22).
Turn the stroll into a marathon and arrive in Luther’s day. Catching breath after nearly a 1500-year journey, one finds Luther in a tough place. He knew that the status quo of the Roman church no longer carried the weight of the gospel. He responded as best he could and declared “sola scriptura” (“only scripture”) as the best way to redirect the focus of the church.
Luther’s boldness has changed Christian theology for nearly 500 years. Let’s be frank: Luther overreached when he drew a stark line between the traditions of the church and the words of the canons of the Old and New Testaments. Luther came close to making such a distinction, but, in the end, the church knew Luther had said more than could be affirmed.
Even in Luther’s day there was considerable push-back against his attempt to separate the canon from tradition. Luther and his followers, however, were forced by the circumstances of ecclesiastical politics to demand a hard edge of Biblical Authority over against the long history of the church and its tradition.
In the sixteenth century and beyond, many Protestants and some Catholics emulated Luther’s overreach. The stroll that became a marathon settled in on cruise control with more interest in defending restrictive interpretations of scripture rather than being open to expansive understandings of the words of scripture in a changing world. Doing so, they contributed to the rigidity of the Enlightenment in the nineteenth century.
Take Copernicus as a case study that never fails to demonstrate the failure of Biblical Authority. The Prussian/Polish cleric had the critical convictions of his heart and mind. With his own eyes he saw the folly of Ptolemy’s geocentric worldview and offered a heliocentric alternative that was confirmed—and continues essentially to be confirmed—by new-born science. Protestants, including Luther and Melanchthon, condemned him for going against the Bible. Copernicus was threatened with excommunication by cardinals and the Pope. He chose to confess his belief in the words of the Bible instead of what his eyes and mind had seen in the night skies. Frankly put: Copernicus traded the courage of his convictions of eye and mind for the affirmation of a broken concept of Biblical Authority. Why? He was manipulated and intimidated by a restrictive interpretation of scripture that we now know cannot be defended.
With the Enlightenment the hard edges of intellectual certainty and individualistic verve that Luther prefigured took up a kind of tyranny, especially among Evangelicals. Once more I use a capital letter in an effort to demonstrate the tendency of some to speak and write In Capital Letters when they lack the persuasion of critical faith and reason needed to bear witness to their convictions of heart and mind.
Push forward to the dawn of the twenty-first century. Disengage the cruise control. Re-engage the issues of a faithful reading and application of the Bible and the rich traditions of the church. Proponents of a restrictive reading of scripture—those who espouse Biblical Authority (note the Capital Letters)—find themselves increasingly marginalized. They protest that they are being persecuted, when, in fact, they merely have lost their Enlightenment privilege of self-assigned authority. In response, they take up the Bible as a weapon of manipulation and intimidation.
Biblical Authority is broken. But, it is being repaired. Restrictive readings of the Bible are beginning to give way to expansive readings that take seriously contexts of culture, advances in science and social science, and, too, the humanities. The words of Jesus, “You have heard . . ., but I say to you” bolster the courage and convictions of new generations who look to the Bible not for restrictive dogma—theological, moral, and cultural—but for expansive readings of the Bible that empower them to become agents of change in our world.
The purpose of the Center is to make an impact on the future shape of the global community of Baptists by attending to the Baptist story and to make an impact on the future of Baylor University by preserving and enhancing the Baptist story as part of the University’s work.
“The Center is in the Department of Religion where Baptist historians are already at work and where its administrative support is housed. The goal of the BSCR is to relate to other units on Baylor’s campus such as the George W. Truett Theological Seminary, the J. M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies, the Institute for Oral History, the Institute for Studies in Religion, and the Baylor University Libraries.”
The Center is in the process of becoming a depository for important Baptist papers, providing access to historica Baptist materials, offering an emphasis on Baptist Studies in the Ph.D. program in religion, supporting faculty research projects, sponsoring an essay contest on Baptist identity, providing student scholarships for travel and research, and supporting Baptist scholarship through other Baptist history organizations, including the Baptist History & Heritage Society.
Dr. Doug Weaver, long-time Baptist History & Heritage Society member, is Professor of Church History in Baylor’s Department of Religion and coordinator of the Center. Baylor Ph.D. student Chris Moore is the Center’s Graduate Fellow. Dr. Bill Pitts, current BH&HS president, is Professor of History in Baylor’s Department of Religion and a driving force behind the new Center.
For more information, visit the website of the Baptist Studies Center for Research.
August 18, 2013 — Baptist-Jewish Dialogue, Temple Sinai, Atlanta. Co-sponsored by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia. The program will feature a film screening and discussion.
November 14-16, 2013 – Judson Conference 2013, a joint conference sponsored by the American Baptist Historical Society and McAfee School of Theology. More information.
June 4-6, 2014 — Annual Baptist History & Heritage Society conference, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Hosted by Sioux Falls Seminary. Theme: “Exploring the ‘Other’ Baptists.” More information.