[Dr. Tom Nettles is professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is no stranger to readers of the Founders Journal or to those who have been pursuing reformation within the SBC and beyond for the last twenty years. Through his teaching, preaching and writing Dr. Nettles has been greatly used of God to fan the flames of theological renewal in our day. He serves as guest editor for this issue of the journal. -Ed.]
Retracing Our StepsThomas J. Nettles
The question of identity always poses difficulties for Christian denominations. The Bible ultimately defines what we are, but historical development plays a variety of roles in giving shape to the revelatory raw material. Eastern Orthodoxy is happy to accept an authoritative role to historical development through the seventh ecumenical council in 787. Roman Catholicism sees revelatory material virtually as fixed in the New Testament era, but some of the authoritative material was written and some was spoken. In both cases that revelatory material gradually comes to light in the authoritative teaching office of the papacy. Protestantism adopted the principle of sola scriptura but valued the insights into Scripture given to the church through a variety of teachers throughout history.
The earliest Baptists saw themselves as Protestants. They saw themselves as working on the same principles that drove the sixteenth-century leaders of Protestantism in seeking doctrine and church in conformity to Scripture. Moreover, they saw themselves as pressing to a purer state both their obedience to Scripture (in opposition to that which was demonstrably non-scriptural) and their form of the church. They were heirs of much but they dissented conscientiously at strategic points. Had they not believed in the necessity of absolute obedience to Scripture and that Scripture did prescribe an ecclesiology for all times and places, then there would be no such people as Baptists today. They would never have suffered loss of goods, status, income, and civic freedom for that which was negotiable in terms of time and culture. They recognized that many people, people of great stature and scholarship, disagreed with them; but they saw that as no reason to conclude that gaining a clear understanding of the church was impossible.
Our visitation of historical precedents in Baptist development, therefore, does not betray a prejudice for a golden age, or infallible interpreters, in Baptist life. It does say that we take seriously the biblical convictions for which they suffered and in accordance with which they preached the gospel. It does say that we recognize that our present generation has contours shaped by practices, ideas, and relationships, for good or ill, from prior generations. If we pursue certain practices or ideas, thinking that they are both Baptist and biblical, when in fact they are neither, perhaps correcting the historical misperception can help drive home the biblical truth with power. If we find in our predecessors deep concerns for which we manifest no zeal, perhaps we will conclude they were mistaken or overly punctilious, or perhaps we will discover an omission in our generation of something vital to a full biblical witness.
A visit with John Spilsbury, therefore, will give us a glimpse of the importance of confession of propositional truth for the ecclesiology of the first generation of Particular Baptists. A theological look at Shubal Stearns will give a feel for the theological and practical overlap that marked the Regular and Separate Baptists in the beginning of the nineteenth century and struck an enduring impression on the Baptist character. Josh Powell, an M Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, provided the form, the driving idea, and much of the research and text for that article. I have added and edited freely but the story line and conclusion are his. Baptists have been a people who have gloried in salvation by grace through faith. Understanding the freeness, sovereignty, and unmerited essence of grace has gradually slipped away in the twentieth century. Perhaps a reclaiming of biblical truth will prompt a new concern for a grace-centered theology. The article on that subject tries to point out what is at stake in turning aside from grace. Polity, edited by Mark Dever, is reviewed and recommended as the most direct path to serious reflection on biblical church life. [This review appears in FJ 45.]
Though many aspects of the past remain hidden, we nevertheless look instinctively for lessons. The value of such instruction depends on how accurately we unfold the issues and how wisely we adduce applications. When our generation is studied, will it be largely for warning as to missed opportunities and the dangers of superficiality, or will investigators see that we learned our lessons well and sought to live more purely to the glory of God?