Friday, December 01, 2006

Book review of "The Baptist Identity"

A review of: The Baptist Identity : Four Fragile Freedoms by Walter B. Shurden, 1993, Smyth and Helwys, Macon, Ga. This book may be ordered online at Smyth & Helwys.

About the author - Walter B. Shurden (1937-) is a Baptist historian, author and editor. He is a Callaway Professor of Christianity and Chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity, both at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. Shurden is also Director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer. He is author or editor of several books on Baptist history and ecclesiology, and a well respected member of the Baptist educational community. Mr. Shurden is a member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, as well as a co-founder of the Southern Baptist Alliance (Alliance of Baptists) and former member of the Southern Baptist Convention. Among his many other books are: Not A Silent People: Controversies That Have Shaped Southern Baptists; Associationalism Among Baptists in America, 1707-1814; The Life of Baptists in the Life of The World; The Struggle For the Soul of the SBC: Moderate Responses to Fundamentalism; and Not an Easy Journey: Some Transitions in Baptist Life.

Before, I get into more specifics from the "Introduction" of Shurden's book, I will list the Four Fragile Freedoms. This was copied online at *

Bible Freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation that the Bible, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, must be central in the life of the individual and church and that Christians, with the best and most scholarly tools of inquiry, are both free and obligated to study and obey the Scripture.

Soul Freedom is the historic affirmation of the inalienable right and responsibility of every person to deal with God without the imposition of creed, the interference of clergy, or the intervention of civil government.

Church Freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation that local churches are free, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to determine their membership and leadership, to order their worship and work, to ordain whom the perceive as gifted for ministry, male or female, and to participate in the larger Body of Christ, of whose unity and mission Baptists are proudly a part.

Religious Freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation of freedom OF religion, freedom FOR religion, and freedom FROM religion.

The purpose of this book is supposed to be to identify "What makes a Baptist a Baptist."

In his book, The Baptist Identity, Walter Shurden sets out to answer the question "What makes a Baptist a Baptist?" He says "what I have tried to do in this book" is define the essence of what constitutes being a Baptist. So he sets out on the task of finding any "spiritual and theological marks", any "generic distinctives", "any peculiar convictions" that Baptists have in common and make them Baptist. Initially, Shurden notes the simplistic, but true, fact that "membership in a local Baptist church" makes one a Baptist. But his purpose goes beyond that, seeking to find what these members of any given local Baptist church may have in common.

Shurden notes the great diversity among Baptists, which may be illustrated by two political Baptist Jesses - Helms and Jackson. But, Shurden says, "Despite their frustrating diversity, Baptists share some common convictions, however."

On page 4, Shurden tells us when and how he arrived at his consensus of Baptist distinctives, as presented in his Four Fragile Freedoms. "I first identified the four freedoms discussed in this book in the concluding chapter of my book 'The Life of Baptists in the Life of the World,' published in 1985." He goes on to note, "I arrived at these Baptist Freedoms by analyzing the sermons and addresses given by Baptists from around the world at the meetings of the Baptist World Alliance from 1905 to 1980." Herein lies what I believe was Mr. Shurden's first mistake. His conviction was that the Baptist World Alliance is the best place to look if one wants to mark major Baptist distinctives. I make no question of Mr. Shurden's motive for such a conviction, but I think such a conclusion is mistaken because it is too narrow.

1. The time element (1905-1980) is too narrow. Looking in this time frame alone (the BWA was organized in 1905) dismisses a large volume of Baptist thought prior to this time. Even Shurden believes there are 'four centuries of Baptist witness' -- that Baptists arose out of English Separatism in the early 1600's. If I believed this, I would think it of utmost importance to see what was distinctive then that caused these men/churches to leave Separatism. (I do not believe the English Separatist theory of Baptist origins, but believe that Baptist thought harks all the way back to the New Testament.)

2. The "Baptist variety" element is too narrow. Though it would seem that a sampling of Baptists from across the world would give the best variety, I think this is not true on several counts. First, though there were approximately 135 Baptist bodies represented in the BWA at the time of Shurden's writing, the purpose (much deals with political religious liberty issues and humanitarian aid) of the BWA somewhat skews the type of Baptists that participate. For example, though the numerical majority of American Baptists were represented in the BWA (due to the presence of the Southern Baptist Convention),** only 14 of over 50 groups of Baptists in the United States are in the Baptist World Alliance. In England, only the liberal open membership Baptist Union is represented (while it is the largest body, in my opinion it by no means represents the best Baptist thought in England). Finally, though Baptists from all across the world are represented in the BWA, many of these countries do not have a very long tradition of Baptist thought or presence.

3. The content element is too narrow. Shurden pulls his information from "sermons and meetings of the Baptist World Alliance." With no intended disrespect for Baptist intelligentsia, it is my opinion that the people who would be invited to speak at the Baptist World Alliance are not the best representatives of what rank and file Baptists really are. One could probably find a broader sampling on
the Baptist Board than the BWA.

I do not dismiss the "four fragile freedoms" as being common among some Baptists, but believe that they fall far short of what it means to be a Baptist. All of us move to our conclusions from some bias (an inclination to a certain outlook), and I think Mr. Shurden's have probably been shaped by the conservative/liberal controversies in the SBC. I do not doubt that Shurden’s “four freedoms” are a fair representation of the commonalities in the sermons and addresses given by speakers at the Baptist World Alliance. I do question how well these speakers represent the constituency of the BWA, and especially question how well they represent Baptists as a whole. It is Mr. Shurden who chose this format in which to frame his argument, and therefore it is his task to convince us that it is a broad enough pool of Baptist thought and representative of the broader body of Baptists. He does not do this in the introduction; we shall see with the rest of the book.

Though I have presented Mr. Shurden’s frame of reference in this book as being too narrow, I would add that his statements of the "four fragile freedoms" are actually too broad, and tend toward representing a particular style of Baptist as opposed to representing disinterested research (I believe it is impossible to reach the goal of ‘disinterestedness’ in religious research). Examples: 1. “Under the Lordship of Christ” might be considered “code” language and send up a flag to both sides in the Bible controversy. This is not a point of agreement among Baptists, but rather a chief bone of contention; 2. Inclusion of the words “male or female” in the church freedom statement is not as issue of commonality among Baptists, but rather the source of much dissension. We shall hope to discuss these in greater detail as we proceed through the book.

* This link was active when I wrote this review, but appears to be no longer active.
** Since this book review was first written, the Southern Baptist Convention has withdrawn from the BWA.


Mark Osgatharp said...

Brother Vaughn,

Over 20 years ago Mr. Shurdern gave a Baptist history lecture at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock and I went to hear him. He parroted the standard restorationist line that Baptists originated in 17th century England.

After the lecture I sent him a letter asking him to give me some references to some hard information proving that theory which is so often repeated as if it were an unquestionable fact. He responded with a very rude letter which basically accused me of being an unteachable fanatic fore merely having raised the issue and identifying myself as a Landmarker.

As you pointed out, Mr. Shurden now identifies with the Alliance of Baptists - a group which openly affirms homosexuality and same gender "marriage". He also identifies with the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University which was established by liberals who were disinfranchised from the Southern Baptist theological establishment.

The bottom line is, Shurden and his ilk are no more Baptists than my beagles are Baptists. They are infidels in Baptist clothing who have hi-jacked the Baptist name for their own ungodly purposes.

A foot note to this rant: a couple of years ago the church where I heard Mr. Shurden speak - Pulaski Heights Baptist of Little Rock - hosted lectures by the infamous infidel Marcus Borg.

Just think, all those years that folks were saying that the only difference between Southern Baptists and the Landmark Baptists was "mission methods" these guys were running the Southern Baptist theological and educational system. The true Bible believing Southern Baptists, thank God, did kick these guys out of their theological schools back in the late 1980s, they still have an iron grip on the Southern Baptist Universities and along with their millions (of dollars that is). One by one they are stealing these schools from the Southern Baptists.

If I were a Southern Baptist I'd tell 'em to take it all and get - and good by and good riddance!

Mark Osgatharp

Mark Osgatharp said...

Brother Vaughn,

Here is an excerpt from an essay "The Distinctive Baptist Why" by R.M. Dudley who was president of Georgetown College in Kentucky in the late 1900s (which college, by the way, is currently severing it's ties with the Southern Baptists to pursue, by it's own admission, the gold of fraternal brotherhood with the secular educational establishment). This is one of the best statements I have read about what it means to be a Baptist.

But, alas, even the Landmark Baptists seem to have forgotten this fundamental principle of Baptist identity. It seems we are left with little but an empty shell of Baptist ordinances and customs with little real appreciation for what it means to be a Bapist. In any event here is the excerpt (and here is a link to the web-site with the full text -


Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you. - Deut. 4:2,

For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. - Rev. 22:18-19.

.......The first reason [why Baptists exist as a separate denomination] that would arise in the mind of an intelligent, free people would likely be: This is a land of religious liberty, and if the Baptists wish to maintain a separate existence no one has the right to object. According to this the right to our separate existence lies in the fact that we wish it.

I desire emphatically to deny this right and the principle upon which it rests. Religious liberty does not consist in the right to do as one pleases in religious matters. Government can not hinder my being a Baptist. This is true: but it is very poor logic to say that because Government has no right to interfere with my religion, therefore I may do as I please.

The exercise of religious liberty is subject to two very important restrictions: (a) It must not run counter to the will of God. Christ said, ”Go ye therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you.” There is no liberty of man that can supervene this law of the risen Lord. In accordance with this the apostle writes: ”As free . . . using your liberty ... as servants of God.” ”To this end was I born and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth,” said the Lord. ”The church is the pillar and ground of the truth.” There is no room left for the exercise of my individual preferences in the kingdom of Christ. Others may claim their right to a separate denominational existence on the ground that this is a land of religious liberty; but God forbid that Baptists should urge this poor plea.....

.....I wish now to clear the subject of a serious misapprehension. The Baptists are often charged with dividing Christendom upon a bare ordinance, and that one of the externals of religion. We are charged with building up a denomination upon the shallow and narrow basis of a mere rite; with rilling the air with our cries about the little thing of how much water is to be used in baptism. We are charged with separating ourselves from others by the arbitrary restrictions that we have placed around the Table of our common Lord, and with bigotry arrogating to ourselves a wisdom and sanctity superior to others. These are the characteristics that are supposed to mark the people called Baptists.

Even among many Baptists this subject fails of an intelligent understanding and therefore of a correct and proper statement. Ask scores of Baptists what is the difference between their own and other denominations and the answer will be: Baptists believe in immersion. This is a correct answer as far as it goes; but it is a very imperfect and shallow presentation of the truth. Or perhaps the answer would be: Baptists practice close communion. This again is correct so far as it goes; but as a full and fair answer to the question it is superficial and misleading. Even intelligent Baptists are sometimes very careless in the statement of the fundamentals of the denomination. Dr. Gotch, the president of a Baptist College in England, says in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, perhaps the most splendid monument of learning in the nineteenth century, ”The Baptists as a denomination are distinguished from other denominations by the views they hold respecting the ordinance of baptism.” To proceed from so high a source this statement is a marvel of shallowness and carelessness. I demur to the statement of the venerable Dr. Armitage in the North American Review for March, 1887, that the distinguishing difference of the Baptists is ”in the demand for a positive moral change wrought in the soul by the direct agency of the Holy Spirit as an indispensable qualification for membership in the churches.” And what shall I say of that popular and useful little book from the pen of the venerable Dr. Pendleton, ”Three Reasons Why I am a Baptist?” A truce to all these brethren, honored and beloved as they are; but in the statement of the fundamental distinction of their denomination they need to go deeper and lay bare the broader foundation that the full truth may be known.

The fundamental principle of the Baptists is their belief in the supreme authority and absolute sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures; and their separate existence is the practical and logical result of their attempt to apply this principle in all matters of religion. This is the bed rock on which the denomination rests; and we do not come down to the true foundation until we reach this. I will show you by the shortest of short methods that the statements of Drs. Gotch and Armitage and Pendleton come short of the full truth. Ask Dr. Gotch why the Baptists believe in immersion; and he will tell you because the Scriptures teach it. Ask him if some other way would not do as well his reply would be: We have no right to alter any of the plain and positive commands of the Bible. This brings us to the bed rock truth stated just now. In the same way you ask Dr. Armitage why Baptists believe in a converted church membership; and he will tell you that it is because the Scriptures so teach. But why not admit to the church all who belong to the same family and nation? The answer would be: We have no right to go beyond the teachings of the Scriptures. If you ask Dr. Pendleton why he practices close communion so-called, that is, why he restricts the invitation to the Lord’s Table to baptized believers; there is but one answer that he would think of giving you: The Bible teaches us that the Supper was ordained by Christ; and he has taught us in his Word that only baptized believers are to approach it; and that we have no right to go contrary to his Word.

Let us look a moment at this principle and its importance. A father says: Son do this. But his son does something else. When asked about it he says: Well, I thought that what I did was as well as what you told me to do. A master says to his servant: Do this. But he does something else and when asked about it replies that what he did was altogether more convenient and withal more proper. Such a course of conduct in a son or servant when deliberately settled upon is a direct arraignment of the wisdom and authority of the father or master. Baptists say that in matters of religion there must be absolutely nothing like this. God’s Word is the supreme and infallible rule for our guidance. We must not go contrary to it in any article of belief or in any duty enjoined. It is no partial revelation. By it the man of God is thoroughly furnished unto all good works. This is the fundamental position of the Baptists; and every peculiarity which characterizes them is the practical outcome of this principle.

Big Daddy Weave said...

The book review was indeed interesting. However, the first comment was nauseating.

First, both of you are dead wrong. Buddy Shurden (as his friends call him) is not aligned with the Alliance of Baptists. Shurden left the SBC long ago and affiliated with the CBF upon its formation. His views on homosexuality are completely private. He's a Baptist Historian and has NEVER addressed the subject. Also, Shurden has never taught at or worked for McAfee School of Theology. He runs Mercer University's Center for Baptist Studies and chaired the undergraduate department for years. Yes, he does support the mission of McAfee.

I was not aware that folks ever suggested that the ONLY DIFFERENCE between SBCers and Landmarkers was "mission methods." Denominationalists were left fighting off Landmarkers for decades. At least the influence of Landmark Baptists within the SBC is minimal now.

Arguing that a "Baptist Essence" exists does not mean that ALL Baptists have adhered to ALL distinctives at ALL times. That's not the case and Shurden has never suggested such. He's merely argued that an essence exists. How many intellectually honest Baptist Historians believe that Baptist thought "harks all the way back to the New Testament"????? Surely that dishonest myth was put to rest 60 years ago? Even SBCers are more or less united on Baptist origins.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Big Daddy, thanks for the update on Dr. Shurden's affiliation. If you will provide documentation I will make that change in the blog. The book review is a few years old, but I thought my blog readers might find it interesting. It reflects the information that I could find at that time. Please note, though, that even the page on Shurden from the Center of Baptist Studies (where he is Executive Director) notes that he was a founder of the Southern Baptist Alliance, which group later changed its name to The Alliance of Baptists. So there is/was a connection at one time. The reference was not a figment of my imagination. I do note that CBS page (which I did not know about when I wrote the review) mentions his affiliation with the CBF.

Next, if you think I am dead wrong, OK. But please be careful in declaring where I am dead wrong. I made no reference to homosexuality or McAfee, though your first paragraph appears to indicate that I did.

Finally, the reference that Baptist thought harks all the way back to the New Testament is added because I knew, if left out, some "friends" would accuse me of accepting the English Separatist origins theory. Nevertheless, that is merely an aside from the book review. One mistake I think Walter Shurden made with the book was to not even follow Baptists back to the point he believes they began, circa 1640.

Mark Osgatharp said...

Bid Daddy,

I strive to choose my words carefully and not to speak of that which I know not. Mr. Shurden's bio on the Center for Baptist Studies web-page states that he was a founding member of the Baptist Alliance. That sure sounds like an identity to me, whether he currently considers himself a member of that group or not. Furthermore, I did not say that he teaches at or works for McAfee, I said he identifies with them and, as you acknowledged, he does.

You said, "His views on homosexuality are completely private." I never commented on Mr. Shurden's views about homosexuality. I stated that the Baptist Alliance openly condones homosexuality and it does.

If Mr. Shurden has managed to keep his views on homosexuality private, especially after the splinter group which he advertises that he had a part in founding has taken the breath-taking leap of fully endorsing homosexual unions, all I can say about that is that it goes to accentuate the ambiguous and ungodly nature of the sort of "Baptist Christianity" (and I use both words very loosely) with which he identifies.

Mark Osgatharp

Big Daddy Weave said...

Quite a few Moderates were part of the Southern Baptist Alliance.

However, eventually more and more Moderates began to organize, the CBF was born, and many of those moderates left the SBC Alliance.

Many of those who stayed with the Alliance left after it became clear that Stan Hastey desired to make AoB the pro-gay Baptist group.

Shurden left the Alliance early once it became clear that the CBF was the new SBC-alternative. 1991 or 1992? The Alliance did not embrace a pro-gay position at that time.

R. L. Vaughn said...

I found enough information to be satisfied with changing my statement about Walter Shurden to this:

"Mr. Shurden is a member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, as well as a co-founder of the Southern Baptist Alliance (Alliance of Baptists) and former member of the Southern Baptist Convention."

Those interested in the subject, watch in a couple of weeks for a review of another book with a similar theme -- More than just a name: preserving our Baptist identity, by R. Stanton Norman.