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 http://www.baptistlibrary.org/principles.htm. *
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 addresses...at 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.