Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Baptist Identity - chapter one

The Baptist Identity consists of an Introduction, four chapters on the four freedoms, a Conclusion, and eight appendices of documents on Baptist identity. On this blog, I would like to post a topic for each of the chapters of the book, but do not intend to put up specific posts on the appendices.

Before starting on chapter one, I would like to make a brief comment on the appendices. The eight documents are: “Towards a Baptist Identity: A Statement Ratified by the Baptist Heritage Commission in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, July, 1989”; “Baptist Distinctives and Diversities and Disagreements and Differences of Emphasis Among Baptists”; “A Pronouncement on Religious Liberty”; “The Covenant of the Alliance of Baptists”; “The Baptist Doctrine of the Church”; “ An Address to the Public of the Interim Steering Committee of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship”; “Baptist Ideals”; and “ The People Called American Baptists: A Confessional Statement”. It is noteworthy that all of these documents are 20th century documents, the earliest from 1939 and the latest from 1991. It should cause some concern that a man who believes that Baptists appeared in the seventeenth century places such an emphasis on 20th century documents in a book claiming to portray what it means to be a Baptist. Could it be that many of the older documents do not support as well the conclusion at which he arrived? Notice also the 20th century dominance in his bibliography (this is not to say that neither he nor these works do not mention earlier Baptist writings). Part of this might be explained as consistency with his time frame for deriving the “four freedoms” (1905-1980), as well as his desire to make this “relevant to the waning years of the twentieth century.”

Chapter One introduces and explains Shurden’s distinctive of Bible Freedom - Bible Freedom is the historic affirmation that the Bible, under the Lordship of 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 scriptures.”

Early in the chapter, the author reveals his desire for Baptists to recognize their dependence upon the church universal. “One of the first, and often unacknowledged, features of the Baptist tradition is its ecumenical relationship to the broader Christian tradition...It is time for Baptists who acknowledge the authority of scripture for faith and practice to confess our oneness with and our dependency on the larger Body of Christ. This confession of oneness and dependency calls us to a fresh commitment to Bible Freedom.” (pages 9-10) Though some might assume scholarly works are unbiased, Mr. Shurden assures us he does have a certain agenda. I am not surprised that Shurden has an agenda; and I have no problem that he should follow it. If someone has a separatist agenda, he is likely to be influenced to interpret certain data in light of it; if someone has an ecumenical agenda, he too is likely to be influenced to interpret certain data in light of that. While a separatist agenda may tend to find many Baptist distinctives; conversely, an ecumenical agenda may tend to find few Baptist distinctives. The separatist agenda will emphasize the differences of Baptists with others, while an ecumenical agenda will emphasize the unity of Baptists with others. Most Baptists would not disagree with Shurden’s argument that Baptists have many doctrines in common with other Christians, but a large number of them do not share his ecumenical agenda. The Baptists who 'separated' from the English ‘separatists’ in the 1600’s must have thought there were some distinctive reasons for them to exist separately from other churches or denominations! [note: I use Mr. Shurden’s point of reference for argument’s sake; I have previously mentioned that I believe Baptists have a kinship to Anabaptists and other dissenters back through the ages.]

Mr. Shurden explains his “Bible Freedom” statement under four heads: Bible Freedom Means Freedom ‘Under’; Bible Freedom Means Freedom ‘For’; Bible Freedom Means Freedom ‘From’; and Bible Freedom Means Freedom ‘Of’. Most Baptists would agree with most of the Bible Freedom statement, and might even put their own interpretations on certain controversial parts of it, so that they are aware of no controversy at all. But at least one portion of the statement - under the Lordship of Christ - is a source of no small dissension among those who are aware of the implications of it. “Under the Lordship of Christ” could define, at one extreme, a strict literalist approach to Bible interpretation, to, at the other extreme, Bible interpretation based on one’s own personal experiences. Again, I raise the question of whether the inclusion of this phrase is consistent with his purpose of defining the essence of being Baptist. I had also hoped that the author would go into more detail on the phrase “with the best and most scholarly tools of inquiry”. He does address, and I agree, that freedom of Biblical interpretation should impress upon us the need “to go to the trouble to be good interpreters.” The author should at least acknowledge a strain of us among Baptists who fear certain forms of “scholarly tools of inquiry” and believe that “the Bible is its own best interpreter.” Finally, on page 17, Shurden seems to imply that conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention have left their heritage by trying to enforce orthodoxy. I would be willing to give him most of this if he would also admit that “moderates” in the Convention have also left their heritage. Do not assume there is no polemic intent in this book. Much of Shurden’s thought seems to have been forged in the conservative/moderate controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention. [I want to again insert the disclaimer that I am not, nor have ever been, a part of the SBC.]

Though my interest in critiquing The Baptist Identity rises from a general negative impression of the book, I do want to note certain important statements with which I agree. I agree with the following statements, but my application of them may vary widely from that of Mr. Shurden. Some Baptists who may state they agree with them, do not, in actual practice, seem to agree. Page 12 - “God’s word is not limited to scripture.” The Scriptures to me are authoritative and final, but God also speaks to us by His Spirit, His providence, in nature, etc. Page 13 - “The Bible is final, but human understanding of the Bible is never final or complete or finished.” Again, the Scriptures to me are authoritative and final, but everything I believe about them may not be correct, so I must constantly ‘search the scriptures to see whether these things are so.’ Page 14 - “...BAPTISTS ARE A NON-CREEDAL PEOPLE! There is no The Baptist Creed or The Baptist Confession of Faith or The Baptist Church Covenant.” It is the Bible, not formulated creeds, to which Baptists always return for authority. Page 18 - “Baptists have that hands down correct biblical interpretation. Freedom ‘of ’ interpretation by each individual believer is fundamental to Baptist thought.” The negative of this is also true - no Baptist church or individual Baptist is bound to accept or agree with your interpretation.

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