Sunday, December 17, 2006

More on Baptist identity -- another book review

More than just a name: preserving our Baptist identity. By R. Stanton Norman. Foreword by R. Albert Mohler. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2001. 198 pp. $16.99 paperback.

In my review of Shurden's The Baptist Identity, I mentioned Norman's book More than just a name. I'm going to give a short review of it here. It is one of several fairly recent books that indicate a possible renewed interest in Baptist distinctives.

Stanton Norman is an Associate Professor of Theology, occupying the Cooperative Program Chair of Southern Baptist Studies at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Other writings by Mr. Norman include "Doctrine of Sin" in A Theology for the Church edited by Daniel L. Akin and David S. Dockery; Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity (Norman is co-editor with Chad Brand); "Distinctively, Unashamedly Baptist" in Why I Am a Baptist: Confessional Conviction for a New Century edited by Russell D. Moore and Thomas J. Nettles; as well as several articles in the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Broadman/Holman, 2003).

The subject that Mr. Norman addresses is "What makes a Baptist a Baptist" or "Baptist distinctives". Norman explains his book investigating "What makes a Baptist a Baptist" as an outgrowth of his own "identity crisis", as well as a doctor of philosophy dissertation. He opines that this simple question is not so simple. This opinion is supported by the bounteous body of literature on the subject and the difficulty in answering it simply. The subject is important, according to Norman, because Baptist distinctivess "play a major role in shaping church life and ministry for Baptists" and influence "relationships with non-Baptist denominations."

Norman's plan in researching and developing this work appears to be a most appropriate one. He seeks "to provide an overview of the literature that exists on the subject" and examines "Baptist distinctives as a collective body of literature". So this is not just another book of someone setting forth his own peculiar Baptist views and offering them as THE Baptist distinctives. Many books offer only what the author believes with little or no examination of what others say or have said. Not so with Norman. His opinion is expressed, and he believes "preaching, writing and teaching Baptist distinctives" should be a primary emphasis. But he investigates a distinct body of literature to arrive at and/or support his conclusions. I am not so naive to believe that Mr. Norman worked in a "theological vacuum", but this book may be the only existing objective analysis of this genre of literature. Norman researched books that "communicate intentionally the unique beliefs of Baptists."

As a result of his research, Mr. Norman concluded that these writings use either Biblical authority or Christian experience "as the interpretive distinction to formulate the other distinctives. He develops the categories of Reformation tradition (Biblical authority) and Enlightment tradition (Christian experience) to express the two views as he unfolds his research. He contends that Baptist distinctives "are not simply a body of doctrine" but also "a method of theology." In chapters 4-9 he examines theological ideas such as the Bible, church, baptism, church polity, soul competency and religious freedom as they are formulated within the two Baptist interpetive traditions. According to Norman, the Enlightment tradition became a new guiding tradition for Baptist distinctives early in the 20th century, especially through the writings of E. Y. Mullins.

In the conclusion of the book, Norman addresses just how "distinctive" Baptist distinctives might be, and argues that Baptists DO have a distinctive historical and theological tradition separate from non-Baptists. For him one proof is because the "peculiar theological identity of Baptists did not exist before the rise of the Baptists." Further his evaluation is that the Biblical authority tradition is most consistent with Baptist history and theology: "Both religious freedom and soul competency promote the purity of a church built upon the conviction that the Bible is the absolute authority for faith and practice. The Reformation tradition of Baptist distinctives best embodies those ideals."

The endnotes are -- what can I say -- adequate, but endnotes; always a disappointing placement for an avid footnote reader as myself. The bibliography is an extensive collection of primary and secondary sources on the subject of Baptist distinctives. This collection will prove exceedingly worthwhile to the researcher of the subject. Nevertheless, Norman could have broadened the appeal and usefulness of his book had he chosen to include a broader cross-section of Baptists. For example, as far as I could tell, there were no references to or inclusion in the bibliography of the contributions of Primitive Baptists, Free Will Baptists, National Baptists, etc. to this genre of literature. Southern Baptists often forget that some of us exist. Furthermore, it would seem there should be more writings of the Baptist distinctive genre before the 19th century, though Mr. Norman only mentions one in his bibliography -- Thomas Grantham's Presumption No Proof: or, Mr. Petto's arguments for infant baptism considered and answered.

The book is very readable, though not a walk in the park for the drowsy or unattentive reader. More than just a Name will broaden your knowledge of Baptist distinctives, provide a foundation for future inquiries, and even shed light on Baptist "conservative-moderate" controversies (particularly within the Southern Baptist Convention). Buy Walter Shurden's The Baptist Identity and Stanton Norman's More than just a Name. Compare them. I think it will become apparent that Shurden moves well within the "Enlightenment Tradition", as Norman does within the "Reformation Tradition".

I cannot see how we can understand Baptist theology (except some of the modern variations) apart from their approach to "sola scriptura" or "Biblical authority".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As much as Dr. Norman may have to say about these Baptist distinctives, and I do believe them, can he as a member of SBC and an SBC seminary, teach them, or live them, or insist on them in his church.
I am in a Landmark Sovreign Grace Missionary Baptist Church, We teach it, talk about it, and insist that the people who make up this church remember it and to live it.
I am a Baptist because I know of no other Christian people that God has so specially and greatly blessed.
Edwin Fountain