I intentionally read B.H. Carroll’s Ecclesia immediately after finishing Pope Benedict’s Called to Communion in order to maintain some balance and perspective. I must say, if you ever wanted to read two books on ecclesiology that are at polar extremes on the spectrum, these would be the two books!
B.H. Carroll is the founder of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. He was a fascinating figure who was wounded in the Civil War, founded a seminary, pastored a number of churches (most notably First Baptist Waco), and played an important role in the Southern Baptist Convention of his day.
This work has been reprinted by the fine folks at The Baptist Standard Bearer. It’s vol.38 of their “The Baptist Distinctives Series.” I’ve spoken well of these guys before, and I’d like to do so again. They’re doing yeoman’s work, to be sure. It would be virtually impossible to study Baptist history in the U.S. without looking to their publications.
That being said, it grieves me to start this review with a word of criticism. I initially thought it would just be an “observation,” and not a full-fledged “criticism,” but no such luck. I must say, after having finished this book last Friday (while sitting, oddly enough, in “The Holy Land Experience” in Orlando, FL) that I have never read such a poorly edited work in my life. I do so very much appreciate this ministry, and I realize it is not a large and wealthy organization, but I would suspect that some first year seminary student would love to give just a single read-through of these manuscripts for $20 before they go to print. I do not mean to be too harsh, but these works are too important to have the numerous spelling, grammatical, and typesetting issues that this book has.
The work itself is worthy of consideration and is as clear a presentation of the traditional Baptist concept of “church” as Called to Communion is for the Roman Catholic concept. Carroll’s work is essentially a collection of class lectures and sermons.
Carroll provides an interesting and helpful word study of “ecclesia,” arguing that in the vast majority of New Testament usages it retains the meaning of “local assembly.” He argues against the idea of an already existing catholic church, noting that such a church could not truly exist until the end of all things when all of God’s people are gathered into His presence. He does not, however, deny the validity of speaking about the “general assembly” of all the believers on earth at any given time.
The catholic-minded Baptist may feel that Carroll overplays this point (I found myself saying, “Yes, but…” to Carroll’s argument at points), but it is an undeniable fact that the New Testament speaks of local gatherings of the church in the vast majority of its usages. Regardless, Baptist ecclesiology may serve as a necessary corrective against those who would perhaps undermine this New Testament emphasis.
Carroll moves on to discuss the Baptist approach to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I will not belabor either point. I will only point out that I remain unconvinced of the traditional Baptist notion of “closed communion.” I have never adhered to this. I believe it is a mistake. That being said, it does flow logically from the Baptist (over?)emphasis on the local assembly.
Finally, Carroll ends with a helpful discourse on distinctive Baptist principles. I appreciated this presentation and am in general agreement with these emphases. I do note, as a matter of interest, the lack of biblical references for Carroll’s point that “the church is a pure democracy” (159). Furthermore, I will admit to cringing at this sentence: “It [the church] is of the people, for the people, by the people” (159). The coopting of American political language for the church by Baptists certainly will not help to quell the accusation that congregational polity as practiced by Baptists derives more from Enlightenment individualism than from New Testament exegesis. (I do not concede the point, by the way, just the fact that such language does not help.)
I appreciate the life and ministry of B.H. Carroll and am glad I read this interesting and insightful work. Anybody wanting to understand that strange tribe called “Baptists” could do much worse than this book for an introduction.