What Went Right in Baltimore

sbc14logoartHaving already expressed some concerns about what happened in Baltimore at the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention, I’d like to share some thoughts on the things that struck me as right, good, and encouraging.  I am not offering these to try to offset my earlier critiques.  On the contrary, it struck me at various times during the week that, despite my own cynicism, I really am happy to belong to the family called Southern Baptists.  At numerous points I turned to my wife and said, “That’s just awesome.”  I thought I’d share some of the reasons why I felt that way.

  • The music and the worship was strong and God-honoring and inspirational.  All of the different kinds of music were strong:  from big names to unknowns.  Beautiful!
  • Having Naghmeh Abedini there to represent her husband, jailed Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini, was particularly moving and really put a face on the persecuted Church.
  • Having the pastor of the Canadian church plant, La Chapelle, as well as a young musician who had recently come to Christ present was beautiful and was a poignant reminder that almost-completely-unchurched regions cannot stop the advance of the gospel.
  • Russell Moore’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission report was strong, passionate, and very encouraging.
  • Hearing the story of the two churches that merged, and having Ray on the stage, an elderly man in the original church that was declining, was sweet and showed me that we never have to lose our passion for Christ or our willingness to change.
  • Seeing old friends and making new ones reminded me of the sweet ties that bind us together in the Southern Baptist Convention.
  • Being a large body in which people are free to speak their minds – no matter how odd-sounding at times – is a blessing.  The Free Church tradition, with all of its quirks, is a wonderful tradition to which to belong.
  • Seeing committed stands on biblical authority and orthodoxy and seeing an absence of wrangling over the core theological tenets of our faith is a fresh reminder that whatever weaknesses we might have, a lack of solidarity around the gospel is not one of them.
  • Seeing Southern Baptists given the opportunity to ask questions of denominational leaders is critical, and this was in evidence in Baltimore.  Whatever controversies may be currently discussed in the Convention, it is a strength that nobody is beyond open questioning.  This kind of transparency must be safeguarded.
  • Seeing the presence of various and diverse subgroups presented in the exhibit hall, even around sometimes conflicting secondary and tertiary theological issues, is a strength and shows that there is room in the Southern Baptist Convention on issues deemed adiaphoric.
  • There appeared to be a larger number of young people at this year’s Convention.  At least my wife felt this way.  I think I agree.  This is hopeful and encouraging.
  • There were some tremendous sermons delivered at the Convention this year and some genuine passion for the salvation of lost people exhibited.
  • My wife, Roni, points out that Fred Luter did a wonderful job in his final year as President.  I agree 100%!
  • Roni also points to the increasing ethnic diversity present in the Convention.

Yes, there are many things that went right in Baltimore.  We are very glad we went!

SBC Executive Committee Chair Ernest Easley on Article III of the SBC Constitution

sla11I’ve written about internal Southern Baptist Convention issues more than I care to recently (here, here, here, and here), but the proposed changes to the Constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention are noteworthy and significant.  As SBC Messengers prepare to travel to Baltimore for the annual meeting, the summer edition of SBC Life, the news organ of the Executive Committee, touched again on the issue, and, in particular, on the controversial proposed changes to Article III.  The entire article can be found here, but I will provide the relevant portion here:


Question: Why did the Executive Committee include the phrase, “Has not intentionally operated in any manner demonstrating opposition to the doctrine expressed in the Convention’s most recently adopted statement of faith”?

Easley: At its September 2013 meeting, the EC Bylaws Workgroup tried to envision a “blue sky” approach to Article III; that is, if Article III did not currently exist, what should an article on messenger composition of the Convention look like? Numerous ideas were expressed and considered. Some were immediately added; others immediately discarded; and a few were retained for further consideration. One that was retained was the idea of making reference to our confessional statement. This idea seemed to make sense and was retained in the draft proposal presented to the EC in February.

Since the February EC meeting, individual Baptists have emailed us at article3@sbc.net, and bloggers and state paper editors have debated the wisdom and value of this sentence. Some pointed to the potential upside of how such a statement would clearly identify who we are. Others expressed alarm at how such a statement could be used to command a rigid doctrinal conformity even on matters which historically we have agreed to disagree. We have monitored this debate and I am sure this sentence about our confession of faith will be carefully reviewed by the EC at its June 9 meeting.

Let us hope this means that the disputed wording will not make its way into the final proposal.

A Way to Offer Feedback to the Executive Committee of the SBC


I have written recently (here and here) on concerns I have about the SBC Executive Committee’s proposal to change the wording of Article III of the SBC Constitution.  Apparently I am not alone in having these concerns.

You can email any concerns or questions you might have to the Executive Committee via this address:  article3@sbc.net If you have concerns, I hope you will voice them.

Policy and the Southern Baptist Convention: Two Troubling Case Studies

element-of-confusion-teeI have never wanted this blog to be a criticism blog.  Overall, I think I have kept it from becoming one.  By and large, this site is simply the idiosyncratic theatre for my own largely banal meanderings.  But it is a creative outlet nonetheless and, though I am blogging less and less these days, I do enjoy using it as a tool for expressing thoughts as they come.

However, I would like to share some thoughts on an issue that is becoming increasingly troubling to me.  I do not claim to have exhaustive or authoritative information on either case study, so I offer these thoughts with this caveat:  they arise from my own impressions of what is going on, impressions that, while not authoritative or omniscient, are at least born out of some degree of close observation of the Southern Baptist family.  I would be happy to be corrected on these impressions if they are in error.

I am a Southern Baptist.  I attended a Southern Baptist school my first two years of college and received a Master of Divinity degree from a Southern Baptist seminary.  I have pastored four Southern Baptist churches in three different states.  I have served on the Executive Committees of two state conventions and have served in numerous Associational capacities.  I have attended the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention for a number of years running now.  I vote.  I try to stay informed.  I care.  So when I offer these comments I offer them as a son of the Convention and not as a detractor.  I wish the Convention well.  This strange family is my family and I contribute to its strangeness in my own ways.  I have no doubt that I contribute to the weaknesses of the Convention and I pray that by God’s grace I have at times contributed to its strengths as well.  Which is simply to say that I see myself as a flawed human being who is part of the Southern Baptist family with all that that entails.

Two items this year have captured my attention.  They seem quite different but are, in fact, quite similar.

Item #1:  The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention will be proposing a change in the SBC Constitution stating that only those churches that are in agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 are “in friendly cooperation” with the SBC. (I posted earlier about this here.)

Item #2:  Paige Patterson, President of my alma mater, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX, has (apparently) admitted a practicing Muslim as a student in the PhD program of Southwestern Seminary against the stated admissions policies of the seminary. (Wade Burleson has written about this herehere, and here.)

What is the connection between these two items?  The connection is that in both cases there is a flawed and dangerous lapse in policy integrity on the parts of Convention leadership.  

Concerning the Executive Committee’s proposal to change the Convention Constitution, the flaw comes in the fact that passage of this proposal will declare over 50% of SBC churches to be not in good standing because Article VII of the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) 2000 calls for close/d communion and most Southern Baptists are not in compliance with this article.  Even so, overtures have been made that churches need not worry about this fact since, of course, the Convention would never actually enforce the policy on this particular issue as it would essentially destroy the Convention.  No, we are told that we need this change to put teeth into those aspects of the BF&M 2000 that we need to wield against the possible encroachment of things like gay marriage into Convention churches.  Note the example given in the proposal itself:

1. The Convention will only deem a church to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention, and sympathetic with its purposes and work (i.e., a “cooperating” church as that descriptive term is used in the Convention’s governing documents) which:

(1) Has not intentionally operated in any manner demonstrating opposition to the doctrine expressed in the Convention’s most recently adopted statement of faith. (By way of example, churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior would be deemed not to be in cooperation with the Convention.) [emphasis added]

The problem here is that the example could just as easily say this:  “By way of example, churches which practice open communion would be deemed not to be in cooperation with the Convention.”  But those proposing the new wording know that applying this in such a way would be disastrous.  In other words, we are being asked to implement a policy, the faithful and consistent application of which has been ruled out a priori since the faithful and consistent application of the policy would destroy the body that is being asked to approve it.  So we are being asked to approve a policy on the supposition that it will be selectively applied as a defense against pernicious forces and selectively ignored for the maintenance of peace in the Convention.

This is, by any reasonable standard, unwise, foolish, and simply not how policies should be approached.

In the case of Dr. Patterson and Southwestern Seminary, the sentiment seems to be that President Patterson’s violation of entity policy is justified because it opens the door for possible evangelization of non-Christians.  But no matter how commendable this is, who thinks that this is a good idea as a matter of precedence and of institutional management in one of the largest seminaries in the world?

In the former case, unenforceable policies are being proposed with an eye toward selective enforcement.  In the latter case, enforceable policies are being selectively ignored in the name of evangelization.  In both cases, precedents are being established which, if taken in undesirable directions, could prove profoundly injurious to the Convention and her entities.

Which is simply to say:  I am concerned.

One hopes that we are better than this kind of muddled thinking.


An Interview with Dr. Ray Van Neste on “The Lord’s Supper in the Context of the Local Church”

Dr. Ray Van Neste is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies and Director of the R.C. Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University in Jackson, TN.  He is also one of the pastors of Cornerstone Community Church in Jackson.  He has authored numerous works on the Bible and the church.  His website is “Oversight of Souls.”

An Interview With Ray Van Neste on

“The Lord’s Supper in the Context of the Local Church”

rayDr. Van Neste, I would like to thank you for your insightful essay, “The Lord’s Supper in the Context of the Local Church,” found in the 2010 publication, The Lord’s Supper (Broadman & Holman Academic).  You begin your essay by pointing to a diminished appreciation for healthy ritual and symbolism among modern Southern Baptists as a factor in our frequently weak approach to the Lord’s Supper.  You also mention the negative and morose approach we often take to the Supper.  I wonder if you would include a kind of neo-gnosticism among these factors, of the type that Harold Bloom and Philip Lee mentioned some years back?  Is there a gnostic anti-materialist strain in Baptist ecclesiology and soteriology that favors the impartation of knowledge through non-material means over the physical elements of worship?

Yes, I believe so, though I don’t think this is a position which is thought out or often explicitly argued. But it is “in the air” so to speak. We seem to turn away from the earthiness of Christianity (and of life in general) in many ways. Somewhere C. S. Lewis spoke well of this issue noting specifically the earthiness of the Lord’s Supper. We are so drawn to an otherworldly, often monastic, view of spirituality. Losing our Reformational (and scriptural) moorings, too many people think of growing in godliness as withdrawing from day to day life. This has a lot of negative implications for us. C. S. Lewis has been very helpful to me in this area.


I wonder if you could react a bit to Luther’s statement (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he would rather drink blood with the papists than mere wine with the enthusiasts.  Are you sympathetic to the sentiment behind this assertion?

It can be tricky to align yourself too quickly with some of Luther’s retorts! But, in general, there is a significant problem in Baptist churches of being more concerned about what the Lord’s Supper isn’t than what it is. When we stress merely what it isn’t, then we leave people wondering, “Why bother?” It isn’t anything real. It’s only a symbol. It’s not necessary for anything it seems, so why bother? As Millard Erickson has said, Baptists have produced the doctrine of the real absence of Christ!

We need much more constructive theology discussing what the Supper is, what it is supposed to communicate and how it aids us.


Must Baptists be Zwinglian in our approach to the Supper?

There is some debate as to how “Zwinglian” Zwingli was, though I am not up on the most recent aspects of that conversation. I do think, with Zwingli, that the Supper is a memorial, that is, it functions to cause us to remember. Jesus said this. The question, though, is whether or not there is more going on. Numerous Baptists through the centuries have affirmed a view of the Supper closely akin to Calvin’s view, that Christ is spiritually present with his people at the Table. So, Baptist views have varied.

I think the “fellowship” language in 1 Cor 10:16-17 is quite strong, suggesting this is not a mere memorial. It is at least profession of faith.


I’m struck by your use of sacramental language.  In what sense is it appropriate to refer to the Lord’s Supper as “a sacrament”?

Yes, I chose to use this language as I noticed that prominent Baptist authors in the past (e.g. B. H. Carroll) had readily used it. When I use this term, like Baptists before me, I do not mean the Roman Catholic sense that the action in itself causes grace. I am concerned that Baptists, in reaction to Catholic overstatement of what happens at the Table, have downplayed what happens there. You often here much more about what it is not than what it is. Along with other Protestants, we can affirm that the sacraments are sure witnesses of God’s grace toward us. They are God ordained means of God’s blessing as they bear witness to the gospel.


Your call for open communion seems to go against the grain of many current conservative Southern Baptist academic voices.  I found it refreshing, and I agree with you.  I found your arguments to be among the more persuasive that I’ve read.  Why do you believe that British Baptists have been more open to open communion than American Baptists?

Thank you. That is probably the most controversial portion of my chapter, though a key part in my mind.

This is a good question, but one I’m not sure I can answer. I haven’t looked into this enough to provide a sure footed answer, but I’ll make a couple of observations. Some will probably note that British Baptists on the whole are far less conservative than Baptists in America and suggest this explains their openness to open communion. However, I don’t think this argument will work since open communion can be found among British Baptists well before the slide to a more liberal theology took place.

Another possible contributing factor could be the impact of Landmarkism in the US and the fact there was no similar impact in the UK. The strength of Landmarkism kept many in the US from addressing the issue along the way. This would still not be a full explanation, but perhaps it is a contributing factor.


Finally, the one part of your essay that gave me pause was when you noted that, in your opinion, it is not appropriate to take the Lord’s Supper to homebound members as that would be an un-churchly observance (my phrasing there, not yours).  I appreciate your own humility in saying that.  You were not dogmatic about it.  I also get the logic of what you are saying.  But I am thinking about a time some years ago when a brother in Christ flew with me to visit another church member on his deathbed in a hospital in another state.  I took the Lord’s Supper to him.  The three of us had prayer together, read the Word, and observed the Supper.  It was a powerful, moving experience that my friend and I still speak of.  I am not trying to elevate feeling above clear inference here, but it did seem to me that, at that time, the church had gathered.  For instance, there are churches with scarcely more than 3 or 4 people in them.  Respectfully, I’m curious to know how what we did in that hospital room differs from a small church of the same number of believers meeting and observing the Supper?  

Yes, as you noted, I am more tentative here as we are working from inferences. I don’t want to be adamant where the Scripture is less explicit. We are here considering issues of best practice.

However, if it is a church ordinance, then the difference between the hospital gathering and a small church is that the small church recognizes itself and is recognized by others as a church. The hospital gathering is not so recognized or structured.

I recognize the tension, but I also wonder what sort of parameters we have if this moves outside the gathered worship of the church. Can families observe the Supper at home as they see fit? What about retreats, conferences and seminars? The scriptures do not say only pastors can administer the supper (as most Baptist documents recognize), so we could have a few students in a dorm room celebrating Communion.

Communion in Scripture seems to be rooted in corporate worship and it seems best and safest to me to keep it there.

Eric Geiger, Michael Kelley, and Philip Nation’s Transformational Discipleship

I was asked to read this book for a LifeWay pastor’s conference I’ll be attending in a couple of weeks.  In general, I would rather choose what I would like to read than be assigned it, a shallow fault I’ve had since middle school.  However, I really did appreciate Transformational Discipleship.  The book is a careful, studied, and measured look at how genuine discipleship actually happens.  It is based on an extensive LifeWay study that was the basis for the earlier Stetzer/Rainer book, Transformational Church.

In this book, the authors describe what they call the “Transformational Framework.”  The framework is depicted as three circles representing the three realities of “Truth,” “Leaders,” and “Posture.”  The authors look at “Truth” through a consideration of the gospel, our identity in Christ, and the Christian disciplines.  They look at “Leaders” by discussing what healthy leadership is.  They consider “Posture” with a discussion of weakness, interdependence, and outward focus.  Within the framework, the “Transformational Sweet Spot” is that area where these three realities overlap, and can be defined as “the intersection of truth given by healthy leaders when someone is in a vulnerable posture.”

Now, I’m hesitant about buzzwords (i.e., “Transformational Sweet Spot,” etc.), but the authors are making a very good point:  true transformation comes about when solid leadership imparts solid truth to a person who is in a position to receive it.  The basic premise is that the appropriate convergence of truth, humility, and a godly leader is critical for growth in discipleship.  There is a great pastoral challenge here, which the authors rightly return to time and again:  the challenge for pastors not to miss these moments for great transformation in the lives of our people or in our own lives.

The book is well-written, solidly biblical, and helpfully illustrated.  I appreciated the fact that not all of the illustrations were modern.  In fact, many are taken from antiquity and church history.  There is an earnestness about this work that is engaging.  The authors seem truly convinced of the importance of what they are doing.  Their discussion of the gospel was particularly helpful, and they offered some very helpful reminders about the need to understand who we are in Christ.  Furthermore, I appreciate their take on the need for a humble posture to receive divine truth.

As a leader, I found this work appropriately challenging and full of significant content.  I look forward to discussing it in the conference to come, as well as in thinking more deeply about what is being proposed here and how it can effect my own pastorate.

Daniel Turner’s A Modest Plea for Free Communion at the Lord’s Table; Particularly Between the Baptists and the Paedobaptists. In a Letter to a Friend

Daniel Turner of Abignon, England, wrote A Modest Plea for Free Communion at the Lord’s Table; Particularly Between the Baptists and the Paedobaptists. In a Letter to a Friend. under the pseudonym “Candidus” in 1772.  He did so in conjunction with John Collett Ryland of Northampton who released essentially the same document (with some minor changes) under the pseudonym “Pacificus.”  (A nice summary of this particular skirmish in the controversy surrounding the question of open and close(d) communion can be read here.)  Turner’s little book has been reproduced in this print edition of the “Eighteenth Century Collections Online” “Religion and Philosophy” series.  It is a nice little facsimile addition to anybody’s library who is interested in such things.  It can also be read online, for free, here.

I am drawing attention to this work because it is a helpful summary of the “open communion” position (i.e., defined as allowing all who are believers in Christ to come to the Lord’s Table, regardless of their mode of baptism) Turner’s writing has a surprisingly modern feel to it, and I suspect that any who would read it would do so with profit.  (The only adjustment you would likely have to make, by the way, is making sure that you do not mistake the older English “s” for an “f” ((minus the crossbar)) since the latter is how they communicated the former ((except, apparently, when they used “ss” which appears, roughly, as “fs”)), but it’s an easy enough adjustment to make.)

Turner writes, he says, because he has heard “that I, and the Church under my care, have been severely censured by several of our stricter brethren of the Baptist denomination, for admitting Poedobaptists to commune with us at the Lord’s Table” (3).  He then gives his reasons for allowing infant-baptized believers to come to the table.  These reasons include:  because all who are saved “must have an equalright to ALL the privileges of the Gospel,” because he doesn’t feel that they have a “sufficient warrant” to exclude these believers, that excluding such believers from “the means of his grace” makes them “guilty of invading the prerogative of Christ,” because Jesus accepts infant-baptized Christians “at his table,” because if Jesus overlooks their mistake on baptism, so can we, because “we are expressly commanded to receive the weak in faith,” and because showing charity to those with whom we differ may go a long way towards building unity and opening doors of conversation.

Turner then moves on to answer some objections to their practice.  He upholds “the right of private judgment” and the need not to disobey conscience in interpreting scripture.  Problematically, in my opinion, he write thus:

“If my Poedobaptist brother is satisfied in his own mind, that he is rightly baptised, he is so tohimself, and, while the answer of a good conscience attends it, God will, and does own him in it, to all the ends designed by it, so that while he considers it as laying him under the same obligations to holiness in heart and life as I consider my baptism to do me, why should he not commune with me at the table of our common Lord?”

Obviously, this opens Turner up to the charge of subjectivizing truth itself, which he anticipates in the next objection, which he expresses in these terms:  “that the allowing of this free and open Communion, is the way to beget a cold indifference to the cause of truth, and by degrees entirely ruin it.”  To this, Turner argues that such an assertion is merely theoretical, that this destroying of truth itself has not been witnessed in churches that practice open communion and that, on the contrary, showing charity to differing interpretations tends to earn the truth itself a greater hearing, not a lesser respect.

I remain concerned, however, about this particular train of thought.  I think Turner is at his best arguing for charity and pointing out the lack of a command excluding infant-baptized believers.  To suggest, however, that if a person is baptized in their own mind, they are indeed baptized, opens a Pandora’s box for the kind of grotesque relativizing of truth we see in our own age.  Let me quickly add, however, that I think this is simply a weak argument, or one that he did not flesh out enough, not that Turner himself was a relativist.  It is clear enough that he believed in truth and that he was, in fact, a Baptist by conviction.  Again, this is simply not his best argument.

Finally, Turner draws an interesting parallel between the Baptists and paedobpatists and the Jewish-Gentile conflicts of the first century.  He argues that Jews and Gentiles who came to know Christ had to learn to love one another and honor one another within the same church, even with their differences.  So too, he says, those who differ on baptism must do the same.

This is a helpful and interesting work on a topic that remains relevant to this day.  I would encourage you to read it.

Wade Burleson’s Hardball Religion

Wade Burleson is an Oklahoma pastor and former Trustee of the International Mission Board whose blog and whose reporting thereon were at the center of controversy from 2005 to 2008 (and, in a sense, still are).  Particularly, Burleson alleged on his blog that some IMB Trustees were perpetrating ego-driven power plays that effectively squelched dissent of others on the board.  Burleson alleges that power on this board is centralized in the hands of the few who routinely hold secret meetings to conduct and dictate IMB business in violation of IMB rules.  Furthemore, he alleges that a high-profile SBC figure who is at the head of another SBC entity is effectively trying to have his way with the IMB Board of Trustees, whose leadership, he argues, are in this high profile person’s back pocket.  He further alleges that those in leadership of the IMB BOT consistently harrass Jerry Rankin and seek to have him ousted and do the same with other IMB personnel.  And, finally, Burleson adamantly insists that the prohibition of “private prayer language” among missionary candidates by IMB Trustees as well as the landmark position that missionary candidates must have been immersed in SBC churches for their baptism to be considered valid have effectively elevated secondary and tertiary doctrinal matters to first-order matters, which, Burleson contends, is the hallmark of fundamentalism and Landmarkism.


That, in a nutshell, is what Burleson began blowing the whistle on when he became a member of the IMB BOT.  He did so on his blog, which seems to be the main complaint (among others) against Burleson by his detractors, and even continued to do so after a policy was passed forbidding the public airing of grievances by IMB Trustees.

So, after an unsuccessful attempt to censure Burleson a couple of years ago (squelched by the mediating influence of Convention leadership who, to hear Burleson tell it, slapped the hands of over-reaching, power-hungry IMB Trustee leaders), the Board finally succeeded in censuring Burleson who consequently resigned so as not to be a distraction to the work of missions in the SBC.

A book like this raises a whole host of ethical questions.  First of all, there’s the question of the ethics of writing a book like this in the first place.  Is it right to do so?  Similar questions were asked about Joel Gregory’s book from some years back.

On the one hand, I would argue that denominational abuses should indeed be made known to the people who comprise the Southern Baptist Convention.  Woe be to us if we allow the leaders of various entities to operate in the dark outside of the eyes of the very people they are to be working for.  And so, in a fundamental sense, no, a book like this is not inherently unethical.  I might make the case that covering over abuses is what is unethical.

On the other hand, parts of Burleson’s account troubled me.  For instance,consider the very odd story of the IMB Trustee ominously brandishing a knife when Burleson busted up one of their caucuses in a hotel lobby (he takes a knife out of his pocket, Burleson comments on it, then the guy goes on to clean his teeth with it or something like that).  Now, this was a highly inappropriate thing for the Trustee to do, and he apparently realizes this because Burleson tells us that he later apologized for it.  But here’s the rub:  he apologized to Burleson for doing it…then Burleson includes the story in a published work.

I am sympathetic to Burleson’s overall efforts, but, for some reason, this bothered me.  You do not dig up the sins of others after they have apologized for them and broadcast them to the world.  It appears that there are more than enough genuine abuses in the IMB BOT that have not been apologized for, much less remedied, to provide Burleson with enough material for a book.

Furthermore, I’m still chewing on the fact that Burleson continued to blog about his concerns after the BOT passed a rule about Trustees publicly criticizing board actions.  This, as I understand it, is what earned him a censure, regardless of the undeniable motives of those who simply wanted a censure to shut him up.

What is more, I must confess to some irritation at hearing yet another Southern Baptist claim the mantle of Luther:  “Here I stand.”  I don’t deny that Burleson is seeking reform, and that he’s shown courage in doing so, but can somebody please bring a resolution to the floor banning all SBC efforts to co-opt Luther’s famous statement?  (I know that Burleson does not think he’s Luther, but this phrase really should be retired unless somebody other than the modern “reformer” wants to apply Luther imagery, say, 150 years from now.)

Now for the bigger ethical issue:  the ethics of what is actually happening in the SBC.  Wade Burleson, in my opinion, is to be commended for doggedly insisting that the IMB BOT follow the rules.  He is to be commended for pointing out what is to me the most alarming revelation of the book:  that the head of one SBC entity is trying to undermine the leadership and position of another SBC entity head.  This, to me, is inexcusable, and I am glad that Burleson has put it in print.  Furthermore, I am glad that Burleson blows the whistle on the encroaching Landmarkism that is undeniably present in the SBC.  And, finally, I think that Burleson has defined “fundamentalism” precisely.

A fascinating, if troubling, read, that I hope will find a wide readership.

Baptist Theology with Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr.

The following interview with Dr. Garrett took place on March 2, 2009.  The occasion for the interview was the publication of his Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study in January of 2009.


Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr. has been a Baptist theological educator for over fifty years.  He has taught primarily in three Baptist institutions: Southwestern Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Baylor University.  He was at Southwestern Seminary from 1949 to 1959 and from 1979 to 1997 with post-retirement teaching until 2003. 

We really do appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today, Dr. Garrett.

Thank you, sir.

Dr. Garrett, I hope you will indulge me for just a moment.  I wanted to share just a brief word of appreciation for you as a former student, if that is ok.  I thought I might do so by sharing just a small paragraph from Paul Basden’s chapter on you in the 2001 edition of Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (Broadman & Holman).  Paul Basden wrote this:

“For five decades now James Leo Garrett, Jr. has taught and written about Baptist theology.  Given the size of the schools which he has served, one can only begin to estimate the number of students whom he has influenced to think biblically, historically, and theologically about the Christian faith.  Who knows how many young seminarians had their minds broadened in his introductory theology courses or received flashes of inspiration in his famous ‘after-lecture’ discussions, or first encountered the mystery of the Trinity in his beloved patristics elective, or learned to grapple with Luther or Augustine in one of his doctoral seminars?  Who knows how many times he invited classes into his home for a meal or recommended former students for church positions or faculty appointments or counseled confused young ministers about their calling or career?  He has had an enormous influence on Southern Baptists during the past half century.  Beloved by students and fellow professors alike, Garrett is recognized by many of his peers as the most knowledgeable Baptist theologian living today.” (p.298)

Dr. Garrett, I just wanted to say here at the beginning that I share in those words of Paul Basden and just want to thank you here at the outset for your life, your ministry, and your work.  As a former student, I owe you a great debt of gratitude as do so many others.  So, thank you very much.

Well, Pastor Wyman, those words, I am sure, are vastly exaggerated, but I am grateful to have had you as one of my students.  Thank you very much.

The occasion of this interview is the publication in January of this year, two months ago, of Dr. Garrett’s new book, Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study, which was published by Mercer University Press.  I have only recently finished reading the book and it is a kind of education in and of itself.  So let me begin, Dr. Garrett, by asking this question:  “Why this book?”

Well, Pastor Wyman, I will answer it in two ways.

First of all, I will give a more personal answer.  In 1950, when I was a very young instructor at Southwestern Seminary, the faculty allowed me to introduce a new elective course in the curriculum called “The History of Baptist Theology.”  I taught that course at Southwestern during the 50’s and again, later, in the 80’s and 90’s and at Southern Seminary during the 60’s and early 1970’s.  That course involved having students write papers on many subjects.  Then, after my 2nd retirement from teaching in 2003, I began an intensive reading of all of these sources and a research project which eventuated in this book.

Now, why this book?  No book of this kind, of this nature and scope, on this subject, had ever been written in the history of the Baptists so far as I knew.  I did not know when I started that William Brackney would write A Genetic History of Baptist Thought and that it would be published in 2004.  I did not know that when I began my book and I’m sure he did not know, when he was writing his, that I would be writing mine.

So these are the only two books that have attempted to cover comprehensively Baptist confessions of faith, Baptist theologians, and theological movements and controversies.  There have been books on each of those three areas, many books, but only these two on the whole field.

It is a massive book, well over 720 pages of text, not including the index of names, and I imagine when you sit down to begin to write a Baptist theology covering four hundred years that you have really got to think through your methodology and your approach.  What was your methodology in writing this book?

As I just said, it sought to cover in an integrated, not a segregated, interpretation, the major confessions of faith adopted by Baptists, the major theologians among the Baptists, and the major theological movements and controversies that have affected Baptist life.

Now, I tried to do this by using both what we call “primary sources” and “secondary sources,” that is, the original writings of the people we are discussing and then what’s been written about them.  Take two examples:  one is John Gill, back in the 17th century, the other, E.Y. Mullins, at the beginning of the 20th century.  Both of those were very influential Baptist theologians and it’s important to read, study, and interpret their own writings.  But because of their importance, there have been many things written about them, both favorable and unfavorable, both positive and negative.  So it is important to look at those assessments as well as what I would say in interpreting these.

Then we tried to let the authors speak for themselves before I attempted to make any assessment of their work.  Then, too, I operated on the basis of a five-continent or a six-continent view of Baptist history.  It depends on whether you include Australia and New Zealand in Asia as to whether you have five or six continents.  When I was a very young seminary student, I bought Latourette’s seven-volume History of the Expansion of Christianity, which was the first comprehensive missionary history of the world from a Christian viewpoint.  It greatly influenced my life.  Then, working with the Baptist World Alliance, as I have since 1965, I was intent on having a book that would include more than Britain and North America.  Dr. Brackney confines his work to Britain and North America, and Dr. McBeth, in his history of the Baptist movement, included North America, Britain, and continental Europe, but not the other continents of the world.

So that’s what I would say about methodology.

It is an interesting look at Baptist theology over the last four hundred years, and I am just curious to know why the world would need such a book on Baptists appearing in January of 2009?  Why Baptists in 2009?

We need the book, first of all, because we haven’t had this kind of thing before.  Dr. Brackney and I have, in that sense, been breaking new ground.  We needed an overview.  We need to rise above the particulars.  Some people would understand the 17th century and some might understand the 19th century, but we need a view of Baptist theology that is comprehensive.  That is why the effort was made.

Now, Baptists need that for their own self-understanding.  This is a great need today in our churches:  that people understand what the Baptist identity is.  What are the distinctives and what are the beliefs that Baptists share with other Christians?  So there was a need for the book for Baptists and, then, for others to know what theology Baptists have had.

At one time there were people saying we did not have any Baptist theology.  Theology was only written by Roman Catholics or Lutherans or Anglicans or Presbyterians or somebody else.  But this book is, I think, quite clear evidence that that is not true.  So, the Baptist movement with its distinctives- -its religious freedom, separation of church and state, the supremacy of Scripture over tradition without rejecting all tradition,  the tendency to want to go back to the New Testament to recover apostolic or primitive Christianity,  the baptism of believers only by immersion and, with that, the goal of a regenerate church membership, the priesthood of all believers, congregational polity, and a strong emphasis on evangelism and missions; these are some of the things that are important for Baptists.  Sometimes these distinctives have been taken by other groups.  They are not altogether distinctive of Baptists today, but the mix of these distinctives is what has made the Baptist movement distinctive.

You mentioned regenerate church membership, and you have written on regenerate church membership.  I know of at least one article you have written specifically devoted to the issue of regenerate church membership and, of course, you have published on the issue of church discipline as well.  Let me just ask you about your thoughts concerning the recent discussions that have taken place in the Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings concerning an effort to see a resolution passed, that was ultimately passed last year, to call churches back to a regenerate church membership.  Do you think this is a favorable development?

Yes, I do.  I think that the Convention cannot mandate that, of course, because that is a decision that the local churches have to make, but to advise and counsel and encourage is certainly in order.  I am very grateful for the good work that you have done in the field of church discipline.  I think what you have written is the most practical set of helps that we have out there, available today, to help existing churches recover some sense of church discipline and positive discipleship.

So, yes, I think the regenerate church membership goal is a worthy one and it means, of course, that in the last century or so, many Baptist churches have been very loose in terms of their membership rolls and this is what they are trying to address today.  It is at the front end, in terms of members being received, and then it is a continual problem of authentic membership in the years that follow.

Let me ask you to generalize just a little bit.  You are a historical theologian, and you cover, obviously, a very long period of time, four hundred years, in your study of Baptist theology and much longer, of course, in your two-volume Systematic Theology.  But I am curious to know, as you look at four hundred years of Baptist history, who you would see as the top three or four Baptist figures, from any time period, whose work, in your opinion, ought to be carefully studied by Baptist pastors and laypeople today?

Well, Pastor Wyman, I have a hard time limiting my answer to your requested three or four.  I tend to want to identify more.  Initially, in responding to you, I might be prone to say, “Oh, we have so many of the older works of Baptist theologians that are not in print.”  But then I have to reckon what the electronic revolution has done.  I have been told, on good authority, that almost all the works of Baptist theologians that are more than seventy-five years old are now available electronically.  And through Google search, most of them are free, and there are other places where you have to pay for the text to be produced.  So the availability will not be a big issue in my answer.

I would say, if we’re going back to the 17th century, that John Bunyan is the one who, above all, should be read.  Not because he is necessarily right on all points, but here was a man who, with limited formal education, but with a passion for God and for the Bible, was able in rather remarkable literary form to write on many theological themes, not only in his famous Pilgrim’s Progress.  We have today a wonderful thirteen-volume edition from Oxford if you want to buy the whole thing, but I believe you can get it free electronically.  So I would say, from that early century, John Bunyan.

From the next century, I would take John Gill and Andrew Fuller, especially Andrew Fuller.  His works have been republished in recent years.  He was a very practical theologian, a pastor.

From the 19th century, I might want to mention John L. Dagg, whose work is in print.  He was a Southern theologian.  Then the sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon are still filled with theological content and can be read widely because they were preached from a pulpit in Spurgeon’s day.

In the 20th century, I would speak of people like Carl Henry, Bernard Ramm and Millard Erickson.  Most of these works are still in print.

And then, of course, in my book I have a group of baby boom theologians that certainly have works in print.  So I’ve given you a broader answer, but these are some of the ones that I think would be worthy of attention.  Now, that is not to say there are not others.

This may overlap a little bit, but let me ask you more personally, for yourself, who the Baptist figures are who have had the greatest impact on your own thinking and work?  Let me put it another way:  do you have favorite Baptist authors that you return to time and time again?

Pastor Wyman, as you may know, I was a student of W.T. Conner, the theologian at Southwestern for thirty-nine years, and my own teacher during the last days of his teaching career.  When I began as a young teacher, of course, he had shaped my own thinking.  I had read his works.  I wrote my dissertation on his theology.  So it would be important for me to list him as the number one influence in the early formation of my own theology.

In the 1950’s we did not have many evangelical theologians writing at that time.  Non-Baptists like Emil Brunner, for example, were greatly helpful to me as I struggled with the teaching of theology.

But then we had to deal with Landmarkism, which was alive and well at that time in Baptist life, still exerting quite an influence.  So I had to read J.R. Graves even though I didn’t always agree with Graves.  I had to interact with him.

And later on, as I began to be more mature in my theology, I had to rely on people like A.H. Strong as well.  Then I was colleague to Dale Moody at Southern Seminary, and nobody who lives with Dale Moody could be unaffected by Dale Moody.  And then, of course, Carl Henry was very active.  When I came to write my own theology, beginning at the age of 63, I had to deal with Millard Erickson, who had already written his Christian Theology.

So these were some of the people who were very formative.  Now, I read others.  I read P.T. Forsyth.  I read E. Y. Mullins.   I read Luther.  I read Augustine. I read Calvin. I read Schleiermacher.  I taught Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, in seminars. But for Baptist theologians, these would be the first.  And then I would say, as far as biblical theologians, I think I was more greatly influenced by H.H. Rowley, as an Old Testament theologian.  In the New Testament field, Ray Summers, my teacher, was very influential on my views of last things, or the doctrine of eschatology.

This is likewise a bit of a personal question, along the same lines, but I am just curious about your own reading habits.  Do you read daily, every day?

I usually read something, yes, every day.  There will be days I do not because of schedule.  Right now I am reading the festschrift honoring my colleague Leon McBeth, which was published late last year, called Turning Points in Baptist History.  I am reading that and will be finishing that shortly.  That is a book that has theological as well as historical significance.

I know you are retired, but do you have any other writing projects in the wings?

I cannot answer that with a clear affirmative.  For some years, Dr. Malcolm Yarnell and I have contemplated co-editing a history of the doctrine of the priesthood of all Christians.  I do not know if we will ever get that done.  He has done considerable writing on the Reformation period, and I have done some writing on the patristic period.  If we can ever get the medieval and modern sections done, we may be able to have a book.  There is no comprehensive, good, reliable history of that doctrine.  But Yarnell has other priorities, and I am not as well as I used to be; so we do not promise anything in that area.

There might be some things I wish I had done in the past.

Well, that raises another question:  are there any books that you have not been able to write that you wish you would have written?  I guess, perhaps, that would be one, to this point, that you would like to see done.

There are two others I will mention.  When I was at Southern Seminary, I gave an inaugural address on the methodology for the history of Christian doctrine, or historical theology, in which address I proposed that the best way to do this today would be to have an international, interdenominational team of scholars to do a comprehensive history of Christian doctrine.  No sooner had I given that address and it was published in the journal Review & Expositor that I received a letter from Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan at Yale University telling me that he was launching a big five-volume history of Christian doctrine and, by implication, he was saying that my project was not needed.  My later move to Baylor with different duties meant that I was not teaching the history of Christian doctrine for a while.  After coming back to Southwestern and resuming that teaching in 1980, although I gave some serious consideration to doing something myself, I gave up the project because there is so little market out there since most seminaries require systematic theology but not  historical theology.  So I did not attempt that big project which I originally had proposed as a massive cooperative effort.

As for the other, for many years I taught a course at Southwestern on the theology of the American cults.  We treated Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, the Unification Church, the Ba’hai World Faith, and various other movements that have been deviations from either Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.  I, at one time, contemplated a textbook in that area.  But, you know, each one of those religious movements is a field of specialization itself.  You can be very good on the Mormons and you may be much less competent on Jehovah’s Witnesses at the same time.  One needs to be competent on all of these in order to  write a first-rate text, I felt that I never got to the point where I could do that like I wanted to do it.  So I retired, after many years of teaching, without producing a book in that area.  We still do not have a very good textbook in that field after all of these years.

Let me go back for just a minute to this letter you received from Jaroslav Pelikan.  I know he passed away just a couple of years ago.  Is that customary scholarly habit to receive a letter saying that your proposed writings are not necessary because it is being done?

I do not think the letter was quite that specific.  I think it was more of an indirect statement.  I must say, of course, I have never received another letter like that.  I did not feel any resentment about it at the time.  My wife seems to remember the incident more than I do.  I do not know how common that is, because I never experienced it in any other setting.  But evidently he was wanting to be a little protective of his own interests.  He produced a very important five-volume set, which is very topical rather than chronological.  Therefore, it was not the method that I used in teaching.  Mine was more chronological than topical.  So I never did use his book in my classes, but certainly I have used the volumes.  They are a very important contribution to the literature.  There was never any ill-will between Dr. Pelikan and me.

Dr. Garrett, I really do appreciate, and I know that readers of this interview will appreciate, your taking the time to answer some questions and, God willing, if you will   allow it, when the next book comes out, we will talk again.

Well, let me say in closing, Pastor Wyman, that I appreciate talking with you and having these questions from you.   I would like to say to you as pastor of your congregation there in Dawson, GA, and other church people who should read or ponder these words, that I think one of our greatest challenges today is in the local Baptist church: to recover a sense of Baptist identity, to teach our heritage, to share with our people our stories, our heroes, our heroines, our triumphs and our tragedies, and to make being a Baptist Christian a much clearer and more responsible thing in today’s world.  I believe every local Baptist church has that challenge today, and I know if anybody can meet that challenge, you can do it there in Dawson, GA.

I appreciate that so much.  Thank you so much.  Let me just encourage, in closing, readers of this interview to consider purchasing Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study.  It is a great resource and would be a great help in the teaching of our distinctives and our identity and heritage in the local church, wherever you are.  I encourage all of you to get this book.

Jesse C. Fletcher’s Bill Wallace of China

I would like to encourage any and all of you to take some time and read Bill Wallace of China. It is currently out of print, but shouldn’t be too hard to get a copy of.  I do not think I can recommend this book strongly enough or that I can adequately describe how powerful an experience reading it was for me. Jesse C. Fletcher is to be commended for crafting a work that is at the same time beautiful, shocking, convicting, and inspiring.

This is the story of how a quiet, unassuming, humble, middle-aged, American bachelor from Tennessee gave his life to the people of China. William Wallace was a medical missionary in Wuchow, China, during the turbulent times of the Japanese assault on China leading up to World War II and the rise of Chinese communism that ensued in the wake of that war. It is the story of a man who refused to leave his post when all others had. It is the story of one who won fame as a doctor among the Chinese, won many to faith in Christ, committed heroic deeds in his obstinate refusal to let a Baptist hospital die, and who ultimately died a brutal death in a Chinese communist prison at the hands of his guards.

If ever a culture and people needed true heroes, it is our culture and our people. Dr. Bill Wallace should rightly be presented as just that: a hero. It is hoped that you will purchase and read and share and be moved by this powerful testimony of one of God’s special children, martyr Bill Wallace.