I have been reading and very much enjoying David Dockery’s new book Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal. Dockery is a lifelong Southern Baptist who has a keen eye for the challenges that face the denomination. This is not a full review of the book, but I have read enough of it to recommend it to you (especially if you are a Southern Baptist).
My aim in this post is simply to highlight a passage that is particularly insightful. Dockery writes:
“The early years of Southern Baptist life were largely shaped by Basil Manly Sr., W. B. Johnson, and James P. Boyce. . . A new theological consensus emerged in the first half of the twentieth century around the modified Calvinism of E. Y. Mullins and W. T. Conner, accompanied by a new emphasis on programmatic pragmatism and revivalistic evangelism. . .
“The theological consensus became a pragmatic consensus by the 1950s. . . The programmatic and pragmatic outlook was central for growing a successful denomination in the post-World War II era. Orthodoxy was understood in terms of ‘doing the right program’ rather than articulating the right belief system. What resulted was not so much a heterodox people but an ‘a-theological’ generation.
“When controversies over the nature of Scripture entered the public arena in 1961, 1969, and 1979, the theological understanding necessary to examine and evaluate such issues was lacking.
“Most Southern Baptists today do not know who they are or what they believe” (pp. 61-62).
I think that the last line is particularly insightful. In many cases, Southern Baptists really don’t understand what it means to be a Baptist. They haven’t been taught what it means to have a “regenerate church membership” or to practice “church discipline,” even though both of these are essential marks of an ecclesiology that is faithful to the Bible.
That is why I am looking with great interest at the three resolutions on “integrity in church membership” that are before the resolutions committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (see my previous post here). I have read two of the three resolutions (Ascol’s and Barber’s), and both of them are calling for Baptists to return to a “regenerate church membership” and to “church discipline.” That meaningful membership and discipline has all but evaporated across the convention just goes to show that Dockery is right. Too many Southern Baptists simply don’t know what they believe.
Ray Van Neste
I agree that this is a key book for the SBC. I think this is the vision for us to move forward with, as he calls us to unite around the gospel without being unnecessarily divisive.
Denny and Ray,
I also have enjoyed reading this book, and yes, I think Dockery is bringing a much needed course correction to the SBC.
What are your thoughts about Dockery’s insistence that Calvinism/Arminianism is a secondary or tertiary issue. Agree or disagree [specifically in terms of worldview, truth, hermeneutics, etc.]?
It may be an overly critical statement to suggest that Christians who have joined Southern Baptist Churches “don’t know who they are or what they beleive.” We should never loose sight of the fact as Baptists, that our chief idenity (“who we are”) in in reference to Christ, not our unique Baptist brand of Christianity. Furthermore, and along the same lines, our chief theological identity (“what we beleive”) is the gospel itself, not Baptist ecclesiology. If a Christian is a true Christian, she already knows what she beleives and who she is, even if she is ignorant of Baptist identity. A statement such as the one quoted from the books seems symptomatic of a overly narrow defined identity that obscures the bigger picture.
Your statement is more charitable and sober it seems: that many Southern Baptist churches are largely unaware of the full range of Baptist idenity.
Can someone be a “lifelong” Southern Baptist?
Ha! That’s hilarious! Maybe I’m the one who needs to be tutored on what it means to be a Southern Baptist. 🙂
I think that we probably agree. Dockery is calling for a core confessional unity around the Gospel. As Southern Baptists, however, our ability to cooperate in missions and evangelism is dependent in some respect on our shared ecclesiology. Otherwise, we would have no theological basis for planting churches.
Agreed. Certain aspects of Baptist ecclesiology are important for missions.
Ray Van Neste
I agree with what Denny has already said, but i would also add that many true Christians are confused about who they are and what they believe. The core problem I believe in out Baptist churches is not that we are unaware of Baptist distinctives (though that has inmportance as y’all have discussed) but is precisely that so many are unclear about the gospel and its ramifications for life. That is why we need to rally around the gospel while carrying on conversations about baptist identity but making sure the core concern is the gospel.
Denny and Ray,
For the record I think it should be noted that Dr Dockery is specifically an Amyraldian. Correct me if I am wrong.
from the Southern Baptist Geneva
Robert I Masters
R. V. Neste,
I would be willing to bet that all Christians, including myself and you too, are not understanding the full implications of the gospel. However, this does not mean that you and I, nor anyone else who hasn’t rightly thought through all the implications of the gospel, are confused about who they are or what they believe. As I understand it, to be a Christian means you believe the basic message of the gospel, and unless the identity that automatically comes through faith in the gospel is shallow, I don’t know how you could say that a Christian who beleives it could not know who they are or what they believe. They may have a lot of areas for improvement on working through the implications of that core belief in the gospel, but don’t we all?
Ray Van Neste
Dockery has clearly stated he is not a 5 point Calvinist. I don’t think that bears on this discussion one way or the other, however.
Of course none of us have it figured out entirely. My point is that the current malaise of the American evangelical church, can be traced, I think, not to a lack of this or that program or this or that special emphasis, but a lack of depth in our understanding and appreciation of the gospel.
None of us have fully arrived but there are plenty of times in the history of the church when it was more robust than is our portion of it right now.
I would agree. If you compare our generation to some other generations of Christians, ours does not seem to have as big an awareness or appreciation for of certain “gospel” truths (in a broad sense). It is the essentials of the gospel, however, that shape the heart and soul of all Christian identity and belief. Therefore, it seems (to me at least), that one can have a great lack of awareness of theological tradition and exegetical insight (relatively speaking), yet at the same time be quite acutely aware of their essential identity in Christ and their core beliefs as Christians.
For this reason, to say “they don’t know who they are or what they believe” without further clarification *appears* to lack appreciation and recognition that comes de facto by being a Christian. Mabye we could say that a lot of Christians who have joned Baptist churches, and a lot of Baptist Churches, could greatly benifit from theological education and more insight into the gospel. On this point, I would actually say it stronger: ALL problems could be seen, in one way or another (directly or indirectly) as a failure to have a whole-hearted grasp and appreciation of all the implications of the gospel.