The Fall of Baptist Theology
I write as a Reformed Baptist. I cannot do otherwise. The doctrine of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith is the theological air I blissfully breath. However, the issue I am addressing is not unique to Baptists. The fundamental issue is this: Whenever a particular doctrine is minimized for the sake of unity, it creates a theological vacuum. The result is, some other doctrine will inevitably take its place. So, let’s look at this briefly in Baptist history.
Baptists are often known these days as being Arminian and Dispensational in their theology, usually with a huge emphasis on “free will” and “the pre-trib rapture of the church.” However, it wasn’t always so. This is a relatively new development in the history of Protestantism. So, how did we get here? James Renihan gives us this helpful insight into Baptist history,
“From their beginnings in the seventeenth century, Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic were thoroughly covenantal. Formulating their doctrine in the familiar terms of Reformed orthodoxy, they built a theological system that was easily recognized by all of the strands of churches coming out of the Reformation. This commitment was expressed in their Confessions, their published books, and may be seen in surviving manuscript documents as well. While it would be an exaggeration to say that covenantalism was a ‘central dogma’ (a mistaken notion when applied to most theological systems), it is nonetheless clear that our fathers recognized the foundational nature of covenant theology and built their system on its basis. To use B.B. Warfield’s term, it was the ‘architectonic principal’ of their confessional understanding. As late as 1881, William Cathcart, editor of the very important Baptist Encyclopedia could state, ‘In England and America, churches, individuals, and Associations, with clear minds, with hearts full of love for the truth…have held with veneration the Articles of 1689.’ While this statement is (in my opinion) somewhat exaggerated in its breadth and optimism, the very fact that it could be made in such an important work is telling. The basic covenantal structure of the 2LCF was still, at that late date, received widely by Baptists north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
By 1920, this statement could no longer be made. Very few, if any of the churches in the Northern and Southern Baptist Conventions, remained committed to the old confessional theology. Baptists were swept away by powerful movements, each of which challenged and altered their theological commitments. We shall commend on four: Revivalism, Modernism, Fundamentalism, and Dispensationalism.”
As James Renihan discusses Modernism in particular, we begin to see why slender doctrinal statements are seldom sufficient. He writes,
“The reaction to the surging wave of modernism was fundamentalism. …Fundamentalists narrowed the field of battle to a few essential doctrines, and fought a losing battle, ultimately producing more separatist groupings such as the General Association of Regular Baptists (1932) and Conservative Baptist Association (1947). Once again, covenant theology was neglected as doctrines considered more central—the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ as examples—became the focal point of defense and (believing) Baptist identity. Robust confessionalism, which would have incorporated a well-developed covenant theology, was replaced by abbreviated doctrinal statements. The result was a profound weakening in Baptist theology.”
The result of this, James Renihan tells us, is that these abbreviated doctrinal statements are what gave rise to Dispensationalism. He writes,
“It is breathtaking to recognize how quickly Dispensationalism overwhelmed evangelical churches, especially among Baptists. In one sense it is not surprising, since the vacuum created by Fundamentalism was quickly filled by a new and seemingly vibrant system of interpretation. It was advocated by popular preachers and adopted by the disseminators of Christian literature.”
Dispensationalism takes on several different forms. Not all Dispensationalists are the same. However, it is a harmful theological system because it removes Christ and the gospel from the Old Testament Scriptures, and instead it places the emphasis on the ethnic and geopolitical people of Israel. Dispensationalism was a tragic departure from the 1689’s Covenantal Theology which kept Christ at the center of redemptive history, and clearly taught how the gospel was progressively unfolded throughout biblical history.
Of course Fundamentalism did not stop with adopting Dispensationalism. This reducing of the field of battle to a few “essential doctrines” also gave rise to Revivalism. James Renihan records these devastating results, all of which are the result of churches adopting abbreviated doctrinal statements.
“Revivalism began the process of turning people from a thoughtful and theological faith to an experience-oriented belief. Modernism brought new ideas into the churches. Fundamentalism circled the wagons and reduced the faith to a few requisite doctrines. And Dispensationalism swept in to fill the void. In every case, covenantalism was shunted to the side, and Baptists lost their rightful heritage. A beautiful system of faith was exchanged for a novelty.”
Well there you have it. It all started with some well meaning men of God who desired not to “nit-pick” over every point of doctrine, but rather, to earnestly fight for the essentials of the faith in the face of the onslaught of Modernity. However, Christians were not intended by God to live with holes in our theology. The result was that a theological vacuum was created, and what filled that void ended up being a mere trifling novelty. We might look at those Fundamentalists with a bit of sympathy since we are still waging the same bitter war today, but we now have this distinct advantage over them: We know their history and the results of the choices they made. And as has been famously said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
A Slender Doctrinal Statement is Simply an Unsaid Doctrinal Statement
Now what was said above is verifiable documented historical fact. However, I have also experienced this in my own life. Ecumenism is the very air we breath in our day, often at the expense of truth and doctrinal clarity. In an age of numbers and states, we are all prone to be devout Pragmatists, and as Iain Murray notes the effects of pragmatism from the 1950s-60s in his book Evangelicalism Divided, it was “an element which was to override biblical principals with disastrous consequences.” Yet, despite the disastrous consequences, we are all prone to count numbers and put unity before truth. As I will show from my own experience, minimizing the importance of doctrine even on “non-essentials” often goes from bad to worse.
My wife and I once found ourselves looking for a local church, and we found a local church that held to the “Gospel Coalition Confessional Statement.” We thought this could be a good fit for us. After all, the Gospel Coalition Confessional Statement is Calvinistic, which is a must for us, but it would not divide over issues such as Covenants and Dispensations, Cessationism and Continuationism, and other “non-essentials.” What we expected and hoped for was a gospel-centered church where we were unified in the Reformed understanding of the gospel, but free to have friendly discussions about other doctrinal matters in a spirit of love and peace.
What we found within a few months was, that the church really did have strong positions on some of those issues. Boy were we unpleasantly surprised when one day, as we were all singing and worshiping, all of the sudden, one lady began to loudly shout in “tongues” over the music. Next thing you know there were two, then three, and up to five people—all at the same time babbling loudly over the music—as I clutched the pew in front of me with white knuckles. The pastor neither corrected any of this, nor did he even ask if anyone had an interpretation. Everyone thought it was a great move of the Holy Spirit—everyone, that is, except for my wife and I. As a Cessationist, I knew that at best this chaos was pure emotionalism.
In another service, the lead pastor started preaching on Continuationism, during which he even went so far as to say that Cessationists were in danger of worshiping another God, that Cessationism was a form of idolatry. (I don’t remember his exact words, but they were that strong.) Besides issues on the spiritual gifts, there was also a strong bent in this church towards social justice, racial reconciliation, and all of those divisive Marxist ideas that have penetrated far too many churches in our day. When I attempted to talk to anyone about these things, it was clear that they were firm and unyielding on these issues.
All of that to say, we went there because we agreed with the church’s doctrinal statement, and we were willing to disagree on other unstated issues so long as they weren’t taught from the pulpit as dogma. However, what we found after a few months was that a slender doctrinal statement is simply an unsaid doctrinal statement. In other words, we had to wait for a few months of faithful attendance to discover the hidden mystery of what they actually believed and taught, rather than them openly confessing with honesty and integrity what their doctrinal positions actually were.
That was not the first time I personally experienced that either. I remember visiting a church when I was a brand new baby Calvinist and asking them their position was on Calvinism and Arminianism. They told me that they choose not to take a position on that issue, that they taught neither Calvinism nor Arminianism, and that they just wanted to be biblical. Well, I was young and naive, so I thought that sounded well enough. However, within the first 15 minutes of the first sermon I must had heard the word “free will” at least a dozen times. After a couple of sermons I realized that “free will” was a normal emphasis in their preaching. So they really did have a position on Calvinism and Arminianism after all. They were flaming Arminians.
Again, what I found was that a slender doctrinal statement is simply an unsaid doctrinal statement. Wherever a particular doctrine is left undefined, some other strange doctrine will inevitably fill the void that was created by the theological vacuum. Sometimes it may possibly begin with good enough intentions like the Baptists of the 19th century, and then the theology declines and devolves over time. Other times it is purposefully hidden to be pragmatic and appear ecumenical, but the doctrinal positions are still there, they are just a mystery. Either way, this is not following the example of the apostle Paul who said, “by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:2) Christians are to be clear about what they believe in every point of doctrine. And if there is some point of doctrine we are uncertain about, such as a point in eschatology regarding the millennium, then we should be consistent with that admission by not teaching it dogmatically.
Indifferentism is Not an Option
Furthermore, we live in a postmodern age of relativism. Absolute truths are denied, especially when it is related to Christian theology. So, when men like the 19th century Fundamentalists “narrowed the field of battle to a few essential doctrines” in “reaction to the surging wave of modernism” it was the exact opposite response of what should have been done in such an age of hyper-skepticism and relativism. As J. Gresham Machen said,
“Few desires on the part of religious teachers have been more harmfully exaggerated than the desire to ‘avoid giving offense.’”
Truth offends, especially in a fallen word where people are by nature at odds with God’s revealed truth due to original sin—a truth which is offensive in itself. Yet, to begin denying and dismissing truths is to deny and dismiss what God has chosen to reveal to us in his infinite wisdom and goodness. It’s blasphemous! Furthermore, once this trend of minimizing truth crosses a certain line it becomes Liberalism and ceases to be Christian altogether—as has been rightly observed of Machen’s central thesis in Christianity and Liberalism, “that liberalism is not a legitimate form of historic Christianity but rather a different religion entirely.”
To summarize, there are at least three reasons why slender doctrinal statements are seldom sufficient. First, because once a doctrine is removed, it creates a theological vacuum, and some strange doctrine will inevitably fill that void. Second, because a slender doctrinal statement is simply an unsaid doctrinal statement, which is beneath Christian integrity. Third, because a slender doctrinal statement is a complete capitulation to the spirit of the age, so as to avoid giving offense to men who offend God daily by their lack of conformity to his revealed truth.
In conclusion, rather than trying to figure out how little truth must be believed, we should strive to see just how much God has revealed about himself and his saving work in the written Word of God. That should be the earnest and sincere desire of every genuine child of God, and therefore churches filled with regenerate members ought to adopt statements of faith which are much more substantial than the abbreviated doctrinal statements we find on most church’s websites.
It is my sincere desire that more churches would prayerfully consider holding to something like one of the great historical Reformed confessions of the faith. After all, their breadth and depth is what makes them still amazingly relevant today. In fact, I would argue that they are even more relevant and helpful today than they were when they were written over 300 years ago. Perhaps churches that maintain shorter abbreviated statements of faith will remain healthy and lively enough, but such slender doctrine statements are seldom sufficient. They seem to be the exception which only proves the rule. May we not foolishly presume to be that exception.