Book Review: Baptists in the Christian Tradition
Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps, eds. Baptists and the Christian Tradition: Towards an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity. B&H Academic, 2020. 379 pages.
“Retrieval for the sake of renewal.”
This phrase has gained traction over the last several years within Baptist circles. It calls Baptists to engage more openly with the Great Tradition that spans millennia of church history. This, it is argued, is a necessary move, particularly for a tradition (Baptist) that emphasizes local church autonomy, freedom of conscience, and the priesthood of the believer. In a denominational milieu that gives rise to utterances such as “no creed but the Bible,” no doubt there is much to learn from our theological forebears.
In their recent edited volume Baptists and the Christian Tradition, Matthew Emerson, Christopher Morgan, and Luke Stamps, along with various contributors, argue for the good of theological retrieval and engaging the Great Tradition for the sake of strengthening Baptist beliefs. They maintain that this book “seeks to fill the lacuna by exploring some ways conservative evangelical Baptists might better situate Baptist faith and practice within the historic Christian tradition” (3).
The call is to maintain key Baptist distinctives, but also to recognize the continuity Baptists have with those who have gone before us. They attempt to maintain biblical and theological fidelity, while also engaging with various primary sources that serve as guardrails for thinking theologically about a wide range of topics. Since theological anemia can exist within our circles, the authors offer this work as a helpful corrective.
THE BOOK’S APPROACH
The chapters cover a range of topics, beginning with an opening chapter on the unity of the church, treated at a universal, denominational, and local level. Doctrinal topics follow, including sola Scriptura, Trinitarian theology, Christology, the proper interpretation of Scripture, the doctrine of the church generally, and then some ecclesiological specifics, such as worship, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The book then shifts to broader areas of engagement that include spirituality, denominational structures, the Baptist relationship to evangelicalism, global Christianity, and racial tensions. The book closes with chapters on how Baptists have contributed to the Great Tradition, and then offers a conclusion and appendix laying out some level of detail regarding what such retrieval would look like for the future of the church.
Most of the contributors to this volume are not merely Baptist, but associated with Southern Baptist Convention entities. Is this therefore a Southern Baptist project and not a broadly Baptist endeavor? The answer is no, at least if we assess the book by perusing the kinds of sources cited, both historic and contemporary. The contributors include voices from the Anabaptist, General Baptist, and Particular Baptist wings of the movement historically as well as voices from the Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation eras, who do not always fit as neatly into Baptist categories. The authors also refer to a broad swath of Baptist voices that comprise our present day. Thus, while the contributors mostly come from one stream of Baptist life, the interaction with sources demonstrates a desire to survey the theological landscape.
That said, such an attempt is also necessarily limited by the vast scope of the book. I appreciated the diversity of sources, but so many topics are covered in the volume, I wondered if reducing the number of topics would have allowed the authors to go still deeper and broader with the diversity of sources. Thankfully, the authors often pointed readers to further primary sources within their footnotes so that we could explore these matters in greater detail.
THE BOOK’S HIGHLIGHTS
As with any edited work, the chapters are wide-ranging in style and coverage. Yarnell and Stamps offer chapters on the Trinity and Christology respectively, and each is a helpful example of how Baptists have held to the classical language used of God (one being, three persons) and of Christ (one person, two natures). When coupling this with Putman’s chapter on the doctrine of Scripture, one recognizes that Baptists—and all Christians—should regard the Bible as their supreme and guiding authority, even while acknowledging how helpful creeds, confessions, and catechisms can be for articulating doctrinal orthodoxy.
Noted historian Michael Haykin produced an outstanding chapter on the Lord’s Supper (for further thoughts from Haykin on that topic, see his book Amidst Us Our Beloved Stands). This section demonstrates thorough research and challenges an oft-held memorial view of the Table, showing that seventeenth-century Baptists more generally embraced a spiritual-presence view, a stance usually associated with Calvin. Whether one agrees with Haykin’s theological conclusions, it is an apt example of how retrieval, even within our own tradition, can reveal needful insights and take us back to Scripture.
While many chapters were helpful in their own right, again I wondered if the editors sought to accomplish too much. If they had decided to focus on key doctrines, that still would have comprised a book of well over 200 pages. While other chapters were intriguing and will likely spark interest for further research, the focus on spiritual, cultural, and social aspects may have over-extended the project.
THE BOOK’S AUTHORITY
Thinking about retrieval as a modern-day enterprise, we can acknowledge good things while also exercising caution. Learning from those who have gone before us helps ensure our doctrine isn’t beholden to our own cultural blindspots. Yet Scripture must always be our final authority—our norming norm. In that regard, we learn from Scripture and tradition, but retrieval must function under the auspices of sola Scriptura.
We also need to be discerning in terms of what sources we are retrieving. Yes, the historic creeds of Nicaea and Chalcedon are of great help to us for Trinitarian and Christological confessions, but there are wide-ranging confessions that come after which differ in a variety of ways. Gratefully, the authors of this work largely acknowledged and sought to deal with such diversity in interpretation. But readers must recognize that such documents should always be read asking the question, does this old document draw me closer toward understanding Scripture or push me farther away?
All articulations of Christian faith must be subsumed under the ultimate and final authority of Scripture. The authors say this numerous times throughout the book, and with good reason: we need to be continually, overtly reminded of such realities as we engage with other sources (for more on this, see Stephen J. Wellum, “Editorial: Reflections on Retrieval and the Doing of Theology,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology).
Thus, this work will expose readers to important primary sources and push us to engage more deeply with the tradition, seeing the long line that exists confessionally. Yet in all of this, the hope of theological retrieval must be to point us back to our only authoritative source, Scripture.