Dr. Timothy George is Dean and Professor of Divinity at the Beeson Divinity School. One of the most respected historians in the evangelical world, Dr. George is the editor of The Reformation Commentary on Scripture with InterVarsity Press. He holds the Th.D. from Harvard University.
The real title which my message should be is, “Is Jesus a Baptist?”
This may too much of a controversy for a university with a history of Graves, Pendleton, and Eaton.
I too begin today by doing something that is very Baptist . . . sharing my testimony.
A Brief Personal Prelude
Born in Chattanooga in 1950 in a dysfunctional family. Father died as an alcoholic in a city jail; mother suffered with polio; raised with two great aunts. First person in family to receive a college education. Became a theologian through arguing with uncle over Mormonism, then neighbors of Unitarianism and later Roman Catholicism. Grew up in “half-acre of hell”. I would say we were dirt-poor, but we could not afford even the dirt.
I am a Baptist because . . .
I have come today to say something else.
We will not meet tomorrow’s struggles by bringing up yesterday’s battles. We need humility, forgiveness, and repentance. We need a genuine interest in learning and inquiry in sharing various thought. I want to recommend three strategies as we stand on a cusp of a still new century and seek to fulfill with fidelity of the charge we have been given in this world to reach the six billion people who have been made in the image of God who have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ for the first time.
1. Retrieval for the Sake of Renewal
Turning East by Harvey Cox argued for the principle of geneological selectivity. There are two principle historical sources: the earliest period of history and our most recent. The rand-sacking of other periods is either antiquarian or downright misleading. Primitivism and presentism (most recent generation) – this is the heresy of contemporaneity which marks theological liberalism as well as Baptist and evangelical life. This ideology of self-importance calls for a retrieval for the sake of renewal. That is exactly the program of the Reformation. Ad Fontes (“back to the sources”). What they were about was a critical appropriation of the Christian tradition every subjecting themselves to the normative authority of the written Word of God. “That wholesome Protestant theology of the Reformation” (London Baptist Confession 1689). Understanding our heritage helps us deal with our controversies and issues facing us today.
a. “Are Baptist a credal people?”
“No creed but Jesus” has become an axiom marker of Baptist ideology today. Yet many spoke affirmatively of creeds in the Baptist tradition. It is true that Baptists have never enforced creedalism. Baptists have opposed state-imposed conformity to creeds, that God alone is Lord of the conscience, that civil magistrates have any authority ot coerce churches. Baptist are not creedal in that they have not elevated any doctrinal statement to the same level or above the Scriptures. The Word of God is the supreme standard of Christian life and practice. Unlike Eastern Orthodoxy which elevates the first seven conciliar creeds above revision (and Roman Catholicism which elevates 23 creeds), Baptists have not done so. Confessions must be used with great care and consideration. It can choke as well as guard and defend. We are veering away from orthodoxy to orthodoxism when we elevate nonessential doctrines (secondary and tertiary matters) to essential and fundamental beliefs; we go from tradition to traditionalism.
b. “Are Baptists Calvinists?”
Historically, empirically and historically, the answer is, “Some are and some aren’t”; I am not neutral on this subject. I was born an Arminian as everyone is. I came only slowly through much study and reflection of the doctrines of grace as taught by many notable Baptists (long list named). I know of nothing that has happened in the history of salvation that makes what they have said is wrong. I commend their theology to Baptists today, not because it is theirs or mine, but because it reveals the redemptive story from Genesis to Revelation. I like what Frank Page has said on this matter. “This is a family discussion, and we should not be divided over this matter.”
To Arminians: Beware lest your exalting of human capacity lead you past Arminianism to rank Pelagianism. Arminianism is error; Pelagianism is heresy. John Wesley would turn over in his grave to see what passes to what is Arminianism today.
To Calvinists: Beware lest your emphasis on divine sovereignty lead to real (not perceived) hyper-Calvinism. The Founders were well aware of this problem. What passes as Calvinism today would make Andrew Fuller turn over his grave and make John Gill go for a spin or two.
“Let’s banish the word ‘Calvinism’ in our midst. It has become the “n” word in our Convention.”
Let us confess freely and humbly that none of us understand completely how divine sovereignty and human responsibility coalesce. Let us talk and even persuade one another, and done with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15). Let us speak the truth in love, because if it is not love, if it is the truth. If is is not truth, it is mushy sentimalism (Dockery quote: “I once heard someone say that in essentials, faith and truth are primary and we may not appeal to love or grace as an excuse to deny any essential aspect of Christian teaching. Yet, in non-essential matters love is primary, and we may not appeal to personal conviction or zeal as an excuse for failure to exercise grace or demonstrate love. Faith instructs our conscience. Love respects the conscience of others. Faith shapes our freedom; love and a concern for others limits its exercise.”)
Let it not hinder us joining hands and hearts as Baptists in the mission before us. Like Charles Haddon Spurgeon in his own appeal for the lost in his sermon on John 6:37.
2. Particularity in the Service of Unity
[Letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger] a kind of “candid ecumenism”
I was talking about an ecumenism of conviction, not of accomodation. It would be easy to downplay doctrine and differences, but that would lead to shallow ecclesiology. Theology matters because truth matters. Speak the truth in love, yes, but speak the truth, we must.
So is Jesus a Baptist? Some in our tradition have thought so. But surely the question is not “Is Jesus Baptist?” but “Are Baptists Christian?”
The Church of Jesus Christ include all of the redeemed for all of the ages which is abundantly clear in Scripture. The one holy, catholic, and apostolic church outside which there is no salvation. It is true that the major uses of ekklesia in Scripture refers to the local church, but there are also uses in which it is in reference to the universal church (“upon this rock I will build My church“).
Yet here on earth the Church is “on pilgrimage” living amidst the vicissitudes of history, attacked from within and without, yet this visible church is called to pray for and work toward and embody the unity for which Jesus prayed to the Heavenly Father in John 17. It is the NT Confession of one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Why is this important? For particularity in unity?
It is so that our witness in the world will be credible. Christian unity “so that the world may believe” (John 17). Christian unity is intricately linked to world evangelization.
One of the last things Francis Schaeffer wrote was The Mark of a Christian where expounded upon John 13:34-35: “by the world will know that you are my disciples, in that we have love one for another.” Jesus gives the world the right to decide whether or not we belong to him by the observable love for one another. By this all the world you will know you are my disciples. How else will the world know?
If you don’t like this word “ecumenism,” do away with it. Ecumenical simply means universal. So forget about the world, but deal with the reality therein. Consider the example of William Carey. Carey lived and died in India, never coming home for furlough. In his missionary labors, he worked with the Anglican missionary Henry Martyn, Episcopalians, Methodists, for the heathen in India.
* Carey’s convention and vision for worldwide evangelization through partnership
Ecumenicalism has been hijacked by theological liberalism, but it was born on the mission field for the propagation of the gospel.
3. Humility in the Presence of the Holy
a. To acknowledge how difficult to speak about humility because once you think you’ve got it, you’ve lost it. I don’t know of any seminary that teaches on Humility 101. You can’t find a teacher to teach it. It is a by-product of the Holy Spirit. If I may put it this way, the fragrance of the fruit of the Spirit is humility.
b. It’s a contrarian word that is the very theme of this conference. Isn’t there something a bit narcissitic to be focusing on Baptist identity? I want to say to us that there is a fine line between “retrieval for the sake of renewal” and “baptistcentricity” (a perspective that self-justifying and self-gratifying). This needs to be said. You know what the corrective is? Getting a vision for the world on which Christ died. Go read Phillip Jenkins The Next Christendom in which he points out the balance and shift of Christian population between North America and other parts of the world (China and Latin America in particular).
In the smallest providence in western China, there is more Muslims today than Baptists in the entire world. When we talk about humility in the presence of the holy, let us beware lest we think of ourselves more highly than we should.
** “The Dangers of Denominational Prosperity” **
(1843 – two years before the founding of the SBC)
Let us see to it that we are not puffed up with ourselves, take heed lest we are shipwrecked, that we are relegated to some light to previous generations of a rock on which they were to be split.
[Karl Barth on his 80th birthday]
The use of a donkey that tried to carry a theology part of the way . . .”
Dear brothers and sisters, that’s all we are – a bunch of donkeys. Donkeys to carry a burden for awhile, but what a glorious and special burden it is. What a daunting task it is to carry this burden, to carry him who carried our sins to the cross.
Humility is not a virtue we can cultivate but a gift . . .
Faith, hope, and love – the three theological virtues
In heaven, we won’t need faith anymore because it will be sight; we won’t need hope, for it will be realized; but we will for an eternity need love. It is this which you and I as Christ-bearing donkeys are called.
[note: George in Q&A addressed at length about what tradition to retrieve, namely either Anabaptist movement of English Particular Baptist. it is worth noting that he said that the Anabaptist tradition leads to sectarianism. He said that there are two poles: identity and adaptability–either pole is a danger that we must not lose focus on the gospel in the tension between the two poles.]