THE FUTURE OF BAPTIST THEOLOGY
WITH A LOOK AT ITS PAST


By James Leo Garrett, Jr., Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Historical and Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This is the first in a series of three articles by Dr. Garrett on “The Future of Baptist Theology with a Look at Its Past,” which was presented at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at an event. Part 1 reflected on the past in Baptist theology; Parts 2 and 3 anticipate its future.


Part 2: Looking to the Future of Baptist Issues

From my studies of the four-century history of Baptist theology I have come to the conclusion that the principal differentiating issues among Baptists during the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries were the Calvinistic-Arminian difference, or to be more specific, the issues that differentiate the Reformed Synod of Dort (1618-1619) and the followers of Jacob Arminius who framed the five Remonstrant Articles (1610). In the part 1 of this three part series, I took a look at the Calvinistic-Arminian debate. In this part let’s look at issues that will likely surface in the future.

Will the Chief Differentiating and Characterizing Issues of the Past
Have a Significant Bearing on the Future?

First, because Baptists closely connect salvation with church membership, it is likely that soteriological concerns about the relationship between humanity and the divine will continue to resurface in Baptist life.

Second, likewise the issues surrounding revelation and the Bible, Christology, human origins, and eschatology are likely to resurface among Baptists.

Third, although some of the Baptist distinctives will continue to be strictly less distinctive of Baptists as other Christian denominations and nondenominational indigenous movements embrace some of them, Baptists may continue to be less than effective in teaching and fleshing out these historic distinctives amid their own people.

Fourth, Baptists may continue to rediscover their debt to the patristic consensus and to recognize their debt to the Magisterial Reformation as well as the Radical Reformation.

Fifth, perhaps the question of interdenominational Christian unity will be answered in rather different ways in the twenty-first century than in the twentieth.

Sixth, it is very probable that the interactions of missiology and theology among Baptists will markedly increase.

What Other Theological Issues are Likely
to be Faced by Baptists in the Near Future?

My proposals, of course, do not constitute a complete list even as we acknowledge the difficulty of speaking about the future. I would ask seven questions. The first four deal with a variety of issues. In part three of this series, I will concentrate on church and denominational issues.

1. Can Baptists in various conventions and unions find a common biblical hermeneutic, especially in reference to contemporary social and moral issues?

This question takes us into ethics. To raise such a question is not to assume that Baptists have always had such a common hermeneutic in the past. The history of American Baptist attitudes toward slavery and racial segregation is a well-known exception. But issues such as homosexual practice, cohabitation outside of marriage, and abortion have tested Baptists as to anything like a common stance in today’s worlds. Moreover, present-day happenings in the Episcopal Church in the United States and in the Anglican communion worldwide make it clear that differences on these burning issues, together with their underpinnings of biblical hermeneutics and biblical authority, can produce major schisms and a divided witness. If Baptists can still agree on the supreme authority of the Holy Scriptures, then hopefully they can responsibly address these exegetical, hermeneutical, and socio-ethical issues.

2. Is the Baptist embrace of the doctrine of the Trinity sufficient for an effective witness to Muslims?

Baptist theological history for four centuries is replete with evidence that Baptists have consistently affirmed that God is one God yet in three “persons” or “subsistences” – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In such affirmations Baptists have used language hammered out by ecumenical councils of the patristic era. Baptists have also recognized that denial of the Trinity and of the deity of Christ puts one outside the ranks of truth and into the ranks of heresy, as in the case of the majority of the earliest English General Baptists who by the early eighteenth century had become Unitarians in belief, and in the case of modernists in the Northern Baptist Convention in the early twentieth century. But for many Southern Baptists from the latter part of the twentieth century to the present, the Trinity has been a doctrine, the denial of which could evoke charges of heresy while the affirmation of which—through preaching, teaching, worship, hymnody and praise songs, and piety—has been woefully deficient. Now as a major missionary sending body, the Southern Baptist Convention faces the great challenge of witnessing to the Islamic world, in both predominantly Muslim nations, as well as in the United States and Europe. A major roadblock is the Muslim perception that we Christians believe in three Gods, that Jesus is not the Son of God, and that Jesus did not die on the cross. Can Baptists be expected to lead Muslims to saving faith in Jesus Christ if their doctrine of the Trinity is stored in mothballs?

3. Can Baptists agree on the destiny of the unevangelized?

Before the end of the twentieth century, especially among evangelicals, there surfaced as a major theological issue the destiny of unevangelized peoples. The question, of course, was not new, but it had a new intensity, as contacts with the adherents of non-Christian religions increased. Three major positions soon came to be differentiated. First, there is pluralism, or the view that humans can be made right with God or eschatologically saved in and through non-Christian religions. Second, there is inclusivism, or the view that salvation can come only through Jesus Christ but can occur without particular knowledge of Jesus, without a confession of faith in Jesus, and without Christian baptism but through the agency of the transcendent Christ or Logos. Third, there is exclusivism, or the view that salvation can with certainty come only through Jesus Christ and only through an identifiable acknowledgement of Jesus as Savior and Lord with at least a minimal awareness of the Christian gospel. Few Baptists, if any, have embraced pluralism, as expounded by John Hick. Rather to the extent that they have addressed this issue Baptists have espoused either inclusivism or exclusivism. As to monographs on this subject, more Baptist authors have espoused inclusivism (Russell Aldwinckle, Clark Pinnock, Molly Marshall) than have espoused exclusivism (Ronald H. Nash). Some would join this issue with the question of the destiny of infants and young children who die at an early age. Others would join it with post-mortem evangelization, which the older theologians call “probation after death,” and which has been popularly dubbed “a second chance.” Clear evangelistic and missionary strategy would seem to call for a relatively clear answer to such questions. The 2000 SBC Baptist Faith and Message statement is clearly exclusivistic, but the monographs for exclusivism are few. Moreover, to affirm exclusivism on the basis of John 3:16; John 14:6; Acts 4:12 et al. is not to usurp the omniscience of God but to state what the church today ought to declare with any certainty, leaving final salvation, where it belongs, in the hands of God.

4. What are Baptists to do with Dispensationalism?

This theological system, so widely embraced today among Southern Baptists, did not enter Southern Baptist theological history until James Robinson Graves embraced it late in the nineteenth century. I have proposed that we should reckon Dispensationalism, both a distinctive hermeneutic and a distinctive eschatology, as an “incursion” into Baptist theology. By incursion I do not mean “heresy,” as one of my reviewers seems to think, but rather as a novelty without precedent during the earlier two and a half centuries of Baptist life. Although one cannot with certainty posit any cause-effect relationship, it is noteworthy that the era of Dispensationalism’s greatest influence on Southern Baptists, i.e., the turn of the twenty-first century, was concurrently the time of the greatest restriction of missionary methods in the history of the IMB SBC – the curtailment of theological education, primary and secondary schools, publishing, medical missions, and agricultural missions in favor of direct evangelism and church planting alone. To be sure, American Dispensationalism has undergone at least two transformations since C. I. Scofield published his Scofield Reference Bible a century ago, but its abiding hiatus between the church (the Christians) and Israel (the Jews) is difficult to harmonize with Paul’s teaching about Jew-Gentile reconciliation through the cross and the creation of the “one new man” (Eph. 2:15b-16). Furthermore, Dispensationalism’s two eschatological comings of Christ, “the rapture” and the “revelation,” are hard to reconcile with the synonymous use of parousia, epiphaneia, apokalupsis in the Greek New Testament, all used in reference to the second coming, as scholars of historical premillennialism have readily acknowledged.

In the third and final article of this series, I will address three questions that pertain to Baptist churches and to the Southern Baptist Convention.


This series of articles was previously published as “The Future of Baptist Theology with a Look at its Future” in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 7.2 (Fall 2010) and has been republished by permission.