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 reflects on the past in Baptist theology; Parts 2 and 3 anticipate its future.


Part 1: Looking Back on Four Centuries of Baptist Theology

The Chief Differentiating Theological Issues among Baptists

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 differences, 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). I have also concluded that the chief differentiating doctrinal issues for Baptists during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were the liberal-evangelical issues. Now, let’s first take a look at the Calvinistic-Arminian debate.

These differences were initially manifested in the separate and distinct origins of the General and the Particular Baptists in England. They are essentially soteriological, dealing with the relationship of the divine and the human in our salvation. I have challenged the accuracy of the commonly used acronym to specify the Dortian doctrines, the TULIP, for it was not so much total depravity that separated these two theological systems from the Arminian viewpoint as it was the nature of repentance and faith— whether they are the gifts of God or the responses of human beings. Each of these Dutch-derived theological stances was capable of spawning extremes, notably Hyper-Calvinism from Dort and neo-Pelagianism from the Arminians. I have offered, possibly for the first time, five distinguishing marks of Hyper-Calvinism: the supralapsarian order of divine decrees; the pre-temporal covenant of redemption made by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Sprit; eternal justification somewhat separated for the exercise of faith in time; rejection of offers of grace to the non-elect; and antinomianism. Hyper-Calvinism plagued the Particular Baptists during the eighteenth century, and Pelagian positions can be detected among the liberal and modernist theologians in the Northern Baptist Convention in the early twentieth century.

The liberal-evangelical issues were not essentially soteriological. Rather they centered on Christology, revelation and the Bible, human origins, and to some extent eschatology. Liberal theology for Baptists and other Protestants developed in response to the new nineteenth century theological climate—especially biblical criticism, Darwinian evolution, and the Industrial Revolution. Whereas liberals embraced the new climate, evangelicals or conservatives did not. Indeed Northern Baptists had mediating theologians such as Ezekiel G. Robinson and Augustus H. Strong. But once again extremists were spawned—modernists on the one hand and fundamentalists on the other. I concur with Kenneth Cauthen’s verdict that liberals and modernists are to be differentiated. For liberals there was still a need for Jesus, however truncated, but for modernists Jesus was dispensable; modern thought instead would suffice. The question has not been settled as to how many fundamentals were defended by the fundamentalists, but George M. Marsden has aptly identified fundamentalism as “militantly antimodernist Protestant evangelicalism” between the 1870s and the 1920s, but especially during the 1920s. Marsden’s definition allows us to conceive of evangelicalism as preceding and succeeding fundamentalism.

Now in the last quarter century among Southern Baptists, there arose a neo-Calvinist movement, a neo-fundamentalist movement, and a moderate movement.

Parallel Baptist Theological Trends

Parallel to, and sometimes contemporaneous with, the Calvinist-Arminian and the liberal-evangelical differences have been other theological tendencies. I cite four of these.

First, Baptists have engaged in polemic in defense of their own distinctive beliefs. This has taken two forms: the earlier and the later. The earlier form was the literature on believer’s baptism by immersion, written against Paedobaptists and focused on the candidate or the mode or on both. This type of writing extended from John Spilsbury to the First London Confession (1644) to Benjamin Keach to John Gill to Dan Taylor to Alexander Carson to John Jay Butler to John L. Dagg to James Robinson Graves. Baptism was seen as the crucial issue between Baptists and other Christians. The later form was a genre of literature, written from ca. 1850 to ca. 1950, on the cluster of beliefs and practices called “Baptist distinctives.” Since the genre was contemporaneous with the greatest influence of Landmarkism on Southern Baptists, it might be easy to posit a theory of cause and effect. But the fact that Northern and English Baptists were at the same time contributing significantly to this genre would undermine any such theory. As R. Stanton Norman has noted, this literature tended either to magnify the authority of the Scriptures or that of Christian experience (notably E.Y. Mullins). One may indeed ask whether the demise of this literature during the last sixty years has been a major factor in the failure of Baptist churches in the United States to teach their members about the Baptist heritage.

Second, Baptists have continued to affirm those basic Christian doctrines that they share with other professing Christian and with all Protestants. Baptists have adhered to the patristic consensus regarding the Trinity and the person of Christ, or made the march from Nicaea I to Chalcedon, even when they did not formally acknowledge such. Note John Gill on the Trinity. Hence Baptists were able to identify heresy, such as the earliest English General Baptists becoming Unitarian in belief by the early eighteenth century. The Second London Confession (1677) of Particular Baptists and the Orthodox Creed (1678) of General Baptists stressed both in structure and in content kinship with the Presbyterian Westminster Confession. Baptists have shared with the heirs of the magisterial Reformation such beliefs as the authority of Scripture, justification by grace through faith, the priesthood of all believers, predestination, church discipline, and either Zwinglian or Calvinist understandings of the Lord’s Supper.

Third, Baptists in the twentieth century made different responses to the Ecumenical Movement with its emphasis on structured transdenominational church union. British Baptists, Northern Baptists, most African-America conventions in the United States, and a scattering of other unions and conventions joined the World Council of Churches. Southern Baptists, Latin American Baptists, and a larger number of unions and conventions did not, being unwilling to go beyond spiritual unity and limited cooperation and expressing fears of a “one world church.” Ernest A. Payne and Edward Roberts-Thompson championed the ecumenical cause, and H.E. Dana and William R. Estep, Jr. represented the other side. The World’s Council’s involvement in social and political issues, such as financial aid to revolutionary movements in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s, and away from evangelization and church planting, decelerated any flow of Baptist bodies into the WCC and led to the withdrawal of a few.

Fourth, more recently among Baptists has been the interaction or interpenetration of theology and missiology. We must go back to William Carey’s An Enquiry to the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (1792). This treatise was not theological , but rather missiological; however, it may have helped to turn missiology into a theological discipline. William Owen Carver, the first Baptist to hold an academic chair of missions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1899, at first leaning to the society method, treated missions as the duty of individual Christians in relation to the kingdom of God. Through the twentieth century more attention was given to the missionary role of the churches, especially with the advent of short-term church-sent volunteer missionaries to supplement the career missionaries. Missiology, as may be seen in the volume entitled Missiology (1998), edited by Mark Terry, Justice Anderson, and Ebbie Smith, had its essential theological component. Moreover, at the end of the twentieth century with the systematic theologies written by James W. McClendon and by myself, Baptist systematic theologies include chapters on missions. Concurrent with this greater interaction of missiology and theology has been the contextualization of Baptist theology outside of Europe and North America. Perhaps the most notable has been the work of Latin American Baptist theologians, Orlando Costas, René Padilla, and Samuel Escobar. They have joined the supreme authority of Scripture and the need for evangelization and missions with a strong emphasis on social justice and a keen awareness of the Latin American, i.e., Roman Catholic, context. In Nigeria confrontation with African Traditional Religion has been pursued, and in South Korea missiological concerns have loomed large.

In part 2 and 3, I will look into the future ask seven questions about Baptist church and denominational issues.


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.