Glenn JonasWhen the Baptist History and Heritage Society met in Raleigh June 7-9, the official topic was “Baptists and Theology.” Through three keynote addresses and a variety of breakout sessions, both historians and theologians addressed the subject. 

The meeting was held at both of Raleigh’s First Baptist Churches, with most sessions at the prodominantly Anglo Salisbury Street church, and the Saturday evening session at the predominantly African-American Wilmington Street church. On Thursday night, historian Glenn Jonas, who is professor of religion and chair of the religion department at Campbell University, highlighted some of the theological developments in the two churches, which began as one, including issues of race relations and leadership roles for women. Jonas recently published Nurturing the Vision: First Baptist Church, Raleigh 1812-2012.

On Saturday morning, theologian Fisher Humphries, recently retired professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, reviewed significant theological works written by Baptists since 1950, highlighting a number of those from a list of more than 250 titles.

Phillip ThompsonFriday morning was devoted to the presentation of papers too numerous to mention, with theologians and historians agreeing that there is no single Baptist theology. Philip Thompson, professor of systematic theology and Christian heritage at Sioux Falls Seminary, argued for a distinction that I found particularly interesting.

Noting that Baptists talk a lot about “principles,” Thompson said that the formulation of Baptist principles in the 19th century displaced dogmatics from theology to history. Baptist principles state the Baptist dogma, or what makes us identifiable, he said.

When theological disputes occur among Baptists, Thompson said, they are often cast in terms of the violation of Baptist principles or a distortion Baptist history. Whatever the issue, people holding opposing views are likely to  accuse each other of abandoning historic Baptist principles. 

“Clearly, principles are bound up with history,” Thompson said, “But lists of principles are not enough to establish Baptist identity.”

Bill LeonardOn Friday evening, historian Bill Leonard, who holds the Dunn Chair of Religious Studies and is professor of church history at Wake Forest University, spoke of convictions and contradictions in Baptist life. Leonard pointed to widely divergent theological views held by both early and contemporary Baptists, with special emphasis given to the doctrine of salvation, which Calvinist and non-Calvinist Baptists understand quite differently.

Leonard asked, “What might be the center of Baptist theological and ecclesial identity?” As he has done before, Leonard said “I continue to insist that it rests in the concept of a believer’s church … a company of faithful people separated from the world by repentance and a confession of faith in Jesus.” This has been normative from the beginning of the movement, he said. 

Leonard then pointed to several aspects of a believer’s church in the Baptist tradition, including beliefs in the necessity of an uncoerced faith, freedom of conscience, the right of dissent, and a separation of church and state. He added that Baptist congregations hold to a tension between biblical authority and liberty of conscience, congregational autonomy and associational fellowship. Baptists have been inevitably confessional and selectively creedal, he said: “From the beginning, Baptists have constructed confessions of faith but have differed in how to apply them.”

The Baptist identity continues to evolve, impacted by everything from demographics to technical developments to cultural change. One of the greatest challenges facing Baptists, Leonard said, is that we live in a time when one of the fastest growing identity groups is the “nones” (people who express no religious identity). As a result, Baptists must confront the reality that a growing number of people, including younger Baptists, are increasingly indifferent to theological or ecclesiastical aspects of the debate over the Baptist identity.

The question is not just who gains the upper hand in the debate over Baptist identity, but how many people — even among Baptists — really care.

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