ARLINGTON—Some of the same theological disputes that divided Baptists throughout their first 400 years continue to distinguish different branches of the Baptist family tree in the early years of the 21st century, theologian James Leo Garrett said.
And other challenges—ranging from the popularity of dispensationalist doctrine regarding the End Times to a fuzzy understanding of the Trinity—likely will confront Baptists in the near future, he predicted.
“It is of paramount importance in the 21st century that Baptists think theologically as Baptists and in reference to the Baptist heritage,” he insisted.
Garrett, distinguished professor of theology emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth and author of Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study, addressed the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute summer colloquy in Arlington.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, theological questions regarding salvation— specifically election and free will—differentiated distinct brands of Baptists, Garrett asserted. Calvinist Particular Baptists stressed God’s sovereign role in the salvation of the elect, and Arminian General Baptists emphasized the ability of humans to respond freely to God’s grace.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Baptists divided along liberal and evangelical lines, he added. Doctrinal issues focused on Christ’s divine/human nature, revelation and the Bible, human origins and beliefs related to the Second Coming of Christ.
“Liberal theology, for Baptist and other Protestants, developed in response to the new theological climate—biblical criticism, Darwinian evolution and the Industrial Revolution,” Garrett observed. “Whereas liberals embraced the new climate, evangelicals or conservatives did not.”
Past disputes continue to gain new currency—at least in some Baptist circles, he noted.
“Now in the last quarter-century among Southern Baptists have arisen a neo-Calvinist movement, a neo-Fundamentalist movement and a moderate movement that does not know whether it is left-wing conservative or right-wing liberal,” he quipped.
Looking ahead, Garrett predicted issues surrounding salvation, biblical authority, the doctrine of Christ and human origins likely will resurface among Baptists.
Garrett also identified four theological trends that ran parallel to the Calvinist/Arminian and liberal/evangelical disputes:
• Defending distinctives. Early on, Baptists emphasized the beliefs and practices that set them apart from other Christians—particularly believer’s baptism by immersion. Later, between 1850 and the early 1950s, Baptists published reams of literature dealing with “Baptist distinctives.” Many of the individual principles and practices were not unique to Baptists, but the way Baptists combined them made them distinctive.
“One may ask whether the demise of this literature during the last 60 years has been a major factor in the failure of Baptist churches in the United States to teach their members about the Baptist heritage,” Garrett noted.
Facing the future, he observed, “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 distinctives amid their own people.”
• Affirming shared beliefs. Baptists have continued to hold basic doctrines shared by all orthodox Christians—particularly other Protestants. The earliest confessions of both the General Baptists and Particular Baptists demonstrated obvious kinship with the Reformed Westminster Confession, Garrett noted.
“Baptists have shared with the heirs of the magisterial Reformation such beliefs as the authority of Scripture over tradition, justification by grace through faith, the priesthood of all believers, predestination, church discipline and either Zwinglian or Calvinist understandings of the Lord’s Supper,” he said.
Garrett predicted Baptists may continue to rediscover their debt both to the early church fathers and to the magisterial Reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli.
• Responding to ecumenism. Baptists differed in their response to the 20th century ecumenical movement. British Baptists, Northern Baptists and most African-American Baptists responded positively to transdenominational church unions such as the World Council of Churches. Southern Baptists and Latin American Baptists—among others—did not, “expressing fear of one world church,” he said.
“Perhaps the question of interdenominational Christian unity will be answered in rather different ways in the 21st century than in the 20th,” he suggested.
• Developing a theology of missions. Among Baptists, missiology has interacted with theology as far back as William Carey in the 1790s. Baptist theologians have begun to include chapters on missions in their systematic theology books, and books about the study of missions have included significant theological components.
In recent years, Baptist theology increasingly has grown more contextualized to specific settings—particularly in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia.
“It is very probable that the interaction of missiology and theology among Baptists will markedly increase,” Garrett predicted.
Looking ahead, Garrett identified seven issues Baptists probably will confront in the near future:
• Dispensationalism. This theological system typically divides history into seven distinct periods and asserts God related to humanity in different ways during those “dispensations.” It stresses the role of Israel, views the church age as a parenthesis in God’s redemptive plan and looks forward to the Rapture of the saints and the seven-year Great Tribulation prior to Christ’s Second Coming, followed by a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth.
Dispensationalism gained currency among Baptists in the South first through the influence of Landmark Baptist James R. Graves and later through the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. In recent years, it was popularized in the Left Behind series of novels.
“I have proposed that we should reckon it one of the incursions into Baptist theology,” Garrett said.
“Although one cannot with certainty posit any cause-effect relationship, it is noteworthy that the era of dispensationalism’s greatest influence on Southern Baptists—that is, the turn of the 21st century—was concurrently the time of the greatest restriction of missionary methods in the history of the International Mission Board.”
• A common way of interpreting Scripture. “Can Baptists in various conventions and unions find a common biblical hermeneutic, especially in reference to contemporary social and moral issues?” Garrett asked. He pointed particularly to “issues such as homosexuality, abortion, pornography and cohabitation.”
• Deficient doctrine of the Trinity. In their formal confessions of faith, Baptists have affirmed orthodox Christian teachings about the Trinity. But it’s hard to tell from their songs, sermons and Sunday school lessons.
“For many Southern Baptists in the latter 20th century and even to the present, the Trinity has been a doctrine, the denial of which could evoke charges of heresy, but the affirmation of which through preaching, teaching, worship, hymnody, praise songs and piety was woefully deficient,” Garrett said.
• Destiny of the unevangelized. Garrett delineated three historic Christian positions on the eternal fate of people who never hear the gospel. Pluralism teaches human beings can be made right with God through various non-Christian religions, as well as through faith in Christ.
Inclusivism teaches salvation comes only through Christ, but it can occur without explicit knowledge of Jesus or individual confession of faith in him.
Exclusivism teaches salvation depends on at least a minimal knowledge of the gospel and individual profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Few Baptists have endorsed pluralism, Garrett said, but Baptist theologians have been divided into camps espousing either inclusivism or exclusivism.
“Clear evangelistic and missionary strategy would seem to call for a clear theological answer to this question,” he said.
• Ruling elders and congregational polity. “Perhaps as a consequence of the neo-Calvinism among Southern Baptists or the influence of Dallas Theological Seminary, not a few Southern Baptist churches have adopted ruling elders—sometimes so as to produce major division in the congregation,” Garrett observed.
This has set off conflict between longtime traditional Baptists committed to congregational polity and new Christians or members who have joined a Baptist church from another denomination who are amenable to elder-rule.
While some argue elders essentially serve the same role as church staff, “the critical issue is whether the elders alone make decisions, which, according to congregational polity, are normally to be made by the congregation. … Few seem to realize that this is one of the marks that historically differentiated Baptists from Presbyterians.”
• Believer’s baptism by immersion. From their earliest days, Baptists have included proponents of closed communion who allowed only baptized believers—perhaps only from a specific congregation—to take the Lord’s Supper and advocates of open communion, who allowed all professing Christians to join in communion.
Open membership, on the other hand, is strictly a modern development, with its greatest strength in England.
“This is the practice whereby a Baptist church does not require that all its members be baptized on confession of faith by immersion,” he explained.
“Hence, in the membership, may be persons having been baptized as infants or by sprinkling or pouring or having had no baptism at all. … With open membership, there seems to be little rationale for a continuing Baptist denomination.”
At the same time, some British Baptist theologians have begun to favor the term “sacraments” rather than “ordinances” to describe baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
“Moreover, baptism is said to be ‘more than symbol’ in the sense that divine agency and divine grace are involved in Christian baptism, not merely the confession of the faith of the candidate, and conversion is reckoned as incomplete without baptism,” he said.
• Doctrinal unity. Throughout their history, Baptists have divided over theological differences, and some Baptist groups have sprung up independently of others, Garrett noted.
“Even so, Baptists must know the Pauline teaching about Christian unity and how Jesus, according to John 17, prayed for the unity of his disciples,” he said.
“Baptists once again have the challenge of repairing or mending their broken unity without forsaking the gospel or losing essential Christian truth.”