Baptists have long been known as a “people of the Book.” From the early 17th century, Baptists sought to be true to the Word of God, letting it dictate their theology and motivate their actions. Like so many other denominations, though, Baptists have since fallen on tough times. Survey after survey reveals that this people of the Book rarely read it today.
While early Baptists in both the Old and the New World called for literate pastors, historical events conspired to create a call for “spiritual” rather than “educated” pastors—as though the two are mutually exclusive. The prolific literary enterprise of early Baptists, then, gave way over time to generations focused more on the spoken than the written word. Though Baptist theologians never gave up completely on writing books, the pace slowed to such a point that many have stereotyped the movement as filled with “illiterati.” Today, however, the trickle of books has grown into a torrent, and many are freshly reminded that Baptists are indeed a people of books.
Over the course of 2015, books by and about Baptists have flooded publishers. Here is a brief synopsis of four such volumes.
Anthony Chute, Nathan Finn, and Michael Haykin. The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015. 368 pp. $49.99.
In recent decades the number of Baptist histories has increased after years of silence. These have ranged from works heavy with primary sources like James Leo Garrett’s excellent Baptist Theology: A Four Century Study (Mercer Press, 2009) to more historically focused volumes like David Bebbington’s Baptists through the Centuries (Baylor Press, 2010). Others have offered helpful overviews through interpretive lenses that advance both Baptist historiography and denominational agendas. Until now, however, the field has lacked an intellectually stimulating and honest survey of the last 400 years. The Baptist Story seeks to remedy that lacuna.
If someone wants to understand the broader sweep of Baptist history, The Baptist Story provides a great entry point. The authors offer the nascent student a sweeping tale of the events and ideas that shaped one of the largest evangelical movements in the world. The bulk of the work is dedicated to tracing the denomination’s development from the 1600s to the present. Its closing pages survey the theological ideas, Baptist distinctives, and points of identity that set Baptists apart from their evangelical brothers and sisters.
The authors should be commended for providing a readable yet well-researched look into Baptist life and thought. Their treatment is fair-handed and accessible. For those looking to learn more without doing too much, The Baptist Story is a great place to begin.
Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins. Baptists in America: A History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015. 352 pp. $29.95.
If studying Baptist history is like cross-country travel, the previous volume (The Baptist Story) shows you the landscape from 35,000 feet. Baptists in America, on the other hand, takes you to see the sights up close. This volume isn’t more accurate than the previous book; it’s just more narrowly focused. Kidd and Hankins want us to see and smell the story they’re telling.
Beginning with the Puritan’s rejection of Baptists as troublemakers, Kidd and Hankins walk us carefully through the pages of history. From the growth enjoyed during the Great Awakening of the 18th century to the schisms of the 19th and 20th, we see the American Baptist story in all its glory and disgrace. Along the way the intrepid traveler will experience the curiosities of the Baptist tale. And true to the authors’ individual strengths, the saga they recount is theologically rich and painfully honest.
Kidd and Hankins prove themselves yet again to be great chroniclers of the American Christian experience—this time from the perspective of America’s largest denomination. Baptists in America is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. For the Baptist or curious Christian who wants to know where this journey began and how far Baptists have come, Kidd and Hankins show us the way.
Bobby Jamieson. Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Church Membership. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015. 256 pp. $24.99.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that denominational distinctives are less important than ever. Christians church shop and church hop. They look for those ministries that meet their real and perceived needs—regardless of theological boundaries that once hemmed believers in to one tradition or another. One distinctive that’s suffered greatly in these ecclesial shifts has been the importance of church membership. A closely related casualty is believer’s baptism.
Going Public [TGC interview] posits that baptism necessarily accompanies regenerate church membership. Nearly one-half of book is dedicated to the biblical case for this view. Jamieson’s argument ranges from the common understanding of baptism as an initiatory rite to its connection to the other ordinance, the Lord’s Supper, and the outward expression of one’s inclusion in a particular church body. The final third of the book is given to summarizing the thesis, answering hypothetical objections, and explaining the practical applications of his conclusion. If the reader is short on time, Jamieson even offers a “three minute” explanation of the book’s premise in the appendix.
Jamieson ably defends the historic Baptist position of regenerate church membership evidenced and confirmed by believer’s baptism. And he does so with precision and compassion toward those with whom he might disagree. For those wishing to offer an apology for Baptist doctrine or to simply understand it better, this book is a helpful read.
Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman, eds. Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015. 432 pp. $44.99.
This last book considers church life from a more holistic point of view. Whereas Going Public looks at baptism as a concomitant and proof of membership, Baptist Foundations [TGC interview] looks at Baptist polity as a whole. It asks not “what do Baptists look like” but “what do Baptists do?” In doing so, the authors offer a wide-ranging explanation of the practical outworking of Baptist ecclesiology.
Tapping into the academic expertise of a host of well-known Baptist scholars, the editors organize the volume’s 19 chapters theologically. Moving from an explanation and defense of congregational polity, they trace the connective strands through the ordinances, church membership and discipline, leadership, and inter-church relations. Each chapter brings a reputable contributor’s thoughts to bear in a readable yet digestible manner. Of great interest to some will be the extensive discussion of church leadership, particularly the office of elder and its place in Baptist life and thought. This section alone makes this book a valuable contribution to ecclesial debates and any pastor-theologian’s library.
A veritable Baptist theology of the church, Baptist Foundations goes beyond the survey-like approach of most systematic theologies’ handling of ecclesiology and offers a distinctively Baptist perspective on the topic. Along the way, the volume gives us multiple takes on Baptist orthodoxy, and also offers a view of Baptist orthopraxy.
Thanks to titles like these, and seemingly dozens more beginning to flood the marketplace, Baptists are again proving they’re a people of books. They are stirring the intellectual waters once more, so if you’re looking to learn more about the Baptist faith or strengthen your own, come on in. The water’s fine.