“Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord,” said Jehu to Jehonadab (2 Kings 10:16). And indeed, like Elijah the prophet just a few years before, he had been very zealous for the Lord God of Hosts. Already he had slain, in direct obedience to his commission (2 Kings 9:7-10) the king of the Northern Kingdom, Joram, as well as the Ahab-influenced king of the Southern Kingdom, Ahaziah. Jezebel had met her prophesied death in all its inglorious and dark dimensions. The heads of the seventy sons of Ahab had been presented to Jehu in baskets. From the south, forty-two relatives of Ahab and Jezebel had fallen into the hands of Jehu, who slaughtered them. Now, at the time he invited Jehonadab to join him, he sped to Samaria to kill all who belonged to Ahab there, as he had done in Jezreel. In addition, he used cunning to gather together all the worshippers of Baal into one place and arranged for their slaughter: “Thus Jehu destroyed Baal out of Israel” (2 Kings 10:28 KJV).
So much done! His anointed commission completed. The grotesque and brutal reign of the house of Ahab ended and the prophets killed by Jezebel avenged. Naboth, murdered for his vineyard, crying from the ground, saw the blood of the house of Ahab spilled in exquisite justice. “Because thou hast done well in executing that which is right in mine eyes, and hast done unto the house of Ahab according to all that was in mine heart,” so spoke Jehovah to Jehu (2 Kings 10:30 KJV). Enough? No. With such punctilious fulfillment of his commission in ridding the kingdom of its lingering and gross injustices and the perverted worship of Baal, Jehu fell short of the necessary reform: “He departed not from the sins of Jeroboam, which made Israel to sin” (2 Kings 10:31 KJV).
Jeroboam, according to 1 Kings 12, led Israel to sin by establishing alternate places of worship and ordaining an unqualified priesthood. He sought to represent Jehovah with graven images of his own devising. He established as cultic practice forms “which he had devised in his own heart” (1 Kings 12:33). Had Jehu completed the reformation needed, he would have instructed all Israel to go to Jerusalem to the appointed feasts and participate in the appointed sacrifices, even if it meant loss of the kingdom from his control. He had lopped off the branches of the sins of Israel, but the root he left undisturbed.
Such danger stares into the face of any reformation. Most attempts at reform of the church in the late Middle Ages dealt only with symptoms. Clerical ignorance and immorality, priestly cupidity, ministerial absenteeism from parishes, the intensified grasp of the papacy for worldly power, financial abuses of the most egregious and cunning sort, an ignorant and neglected laity, the proliferation of mendicants in the church orders, a schism in the papacy itself, and controversy over the proper location of the papacy—all these threatened the dignity of the church and needed to be addressed. If all had been solved, however, the real need of reformation would still have been untouched.
Two issues—the authority of Scripture alone and the sovereignty of God in salvation—formed the foundation of spiritual life that lay untapped beneath the surface of much late medieval dissent. Luther, perhaps taking his cue from Wycliffe and Hus, saw this clearly. He addressed the problem at that depth. When Erasmus finally decided to take up the pen against Luther, Luther found great satisfaction in the arena in which he was challenged. He congratulated Erasmus on his grasp of the real issue of Luther’s challenge to the church of Rome. He refused to dabble over mere temporal perversities or the bellies of the monks, though these were not entirely inconsequential. He went to the heart of the controversy—the nature of the human will in its relation to sin and grace.
This debate with Erasmus over the bondage of the will forced two issues to the surface over and over: (1) rigorous exegesis of Scripture dictates our understanding of doctrine, and (2) as sinful creatures enslaved to sin, we proclaim a gospel established on God’s sovereign mercies and Christ’s completed merits. So fundamental were these ideas to the Reformation that one emerged as the “formal principle”—that is, all doctrines and practices must be developed, or formed, from direct biblical authority.
The other became known as the “material principle”—the actual doctrines built upon the formal principle. In this case the doctrinal construction that constituted the substantial difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism was justification by faith. As the Reformers developed the doctrine of justification, it necessarily assumed the bondage of the human will and, consequently, the sovereign and effectual mercies of God in Christ.
The Reformers knew that reformation—deeply theological, intensely personal, and pervasively institutional—was necessary. They also had confidence that they had devoted themselves to the right issues. They never exhibited confidence that they had completed all that needed to be done. They lived under the motivation of the truth that the reformed church must always be reforming—ecclesia reformata semper reformanda.
Now we must ask, “Have Southern Baptists reached the root issue of reformation in their quest for a renewed church life?” Like Jehu, with an uncompromising determination they have amputated the more grotesque appendages of corruption. The first blow fell with shattering accuracy on the issue of inerrancy. This fell with such effectiveness that a clearly observable change occurred in denominational life. Before 1979, one rarely could find a denominational servant who gave uncompromised adherence to inerrancy as a personal conviction and asserted its necessity for a clear and certain formulation of Christian faith. Since that time this conviction is virtually universal in Southern Baptist institutional life. The formal principle, at least from the standpoint of the assertion of authority, has been well articulated. Whether this principle will be allowed to operate powerfully in matters of worship and discipline remains to be seen.
Baptists developed their practice of biblical authority in light of the regulative principle—that is, God has regulated what is to be believed and how we should worship him, and we have no warrant or prerogative to go beyond what he has revealed. Some implications of this idea form one of the main concerns of this book.
The material principle, however, has a more checkered history of recovery. This means that a foundational issue with large results still lingers in the wings of the reformation stage, waiting for a cue to appear before its historically obligated panel of reviewers. The libretto has been well formulated for years, dusty from indifference, waiting for a troupe to learn its lines couched in such august chapter heads as “Of Christ the Mediator,” or “Of Free Will,” or “Of Effectual Calling,” or “Of Repentance unto Life and Salvation,” or “Of Grace in Regeneration,” or “Of God’s Purpose of Grace.” Will such a call come, or will Baptists seek to produce “Pilgrim’s Progress” while eliminating the parts of “Evangelist” and “Faithful”? This book will, in part, seek to explore the material principle in its historical manifestations in Baptist life along with some of the practical outworkings of that biblical issue.
The danger, of course, is that which infiltrates all good and earnest beginnings at reformation, religious or political. When the disenfranchised reformers finally gain ascendancy, the feeling of power and privilege cuts short many of the former ideals. While indebted to the churches and responsible as stewards of the mysteries of God, a culture of preeminence and control can be created into which few may penetrate. One of the main observations brought to bear on Southern Baptist Convention personnel prior to the effected changes was the inability to be self-critical or to allow the media within Convention life to have freedom as objective analysts and reporters of news.
These tensions formed the content of one of the Shophar Papers of 1980 written by Paige Patterson. Patterson noted that “denominational executive offices can become ‘Protestant Meccas’ to which all must bow, with ‘programs’ being substituted for righteousness.” Any questions or doubts make a person susceptible to anathemas by “those who claim to be ‘loyal.’” He pointed to three problematic areas.
First, “Only the literature published by the official publishing agency of the denomination may be used.” Churches that for very good reasons might choose to use other literature “face the probability of pressure and even harassment. Where are our Baptist liberties?”
Second, though Patterson defended the Cooperative Program as a legitimate and useful denominational response to the clear biblical precedent of “association” in Acts 15 and other aspects of biblical warrant, he clearly believed that it had been elevated to a position of holiness. Diverting funds into any other ways of doing missions constituted, according to the so-called Baptist Meccas, a challenge to the Great Commission and Baptist principles. Churches creating optional mission emphases were labeled as disloyal and their ministers as unworthy of denominational recognition.
Third, “Denominational periodicals,” Patterson warned, “can become responsible primarily for ‘defending the denomination’ rather than for accurate, unbiased, thoroughly researched presentation of news and truth.” When the press reduces itself to mere denominational promotion, it loses the ability to be a sanctifying influence on Convention programs and structures. The press also becomes adversarial to anyone, whether church or individual, that questions Convention policy and practice.
Patterson wanted a new kind of denominationalism. He called for openness that is servant to and not master of the churches, meaningful deliberation among a wider spectrum of concerned people, and a more open system of Convention operations in selection of personnel to avoid the old system of king makers. These seem to be desirable patterns to pursue. “When priorities are set without regard to biblical revelation, the seeds of decadence are planted. If loyalty becomes equated with silent consent to programs, however noble, the stench of encroaching death will be evident.”
Patterson shared the experience of many theological students of the 1960s and 1970s. They grew weary of the spiritual devastation they experienced and lamented their instructors’ preference for personal freedom above the biblical text. A simple recovery, therefore, of the conviction that the text holds sole and absolute authority seems to be an indescribable blessing. And it is!
The difference between believing or not believing in a divinely inspired Bible is substantial. The former position determines that the text rules because God has spoken; the latter subjects the text to the reader’s experience because the text itself is purely the product of—thus never rising above—human experience. On that basis the redefinition of Christianity in general and Baptist life in particular had proceeded. Moving forward unchallenged and unabated, the process came dangerously close to a thorough makeover of both. In some cases the metamorphosis was complete.
But at just the right time, the challenge occurred. Paul informed Timothy that God would protect his deposit of truth until “that day.” The most likely translation of 2 Timothy 1:12, contextually considered, is, “I am convinced that he is able to guard my deposit, that is, the deposit he entrusted to me, until that day.” He then admonished Timothy, in that confidence, to retain the standard of sound words and guard through the Holy Spirit the treasure entrusted to him. God will not allow his deposited treasure to disappear either in authority or content. It is possible that we live in a time of the merciful providence of God in which that deposit has been reclaimed.
The warnings that Patterson issued in the initial glow of challenge to the dominant theological and administrative culture of the Convention do not lose their relevance when the doctrinal stance of denominational leadership changes toward conservatism. Some would wonder if the “king-maker” operations that he detested and criticized are once again firmly entrenched. While doctrinal recovery provides firmer ground for powerful and effective voluntary union, a system of checks and balances that defies the tendency for a top-heavy denomination should be carefully observed. Apart from this, the tendency of power to corrupt may again prove to be too overwhelming.
Seats of control may be just as alluring to the confessionally orthodox as to the doctrinal latitudinarian. And, ironically, the gaining of control, particularly when combined with a restricted theological vision, might serve to arrest further doctrinal reform.
Overall, while recovery has been substantial, the work is not yet done. Inerrancy now rules the consciences of a vast majority of local church pastors, and in a much better informed way, and inerrantists seem well-entrenched in leadership positions at seminaries, mission boards, and other strategic agencies and organizations. Inerrantists are everywhere. Perhaps even some who were not inerrantists now genuflect to the term, if not the idea, and desire a nonconfrontational peaceful coexistence with the present leadership. Some pockets of strength for The Way We Were work feverishly to impede if not destroy the growing hegemony of the inerrancy party, but for the most part they must settle for much less than they want.
A greater danger, however, than the settling of leadership and the guerrilla warfare of the deposed looms menacingly near. Perhaps always parallel with the need for ever-expanding discussion of pertinent doctrinal matters is the ongoing conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil. This war for the soul challenges every Christian with the daily need for abundance of real knowledge and discernment, self-examination, and purposeful mortification. External reformation may be destroyed or rendered meaningless unless, contrary to the settled satisfaction of Jehu, it provokes us to “cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
A profession that has a form of godliness but denies its power to make alive and make holy just as clearly detracts from the glory of God as does heresy. The gravitational pull of our flesh into the mire of unrighteousness constantly seeks to seize us either personally or systemically. The call of gospel grace, as well as its intrinsic impulse, still speaks thus: “Now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22). External reform never substitutes for holiness. It should, however, constitute the substantive and conceptual power for the purification of the churches. The final chapter of this book explores the relation of doctrine and devotion in producing God-centered persons.
Premature satisfaction presents another danger to reformation. As true godliness both individually and corporately only increases by expansive understanding, external reform must proceed, driven by an increasingly encyclopedic doctrinal clarity. The gains made must be conserved, and new issues must be addressed. Truth still cries aloud in the street for those who will buy her and sell her not. Initial success in foundational repair does not suffice for the whole but makes further progress possible. In fact, the partial nature of a completed foundation begs for a fitting superstructure. A candid recognition that other issues call for attention only highlights the remarkable shift of direction. Recovery of the authority of the Word calls for celebration but just as surely requires careful but unrelenting extension (Ezra 3:10-13).
The task of reclaiming, therefore, is not complete. If only the acceptance of the divine authority of the deposit gains adherence but the content of the treasure itself lies dormant, the recovery is a sham. The formal principle without the material principle does not make a reformation. For recovery or reformation to be full, the content of the revelation must also be rediscovered and proclaimed. As one section of this book will argue, renewed attention to a sweeping historic confessional theology will inspire broader and deeper apprehension of truth and more love for God and the brethren.
The accounts in Ezra and Nehemiah of the return from Babylonian exile provide a biblical model for reformation, its complexity, and the great variety of responses to it. Upon the rediscovery of the law under Ezra and Nehemiah, the people of Israel immediately celebrated the Feast of Booths, which had been ignored since the time of Joshua. In addition, they vowed to make provision for faithful adherence to all religious festivals and sacrifices (Ezra 8:13-18; 10:28-39). In Ezra 3, when the foundation of the temple had been restored, the rejoicing could hardly be discerned from the crying by those who had seen the first temple. How tragically the glory had departed was revealed to them as they realized how far a foundation was from a completed temple. Even so, after a systematic razing of a historic doctrinal edifice, the restoration of the foundation evoked praise and weeping. The beauty of what was stood no more, but a foundation for its restoration now stood firmly in place.
The full shining of truth after its eclipse brings to light many breaches in the wall in need of repair. Neither Baptist evangelism nor ecclesiology can stand in isolation from the rest of Christian truth. For a truly “Baptist” ecclesiology to be coherent, it must arise from the whole counsel of God. In defending it, Baptists must be able to give an account about how their views of the church fully reflect the whole system of biblical truth. A reformation of Baptist identity will involve a serious reengagement at least of the ideas discussed in the following chapters.
Even when fully restored, however, conscious attention to these ideas must necessarily continue. They are not truths to be pursued only in times of decline and emergency but ongoing elements of Christian profession, not only worthy of closest attention but necessary for Christian faith and practice.
Malachi gives witness to how quickly the gains of reformation and restoration can be lost. “The priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth,” the Lord told Judah. “But ye are departed out of the way” (Mal. 2:7-8 KJV). Even after t�