Friday, December 30, 2011

Aaron Weaver's "James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom" and Baptist Identity

Aaron Weaver. James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom. Macon, GA: Smythe & Helwys, 2011. List price is $18.00, but you can get a better deal than that at…just over $14.00 at the time of this post.

Weaver's seminal work has received strong reviews already from a diverse group. Here is a brief bibliography of online reviews:

Lumpkins gives the best classical review of the book, providing a good chapter-by-chapter summary of the book's content, critically assessing the most important aspects of the publication, and then concluding with his recommendation. Knox's treatment is terse. Moore's piece is more of a reflective essay upon having read the book than a detailed review.

My post today is, stylistically, more like Moore's than any of the others. I will pay Weaver's book the highest compliment: It has made me think and has prompted me to write. Before settling in on the main theme of my article, I'd like to pose a key question to my readership: How will you account for James M. Dunn in your own Christian history? I'm speaking primarily to Southern Baptists here (or erstwhile Southern Baptists, as the case may be). For those on the left in Southern Baptist life like Weaver, Dunn must be placed (ranked?) within a cadre of those ousted by the Conservative Resurgence…consequently, the Founding Fathers (er…Initial Guidance Personages?) of a new Baptist Left. Among Dilday, Valentine, Parks, Sherman, and Vestal—and a whole host of others from the Gatlinburg Gang and beyond—where does Dunn rank? For Southern Baptists on the right like myself, will we make some caricature of Dunn a stock-character bogeyman for our history, or has enough time passed for us to undertake a more objective assessment of men like Dunn as a part of our history, too. Moore's essay, by the way, represents in my view a good step toward the latter, superior, alternative.

Aaron Weaver and I have a lot in common. We're both Baptists who care about our Baptist identity. We're both alumni of Baylor University (although his Baylor athletic experience has been a great deal more enjoyable than was mine in the late 1980s). We're both staunchly committed to religious liberty. We both have a keen interest in politics, both secular and denominational. We're both academics, both focusing upon Baptist History. We're both bloggers. We both know where we fall on the ideological spectrum, and we both appear to be comfortable with that.

What fascinates me is the strange juxtaposition of these commonalities and our significant differences. I haven't voted for a Democrat since I left the party of my grandfathers in college. I'd be willing to bet that elephants are less endangered in the urban Northeast than they are on Aaron Weaver's marked ballots. He voted for Barack Obama; I voted for the candidate who was not Barack Obama. He attends the CBF, the BGCT, and the New Baptist Covenant (while supplies last); I attend the SBC, the SBTC, and the occasional BMAT meeting. He spends quality time with James Dunn; I furtively slip the occasional bite of food under the table to Paige Patterson's dogs.

We're both passionate proponents of Baptist identity, but we each understand what it means to be a Baptist with a slightly different nuance. Upon the occasion of Aaron's excellent book, I'd like to identify what I perceive as three approaches to Baptist identity, interacting significantly with the life of James Dunn as represented in the scholarship of Aaron Weaver, particularly in this book.

Soul Freedom as the Core of Baptist Identity

This is James Dunn's position. It clearly appears to be Aaron Weaver's position. Weaver accurately identifies E. Y. Mullins as the source of this emphasis in Dunn's theology. I'm content to call this the Mullins/Dunn/Weaver viewpoint. Both Mullins and Dunn explicitly identified Soul Freedom (for Mullins, "Soul Competency") not just as a plank in the Baptist platform, but as THE doctrinal conviction defining what it means to be Baptist. According to this viewpoint, all other Baptist concepts flow out of the idea of Soul Freedom.

To put it another way, this approach essentially makes anthropology (the nature of man…that he is free) the core doctrine of Baptist Christianity

One can easily see how local church autonomy and religious liberty might arise out of a conviction about the freedom of the soul. The scope of this theory, however, reaches beyond these ideas. Baptist conversionism, from this vantage-point, arises from an emphasis upon the individual choices of free souls either for or against the gospel. Baptist church membership in this tradition emphasizes individual voluntarism in the gathered church. The primary emphasis of congregationalism in such an approach is upon the "democratic processes" mentioned in the BF&M. Although I admire Weaver for his fair and consistent use of the more biblical phrase "priesthood of all believers," this is a tradition of thinking that has at times emphasized explicitly the idea of the "priesthood of THE believer."

The Mullins/Dunn/Weaver approach of elevating Soul Freedom has had a distinguished history in Southern Baptist life. It harmonized well with previous similar, if not exactly identical, Baptist emphases upon religious liberty. It held utter hegemony in Southern Baptist theological thinking for most of a century. It established a platform upon which widely disparate Baptists were able to unite through organizations like the Baptist World Alliance.

Nevertheless, this approach faces challenges today. The most important challenge that it faces is the fact that Soul Freedom, in the sense that Mullins, Dunn, and Weaver seem to employ the word, is difficult enough to support as a biblical doctrine at all, much less as a doctrine that ought to serve as the central, defining conviction of any group of Christians. Dunn considered the concept of Soul Freedom to be "axiomatic" (and Mullins's approach to theology involved identifying such axioms). Dunn did volunteer the imago dei in Genesis 1 as the unnecessary biblical justification for the doctrine of Soul Freedom, but this is hardly satisfactory—how, precisely, people exist in the "image of God" is a topic with a wide variety of interpretations and with very little guidance from the text. No strongly persuasive reason exists to conclude that this doctrine relatively absent from the remainder of the Bible is, in fact, the real meaning of the imago dei.

The waxing influence of Calvinism among young American Christians also poses a threat to this philosophy. Although the Mullins concept of Soul Freedom seems to entail something more than a mere psychological freedom—a sense that the freedom of the soul is, if not the highest good, at least one of the great goods of creation and is an umbrella doctrine in the Bible—Soul Freedom does depend upon an idea of human freedom and an emphasis upon human freedom that seems to be at odds with most understandings of Calvinistic determinism.

Even if a concept of the freedom of the human soul were retained as a theological conclusion drawn from other premises, I do not see a robust future among Baptist biblicists for Soul Freedom as an axiomatic postulate from which to draw all other conclusions.

The Gospel as the Core of Baptist Identity

If Baptist biblicists cannot enthusiastically embrace Soul Freedom as the core doctrine of their common faith, whither shall they turn? One answer that is presently increasing in popularity is to emphasize the gospel as the bedrock concept of Baptist identity. Perhaps the clearest articulation of this point of view has come from Nathan Finn, who, although he was never a Baylor Bear, shares every other commonality with Aaron and me that I listed earlier in this post. Finn authored a nine-post series developing a framework in which the gospel is the core doctrine of Baptist identity. The best starting-point for the series is here.

Like Soul Freedom, the gospel as the core of Baptist identity depends heavily upon the individual experience of conversion. The concept of Soul Freedom approaches this experience explicitly from the human side of the equation, emphasizing human autonomy and choice. Finn's theory, in contrast, emphasizes the transformation of the individual by divine initiative and power. God's transforming action in the gospel, rightly understood and fully realized, adapts people to be members of Baptist churches. Baptist baptism best illustrates the gospel. Finn's series suggests that religious liberty can only claim biblical support by means of (presumably eisegetical) proof-texting, but affirms it nonetheless on other-than-biblical grounds. Religious liberty is not the highest good, but is instead a mere adaptation to sinfulness, destined to perish along with the rest of the curse at the final restoration. Religious liberty is good in a utilitarian sense—because we have discovered through the lessons of history that the best opportunity to spread the gospel occurs in contexts of religious liberty.

Soteriology, not anthropology, becomes the core doctrine of Baptist Christianity in this approach.

I predict that Finn's approach will increase in popularity. The major challenge that it faces is that many people who want to emphasize the gospel are also people who view Baptist distinctives as threats to the form of evangelical ecumenism that they desire (as Finn himself acknowledged in the series). Also, the clear implication of making the gospel the core doctrine of Baptist identity is that those who are not Baptists are defective, not merely in their ecclesiology, but in their soteriology, in at the very least some secondary way.

The Lordship of Christ as the Core of Baptist Identity

Malcolm Yarnell shares many of the same commonalities that link Barber, Weaver, and Finn. He has argued for the Lordship of Jesus Christ as the central doctrine of Baptist identity (for example, see his essay here). According to this theory of Baptist identity, the experience of regeneration in the gospel is coupled with a surrender to the lordship of Christ. Church polity is an exercise in following Christ's lordship. Local church autonomy is a refusal to put in lordship over the church any office other than those instituted by Christ. Religious liberty, in the style of Roger Williams, arises out of the question of the boundaries of authority given by Christ respectively to the state and to the churches. Because Christ is Lord over all and over everything, those to whom He has delegated authority (the state, the churches) must not overstep the boundaries of authority that He has set for them.

This is my own view, although I appreciate the strengths of the other approaches. I must confess that some elements of the preceding paragraph arise as much out of my own thinking as out of Dr. Yarnell's writing. The effect of this approach is to make Christology, and specifically the intersection of Christology and ecclesiology, the central doctrine of Baptist Christianity.

I believe that this approach has the strength of allowing for a strong biblical defense of religious liberty, rooted in Jesus' own statements about the extent and location of His kingdom, as well as in passages like the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Because Jesus has made statements about His authority and the manner in which He has delegated it in matters of faith and politics, we can derive from those statements a doctrine of religious liberty.

I will leave it to others to identify the weaknesses of this approach.


In many cases, I believe that those who follow any of these three approaches might arrive at precisely the same conclusions on various questions with approximately the same fervor. Should the United States of America have an official established church? Should the proclamation of the gospel and conversion to Christianity be considered capital offenses in Afghanistan? Should churches be required to follow all federal anti-discrimination practices in hiring pastors? Dunn, Weaver, Finn, Yarnell, and Barber would all arrive at the same conclusions on all of those questions.

A few more difficult cases would probably put on display the nuanced differences among the three approaches.

This much is important to me: Conservative Southern Baptists must be no less vigilant in embracing and defending religious liberty than are our more liberal brethren. Aaron Weaver's excellent homage to James Dunn challenges us who support the Conservative Resurgence and who remain in the vital core of the post-1979 SBC: Who are our zealots for religious liberty? Names certainly come to mind, for Richard Land is committed to religious liberty and Paige Patterson refers to it as the First Freedom. Nevertheless, the historic Baptist commitment is vulnerable on both the left and the right flanks, and Southern Baptists must take care that the move away from the thought of E.Y. Mullins does not result in any erosion of our historic defense of the liberty of all people to practice their faith, even if they do so wrongly, or not at all.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The True Church and the True Bible

I had an interesting conversation recently with a brother who had been reading my blog and had gone out of his way to make telephone contact with me. Knowing that I am an inerrantist, as he is, he wanted to discuss our common convictions and to lead me to consider his opinion that the Textus Receptus is the One True Bible. One implication of this point of view would be to suggest that the King James Version and its derivatives (like the NKJV) are the acceptable translations of the Bible into English.

His line of reasoning was easy to follow: God's Word cannot pass away, so it cannot have needed restoration. The Bible speaks as clearly about the preservation of scripture as it does the inspiration of scripture. Isaiah 40:8 reads "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever" (perhaps a bit ironic that I'm doing this out of the NASB). Peter does not hesitate at all to apply this promise to the New Testament as well as the Old (1 Peter 1:22-25).

Recent translations of the Bible mostly take advantage of textual criticism (the "lower criticism" in juxtaposition against "higher criticism" that was all the vogue in nineteenth-century continental Europe). Prior to the advent of textual criticism, not many translations of the Bible had been attempted subsequent to Jerome, but the brief history of modern translations used the "Received Text" (in Latin, Textus Receptus, which I'll abbreviate as TR), a Greek text assembled by Desiderius Erasmus relying principally upon the favored manuscripts of the Byzantine church.

The controversy over the TR is at least 304 years old. In 1707 John Mill published a Greek New Testament that documented the many other Greek manuscripts that read differently from the wording of the TR. Daniel Whitby replied by claiming that the TR is identical to the wording of the autographs (the original piece of paper on which, for example, Paul's Letter to the Romans was penned). The central question of the debate hasn't changed much since Mill-Whitby: Is the Textus Receptus, or is it not, a 100% perfect clone of the original manuscripts of the New Testament?

Now, back to the brother with whom I was conversing. His position is that the promise of the endurance (or preservation) of the Word of God necessarily requires that the Textus Receptus be the perfect representation of the original manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. Here is his line of thinking: The Textus Receptus is older than the critical editions produced by Mill or by Hort & Westcott. If Mill's work or Westcott & Hort's work are the perfect preservation of the Word of God, then they represent a restoration of something lost, for we know that they represent new beginnings in eclectic texts. The Byzantine text type (which he equates with the TR), having a mysteriously long history prior to Erasmus's use of it, and having been used mightily by God during the Reformation years, can be the perfect, sequentially unbroken preservation of the Word of God in a way that these other texts cannot possibly be. Therefore, since such a thing as a 100% perfectly preserved text is promised by the Bible, and since only the TR can possibly be what the Bible has promised, the "Received Text" must be the One True Bible. This summary does not encapsulate all of his rationale, but I believe that it responsibly represents at least one of the primary planks of his rationale.

So, what are we to make of this? A number of ideas.

  1. The King-James-Only position does not have a monopoly on belief in the preservation of the Bible. The manuscript problem of the New Testament does not suggest a failure of preservation, but an undesirable multiplication of it. God's word has been preserved. Unfortunately, a number of corruptions of God's word have also been preserved. These preservations—all of them—have alike been made by Christians in churches, of a sort.

    Certainly, those who advocate the TR as the True Word of God will universally be people who believe in the preservation of the scriptures. Certainly, those who deny the preservation of the scriptures will be people open to textual criticism. And yet, these two positions, to speak in terms of logical fallacies, do not rightfully exclude the middle. There are people (including the author of this blog) who believe that the Word of God has been preserved but do not identify the Textus Receptus as being that preserved Word of God.

    Some of the literature advocating for the KJV on the basis of the doctrine of the preservation of scripture does not accurately and adequately acknowledge this middle position. Belief in the preservation of scripture neither proves nor requires the acceptance of the TR as the perfectly preserved New Testament.

  2. The biblical promises about the preservation of scripture do not require that the Bible be preserved in English, or in any other secondary language. A great many languages do not yet, even today, have ANY translation of the Bible. God has not obligated Himself to provide that any English translation of the Bible should be the perfectly preserved transmission of the scriptures.

  3. Preservation is not necessarily popularity. So many of the defenses of the Textus Receptus depend basically upon the popularity of this textual family within the Eastern Church prior to the life of Erasmus. Conceding that the Byzantine texts were the most popular Greek manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages, one wonders how much weight this evidence deserves? What if the perfectly preserved autographs of the New Testament are lying buried in the sands of the Egyptian desert somewhere? What if, like the Qumran scrolls, the perfect autographs of the New Testament have eluded detection for centuries and are not in our collections at all today. Is that possible? Would the preservation of the scriptures allow for such a thing?

    Of course it can happen. The Bible says so.

    Although the Word of God will not pass away, we know that the Word of God can certainly pass out of favor and can even pass out of use…entirely. We know that this is true, because in 2 Kings 22, a portion of the Bible was found in the temple after having been lost entirely. God's preservation of the Bible did not fail at that time. People wandered about without the preserved Book of the Law, but the book itself remained preserved, and then God used Hilkiah to bring it back before the people.

    There is nothing in the Bible to deny that this could happen again. I do not necessarily believe that it has, but the fact that this is possible at all demonstrates the problem with the presumption that the preserved Word of God must not only be preserved but must also be in use—must be the manuscripts most popular for use over the longest period of time.

    Maybe, just as God preserved dissenting churches as a minority remnant down through the ages, God also preserved the Bible in dissenting readings as a minority textual family down through the ages. It would not be contrary to the character of God as revealed in the Bible and in church history for Him to have done this.

  4. God has used flawed people to preserve His inerrant Bible. Both sides must acknowledge that this is true. If the TR is the perfectly preserved New Testament, then it was preserved perfectly by people who venerated and worshipped the statues of saints. The KJV-only theory depends heavily upon Eastern Christianity as the conservators of the Bible.

    Those of us who engage in textual criticism, on the other hand, are indebted to liberal continental scholars who did not share my view of the inerrant nature of the Bible. We depend heavily upon Westcott & Hort.

    Neither side is likely to be entirely comfortable with the arrangement. And yet, neither side can escape it. Both sides stand in the position of having received the Bible at least to some degree from the hands of people who could have benefitted from reading it a bit more carefully and submissively.

And so, as I do with my Landmark brethren regarding ecclesiology, with my KJV-only brothers on the subject of the Bible I find myself agreeing that God has preserved something throughout the corridors of time, and yet disagreeing with them as to HOW God has accomplished that preservation and as to what are the implications of that preservation for identifying God's hand at work today. In doing so, I see our close kinship and I welcome our fellowship in the gospel with one another, hoping that they will see the same.

The New Testament, in its every good translation, teaches us that we ought to do so.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Why I Would Support a Name Change for the SBC

I've yet to hear any good reason articulated in support of changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention. The data do not support the idea that changing our name will make us any more effective, and the present process is transpiring in direct and willful defiance of a prior, yet-unrescinded vote of the messengers of the SBC.

Nevertheless, I can think of a circumstance in which I would entirely support—even advocate on behalf of—a name change for the Southern Baptist Convention.

There are a number of smaller Baptist groups around the nation that are biblically conservative and convictionally Baptist. Some of them might not regard the Southern Baptist Convention as conservative enough (even now!) for a partnership, but some of them would. Some of these organizations historically came into being as splits from the SBC, and others of them are refugees from the unabated leftward decay of the ABC.

What would happen if the SBC made active overtures toward these fellow Baptists in the interests of mutual cooperation and merger? Would some of them say no? Probably. Would all of them move slowly and have concerns? Likely. But could such an effort lead to a greater synergy of Baptist effort in the United States of America? I think it could.

Consider, for example, the recent rapprochement between the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas. This is a bold, exciting new detente between the two parties of what was a virulent debate in our grandfathers' days. It took place without any movement whatsoever beyond the bounds of the Baptist Faith & Message.

Why is this happening only in Texas? Why is this happening only with the BMAT? There are similar groups of Baptists throughout our land! Our Executive Committee should place a high priority upon this kind of outreach to other inerrantist Baptist groups in the USA.

If we were to accomplish something substantive like such an alliance, I'd be delighted for us to adopt a new name for our expanded fellowship (so long as we honored the will of the messengers and worked honorably through our polity to do so). A name change would be highly appropriate in such a circumstance, and would be something higher and more inspirational than the empty Madison Avenue posturing that plagues our fellowship on occasion.