Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Will the Antichrist Be a Landmark Baptist?

Instead of sinking VBS-week time into an SBC candidacy post, I'm going to write about something I care about: Baptist ecclesiology. Recent Southern Baptist discussions have thrust into the limelight the old debates about Landmarkism. And I'm not complaining. 2006 has been a great year for Baptist Historians—thanks to The DaVinci Code everyone wants to hear from us about Patristic Christianity, and now SBC controversies are giving us a chance to talk about Landmarkism. Two years ago everyone would have yawned and politely walked away from an opportunity to discuss these subjects. It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. Nevertheless, I think that recent talk about Landmarkism has displayed the immaturity of our scholarship in this area. Now is probably the time to mention that I am not a Landmark Baptist, but neither do I believe that Landmark Baptists all have 666 tatooed under their hairline somewhere. First, a few historical facts: Landmarkism emerged in the 1850s. The movement gained steam throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century. Although it retained some influence among Southern Baptists up through today, the prevalence and strength of Landmarkism declined sharply within the Southern Baptist Convention as the twentieth century unfolded. I think that virtually every informed historian would agree to these facts. Now, to the disputed stuff. Does anybody know what Landmarkism is? Practically every significant scholarly work has defined Landmarkism differently. We all agree about a core notion of Landmarkism, but from there different researchers are all over the map in trying to pin down what Landmarkism actually was. Yet people throw the term around in blogs today as though we all certainly know what Landmarkism is. For a good review of the issues, see the Wikipedia article on Landmarkism to which I contributed some content. Has Landmarkism become a debate tool with which to bludgeon people? Because the historical theory attached to Landmarkism is so demonstrably false, and because the core notion of Landmarkism (that only Baptist churches are really churches) is so contrary to the spirit of our age, Landmarkism has become something of a slur in Southern Baptist life. So, for example, James Tull and others have labored hard to blame Landmarkism for everything from the SBC's doggoned insistence upon planting churches outside our territory, to the SBC's refusal to join the World Council of Churches, to the inerrancy movement. Landmarkism is easy to knock down, so if you can tie anything else to Landmarkism, maybe you can knock it down, too. Clearly, some of this is going on in the blogosphere these days. Does Landmarkism have ANYTHING to teach us??? In my opinion, Southern Baptists have replaced Landmark ecclesiology with no ecclesiology at all. I would prefer a better Baptist ecclesiology to Landmark ecclesiology, but I would prefer a Landmark ecclesiology to a vacant ecclesiology. Does church membership mean anything? Is there still such a thing as local church autonomy in this day of multi-site Baptist bishops? Is congregationalism biblical? Why didn't our fathers teach us about these things? Because Baptists have dropped ecclesiology out of our lexicons. I see some hopeful signs of a renewed interest in such things. If we are going to think about ecclesiology, we simply must listen seriously to a system of thought that completely dominated Southern Baptist thinking for the better part of a century. We don't have to swallow everything it says, but we'd better at least make sure that we understand it. Is Landmarkism really totally at odds with "historic Baptist ecclesiology?" James Tull thought so, but then James Tull had an axe to grind (yeah....I know...as do we all). He tended to swap definitions of Landmarkism to suit the task at hand. 1851 is not the first occasion in history when Baptists thought that they populated the only New Testament church. John Smythe referred to his Baptist church's closest cousins in "Antichrist" sort of language. Clearly, many early Baptists regarded the Church of England and most of its derivatives as apostate churches. Landmarkism is distinct because it rejected the validity even of immersing churches, but Baptist exclusivism is indeed a substantial and ancient part of Baptist history. Debates over the extent of communion are much older than Landmarkism. Debates over Baptist organization beyond the local church are much older than Landmarkism. J. R. Graves did contribute some important innovations, but Landmarkism also clearly picks up some threads of Baptist thought that reach back to the very earliest days of our movement. Is Landmarkism opposed to missionary cooperation? Lots of people have claimed that the Hayden and Bogard schisms were the result of run-amuck Landmarkism trying to tear down the missionary structure of the SBC. Ergo, Landmarkism is inherently anti-missionary. Nope. Actually, in both Texas and Arkansas the major leaders on both sides of the issues were ALL DIED-IN-THE-WOOL LANDMARKERS. I have the goods. I can document this for you ad nauseum. Landmarkism is no more the cause of dissent for the dissenters than it was the cause of support for the supporters of the SBC missionary structure. Actually, the structure of the so-called "Landmark Baptist Denominations" for sending out missionaries is not so radically different from that of the SBC. Apparently, they're not so very anti-missions as some people like to suggest. If you went to seminary, I know that you were taught something very different from what I just wrote. Before you write off my words, just remember that our separation from the self-titled Landmark Baptist denominations is not that old, as history goes. Your teachers were, at most, one generation away from the actual battles. Some of the wounds were still fresh. Is it possible that not enough time had passed for our analysis of Landmarkism to mature? A crop of new dissertations is coming out in this decade, giving us a fresh look at Landmarkism. I think we've still got a lot to learn about the subject. In the meanwhile, maybe we ought to tone down the recriminations against alleged resurgent Landmarkism in the SBC. Maybe it is enough to say, "That guy believes this, but I disagree," without lobbing around inflammatory labels. The more we use terms like Landmarkism this way, the harder it is to rescue them to hold some authentic meaning.

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