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 Amazon.com…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:
- Marv Knox: Book Reviews: James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom (2nd item)
- Peter Lumpkins: James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom: A Review by Peter Lumpkins.
- Russell Moore: New Book on James Dunn and Soul Freedom
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.