The following post is the first in a new series on this blog called Theologica. With the popularity of our Aleph and Omega series dealing with biblical languages, we thought it would be interesting and informative to have a series addressing topics in various categories of theology–systematic, biblical, historical, philosophical, and others. In our first post, dealing with historical theology, church historian Nathan Finn describes the most important historical sources for learning about Baptist identity, which we believe you’ll find interesting even if you’re not Baptist. We hope you enjoy the series!
Sources for Studying Baptist Identity
By Nathan A. Finn
Religious identity is all about convictions. When studying Baptist identity, it is important to determine the best sources for uncovering those convictions. Like all Christian groups, Baptists express their beliefs primarily through their sermons, prayers, and hymnody. Some of these sources are fairly widely accessible (hymnals) while others are less so, at least for most of Baptist history, because they were normally not published (sermons, prayers). From time to time, Baptists have adopted catechisms for instructing their children in Christian doctrine. For example, in 1680 a London pastor named Hercules Collins published An Orthodox Catechism, which was a Baptist revision of the influential Heidelberg Catechism of 1563. When this has been the case, catechisms are valuable windows into Baptist identity. Of course, many Baptists have also published books, periodicals, and pamphlets, and these documents also help us to understand Baptist identity.
For Baptists, three types of sources prove especially fruitful in discussions about Baptist identity: confessions, covenants, and ecclesiastical records. These three sources demonstrate that Baptist identity has often been worked out in community. From the earliest days of the Baptist movement in the seventeenth century, Baptists have written confessions of faith that summarize their beliefs. Some confessions have been written by individuals, such as Thomas Helwys’s Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland (1611), while particular congregations wrote others, as was the case with the confession adopted by First Baptist Church of Boston, Massachusetts (1665). Sometimes individual Baptist institutions drafted confessions, such as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Abstract of Principles (1858) or the doctrinal statement of Uganda Baptist Seminary (2005). Often, however, confessions have been adopted by groups of Baptists, such as the Standard Confession (1660), the Second London Confession (1689), or the Baptist Faith and Message (1925). Though different Baptists have assigned varying levels of importance to confessionalism, confessions are often a good starting place for discussions of Baptist identity.
Local church covenants are a second important source for understanding Baptist identity. Whereas confessions of faith summarize Baptist beliefs, covenants spell out the moral expectations of church members. As Charles DeWeese argues, “Baptists worldwide have written and used hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of church covenants since initiating that development in England in the early 1600’s. . . . Covenants deserve careful evaluation because they helped shape Baptist church membership standards and practices.” The earliest English Baptists inherited a covenantal ecclesiology from the English Separatists, and like their forebears, they made covenants central to their understanding of church membership. Even churches that were not constituted around a covenant often later adopted a covenant, as is the case with New Road Baptist Church in Oxford, which was founded in the 1650s but adopted a covenant in 1780. Many churches have written their own covenants, while others have adopted more generic church covenants. In America, New Hampshire pastor J. Newton Brown’s covenant, which he published in his book The Baptist Church Manual (1853), was widely adopted by Baptist churches well into the mid-twentieth century. Many rural churches still display a copy of “The Baptist Church Covenant” (Brown’s covenant) on the walls of their sanctuaries or fellowship halls.
Ecclesiastical records constitute a third key source for Baptist identity. From their earliest days, Baptist churches kept “minute books” of congregational meetings and sometimes deacons’ meetings. These minute books frequently offer a helpful glimpse into Baptist identity in a given church or era. Associations, conventions, and even individual Baptist institutions have also normally kept detailed records. Associational “circular letters”—short treatises that were written at the request of the association and circulated among member churches—provide valuable information about Baptist identity. For example, during the years of the American Civil War, the Sandy Creek Baptist Association in North Carolina made little reference to slavery in their associational letters, but they repeatedly argued the war was judgment for “Sabbath-breaking”—working or enjoying recreational pursuits on Sundays. Other valuable records include resolutions or position papers adopted by Baptist denominations, entities, or local churches. Whereas confessions focus upon beliefs and covenants emphasize practices, ecclesiastical records often include valuable information pertaining to both.
When one examines all of these sources of Baptist identity, it becomes clear that Baptists share the vast majority of their beliefs in common with other types of Christians. Like virtually every Christian tradition, Baptists have historically affirmed such foundational doctrines as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, God’s direct creation of the universe, the inspiration of Scripture, the importance of Christian ethics, and the reality and eternality of heaven and hell. Like virtually every Protestant tradition, Baptists have normally believed in the supreme authority of Scripture, justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the two ordinances (or sacraments) of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Like most evangelical Protestants, Baptists have historically affirmed the truthfulness and sufficiency of Scripture, the centrality of the atonement in securing salvation, the necessity of personal conversion, and the importance of Christian witness. In the case of the latter, Baptists have frequently been trailblazers among evangelicals in developing creative evangelism initiatives, participating in global missions, championing religious liberty, and advocating for human rights.
In addition to these core beliefs, Baptists have historically also embraced certain beliefs that they uniquely emphasize; we call these the “Baptist distinctives” or “Baptist principles.” Most of the Baptist distinctives are ecclesiological in nature. Not every Baptist uses the same terminology for the distinctives, and not every church or denomination applies Baptist principles in exactly the same way, but nearly all Baptists affirm the same core group of beliefs as being central to Baptist identity. Though none of these convictions are found only among Baptists, they are prioritized as defining convictions of Baptist Christianity. Wherever you find these distinctives affirmed, you find a “baptistic” church, even if that congregation does not self-identify as “capital B” Baptists, participates in diverse ministry networks with non-baptistic churches, and even claims to be non-denominational. The Baptist distinctives include regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, congregational polity, local church autonomy, and religious freedom.
Nathan A. Finn is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies and Fellow of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has contributed chapters to Adoniram Judson, The Great Commission Resurgence, Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism, and Those Who Must Give an Account. Find him on Twitter @nathanafinn.