Is Jesus A Baptist?
by Timothy George
Presented as a plenary address at the conference on “Baptist Identity: Convention, Cooperation, and Controversy”
Union University, Jackson, Tennessee
February 20, 2007
Even though we are here at a premiere Christian university at a conference dealing with serious academic and historical matters, I want to begin doing something very Baptist today. I want to share my testimony. After this personal prelude, I will mention three strategies for renewal within the Baptist fellowship as we move forward into the future that God has prepared for us.
I was born on the other side of this state, in Chattanooga, in 1950. I never heard of Jackson, Tennessee. For us, the world stopped at Nashville. Memphis was the Far West, and anything beyond that was the Old Frontier. I came from what we would call today a dysfunctional family. My father was an alcoholic and died in the city jail when I was twelve years old. My mother suffered from polio and was not able to care for me or for my younger sister Lynda. Lynda was brought up in a Baptist Children’s Home in Cleveland, Tennessee, and I was left to be raised by two great-aunts, neither of whom could read or write. I am the first person in my family to have received a college education. But even though my folks could not read or write, they could certainly talk, think, and argue. I am sure I received my calling as a theologian from endless hours of arguing with my Uncle Willie over the truth claims of Mormonism. Once I straightened him out, I took on the Unitarians down the street and the Roman Catholics across town!
We lived in a section of Chattanooga called Hell’s Half Acre. It was an integrated neighborhood even back in the 1950’s, not because we were uppity liberals trying to make a social statement but simply because none of us, neither whites nor African Americans, could afford to live anywhere else. I would have said that we were dirt poor, but we couldn’t afford any dirt. I know what it is like to go to bed hungry, and how it feels to have kids make fun of your shabby clothes at school.
In that community there was a little Baptist church. I would call it a country church in the city, for although the church was located in the heart of the inner city, they worshipped like they were still way out in the sticks (which is where most of them came from). They would shout, and moan, and sometimes people got Holy Ghost fits. Brother Ollie Linkous preached with a holy whine and we sang old-fashioned Stamps-Baxter songs. One I remember to this day went like this:
“Here among the shadows, in a weary land.
We’re just a band of strangers passing through.
Burdened down with sorrows, fears on every hand.
But we’re looking for a city built above.”
If you had to place this church on the map of Baptist typology, it would be at the outer edge of the bubbling bilge of a rivulet washed up by the back-waters of Sandy Creek. And we were a band of strangers living in shadows, surrounded by fears. But when I later read about how the early Christians in Carthage were known to their neighbors by the love they had for one another, I knew what that meant for this church embraced me and my folks with a love that was palpable. They didn’t have much, but what they had they shared with us: picnic lunches in the summertime, and sacks of coal in the wintertime to keep us from freezing to death. There was an unfeignedness about their love that was unmistakable.
That little Baptist church taught me John 3:16, and “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” and “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine till Jesus comes.” They also taught me that I was a sinner and needed to be saved and that I couldn’t save myself and that we were saved only by grace through faith, not of works lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9), a verse that was emblazoned in my mind from earliest days. On August 6, 1961, after I had heard a sermon on Psalm 116, I asked Jesus Christ to come into my life, to forgive my sins, and to be my Lord. Soon thereafter, I felt called to preach, and I began to preach. No one ever told me you had to go to college or seminary or anything like that. I just began to preach. I would preach to the kids at recess, I held “Lawn for the Lord” services in the neighborhood, and I became a youth evangelist. The height of my youth evangelism career came a few years later at a little congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia, called Thomas Road Baptist Church.
I am a Baptist because Sam Peek, my sixth grade teacher, a Baptist deacon, took me to an RA camp. I am a Baptist because Al Davis, a director of missions, introduced me to a Southern Baptist missionary from Ghana and explained to me how the Cooperative Program enabled Baptists to work together to fulfill the Great Commission. I am a Baptist because Sam D. Sharp, a fiery evangelist who is still going strong at age ninety-two, took me under his wing and, and though he had had no opportunity to receive a formal education himself, he said to me: “Timothy, read all you can, learn all you can, don’t be afraid of ideas. You can believe the tomb is empty without your head having to be!”
I am a Baptist because a Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged the racism deep in my Southern Baptist soul in name of the Christ I was taught to sing about in Sunday School: “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white. They are all precious in his sight.” I am a Baptist because, when I was a high school student, Hershel H. Hobbs came to First Baptist Church of Chattanooga and preached a marvelous expositional sermon on the deity of Jesus Christ based on the Greek text of John, chapter one. I am a Baptist because, during seven years of graduate study at Harvard, what we use to call the Home Mission Board allowed me to serve as a church planter in an innercity Baptist congregation in Boston. I am a Baptist because all during those seven years at Harvard, Dr. R. G. Lee wrote me letters on his famous green stationary from 508 Stonewall Avenue in Memphis Tennessee, encouraging me to be faithful to the Bible, faithful to the Gospel, and faithful to the call that God had placed on my life. I was a Baptist before I knew what being a Baptist was all about because I came to know Jesus Christ through the witness of the people of God called Baptists. And in all my years of study, I have never found a more persuasive or more compelling way of trying to be a faithful biblical Christian.
Given what I have said about my background, perhaps you will not be surprised that when I moved from Boston to Louisville in that historic year 1979, I found myself a bit dazed and bewildered at the goings on in Southern Baptist life. I did not like the raucous tone and polarizing rhetoric generated on both sides of the Controversy in about equal measure, it seemed to me. But I was close enough to the center of gravity to know that there were legitimate concerns raised by conservative critics who early on in the Controversy were only asking only for parity. I thought then, and I still think now, that had our denominational leaders at the time responded to this challenge with more discernment, constructively and proactively, the rupture in our Baptist fellowship which has strained our relationship to the point of breaking could have been avoided. Instead, a strategy of denial, and stonewalling, and then counter-insurgency was adopted. Perhaps I am wrong about that, but eventually when a more realistic direction was taken by the SBC seminary presidents in the Glorietta Statement of 1987, it was too little, too late. I have written perhaps more than I should have about the Controversy, and I do not retract anything I have said or written in this regard. I am glad this denomination no longer welcomes leaders who deny the miracles of the Bible including the virgin birth of Jesus, or who argue for abortion on demand as a tenet of religious liberty, or who tout a host of other issues that are tearing apart every mainline Protestant denomination in America today. But I have also come today to say something else. We will not meet tomorrow’s challenge by forgettingyesterday’s dilemma, but neither will we win tomorrow’s struggles by fighting yesterday’sbattles.
In 1990, David Dockery and I edited a volume, Baptist Theologians, which has been republished under the title Theologians of the Baptist Tradition. In the preface to that book, we said this: “We believe that how we act and relate to one another within the Body of Christ is no less important than the theology we profess and the beliefs we champion. Indeed, they are inextricably linked, for true revival and spiritual awakening will only come in a context of repentance, humility, and forgiveness. We hope for the miracle of dialogue, not a raucous shouting at one another, nor a snide whispering behind each other’s backs, but a genuine listening and learning in the context of humane inquiry and disciplined thought.” That was true in 1990 and it is true in 2007.
With that in mind, I want to recommend three strategies, admittedly rather broad, grand, sweeping strategies, as we stand on the cusp of this still new century and seek to fulfill with fidelity the charge we have been given in this world of 6,574,979,990 persons all made in the image of God, most of whom have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the first time.
Retrieval for the Sake of Renewal
When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, one of my professors, Harvey Cox, like me a former Baptist youth evangelist, published a book entitled Turning East. Harvey was then in his post-Secular City, pre-Pentecostal phase and was much enamored with Buddhism and spiritualities of the East. In that book he argued for what he called the “principle of genealogical selectivity.” In trying to work out a viable spirituality today, he said, “there are two principal historical sources to which we should look. They are the earliest period of our history and the most recent, the first Christian generations and the generation just before us….The ransacking of other periods for help in working out a contemporary spirituality is either antiquarian or downright misleading.” Did you get that dialectic? Primitivism on the one hand (the first Christian generation), and presentism on the other (the most recent generation, my generation). This is the heresy of contemporaneity and it undergirds much of the liberalism and individualism that marks not only left of center theologians like Harvey Cox, but wide swaths of Baptist and evangelical life as well.
Against this “imperialism of the present” (as I have called it) and the ideology of self-importance that undergirds it comes the call for a Baptist retrieval of the Christian heritage as a source of renewal for the life of the church today. Retrieval for the sake of renewal—that was exactly the program of the Reformation. Ad fontes—back to the sources—was their motto. This was not a call to leapfrog over the intervening centuries back to some mythical, non-existent pristine New Testament church as though Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine, Athanasius, and Irenaeus had never lived, as though the fathers of Nicea and Chalcedon had never struggled with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity or the person of Jesus Christ. No, what they were about, and what the English Baptists of the seventeenth century, both Generals and Particulars, were about was a critical appropriation of the Christian tradition ever subjecting itself, and themselves, to the normative authority of the written word of God. This is why the framers of the Second London Confession of 1689 identified themselves with what they called “that wholesome Protestant theology” of the Reformation, and why the framers of An Orthodox Creed, a General Baptist confession of 1679, included the full text of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed in their statement of faith. They declared that all three of these historic documents “ought thoroughly to be received and believed…for they may be proved by most undoubted authority of Holy Scripture and are necessary to be understood of all Christians.” These were Baptists, mind you. This is retrieval for the sake of renewal.
Understanding our heritage will help us deal constructively with the issues and controversies we face today. This kind of retrieval will help us to place in perspective some of the questions that still generate more heat than light within our own Southern Baptist fellowship such as: 1) Are Baptists a creedal people?, and 2) Are Baptist Calvinists? Let’s look briefly at each one of these.
Are Baptists a creedal people? “No creed but the Bible” was a slogan of the Campbellite movement in the nineteenth century and it has become axiomatic in many circles as a marker of Baptist identity today. Yet prior to the twentieth century, most Baptist theologians from Andrew Fuller to E. Y. Mullins, spoke very affirmingly of “the Baptist creed.” They strongly rejected the idea that voluntary, conscientious adherence to an explicit doctrinal standard was somehow foreign to the Baptist tradition.
It is nonetheless true that Baptists have never advocated creedalism. In two very important senses Baptists are not, and never have been, a creedal people, that is, a creedalist people. First, Baptists of all theological persuasions have been ardent supporters of religious liberty, opposing sometimes to the point of persecution, imprisonment, and all kinds of degradations, state-imposed religious conformity, and the attendant civil sanctions associated therewith. Believing that God alone is the Lord of the conscience, Baptists deny that civil magistrates have any legitimate authority to regulate or coerce the internal religious life of voluntary associations, including churches.
Second, Baptists are not creedalist in that they have never agreed that any humanly constructed doctrinal statement should be elevated to a par with Holy Scripture, much less placed above it. As Baptist confessions themselves invariably declare, the Bible alone remains the norma normans for all teaching and instruction, “the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.” Unlike Eastern Orthodoxy which elevates the conciliar decisions of the first seven ecumenical councils to an infallible status, and the Roman Catholic Church which does the same thing with all twenty-three ecumenical councils, as they count them, including Vatican II, Baptists have never “canonized” any of their confessions. Rather we have held them all to be revisable in the light of the Bible, God’s infallible, unchanging revelation.
It must also be admitted that within the Baptist family there is a minority report on confessions, a libertarian tradition represented in colonial America by John Leland who rejected the use of the Philadelphia Confession of Faith by saying, “We need no such Virgin Mary to come between us and God.” Yet when such a confession became a means of uniting the Regular and Separate Baptist of Virginia, even John Leland, perhaps the most anti-confessional Baptist in colonial America, could allow the usefulness of such a document so long as such a statement was not placed on the level of the Bible nor “sacredized” by those who adopted it.
Still, for all of their value, confessions must be used with great wisdom and care. Confessionalism, like creedalism and traditionalism, can stultify and choke as well as undergird and defend. When matters of secondary and tertiary importance are elevated to a level of primary significance, and placed right next to the doctrine of the Trinity or justification by faith alone, then we are veering away from orthodoxy to orthodoxism, from tradition, which Jaraslov Pelikan famously defined as the living faith of the dead, to traditionalism, which is the dead faith of the living. Retrieval can lead to reversal as well as to renewal. If the Baptist Faith and Message becomes a grab bag for every problem or issue that comes on to the horizon, then it will cease to be a consensual statement of Baptist conviction. S. M. Noel, a Kentucky Baptist of the nineteenth century, has words of wisdom for us here. Our confession, he said, “should be large enough to meet the exigencies of the church by preserving her while in the wilderness, exposed to trials, in peace, purity, and loyalty. And it should be small enough to find a lodgment in the heart of the weakest lamb, sound in the faith.”
And now, an even briefer word on “Are Baptists Calvinists?” Historically and empirically, the answer to this question is: some are and some are not, and it has been thus among Baptists for nearly 400 years. Now I am not neutral about this subject. I was born an Arminian, as everyone is. I came only slowly, through much study and reflection, to a Reformed understanding of the doctrines of grace as taught by such notable Baptists as John Bunyan, Benjamin Keach, Roger Williams, John Clarke, Isacc Backus, Andrew Fuller, William Carey, Richard Furman, Jesse Mercer, James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, B. H. Carroll, Charles H. Spurgeon, John L. Dagg, R. B. C. Howell, Patrick Hues Mell, and Augustus Hopkins Strong, to go no further. I know of nothing that has happened in history of salvation since these great Baptist theologians wrote about God’s grace, that makes what they said outdated or irrelevant to our contemporary concerns. I commend their theology to my fellow Baptists today, not because it is theirs, or mine, but because it seems to me to reflect the underlying and overarching storyline of God’s redemptive love revealed in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. But brothers and sisters, we need not kill one another over such issues today! I like what our SBC president, Dr. Frank Page, has said about this matter. Our differing opinions over the details of Calvinism is a family discussion and should not be a source of division and acrimony among us.
I don’t know who does more damage to our Baptist fellowship, the rabid anti-Calvinists who slander and stereotype all Reformed theology as hyper-Calvinism, or some of the Calvinists who want to tweak the leaves of the tulip so tightly that in their desire to defend the doctrines of grace, they have forgotten to be gracious. At Beeson Divinity School this year we have offered a course both on John Calvin, and one on John Wesley. Baptists have something to learn from both of these great leaders, but we are bound to neither.
I have a word of caution to my friends who lean in an Arminian direction. Beware lest your exalting of human capacity lead you past Arminianism into rank Pelagianism. Arminianism is an error; Pelagianism is a heresy. And it will surely lead us, as H. Richard Niebuhr pointed out some years ago, to a truncated view of “a God without wrath bringing men and women without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.” John Wesley would doubtless turn over in his grave to see what passes as Arminianism in some circles today!
And I also have a word of caution to my friends who lean in a Calvinistic direction. Beware lest your exalting of divine sovereignty lead you into the heresy of real, as opposed to merely alleged, hyper-Calvinism. The original founders of the Southern Baptist Convention were well aware of this danger for the anti-mission movement was red hot at the time the SBC was organized in 1845. They established this denomination to be a missionary and evangelistic enterprise, committed to sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with everybody everywhere in the world. What passes as Calvinism in some circles today would make Andrew Fuller turn over in grave and even John Gill take a spin or two!
So, I have a proposal: let us banish the word “Calvinist” from our midst. It has become the new n-word for some, and an unseemly badge of pride for others. It does us no good. A Calvinist in the strict sense is a person who follows the teachings of John Calvin and, while John Calvin was surely one of the greatest theologians who ever graced the Christian church, no true Baptist agrees with Calvin on infant baptism, or presbyterian polity, or the establishment of the church by the state, however much we may learn from him in other respects. Let us confess freely and humbly that none of us understands completely how divine sovereignty and human responsibility coalesce in the grace-wrought acts of repentance and faith. Let us talk about these matters and, yes, let us seek to persuade one another, but let this be done with gentleness and respect as we are admonished in 1 Peter 3:15. Let us speak the truth to one another in love for truth without love is not really truth. It is rather a perverted form of puffed up pride, just as love without truth is not really love, but mere mushy sentimentality. Above all, let this discussion not hinder our joining hands and hearts to work together as evangelists and as Baptists across our theological differences. Let us join together with Charles Haddon Spurgeon, perhaps the greatest Baptist preacher who ever lived, in his open, unfettered appeal to the lost, as seen in his wonderful sermon on John 6:37, “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”
“Him that cometh to me: that is the character. The man may have been guilty of an atrocious sin, too black for mention; but if he comes to Christ he shall not be cast out. I cannot tell what kind of person may have come into this hall tonight; but if burglars, murderers and dynamite men were here, I would still bid them come to Christ, for he will not cast them out. No limit is set to the extent of sin: any “him” in all the world—any blaspheming, devilish “him” that comes to Christ shall be welcomed. I use strong words that I may open wide the gates of mercy. Any “him” that comes to Christ though he comes from slum or taproom, boarding room, or gambling hall, prison or brothel—Jesus will in no wise cast out.”
Any him, and if Spurgeon were preaching that sermon today, he would also add, any her. Anyone, anywhere, anytime, anyway—any him, any her! Jesus will in no wise cast out. That is the tone we need, whether you lean in one way or another on the decrees of God and how they are ordered from all eternity. Let us get this right and then when we get to heaven we can spend a few thousand years in the theology seminar room up there sorting through the details, and we will understand it by and by.
Particularity in the Service of Unity
Several years ago I was going through my daily mail when (to my surprise) I found a personal letter from Rome, Italy. I looked a little more closely for I do not get letters from Rome everyday, and lo, and behold, it was marked from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which used to be called the Inquisition! I thought they were after me! But I opened it up and there I found a personal letter signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who now, of course, is Pope Benedict XVI. A few months before I received this letter, Ratzinger had issued a very controversial document called Dominus Iesus which created something of an uproar within the ecumenical world. In that document, Ratzinger not only asserted that Jesus Christ is the world’s only Redeemer against certain pluralizing trends within Roman Catholic theology, but he also reasserted the traditional claims of the Roman Catholic Church against other Christian groups referring to their view of the church as “seriously deficient.” Contrary to almost everyone else who commented on the document, I had written a little piece commending it, saying that it represented the kind of candid ecumenism we needed more of—an ecumenism that did not paper over serious differences but faced them honestly in a common quest for truth. Ratzinger wrote to say that he appreciated my comments, and that I had indeed understood what he was trying to say.
What I advocated was an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation. This is what I mean by particularity in the service of unity. Yes, it is much easier to ignore theological differences and downplay doctrine, but that approach to Christian unity also results in a shallow, superficial togetherness that will not long endure. On this issue, I stand with Cardinal Ratzinger—I am a Benedictine. Theology matters because truth matters. Yes, we must speak the truth to one another in love, but speak the truth we must. I have always liked the statement from Simone Weil from her little book, Waiting for God. “Christ,” she wrote, “likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”
So, is Jesus a Baptist? Some people in our tradition have thought so, pointing out that Jesus was not baptized by John the Methodist, or John the Presbyterian, and certainly not by John the Episcopalian, but by John the Baptist. But surely, as they say in French, this is un question mal posée. The question is not: Is Jesus a Baptist?, but rather: Are Baptists Christian? Jesus did not found a denomination; he did establish a church. In the broadest New Testament sense, the church of Jesus Christ includes all of the redeemed of all of the ages, as Hebrews 12:22 makes clear: “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to myriads of angels in festive gathering, to the assembly (ecclesia) of the firstborn whose names have been written in heaven.” This is the Church with a capital “C,” the Ecclesia with a capital “E,” the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church outside of which there is no salvation, as our historic Baptist confessions have all confessed. It is indubitably true that the vast majority of uses of ecclesia in the New Testament does refer to local, particular congregations, and this means something very important and very precious for Baptist Christians. But the New Testament also refers to church in a universal, general sense. Jesus did it when he said, “Upon this rock I will build—not my churches but—my church.” Throughout the book of Ephesians, Paul consistently presents the Church in a universal sense as the Building, the Body and the Bride of Christ.
Yet here on earth, as St. Augustine reminds us, the church is on pilgrimage living amidst the vicissitudes of history, flawed, fallen, ever attacked from without, and divided within. And yet this church, the visible church, and for Baptists that means local, particular congregations of covenanted, baptized believers, this church is called to pray for, work toward, and embody the unity for which Jesus prayed to the Heavenly Father in John 17. Not some overarching, one world church organization that Carl McIntire and other ecumophobes have screeched against for decades but the new Testament confession of one faith, one Lord, and one baptism.
Why is this important? Why am I arguing for particularity in the service of unity? Not just so we can all get together, hold hands, and be nice, but so that our witness to the world will be credible. “May they all be one,” Jesus prayed to the Heavenly Father. “As you are in me and I am in you. May they also be one in us so the world may believe you sent me” (John 17:21). Jesus himself links Christian unity with world evangelization.
A year or so ago, my friend John Woodbridge and I published a book entitled The Mark of Jesus: Loving in a Way the World Can See. It is dedicated to the memory of Kenneth Kantzer and Francis Schaeffer, great evangelical leaders both of whom had a great influence on both of us. One of the last things Francis Schaeffer wrote before he died was a little book called, The Mark of the Christian. It was an exposition of Jesus’ words in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Dr. Schaeffer said that in that verse Jesus gave the world the right to decide whether or not we are true Christians based upon our observable love for one another. When I first read that, I thought “Surely this can’t be true?” But I read the text in John again, and I discovered that Dr. Schaeffer was exactly right. Jesus gives the world—unbelievers—the right to decide whether or not we belong to him based upon our observable love for one another. “By this shall all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” How else are they going to know? They cannot peer into our souls, or know what is in our hearts. But they can listen to our lips, and look at our walk, and see how we treat one another within the Body of Christ, including those brothers and sisters in the Lord with whom we do not see eye to eye.
But Baptist ecumenism? Isn’t that like talking about a pregnant rooster or a married bachelor? As the old country preacher said when confronted with a biblical teaching that he didn’t like, “Well, it may be Bible, but it sure ain’t Baptist!” But is that really true? Now, if you don’t like the word ecumenism, throw it out the window. I have no interest in defending it, although, unlike Calvinism, it is a New Testament word which we encounter every time we read the Christmas story in Luke 2: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the entire world (oikumené) should be enrolled.” Ecumenical simply means universal, the whole inhabited world. But forget the word, what about the reality it represents?
The world Protestant missionary movement began when an English Baptist shoemaker turned small-town pastor, William Carey, encouraged his fellow Calvinistic Baptists to establish a society for “the propagation of the Gospel among the heathens.” By 1793 Carey had arrived in India to begin his remarkable career, which included the planting of churches, the building of schools, the organization of an agricultural society, the establishment of India’s first newspaper, a protest against the burning of widows and the translation of the Scriptures into some forty languages and dialects. Now Carey was a Baptist, indeed a rather strict one, but in his missionary labors he worked with the Anglican missionary Henry Martyn, with Methodists, and Presbyterians, and even, God bless them, Arminian Baptists, in the interest of extending the witness of the Gospel to the peoples of India and the East.
In 1810, Carey set forth what has been called the “most startling missionary proposal of all times” by calling for a coordinating strategy for world evangelization. “Would it not be possible, he asked, to have a general association of all denominations of Christians, from the four corners of the world, held once in about ten years? I earnestly recommend this plan. And I have no doubt but that it would be attended with many important effects.” Exactly one hundred years later, in 1910, the first great International Missionary Conference was indeed held in Edinburgh, Scotland. However much we may deplore the fact that the modern ecumenical movement has been hijacked by advocates of a liberal left-wing agenda, which it certainly has been in many respects, we should never forget that it was born on the mission field and that a Baptist missionary was the midwife.
Particularity in the service of unity. Yes, by all means, let us maintain, undergird, and strengthen our precious Baptist distinctives—our commitment to a regenerate church membership, believers’ baptism by immersion in the name of the Triune God, our stand for unfettered religious liberty, and all the rest—but let us do this not so that people will say how great the Baptists are, but rather what a great Savior the Baptists have, what a great God they serve! May they be able to say, “Just look at the those Baptist Christians, see how they love one another! See how they work together with other believers. See how they put others ahead of themselves. Ya’ know, I think I’ll give a listen to what they are saying about all this Jesus Christ stuff.”
Humility in the Presence of the Holy
Retrieval for the sake of renewal, particularity in the service of unity and humility in the presence of the Holy. These remarks will be brief. I want to begin with two caveats. The first is simply to acknowledge how difficult it is to speak or preach about humility because once you think you have got it, you have already lost it. I don’t know of any seminary in the Association of Theological Schools that teaches a course on Humility 101. Well, we couldn’t find any professors to teach it if we did. And, if we found a professor who was qualified to teach it, we couldn’t find any students who wanted to take it!
Humility is not a virtue to be cultivated. It is a by-product of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 5, we read that the fruit of the Spirit is love, meekness, gentleness, goodness, kindness, perseverance, patience, all of these many manifestations. One fruit, and if I may put it this way, the fragrance of the fruit of the Spirit is humility. Others are more likely to recognize it in us than we ourselves.
The second caveat I want to add is a somewhat contrarian word about the very theme of this conference. Is there not something a bit narcissistic about our focusing so intently on Baptist identity? Now, you could say, “Wait a minute, Dr. George. You’ve been talking for more minutes than you should have about that very thing.” Retrieval for the sake of renewal. And that is what our conference has focused on to a very great extent and much of it has been very wonderful and good. I don’t know anything really that has been spoken in this conference that I would disagree with. And yet I want to say to us that there is a fine line between retrieval for the sake of renewal and the projection of a Baptistocentricity, a denominational egocentricity, a perspective that is self-absorbing, self-justifying, and self-gratifying.
Now I am not preaching to anybody unless it is to myself, but I think this is something that needs to be said. Do you know what the corrective for this malady is? It is to get a vision of this world in which we live, the world for which Christ died. The most important book I have read in the last decade—if you haven’t read it, go out and buy it and read it—is Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom. Jenkins points out the balance, the shift in the balance of the world Christian population, from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere. This has become almost a cliché, and yet there is increasing evidence to back up what he says. China.…God is doing an amazing thing in China. Much of it is not denominationally focused. But who can say that God is not at work in an extraordinary way in those churches, underground and overground and in all kinds of places. And to think about China for just one minute more, and realize that in the smallest province of Western China, there are more Muslims today than there are Southern Baptists in the whole world. I am simply saying let us keep this in perspective. And when we talk about humility in the presence of the Holy, let us beware lest we all fall into this temptation to think of ourselves more highly than we should.
Several years ago, my wife Denise and I edited a series of twelve books for Broadman and Holman called The Library of Baptist Classics. Most of these volumes are still in print today. One of those books was called Treasures from the Baptist Heritage and we included in that volume a sermon preached on May 26, 1843, by Jacob R. Scott to the Portsmouth Baptist Association of Virginia which convened in 1843 in the Baptist church at Mill Swamp. In his address to that Association, Jacob R. Scott preached a sermon on “The Dangers of Denominational Prosperity.” I will quote a few lines of it. Two years before the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention, he said this:
“And when we, my brethren, show symptoms of elation, in consequence of the great prosperity with which the Lord has crowned us, when we, as a denomination, or as separate churches, begin to boast of the great numbers in our ranks, the wealth, the talents, the respectability, the influence, that have been added to our communion, when we begin to lose that spirit of simple, lowly, unsophisticated piety, which characterized us in the days of our fewness and contempt, it will be high time for us to begin to tremble also. We may expect the withering frown of Jehovah, and the tide of our prosperity will be turned backward. We may rejoice indeed, that the Lord has blessed us; and let us be glad; but let us exult only because in our success, we see the advancement of truth, which is the cause of God, and essential to the enfranchisement, the glory, and the felicity of our race. It cannot be doubted, brethren, that with the enlargement of our denomination, there has come a tendency to this vain-glorying. I say it with regret, I fear the indications of this tendency have already made their appearance. What means the boastful parade so often made in our publications, or our superiority in numbers over other denominations? And especially of any inroads we may chance to have made on their ranks? Let us beware of this spirit. Let us see to it that we be not puffed up with arrogance. The devil cannot be better gratified than to witness this. Let us take heed lest we make shipwreck here, and it be left for us merely to furnish a beacon to some remoter generation, who, thus warned of the rock on which they are most likely to split, shall safely bear the holy trust now in our hands, into the port to which we had had the honor of bearing it but for our folly.”
I commend that to your consideration. Humility in the presence of the Holy.
This last Fall at Beeson Divinity School we had a birthday party. We celebrated with many other guests and friends who came from around the world, the eightieth birthday of Dr. J. I. Packer, who is not a Baptist, but a great theologian to whom all faithful Baptists are deeply indebted. Well, some years ago, they had another eightieth birthday party for the theologian Karl Barth. And then they asked him to get up and make a speech and this is what he said.
“If I have done anything in this life of mine, I have done it as a relative of the donkey that went its way carrying an important burden. The disciples had to say to its owner: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ And so it seems to have pleased God to have used me at this time, just as I was, in spite of all the things, the disagreeable things, that quite rightly are and will be said about me. Thus I was used. I just happened to be on the spot. A theology somewhat different from the current theology was apparently needed in our time, and I was permitted to be the donkey that carried this better theology for part of the way, or tried to carry it as best I could.”
Dear brothers and sisters, that is all we are. Just a bunch of donkeys, a guild of donkeys that happened to be on the spot at the right time and who are called in the providence of God to carry a burden for a while. But what a precious, invaluable, infinitely glorious burden it is. This is our job, we donkeys, to carry this burden, to carry Him who took upon himself the burden of our sins on the cross. To carry Him faithfully, steadily, humbly, proudly, unashamedly, joyfully, along that treacherous path which leads finally to Calvary.
Humility is not a virtue we can cultivate, it is a gift which comes to us as we focus on the object of our vision, on the precious cargo we are permitted to carry for a little while. I quoted H. Richard Niebuhr earlier. Let me close with another quotation from his brother Reinhold Niebuhr.
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”
These are the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. When we get to heaven, we will not need faith anymore, we will have sight. We will not need hope anymore, we will have the thing hoped for. But even in heaven, we will still need love. Love is the one thing we can experience in this life that will last forever and ever and ever, in the eternity of God. This, I submit, is a summons to humility. It is also the implicit covenant of all our dialogues and, in its fullest sense, it is the vocation to which you and I, we Christ-bearing donkeys, have been called.
Timothy George, an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention, is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and an executive editor of Christianity Today
. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org