Baptist Theology by Stephen Holmes: A book review


This thought provoking book deserves a wide readership both within the Baptist community and by Christians of other traditions who want to be better informed as to what it means to be a Baptist. The review below is not exhaustive rather as the author has provoked me to think I have shared my responses. Any critical comments are not meant to deter the reader from reading this book. I would recommend this book to all who want to understand Baptists better.

The author does us a service by tackling what is a neglected areas of historical theology and systematic theology, This short book can only be the start of serious reflection about Baptist Theology, but it is a good starting place.

In this review I will bring out some areas I believe need some clarification, where I do not comment the reader can safely assume that I agree with the authors conclusions.

Chapter one deals with Baptist beginnings, here we are introduced to the central characters and the early movements amongst Baptist namely the Particular Baptists and General Baptists. But before this we are given a very helpful study of the nature of separatism in Britain, this is vital to a greater understanding of the context of the Baptist Movement. I found the discussion of hyper-Calvinism and particularly Gill’s theology interesting but I feel that we fail to give a proper estimate of Gill if we do not acknowledge his vast theological knowledge and his passion for expounding the Scripture. Gill’s Body of Divinity and his Body of Practical Divinity, give insights into a deep understanding of the word of God. I am somebody who was raised in hyper-Calvinistic circles and once I saw that evangelical Calvinism was the truth in this matter, I tended to ignore Gill but recently I have been consulting these two volumes again. With Gill we are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Lets take the good and reject the bad. I don’t know if any earlier Baptist had tried to produce a systematic theology as Gill attempted but I feel we should honour him for the attempt. I have just read some of the comments about Gill in chapter 4, which seem to see his significance more clearly

I find Andrew Fuller’s refutation of hyper-Calvinism utterly convincing, his writings were a major factor in liberating me from the bondage of hyper-Calvinism so the account here is of major interest to me.

This whole chapter is full of insights about the beginnings of the Baptist movement and I feel that anyone not familiar with Baptist history would benefit from reading this chapter.

Chapter two introduces us to the beginning of the Baptist movement in North America starting with the Pilgrim Fathers. I do not feel that I need to say much about this chapter but I found the comments about the context of the theological task illuminating, it certainly explained to me some of the reasons why I could not fully grasp what Augustus Strong was doing in his Systematic Theology. This whole chapter shows the pitfalls of falling into one of two extremes, dogmatic formulations such as the fundamentalist movement produced are reactionary, on the other hand Liberal theology watered down the gospel.

Carl Henry is given a rightful mention and it is not just Baptists but all evangelicals that are indebted to his pioneering work. Undoubtedly for many of us Henry is too much a child of the Rationalistic movement in theology, yet he taught us a lot about the theological task. Surely he is worthy of honour because of his work to bring evangelicals out of the ghetto of fundamentalism into engagement with culture.

Chapter 3 starts with a review of British Baptist life and thought since 1800. although the author mentions the advent of the open table at communion, he is strangely silent about the continuing stream of Baptist life in this country which still practices strict communion namely the Strict Baptists. The Strict Baptists have always been divided into groups, the Gospel Standard Strict Baptists are hyper-Calvinistic in their theology, whereas the other stream now known as Grace Baptist have always held to an evangelical Calvinism. In the early days of the strict Baptist there was also a heated Christological debate which resulted in J.C Philpot publishing his book “The Eternal Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ” Philpot was unusual among the Strict Baptists in that he was their only highly educated spokesman.

I am not convinced that the author has been completely fair to Spurgeon, to say that he was not a theologian is I think unfair, one has only to read his sermon ” A Dirge to the Down Grade” to see that Spurgeon saw clearly where Liberal theology would lead too. I grant that Spurgeon was not an academic theologian but he certainly knew what he wanted taught at his Pastors college.

On the whole this chapter is helpful and illuminating and I don’t want comments to distract from the positive teaching and wealth of knowledge this book contains. The rest of this chapter gives greater insight into how Baptist Life developed in various parts of the world, there is much of value here. It would be great to see some of these themes expanded on in the future,not necessarily by Holmes because it seems from the material presented here, that other scholars from those parts of the world would be able to evaluate their own histories in greater depth.

Chapter Four, gives an overview of the doctrines hold in common with other Christian bodies. This chapter gives an even-handed presentation of those issues where there is no distinct Baptist view, but he presents us with Baptists who have contributed to the larger debates.

Chapter 5, In this chapter the author  examines the two key items which most people think of when they think of being  a Baptist namely Baptism and Congregational Church government.

Firstly he looks at the subject of Baptism, I am more than a little surprised to see the term “individualist” applied to baptism, surely baptism states not only that the believer has been born again but also he now is a member of the Church of God. Therefore it is unhelpful to divorce baptism from church membership as many British Baptist Churches do. The New Testament and Post-Apostolic Church pattern is to see baptism as the gateway to church membership. Baptism is a sacrament of the church and therefore not purely individualistic. Baptism testifies to the believers new life in Christ and his incorporation into the body of Christ. In the New Testament all church members were baptized and all those who were baptized were church members. Baptism emphasizes both the individual’s coming to faith and his incorporation into the family of the church. Because of this I am glad that I belong to a closed membership church. We need not be ashamed of our Baptist distinctives, nor do we need to tone down the teaching because of ecumenical concerns, ecumenism seems to operate on the lowest common denominator of faith rather than trying to unite the church on the basis of biblical doctrine.  It will be obvious I hope that I approach the doctrine of baptism from a sacramental standpoint rather than a symbolic interpretation, Holmes helpfully explains the differences here with reference to George Beasley-Murray’s helpful book on the subject.

Secondly, we are led into a discussion of congregational church government, Holmes rightly stresses that the purpose of a church meeting is to discern the mind of Christ for that congregation. The church meeting is vital to this process but in my view in recent years the average church member does not understand this important principle. In the past it was not uncommon to have the Church Meeting after the prayer meeting and I have read of some eighteenth century churches that would not allow a member to vote if that member had not been present at the prayer meeting. This underlined the importance of seeking the mind of Christ, today one often hears the comment that goes something like this “why did we have to spend so much time worshiping and praying when its a business meeting”. The author rightly explains the difference between democracy and what goes on at a church meeting. The section on Church leadership  has many helpful insights into the nature of ordination and the issue of women’s ordination, this section deserves careful reading and reflecting upon. However although Pastors, elders and deacons are all mentioned this section does not deal with the vexed question of the authority of Church leaders. some Baptists believe that all authority is rooted in the church meeting, this does not give an adequate reflection of the picture of the eldership given in the New Testament. The elder of the church is the shepherd of the flock and has a god given authority to teach and lead. This is not to confused with models of heavy shepherding which were prominent in some circles in the seventies and eighties.

This is a bit of an aside but on page 110 Holmes makes this statement,

the distinctive teaching of  the contemporary charismatic movement, as of its Pentecostal precursor,is not the present reality of the action of the Holy Spirit, but that certain ‘supernatural’ gifts, long regarded by mainstream Christians as withdrawn from the church, are in fact still given by the Spirit.

I find this statement amazing because a look at both Pentecostal and Charismatic theology and history will confirm that it is because of the present working of the Spirit that the gifts are to be expected. The gifts are for the edification of the church as it gathers together and are therefore a mark of the present work of the Holy Spirit. Whether one looks at the original documents of the Azusa Street beginnings of Pentecostalism or one looks at contemporary reflections in the Journal of Pentecostal Theology, one will see a desire for the present working of the Spirit in the church not only through the exercise of the gifts but also through preaching, teaching and evangelism. I feel  that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of Pentecostal and Charismatic Theology at this point.

Chapter 6. In this chapter we have a truly insightful account of how Christ’s Lordship is applied in the Baptist Community and how this leaves the believer free under Christ. The historical sketch of the development of Baptist thought and toleration is very helpful. The discussion about Mullins and his theory of”soul competency was very interesting.This whole chapter is worth careful reading. I do wonder however if some form of the idea of sphere sovereignty would be better than the use of individualist language.

Chapter 7, gives us many insights into the DNA of Baptist life both in mission and holiness. It is interesting to note the communal nature of holiness presented here, this undoubtedly highlights the Baptist Tradition, my question is, how well do we live up to this today?

I hope that every person reading this book finds it as instructive and stimulating to further thought as I did.

About pneumaandlogos

David Rollings was born in Luton in1949 and raised by my Christian parents in the Gospel Standard Strict Baptist denomination( Hyper-Calvinistic} in the sixties I rebelled against this background and got involved in left-wing politics. I became a Christian in 1969 and soon started reading Francis Schaeffer's books and came to embrace a Christian Worldview. I had the privilege of being on the staff of L'Abti Fellowship from1975 - 1979. After L'abri I studied at London School of Theology where I gained my BA.(1983) A few years later I studied for my MA by distance learning with The Nazarene Theological College Manchester (1999) For the last 25 years, I have been an elder of Shoreham-by-Sea Baptist Church. I also regularly attend the Christian Doctrine Study Group of the Tyndale Fellowship.
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6 Responses to Baptist Theology by Stephen Holmes: A book review

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