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The Baptists: Beginnings in Britain - Vol 1 Hardcover – July 20, 2008
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"This study will be a standard text in future courses on Baptist Identity. Volumes two and three are eagerly anticipated." (Baptist Quarterly - Rev. Dr. Brian Talbot, Minister, Carbrain Baptist Church Cumbernauld)
About the Author
Tom Nettles is Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.
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This volume is broken down into three parts: In Part I, "Competing Models in Setting the Profile," Nettles describes previous summaries of Baptist history and identifies major points of division among those who identify themselves as Baptists. Nettles describes two approaches to being Baptist. The first he labels "the soul-liberty party," which identifies with the enlightenment and emphasizes the primacy of Christian experience. The second, which Nettles argues for, identifies with the reformation, historic Christian orthodoxy, evangelicalism, theologically integrated ecclesiology, and a conscientious Confessionalism. Nettles calls this the "coherent-truth model." The "soul-liberty" people emphasize the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer to the point that each individual believer can pick and choose which parts of the Bible are authoritative. The "coherent-truth" people submit themselves to the authority of both Scripture and orthodox Christian thought as represented in historic creeds and confessions.
Part I sets the stage, and the rest of this book is a biographical approach to history. Major figures have been selected, and their lives, ministerial experiences, and theological contributions are surveyed. This approach gives the volume a personal feel and makes for fascinating reading.
Part II treats three General Baptists: John Smyth (d. 1612), Thomas Grantham (1634-1692), and Dan Taylor (1738-1816). Smyth began as a Reformed Puritan, eventually separated from the Church of England, and by 1609 concluded that church membership should be based on believers' baptism. Smyth baptized himself because though the Mennonites and Anabaptists practiced believers' baptism, he considered them doctrinally suspect and perhaps even heretical (63-64). He later repudiated his baptism, rejected Augustine on predestination and original sin, rejected Luther on justification by faith, and sought to join the Mennonites.
Grantham, who like Paul was stoned for his preaching (73), drafted a confession of faith signed by 41 General Baptist ministers. Grantham held to general atonement, to election based on foreseen faith, and thought that believers could lose their salvation (74-75). Consistent with his other positions was Grantham's view that God does not require of his creatures things they are not able to perform. This leads naturally to inclusivism (as opposed to universalism or exclusivism): if people never hear the gospel, but respond rightly to natural revelation and the law written on the heart, they "do know this Mediator virtually, and believing on the Lord as such, do know him savingly" (91, quoted from Grantham, St. Paul's Catechism , 11).
This issue of what is required of those who are not otherwise able is at the heart of the "Modern Question." Nettles explains, "The Modern Question plainly stated is this: `Whether it be the duty of all men to whom the gospel is published, to repent and believe in Christ?'" (248). What Grantham shows us is that there were erroneous responses to the Modern Question in two directions: some Particular Baptists slipped into hyper-Calvinism, mistakenly thinking that if God does not require of his creatures what they cannot do, there is no sense calling sinners to repent and believe the Gospel. Grantham shows us the other error, of inclusivism, which claims that people can be saved apart from conscious faith in Jesus Christ (people who have not heard of Christ cannot trust him, therefore God does not require them to trust him for salvation). We will see that those who held fast to both Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility avoided both hyper-Calvinism and inclusivism.
Taylor was confirmed in the Church of England, but Particular Baptists spurred him to revisit the question of Baptism (96). When he became convinced of believers' baptism, the Particular Baptists refused to baptize him because of his Arminian convictions (97). Taylor became a General Baptist but was forced to separate from the General Baptist General Assembly in 1769 because they refused to affirm the full deity of Christ and stand against Socinianism and Arianism. Those who went with him formed the "New Connection of General Baptists." This group eventually united with the Particular Baptists to form the Baptist Union in 1891. Taylor avoided Pelagianism, but misunderstood Calvinism. He could not comprehend how Andrew Fuller could be both fully Calvinistic and evangelistic (the Modern Question again). He thought that regeneration, rather than preceding faith, followed and arose from it, and "took it for granted that the hyper-Calvinism of the eighteenth century did not arise at all as an aberration but constituted the essence of historic Calvinism" (105).
Part III deals with seven Particular Baptists: John Spilsbury (1593-1662/68), William Kiffin (c. 1616-1701), Hanserd Knollys (1598-1691), Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), John Gill (1697-1771), Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), and William Carey (1761-1834).
Spilsbury, Kiffin, and Knollys were roughly contemporary. They were followed by Keach, who passed the torch to Gill, who was followed by Fuller, who "held the rope" for Carey.
According to Nettles, Spilsbury, Kiffin, and Knollys completed the reformation by leavening its theology through their ecclesiology. Spilsbury's views gave a clear answer to the Modern Question before it ever became an issue: he held that everyone was bound to believe the Gospel (125). This, in good biblical fashion, maintains human responsibility. An early observer called Kiffin the Father of the Particular Baptists (129). Both his parents died of the plague when he was nine. Like Spilsbury, both Kiffin and Knollys held that all were required to believe long before the Modern Question was ever asked. Nettles writes, "the issues addressed in the next century were not really such a `modern question' and . . . leading Baptist Calvinists already had reasoned through the implications of the question and had preceded Fuller and Carey in the answer" (138, cf. 157). Knollys was originally a minister of the Church of England, and his resignation of that post and adoption of Baptist views resulted in much hardship. Like the Apostle Paul and Thomas Grantham, he lived through being stoned for his preaching (152).
Benjamin Keach's views on the atonement and the human will changed, and he became a great proponent of Particular Baptist Theology. The church he pastored in London had to move to a location that would accommodate nearly one thousand people (166). John Gill followed Benjamin Keach (after Benjamin Stinton) at the Horsly-down Church in London. Nettles finds one place where Gill "appears to hold the hyper-Calvinist view," in that "Theoretically Gill held that the non-elect were not obligated to evangelical obedience, because the necessity of such obedience did not exist in unfallen humanity as deposited in Adam" (226). Nettles demonstrates, however, that this view did not work its way into Gill's own practice (227). Gill disputed with Wesley, but he "did not differ in any essential theological category from the Grand Itinerant, George Whitefield" (241).
Some took hold of Gill's "theoretical" answer, and as a result they did not call sinners to repentance. They reasoned like Grantham: sinners are not obligated to do what they are unable to do (247-48). Helped by Jonathan Edwards' distinction between Natural Inability--what one is physically unable to do, and Moral Inability--what one is unable to do because one is unwilling to do it (the Gospel does not call people to do what they are physically incapable of doing but to what they volitionally refuse to do)--Andrew Fuller wrote The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, which argued for "the congruity between divine sovereignty and human responsibility" (250). Like their Baptist forefathers, Fuller joined with John Ryland Jr. and William Carey in the opinion that "the affirmative side of the Modern Question [the Gospel should be indiscriminately proclaimed and all called to believe it] was fully consistent with the strictest Calvinism" (290). These three men who held to "the strictest Calvinism" initiated the modern missions movement. Clearly "strict Calvinism" is not to be equated with "hyper-Calvinism," which Fuller rejects as "false Calvinism" (245). There is an important point here. Hyper-Calvinism is a specific theological position. It seems today that some non-Calvinists are ready to label anyone who appears to be less evangelistic than they think themselves to be as hyper-Calvinistic. The rejection of manipulative methods and coercive techniques in favor of boldly proclaiming the pure Gospel and trusting the Spirit to quicken hearts is not less evangelistic but more so (compare Paul's practice in 1 Cor 2:1-5).
Tom Nettles' important book imparts much truth that speaks directly to several battles taking place in Baptist life today: the new IMB policies on Baptism do not appear to be Landmarkist, historically speaking. The move to accept people who have not been baptized as believers as members at Bethlehem Baptist Church, where John Piper pastors, has been argued against by William Kiffin, who engaged in controversy with John Bunyan over the same issue (138-42). Hanserd Knollys long ago argued against the principle behind the modern multiple campus phenomenon (158). Some contemporary Baptists allege that having a plurality of elders is not Baptist but Presbyterian, but even the General Baptist Thomas Grantham held that biblical church officers are "Elders and Deacons" (75). Moreover, the 1925 version of the Baptist Faith and Message states that the "Scriptural offices" of a Gospel church are "bishops or elders and deacons."
If Baptists today are to be unified, we must pursue two things: (1) the ability to articulate the positions of those with whom we disagree in a way that satisfies those who hold those positions, and (2) the fair representation both of what the Bible indicates and of the historical record. We must approach those with whom we disagree from a spirit of brotherly love. If we consider others benighted by mistaken conclusions, let us dialogue with them in such a way that they feel that we love them and want to help them. There is no place for caricature and misrepresentation for rhetorical advantage. The book discussed here is a model of the kind of contributions needed. This history will take us a long way toward understanding those who have gone before us. May many Baptists read this book that Tom Nettles has given to us. It will inform our discussions, and we will surely be inspired and humbled by the faithful suffering of our forefathers. Let us remember them, consider the outcome of their lives, and imitate their faith (Heb 13:7).
Part One lays the groundwork for this biographical trilogy. Nettles sets before the reader a brief outline of what a Baptist is. He says, "Baptists are orthodox. That is to say that one must be first a Christian before he can be a Baptist." Specifically, for example, one must have an orthodox view of the Trinity. Second, a Baptist must be evangelical. Specifically, in regards to the "doctrine of justification by faith, the necessity of the work of Christ, and the necessity of the work of the Spirit." Under this title (evangelical) we find those of Arminian persuasion (whether consciously or unconsciously) and those of Calvinistic persuasion. While both groups fall under the category of evangelical, "every person interested in salvation should know how their differences affect one's conception of sin and redemption." Theology has practical implications. As Nettles states, "knowledge of the relationship between God and the sinner in the event of salvation must not be reduced to a mere academic stimulus. That which God does in salvation of sinners, and what spiritual profile we may assume about sinners, not only has pertinence, but is weighty, in the task of evangelism and pastoral counseling. If I have thoughts about man's will that give it a greater prominence than the Bible does then I will rely on man-made and man-centered approaches in evangelism and counseling. If, however, I believe that God must act and that God must change hearts, then I will rely on Him to do the changing. The third element of the historical Baptist portrait that Nettles explains is that of separateness, specifically separate from government and outside interference and aid. This also involves church discipline to maintain the church's purity. The fourth trait is that a Baptist church is confessional. Church confessions were used, "so each church should make plain to the membership and to the world the truths that are believed by the church as a whole." This is probably the trait that is most missing in the modern American church, and truth suffers because it is not proclaimed.
Part Two gives short sketches of three men: John Smyth, Thomas Grantham, and Dan Taylor. Each of these men contributed to what would later become a Particular Baptist identity that Nettles will examine in Part Three. Smyth is portrayed as a man who went through a lot of theological changes. While he baptized himself, and later doubted that this was valid, he provided a good defense for the practice of believer's baptism, a notable contribution. Smyth however, "embrace an anti-Augustinian view of sin, depravity, election and justification that many future evangelicals would find more compatible with their view of a kinder, gentler God." Because of these views he influenced many future General Baptist. Grantham and Taylor are also examined for their contributions to early Baptist thought and practice. Taylor notably was very influential in the General Baptist cause. While Taylor was a General Baptist he maintained friendships with many who disagreed with his theology and he read behind many puritans and particular Baptists.
Part Three is the meat of the book, filling over 200 pages. This section contains biographical sketches of seven Particular Baptists. There is far too much information to fit into a brief summary, so I will try to present just a few highlights of some of these men. William Kiffin, "helped establish a distictive and stable Baptist identity in a tumultuous, intimidating, and rapidly changing age," along with Spilsbury and Knollys. Hanserd Knollys was a signer of the revised edition of the First London Confession (1646) and is believed to be responsible, along with Benjamin Cox, for the Calvinistic revisions that were made. Knollys argued for an Elder led, congregational ruled decision making process for the church. Because of this, church members should be regenerate, if they are going to make decisions in the church, a point Knollys also argued in support of. Nettles does a nice job of showing the reader Benjamin Keach's view/defense of the Covenant of Redemption and how it plays out in salvation history. This section focuses on Keach's view of salvation as it relates to: covenant, the trinity, the person and offices of Christ, justification, assurance and evangelism. The chapter on John Gill rightly focuses on all of the theological wealth that he left the church. Gill was a defender of sound theological depth and clarity in the pulpit. He felt that much of the decline in the church was a result of timidity and wavering from preachers. I think that his words and thoughts hold just as much truth for us today as they did in his time. William Carey's chapter is also helpful in that it shows that Calvinism rightly understood doesn't hinder missions, but actually supports missions. Knowing that God has a people from every tribe, nation and tongue is what gives the missionary his confidence.
I was extremely blessed by this book and look forward to reading the next two volumes. Nettles has done a wonderful job in bringing so much information together in so few pages. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to have a better understanding of Baptist history.
I received a free copy of this book from Christian Focus Publications in exchange for an honest review.