Book Review: Why I Am a Baptist – Nettles
In today’s book review, we seek to answer the question, “Why am I a Baptist?” Why not Methodist, Assemblies of God, or Presbyterian? Our identity needs to be maintained along biblical distinctives and this is a formative question. Why I Am a Baptist is a serious and helpful examination of this question. The book was edited by two prominent Baptist theologians: Tom J. Nettles and Russell D. Moore. The contributors for this volume come from many backgrounds and experiences and include people such as Isaac Backus, James Draper, R. Albert Mohler Jr., Paige Patterson, Mark Dever, Fred Malone, Donna Ascol, Wayne Grudem, Carl F.H. Henry, and Roger Nicole. This list allows for a slightly different outlook on the salient topics.
Many people within the Baptist community have been Baptists for many generations. Some people can tell you that their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all Baptists. Some even claim to a heritage within the Southern Baptist Convention; others have been relatively recent converts to the Baptist faith. My story is the latter and because of it, I hold deep convictions within the Southern Baptist Convention. My journey of faith started in the very liberal Reformed Churches of America. During my teenage years, I was part of the Assemblies of God. Later, my denominational background would include Independent Baptist, Calvary Chapel, Vineyard, sparse attendance at a Presbyterian church, and non-denominational churches. It was only within the last 15 years that I became a Southern Baptist and I know that step-by-step God has led me to this denominational affiliation. I pray that my children and my grandchildren later will come to love being southern Baptist. My story is that of being Southern Baptist by conviction, conscience, and compatibility with Scriptures. But more of my personal testimony for another time.
Some of the authors of this book have grown up within the Southern Baptist community while others are more like me in that they have come to this way after biblical convictions. All of the authors have a story as to how they came to the conviction that they should serve in the Southern Baptist Convention. Some are authors, others are seminary professors, some are pastors, others laymen. No matter what their walk of life, they have this in common: denominational unity and purpose.
There are quite a number of issues examined. Any one issue singled out might find adherents in other denominations such as Presbyterianism, but collectively, these doctrines form the impetus for baptistic Christianity. It is clear from many of the authors that the most crucial Baptist belief would be that of believer’s baptism. No one can claim to be Baptist who believes in paedo-baptism. This issue would find support in other denominations though, such as the Assemblies of God, Calvary Chapel, Christian Missionary Alliance, and Nazarenes. The authors are clear that Baptists share this particular doctrine with some other groups while Presbyterians, Methodists, and Anglicans would take the paedo-baptistic side of the matter. So while there are others who share our view of baptism, this doctrine is the first point of separation from a number of other denominations. After all, we Baptists are the ones who take their very name from the act of baptizing. Baptists would agree that baptism is for believers, by immersion, and as a symbolic statement of new identity with Christ. Believer’s baptism is then a cornerstone of Baptist and Southern Baptist belief. As a Baptist, I share many doctrinal beliefs in common with Presbyterians – commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, election, and humankind’s total depravity. There is much we share, but baptism is not one of those doctrines.
Another issue that is classically Baptist is the belief in the separation of church and state. As with baptism, there are other denominations that also advocate this teaching. Now, correctly understood, this belief does not mean that Christians should not intervene in political or governmental issues. Rather, it means that the government should not be involved in church life; it is a statement of religious freedom. Liberty has always been a hallmark position of Baptist churches. We would always oppose any type of state-controlled church. Freedom to worship is paramount. Granted, we do share this with a number of denominations, but Baptists definitely stand squarely upon this standard.
One of the authors brings out the issue that Baptists are just about the only denomination where people are not born into membership. Methodists are baptized as babies and that is how they join the church. Paedo-baptism frequently segues into paedo-communion, an experience consistent with Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, just to name a few. However, to a Baptist, individuals are not members of the church until they are saved and they have been baptized correctly as believers. A Baptist is not a Baptist because of the heritage of his or her parents or grandparents. A Baptist is a Baptist solely because of their own salvific experience or conversion. Thus, Baptist membership is truly based on a more personal level. This should serve a higher purpose of conviction than other traditions.
An important Baptist distinctive would be a particularly high view of Scripture; the authors all addressed this concern. Historically speaking, Baptists have highly valued the Scripture, including views of inerrancy, infallibility, and the sufficiency of the Bible. Again, neither the authors nor I would say that other groups do not believe this; we are simply stating that this is a definite mark of Baptist Christianity. I am thankful for anyone who will hold to the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Sadly, there have arisen some who will not hold to this doctrine and yet claim the name Baptist for themselves. This was the foundational argument that required a conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention. It is an issue from which those within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have departed. Those who do not embrace a high view of Scripture in turn mythologize the Bible, deny inerrancy to certain portions of the Bible, and deny a literal interpretation of stories such as Adam and Eve, Noah, and Jonah. They also will frequently try to debunk the miracles in the New Testament. Sadly, some of these types would call themselves Baptist. I think it would be well in order with this book to state that these types indeed are not Baptist – at least not in any historical sense of the term. To be Baptist in name only is a tragic indictment. The point of the book is that without fail, Baptists view the Word of God with respect, awe, and passion as the manifestation of the perfect nature of our God. Baptist leaders differ on reformed Christianity, on the nature of the atonement, on church government, and a host of other issues, but they must not differ on the nature of the Word of God.
These issues together form the basis for Baptist Christianity – distinctives so clear that they forever must be at the heart of our denominations. To be Baptist is to adhere collectively to all of these distinctives. Each author within this volume has delivered his unique view of why he has employed the term Baptist. I share with the authors the same urgency for this definition of Baptist. We all come from varied backgrounds and have had different experiences, but at the end of the day, these are the things that must form our identity as Baptists. This book is something that I look back upon from time to time. My story has been one of embracing Baptist Christianity out of deeply felt, biblical convictions. I am a Southern Baptist because it seemed right within a true reading of the Scriptures. For that reason, Why I Am A Baptist holds a sentimental as well as motivational place in my heart. I am certain that after reading it, you will see its intrinsic worth and beauty as well.
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