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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Book Review: By His Grace and For His Glory

Sometimes it seems that Calvinism, and Calvinists, are in such disrepute in the Southern Baptist Convention--some might say in the larger Evangelical world--that one might reasonably conclude that Calvinism was some sort of New Age cult being surreptitiously foisted off on Southern Baptists by evil men of the worst sort. From the time I was brought to Christ under the preaching of a man who said--at considerable volume--that five-point Calvinism was a "doctrine of the devil" until recently, when a Southern Baptist seminary president tried to prune all the Calvinist professors from his faculty, it has been made abundantly clear that much of the Convention views Calvinism with the same sort of disdain with which one might regard an unsightly pimple on a hog's rear.

Indeed, Calvinism is in such disrepute in some quarters of the Convention that one might wholly despair of finding any Baptist church teaching it in any given city or town. It would not, for example, be a surprise to me to find that if a small town had only two or three Baptist churches, they were all opposed to Calvinism. Of course, it is also true that it would not surprise me to find that most of the members of such hypothetical churches had never heard of Calvinism or the TULIP acronym in the first place.

Has it always been this way? Have Baptists always--speaking generally--rejected the doctrines of grace? In By His Grace and for His Glory: A Historical, Theological, and Practical Study of the Doctrines of Grace in Baptist Life, Dr. Thomas J. Nettles sets out to prove his thesis
...that Calvinism, popularly called the Doctrines of Grace, prevailed in the most influential and enduring arenas of Baptist denominational life until the end of the second decade of the twentieth century.
It is a substantial work--somewhat over four hundred pages. The introduction alone runs on for forty pages. Nor is it easy going. By that, I do not mean that it is incomprehensible or understandable only by theological professionals. I mean only that it is not a book you can skim. Your full attention is required, but if you are willing to give it, you will find yourself thoroughly rewarded.

"Landmark" Baptist historians will take issue with some of Dr. Nettles' history, for he dates Baptist history as beginning with Smyth and Helwys in the early seventeenth century, as do most historians--and as do I. I promise, I will get around to dealing with The Trail of Blood stuff eventually, but for now, whether you agree with Nettles' starting point or not, you can at least evaluate his argument as it dates back to the seventeenth century, certainly preceding the birth of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Smyth and Helwys were not themselves Calvinists, but by 1644, Calvinistic--or Particular--Baptists were numerous enough to produce the First London Confession. It is a solidly Calvinist document, stating specifically in one part, emphasis mine,
...and touching his creature man God had in Christ before the foundation of the world according to the good pleasure of his will foreordained some men to eternal life through Jesus Christ to the praise and glory of his grace leaving the rest in their sin to their just condemnation to the praise of his justice.
And in another part, is ordinarily begot by the preaching of the gospel or word of Christ without respect to any power or capacity in the creature but it is wholly passive being dead in sins and trespasses, doth believe, and is converted by no less power, than that which raised Christ from the dead.
Amid much other solidly Calvinistic thought.

Some few years later, Baptists produced the Second London Confession, which closely followed the famously Calvinistic Westminster Confession of Faith, at least in matters touching on predestination and salvation. From there, Nettles
traces Calvinism in Baptist life through the life, teaching, and ministry of Benjamin Keach, John Bunyan, John Gill, and Andrew Fuller, all Englishmen, and all influential throughout the Baptist world of the time--including the North American continent.

I found the section on Dr. Gill particularly interesting. Gill is often accused of being a hyper-Calvinist, but Nettles defends him from the charge, and I think he is successful.

I did find it somewhat disappointing that Dr. Nettles dealt so little with C.H. Spurgeon, the "Prince of Preachers" and one of the best-known Calvinists in Baptist history. However, since Dr. Nettles' focus is principally on the Southern Baptist Convention, I suppose it is understandable that he chose not to dwell on Spurgeon.

In North America, Nettles proves that such Baptist luminaries as Isaac Backus, John Leland, Luther Rice, the famous missionary Adoniram Judson, Francis Wayland, and David Benedict all supported and taught Calvinist doctrine. Then, dealing specifically with the birth of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, he shows that W.B. Johnson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention (hereafter "SBC") from 1845-1851 was a bold Calvinist; so was R.B.C. Howell, SBC president from 1851-1859; so also was Richard Fuller, SBC president from 1859-1863. Nettles shows--at some length--that J.L. Dagg was a staunch Calvinist, and I found out something at that point: the SBC has made use of catechisms.
In 1879...the SBC passed a resolution asking John L. Dagg to write a catechism for the instruction of children and servants. This action stands as firm testimony to the confidence Southern Baptists had in the theological position of Dagg, in that they were willing to submit the religious impressions of their children to his hands.
Why do we not, in the modern SBC, use catechisms? They are obviously not a strictly Catholic or Lutheran device, and I wonder if some of the theological ignorance rampant throughout our convention might not be remedied through their use.

Then there was P.H. Mell, a friend of Dagg's and president of the SBC some fourteen times, and also a firm Calvinist.

Moving on from there, we find that
The first seminary in Southern Baptist life rested on a Calvinistic foundation. In fact, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in the eyes of its founders, constituted a bulwark against the gradual encroachments of the Arminian fox into the Southern Baptist vineyard. The seminary's four faculty members, Boyce, Broadus, Manly, Jr., and Williams, as well as its most ardent promoter, Basil Manly, Sr., shared a common and aggressive commitment to the Doctrines of Grace.
Many other Southern Baptist notables are examined, and the slow, thorough decline of Calvinist thought in the SBC outlined and explained, and possibly linked to the treatment of the new (in the 1920s) Cooperative Program as being more important than the doctrine underlying it.

There is no doubt after reading the first section that Dr. Nettles has proved that a thoroughly Calvinistic history undergirds the SBC; the second section of the book sets out to expound the doctrines of grace, with a view to proving their worth and that the SBC ought to return to them. Unconditional Election, Depravity and Effectual Calling, Limited Atonement, Perseverance of the Saints, and the Doctrine of Assurance are all thoroughly explained and dealt with from a historic SBC perspective.

The last two chapters of the book deal with Liberty of Conscience and World Missions and Bold Evangelism--the last of particular interest because of Nettles' exploration of the weaknesses of modern, man-centered evangelistic techniques and approaches.

No doubt many of my readers will find their eyes glazing over at the very thought of pursuing what they consider to be theological obscurities for the length of 428 pages. But for those interested in the subject, particularly those Southern Baptists with questions and concerns about their history and theological heritage, you really cannot do better than this book. I'd go so far as to say that you cannot properly understand SBC history and theology without this book. Since I originally wrote this review, Dr. Nettles has produced a revised version.

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