October 20, 2017

Comments on Baptist Fundamentals: Fidelity to Our Baptist Heritage

Don Johnson

Our latest installment from Baptist Fundamentals came in two parts over the last two days. The message was by Thomas Jefferson Villers, then pastor of First Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan. His message could be characterized as more “devotional” in quality, as opposed to the “argumentative” one might expect at an inaugural fundamentalist conference. Yet there are points where he clearly calls Baptist believers to fidelity to the old paths.

In characterizing the message on the more “devotional” lines, I am following a remark found in Augustus H Strong and the Dilemma of Historical Consciousness by Grant Wacker. On p. 120, note 17, Wacker says that Strong’s initial reaction against the Fundamentalist Conference (he had been asked to write the introduction to Baptist Fundamentals, but refused) had been moderated by the “more devotional” messages of such men as Villers, Anderson (whom we discussed last week) and others. The whole tome was to him less “narrow and inconsiderate” than he had expected. Strong was an advocate of evolution and tolerant of higher criticism.

Such comments as these give us some pause again as we consider the author of the third message in Baptist Fundamentals, although we can find no doctrinal or practical fault in the message itself. Clearly the early fundamentalists were feeling their way, with allegiances and connections across a spectrum that would sort itself out over time.

As for Villers’ message, Part 1 in our series includes a paragraph that basically gives his outline:

As the Mayflower was laden with merchandise richer than her British owners ever dreamed, so are we the heirs of other and better things than acres or dollars. Our fathers bequeathed to us a heritage of principles, convictions, institutions, and laws; a heritage which we cherish because its price was their blood: the heritage of soul-liberty, the new world’s distinct and priceless contribution to political science and the church universal; the heritage of a regenerate church-membership, a notion scouted for centuries, but now so commonly held that few know it to have been a conviction once peculiar to us; the heritage of culture, mind according well with soul, the sacrifices of primitive years being supplemented by ever-increasing benefactions till now our educational plant has leaped beyond the eighty million dollar mark; the heritage too, of world evangelism, for to us belongs the inextinguishable glory of Carey the father of modern missions, and of Judson, the first missionary in these latter days to set foot on an unmixed heathen soil. Let me rehearse these facts a little more in detail.

The points in bold are the main points of his outline. Part 1 contained the whole of the heritage of soul-liberty. It is a rehearsal of many stories of men and women martyred or persecuted for their stand for liberty of conscience in religion. The stories are often recalled by Baptist preachers, but some of the names would not have known the Baptist name. Still, their courage informed and encouraged Baptists through the years and we ought to honor them.

Since they were willing to put their very lives on the line for the liberty of conscience they craved, we who follow ought to do no less for the critical doctrines under attack in our day.

I’d like to highlight a few particular remarks from Part 2 that point to areas of contention that are worth the battle and perhaps may make the message a little less devotional than liberal loving moderates would like to admit. Under the head “the heritage of a regenerate church-membership,” Villers points out that Baptists rejected both infant baptism and sprinkling.

They rejected infant baptism not simply because it has no scriptural warrant, but because it admits to the church such as do not know and cannot know aught of the new birth. They opposed sprinkling or pouring in the case of adults not simply because no such method was known in apostolic days, but because the ordinance when thus administered does not symbolize that dying and rising with Christ which is essential to admission into a New Testament church.

The mode is important, to be scriptural, but the significance is more important: regenerate church membership.

A glance at history reveals the fact that when formalism was substituted for spirituality, and devotion to externals supplanted personal faith, the regenerate church became a degenerate church, gross darkness covered the people, and the martyr-fires were kindled. The church in the world and the world in the church are two very different things. So long as the church was a separated church, it gave proof of its divine origin and supernatural power. But when the world was taken into the church’s bosom, the church was not only shorn of strength but became a public scandal.

The record of the martyrs, the record of Baptists as educators and evangelists, are all important motivational factors in Christian history. However, it is this insistence that is perhaps at the heart of the struggle between fundamentalism and then modernism. What is the church? Is it merely another human social structure, where some are wheat and some are tares? Or is it intended to be a body of believers, living out the faith of Christ in the world?

Baptists have answered, and contend, that the church is a body of regenerate believers. The parable of the wheat and tares does not apply, the Lord told us, “the field is the world” — NOT “the church.” The lie of tolerance and modernism and the excuse of moderates confused the picture. Unregenerated individuals were allowed to remain, not only on the rolls of churches, but in the roles of leadership in the old Baptist Convention. The struggle over their legitimacy led to the Pre-Convention Conference and ultimately to what we know today as the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International.

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Link to Baptist Fundamentals and other works available in Logos format as part of the Roger Williams Heritage Archives, produced by Maranatha Baptist University.

Baptist Fundamentals series:

Introduction

Baptist Fundamentals: Opening Address

Comments on Baptist Fundamentals: Opening Address

Historic Baptist Principles? … or the seed of defeat in the soil of revival

Baptist Fundamentals: Fidelity to Our Baptist Heritage (1)

Baptist Fundamentals: Fidelity to Our Baptist Heritage (2)

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Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.


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