December 18, 2017

Comments on Baptist Fundamentals – The Significance of the Ordinances

Don Johnson

clip_image002The installment from Baptist Fundamentals this week is one of the shortest pieces in the book, an exhortation on the ordinances: “The Significance of the Ordinances.” As such it is much more ‘blog-length’ and perhaps easier reading than some of the earlier pieces. The author is a man who I know little about, and not much appears available in a brief online search. Emory W. Hunt at the time of the 1920 Pre-Convention Conference was president of Bucknell University. A campus building, Hunt Hall, was named for him. He served as president of Bucknell from 1919 to 1931, having previously served as president of Denison University and as a local church pastor in various pastorates. He held important posts among the Northern Baptists, serving as general secretary of the American Baptist Missions Society for a couple of years and also serving as president of the Northern Baptist Convention from 1910 to 1912. Dr. Beale, in his book In Pursuit of Purity, lists him as one of the millenarians at the Pre-Convention Conference.[1]

His address on the Ordinances is one that seems to warm a Baptist heart with a strong emphasis on the meaning of the two institutions left behind for the Christian church by our Lord, baptism and the Lord’s supper. He begins by pointing out the importance of their significance:

It is perfectly clear that from the earliest days the entrance upon the Christian life was marked by the ordinance of baptism. From the very first days also the meeting together of Christians was marked by a simple memorial meal taken in a solemn hush which vividly recalled the evening of the Last Supper. Of course these acts were intended to be significant, and of course their significance is the important thing about them. A word is not merely letters and syllables. It is content and meaning. The important question about it is not its spelling, but What does it say?

Tying the significance of baptism to the death and resurrection of Christ, we can agree that baptism is a testimony that I have died in Christ and now live in Christ, identified with him as one of his.

Jesus Christ was dead and buried, and rose again, and in this significant ordinance of burial and resurrection I declare that I deserved to die, that he died for me, that I accept his death for me and declare it my own. Whoever takes the death and the new life out of the Christian experience robs it of its unique value. Whoever interprets this as involving merely a theory and not requiring a life of positive holiness and actual service, is sadly degrading it. Paul pleads that we make good on the proposition and show that we are free from the dominance of sin by the exhibition of a new life.

When describing the ordinance of the Lord’s supper, some comments seem orthodox but ambiguous. Hunt says,

We are assured that the purpose of this ordinance is defeated when it is partaken of, not by one lacking some outward condition of eligibility, but by one without the inner discernment which enables him to perceive the Lord’s body. No formal participation in either ordinance is of value if it does not tell the truth about our personal relation to him. No acceptance of any doctrinal statement about him can take the place of a personal experience of him. We are always brought back to him. “Christ is all.” “Christ liveth in me.” “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” No theories about him, right or wrong, determine our standing in him. We should do our poor best to have them right, but blessed be his Name, my imperfect thinking does not wholly exclude him. And indeed, we have known some who had great confidence that their ideas were correct, who made gruesome representations of his spirit. We cannot too often be brought back into his personal presence and face to face with him.

When he says, “No acceptance of any doctrinal statement about him can take the place of a personal experience of him,” I wonder what else he means by his statement. Is he saying that doctrinal statements are less important than experience? Is it acceptable to profess a Christian experience with an unorthodox doctrinal statement? Anyone can physically partake of the Lord’s Supper. It is true that “No formal participation in either ordinance is of value if it does not tell the truth about our personal relation to him” — but how do we know the truth of someone’s personal relation with him if he refuses to subscribe to right doctrine, or worse, affirms bad doctrine while claiming a personal relationship with Christ?

Hunt goes further on his seeming minimalist standard of orthodoxy by this:

From henceforth let there be but one only Baptist fundamental. Let all inferences from it take their second place. “Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

I am proud to claim fellowship with any man who is on that foundation, even though “his mind does not go along with mine” all the way. I am sorry when any brother draws away from me merely because I do not draw all of his inferences from that foundation. But I can only “remember Jesus Christ” and try to know him as he went about doing good to the sick and sorrowing, the hungry and discouraged. I have a deep conviction that the Bible is inspired, but that conviction does not include the inspiration of its interpreters, not even in the twentieth century. I cannot give my assent to the modern version of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which would suggest that, if we are on our way down to Jericho, and see beside the road a suffering pilgrim who has fallen into misfortune by the way, the proper and orthodox procedure for us is neither to pass by on the other side nor to administer oil and wine, but to take our seat on the curbstone across the street and figure out a time-table of the coming of the Lord. The next step is to conclude that our time-table is inspired, and finally to require that all the brotherhood accept it on pain of demotion.

Well. Is the push for orthodoxy, even, let’s say, a doctrinal statement for Baptist faculties in Baptist schools — is such a push to be reduced to sitting on the curb figuring out a time-table of the coming of the Lord? Or is it much more serious than that?

Hunt’s address charming, it touches on themes we resonate with. And it is true that we have little information about him, so I don’t wish to malign him unfairly. But I wonder, does he really say enough? He sounds right, but is he right? He seems to leave room for those who are antagonistic to orthodoxy to suggest his views support their subterfuge and cloaking of aberrant theology in the mists of “personal experience of Christ.”

I suppose Hunt’s address highlights the painful difficulty the fundamentalists faced in the early days of the movement. How do you question the bona fides of such men? Whose side are they on? Are we too narrow? One can see why there was hesitation and uncertainty and why the battle for the Convention was ultimately lost.


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:


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)

Comments on Baptist Fundamentals: Fidelity to Our Baptist Heritage

Baptist Fundamentals: The Divine Unity of Holy Scripture

Comments on Baptist Fundamentals: The Divine Unity of Holy Scripture

Baptist Fundamentals – The Significance of the Ordinances

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

  1. Beale, p. 194. []

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