Saturday, December 8, 2012

Benefits of Symbiosis in the SBC (Part 3: Doctrinal Extremes)

Doctrinal Extremes of General and Particular Baptists

            Neither the General nor the Particular Baptists, in and of themselves and through their respective confessions, were able to completely avoid unbiblical extremes peculiar to their respective soteriological viewpoints. Usually the unbiblical extremes of each group are polar opposites. On the General Baptist end of the scale there were the doctrinal extremes of Arianism, Socinianism, and Liberalism. On the Particular Baptist end of the scale there were the doctrinal extremes of hyper-Calvinism, ultraconservatism, and Antinomianism.[1] Both General and Particular Baptists declined in the first half of the eighteenth century.[2] The disappointing reality is, as Torbet said, “A condition of apostasy laid hold upon the General Baptists, whereas hyper-Calvinism plagued those of the Particular group.”[3]
Both English and American Baptists on both sides of the soteriological divide were plagued to some degree by the doctrinal extremes into which their respective viewpoints were vulnerable. These doctrinal extremes caused decline in both groups on both continents.
Doctrinal Extremes of General Baptists in England
 In England, General Baptists declined as a group due to their doctrinal extremes “concerning the deity of Christ and the meaning of the atonement.”[4] In particular, the General Baptists were susceptible to Arianism, Socinianism, and Liberalism. Both Arianism and Socinianism are forms of anti-Trinitarianism. Arianism denies both the deity of Christ and humanity of Christ by teaching that he was an angel created by God. Arians therefore taught that Christ was more than man but less than God.[5] Socinianism on the other hand denies the deity of Christ but not the humanity of Christ. The Socinians taught that Christ was merely a good man.[6] Therefore the death of Christ “was simply that of an ordinary human being in a fallen and sinful world.”[7] Concerning Socinianism, McBeth said, “This doctrine robbed the cross of any real atonement.”[8]
Socinianism reduces the atonement, the death of Christ, to an example of the type of dedication that Christians are to follow. Erickson identified the erroneous concepts that feed the Socinian understanding of the atonement. He said:
Several conceptions feed into the Socinian understanding of the atonement. One is the Pelagian view of the human condition as spiritually and morally capable of fulfilling God’s expectations. Another is the conception that God is not a God of retributive justice, and therefore he does not demand some form of satisfaction from or on behalf of those who sin against him. Finally, there is the conception of Jesus as merely human. His death was simply that of an ordinary human being in a fallen and sinful world. It is important, not in some supernatural way, but as the ultimate extension of his role as the great teacher of righteousness.[9]

This erroneous understanding of the atonement came to be held by many General Baptists “and many of their churches eventually became Unitarian.”[10]
Doctrinal Extremes of General Baptists in America
            In America, General Baptists declined as a group more as a result of the evangelistic zeal of Particular Baptists than from doctrinal extremes. Richards said, “The General Baptists seem never to have built a strong doctrinal base in the local church and consequently were no theological match for the evangelistic zeal of the Particular Baptists.”[11] However, Richards also noted that “around the end of the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth, a few ministers lapsed into Unitarianism.”[12]
            McBeth attributed the decline of the General Baptists in America to “internal problems, such as doctrinal ambiguity, lack of aggressive evangelism, and opposition to the First Great Awakening.”[13] He said, “The thrust of the First Great Awakening was Calvinistic, and it swept all opposition aside.”[14] There arose a campaign to win the General churches to Calvinism that resulted in the majority of General Baptist churches transitioning to Calvinism but with the detrimental effect of 95 percent of their membership either dropping out of church life or joining other Arminian groups.[15]
            The doctrinal ambiguity of the General Baptists also made them susceptible to the teachings of Alexander Campbell who taught that there was “no promise of salvation without baptism; that baptism should be administered to all who say they believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God without examination on any other point; that there is no direct operation of the Holy Spirit on the mind prior to baptism;” and, “that baptism brought the remission of sins and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”[16] Many Baptists west of the Alleghenies, holding to Arminian doctrine were won to Campbell’s views “and brought their entire churches into his movement.”[17] Richards said, “Campbell’s followers split Baptist churches. No definite figures are available, but there can be little doubt that hundreds of Baptist churches left the denomination to follow Campbell.”[18]
Doctrinal Extremes of Particular Baptists in England
            The Particular Baptists declined as a group due to their doctrinal extremes on the opposite end of the spectrum from that of the General Baptists. McBeth said, “While General Baptists had fallen into extreme liberalism, the Particular group fell victim to extreme doctrinal conservatism. . . . [M]any Particular Baptists became theologically narrow, rigid in sterile orthodoxy, and with a faith more rationalistic than biblical.”[19] Both hyper-Calvinism and Antinomianism would plague the English Particular Baptists.
            In England, hyper-Calvinism resulted from an overemphasis on election and predestination to the exclusion of any zeal for evangelism. McBeth said, “At their most extreme, Particular Baptists would not preach or apply the gospel to the unsaved.”[20] The fatalism of hyper-Calvinism put a damper on evangelism. The notion was that God would save his elect without the means of men preaching the Gospel. In fear of offending God by offering his grace to the non-elect, hyper-Calvinists refused to evangelize.[21] This created in the Particular Baptists a spirit of ultraconservatism that caused them to have no room in their preaching for evangelism, invitation, or application.[22]
            Another error of hyper-Calvinism is antinomianism. McBeth noted that some Particular Baptists in England fell into antinomianism. He said, “Some of them also fell into Antinomianism, an extreme form of Calvinism which assumed that even personal behavior was foreordained, thus excusing individuals for any lapses in moral conduct.”[23] One needs only to contemplate the effects of Antinomianism on the witness of the church.
Doctrinal Extremes of Particular Baptists in America
             In America, Particular Baptists were plagued by the same doctrinal extremes that plagued their counterparts in England. These also struggled with hyper-Calvinism, ultraconservatism, and Antinomianism.
            The hyper-Calvinism and ultraconservatism of the Particular Baptists in America combined to create in them a spirit that opposed “missionary societies, Bible societies, temperance societies, Sunday schools—all of which they regarded as man-made efforts to evangelize, and as unscriptural and contrary to their extreme emphasis upon predestination.”[24] This anti-mission doctrinal extreme caused “the first controversy which actually split the ranks of [American] Baptists, particularly in the South and West.”[25]
            John Taylor (1752-1835) and Daniel Parker (1781-1844) both wrote in opposition to missionary activity.[26] Taylor’s “principal polemic was a pamphlet entitled Thoughts on Missions . . . . Taylor charged that missionaries were simply involved in the movement because of their love for money, and that the missionary system was hierarchical in its tendencies and contrary to Baptist church government.”[27] Parker’s polemic, Views of the Two Seeds, was based on his theology of predestination.[28] In his pamphlet Parker “divided the human race into the predestined children of God and the predestined children of the devil. God will save his own; the devil will claim his own. There was no place for missions in his theology.”[29]
            This anti-mission spirit had an infectious effect on Southern Baptists. Dr. Roger Richards wrote, “The effect of the antimission movements . . . on Southern Baptists was devastating. Many churches and sometimes whole associations declared themselves antimissionary.”[30] While other factors were part of the anti-mission spirit, there is no denying that hyper-Calvinism was a main reason for it.
            English Baptists “were devastated by doctrinal extremes which sapped vitality and warped Baptist outlook. The General Baptists fell into extreme liberalism, Arianism, and Socinianism. Particular Baptists fell into extreme conservatism, hyper-Calvinism, and Antinomianism.”[31] American Baptists were not immune to the doctrinal extremes that plagued their English counterparts. They were also affected by doctrinal extremes as has been mentioned.
            The historical contexts of the General and Particular Baptists, both in England and America, makes one wonder if there could possibly be any form of cooperation among the two groups. Could there be any possibility of the two groups, with their differing soteriological viewpoints and their opposing poles of doctrinal extremes, working together in a mutually beneficial relationship? What could possibly bring these two groups together?

[1] McBeth, Heritage, 152, 154.
[2] McBeth, Heritage, 154.
[3] Torbet, History of Baptists, 62.
[4] McBeth, Heritage, 155.
[5] McBeth, Heritage, 155.
[6] McBeth, Heritage, 155.                                                  
[7] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd  Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 801.
[8] McBeth, Heritage, 155.
[9] Erickson, Theology, 801.
[10] McBeth, Heritage, 155.
[11] Richards, Winds, 12.
[12] Richards, Winds, 22.
[13] McBeth, Heritage, 704.
[14] McBeth, Heritage, 704.
[15] McBeth, Heritage, 704-705.
[16] Richards, Southern Baptists, 1919-1933 of 9258.
[17] Richards, Southern Baptists, 1933 of 9258.
[18] Richards, Southern Baptists, 1933 of 9258.
[19] McBeth, Heritage, 171.
[20] McBeth, Heritage, 172.
[21] McBeth, Heritage, 174.
[22] McBeth, Heritage, 176.
[23] McBeth, Heritage, 172.
[24] Torbet, History of Baptists, 261-262.
[25] Torbet, History of Baptists, 268.
[26] Richards, Winds, 78.
[27] Richards, History of Southern Baptists, 1965 of 9258.
[28] Richards, Winds, 78.
[29] Richards, History of Southern Baptists, 1965 of 9258.
[30] Richards, History of Southern Baptists, 2020 of 9258
[31] McBeth, Heritage, 199.

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