Tom Nettles, The Baptists: Key People Involved in Forming A Baptist Identity (Beginnings in Britain), Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2005. 390pp. Hardcover, $29.99.
Tom Nettles teaches at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Understanding history demands patience, humility, and love. If historical personalities are not treated by one who exercises these virtues, history easily becomes a club wielded by those primarily interested in pursuing their own agenda. Nettles exercises patience, humility, and love, and this is evidenced in his ability to explain why General Baptists (whose positions Nettles’ does not hold), for instance, rejected the conclusions of the Particular Baptists (with whom Nettles agrees). One sometimes wonders if the contemporary heirs of these disputes have taken the time to understand why their opponents have rejected their conclusions. The SBC desperately needs a patient, humble, loving treatment of its Baptist heritage, and this is exactly what Tom Nettles has provided. The book under review here, Beginnings in Britain, is the first of a projected three volume series.
This volume is broken down into three parts: In Part I, “Competing Models in Setting the Profile,” Nettles describes previous summaries of Baptist history and identifies major points of division among those who identify themselves as Baptists. Nettles describes two approaches to being Baptist. The first he labels “the soul-liberty party,” which identifies with the enlightenment and emphasizes the primacy of Christian experience. The second, which Nettles argues for, identifies with the reformation, historic Christian orthodoxy, evangelicalism, theologically integrated ecclesiology, and a conscientious Confessionalism. Nettles calls this the “coherent-truth model.” The “soul-liberty” people emphasize the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer to the point that each individual believer can pick and choose which parts of the Bible are authoritative. The “coherent-truth” people submit themselves to the authority of both Scripture and orthodox Christian thought as represented in historic creeds and confessions.
Part I sets the stage, and the rest of this book is a biographical approach to history. Major figures have been selected, and their lives, ministerial experiences, and theological contributions are surveyed. This approach gives the volume a personal feel and makes for fascinating reading.
Part II treats three General Baptists: John Smyth (d. 1612), Thomas Grantham (1634–1692), and Dan Taylor (1738–1816). Smyth began as a Reformed Puritan, eventually separated from the Church of England, and by 1609 concluded that church membership should be based on believers’ baptism. Smyth baptized himself because though the Mennonites and Anabaptists practiced believers’ baptism, he considered them doctrinally suspect and perhaps even heretical (63–64). He later repudiated his baptism, rejected Augustine on predestination and original sin, rejected Luther on justification by faith, and sought to join the Mennonites.
Grantham, who like Paul was stoned for his preaching (73), drafted a confession of faith signed by 41 General Baptist ministers. Grantham held to general atonement, to election based on foreseen faith, and thought that believers could lose their salvation (74–75). Consistent with his other positions was Grantham’s view that God does not require of his creatures things they are not able to perform. This leads naturally to inclusivism (as opposed to universalism or exclusivism): if people never hear the gospel, but respond rightly to natural revelation and the law written on the heart, they “do know this Mediator virtually, and believing on the Lord as such, do know him savingly” (91, quoted from Grantham, St. Paul’s Catechism , 11).
This issue of what is required of those who are not otherwise able is at the heart of the “Modern Question.” Nettles explains, “The Modern Question plainly stated is this: ‘Whether it be the duty of all men to whom the gospel is published, to repent and believe in Christ?’” (248). What Grantham shows us is that there were erroneous responses to the Modern Question in two directions: some Particular Baptists slipped into hyper-Calvinism, mistakenly thinking that if God does not require of his creatures what they cannot do, there is no sense calling sinners to repent and believe the Gospel. Grantham shows us the other error, of inclusivism, which claims that people can be saved apart from conscious faith in Jesus Christ (people who have not heard of Christ cannot trust him, therefore God does not require them to trust him for salvation). We will see that those who held fast to both Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility avoided both hyper-Calvinism and inclusivism.
Taylor was confirmed in the Church of England, but Particular Baptists spurred him to revisit the question of Baptism (96). When he became convinced of believers’ baptism, the Particular Baptists refused to baptize him because of his Arminian convictions (97). Taylor became a General Baptist but was forced to separate from the General Baptist General Assembly in 1769 because they refused to affirm the full deity of Christ and stand against Socinianism and Arianism. Those who went with him formed the “New Connection of General Baptists.” This group eventually united with the Particular Baptists to form the Baptist Union in 1891. Taylor avoided Pelagianism, but misunderstood Calvinism. He could not comprehend how Andrew Fuller could be both fully Calvinistic and evangelistic (the Modern Question again). He thought that regeneration, rather than preceding faith, followed and arose from it, and “took it for granted that the hyper-Calvinism of the eighteenth century did not arise at all as an aberration but constituted the essence of historic Calvinism” (105).
Part III deals with seven Particular Baptists: John Spilsbury (1593–1662/68), William Kiffin (c. 1616–1701), Hanserd Knollys (1598–1691), Benjamin Keach (1640–1704), John Gill (1697–1771), Andrew Fuller (1754–1815), and William Carey (1761–1834).
Spilsbury, Kiffin, and Knollys were roughly contemporary. They were followed by Keach, who passed the torch to Gill, who was followed by Fuller, who “held the rope” for Carey.
According to Nettles, Spilsbury, Kiffin, and Knollys completed the reformation by leavening its theology through their ecclesiology. Spilsbury’s views gave a clear answer to the Modern Question before it ever became an issue: he held that everyone was bound to believe the Gospel (125). This, in good biblical fashion, maintains human responsibility. An early observer called Kiffin the Father of the Particular Baptists (129). Both his parents died of the plague when he was nine. Like Spilsbury, both Kiffin and Knollys held that all were required to believe long before the Modern Question was ever asked. Nettles writes, “the issues addressed in the next century were not really such a ‘modern question’ and . . . leading Baptist Calvinists already had reasoned through the implications of the question and had preceded Fuller and Carey in the answer” (138, cf. 157). Knollys was originally a minister of the Church of England, and his resignation of that post and adoption of Baptist views resulted in much hardship. Like the Apostle Paul and Thomas Grantham, he lived through being stoned for his preaching (152).
Benjamin Keach’s views on the atonement and the human will changed, and he became a great proponent of Particular Baptist Theology. The church he pastored in London had to move to a location that would accommodate nearly one thousand people (166). John Gill followed Benjamin Keach (after Benjamin Stinton) at the Horsly-down Church in London. Nettles finds one place where Gill “appears to hold the hyper-Calvinist view,” in that “Theoretically Gill held that the non-elect were not obligated to evangelical obedience, because the necessity of such obedience did not exist in unfallen humanity as deposited in Adam” (226). Nettles demonstrates, however, that this view did not work its way into Gill’s own practice (227). Gill disputed with Wesley, but he “did not differ in any essential theological category from the Grand Itinerant, George Whitefield” (241).
Some took hold of Gill’s “theoretical” answer, and as a result they did not call sinners to repentance. They reasoned like Grantham: sinners are not obligated to do what they are unable to do (247–48). Helped by Jonathan Edwards’ distinction between Natural Inability—what one is physically unable to do, and Moral Inability—what one is unable to do because one is unwilling to do it (the Gospel does not call people to do what they are physically incapable of doing but to what they volitionally refuse to do)—Andrew Fuller wrote The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, which argued for “the congruity between divine sovereignty and human responsibility” (250). Like their Baptist forefathers, Fuller joined with John Ryland Jr. and William Carey in the opinion that “the affirmative side of the Modern Question [the Gospel should be indiscriminately proclaimed and all called to believe it] was fully consistent with the strictest Calvinism” (290). These three men who held to “the strictest Calvinism” initiated the modern missions movement. Clearly “strict Calvinism” is not to be equated with “hyper-Calvinism,” which Fuller rejects as “false Calvinism” (245). There is an important point here. Hyper-Calvinism is a specific theological position. It seems today that some non-Calvinists are ready to label anyone who appears to be less evangelistic than they think themselves to be as hyper-Calvinistic. The rejection of manipulative methods and coercive techniques in favor of boldly proclaiming the pure Gospel and trusting the Spirit to quicken hearts is not less evangelistic but more so (compare Paul’s practice in 1 Cor 2:1–5).
Tom Nettles’ important book imparts much truth that speaks directly to several battles taking place in Baptist life today: the new IMB policies on Baptism do not appear to be Landmarkist, historically speaking. The move to accept people who have not been baptized as believers as members at Bethlehem Baptist Church, where John Piper pastors, has been argued against by William Kiffin, who engaged in controversy with John Bunyan over the same issue (138–42). Hanserd Knollys long ago argued against the principle behind the modern multiple campus phenomenon (158). Some contemporary Baptists allege that having a plurality of elders is not Baptist but Presbyterian, but even the General Baptist Thomas Grantham held that biblical church officers are “Elders and Deacons” (75). Moreover, the 1925 version of the Baptist Faith and Message states that the “Scriptural offices” of a Gospel church are “bishops or elders and deacons.”
If Baptists today are to be unified, we must pursue two things: (1) the ability to articulate the positions of those with whom we disagree in a way that satisfies those who hold those positions, and (2) the fair representation both of what the Bible indicates and of the historical record. We must approach those with whom we disagree from a spirit of brotherly love. If we consider others benighted by mistaken conclusions, let us dialogue with them in such a way that they feel that we love them and want to help them. There is no place for caricature and misrepresentation for rhetorical advantage. The book discussed here is a model of the kind of contributions needed. This history will take us a long way toward understanding those who have gone before us. May many Baptists read this book that Tom Nettles has given to us. It will inform our discussions, and we will surely be inspired and humbled by the faithful suffering of our forefathers. Let us remember them, consider the outcome of their lives, and imitate their faith (Heb 13:7).
John Ryland Jr. reported on Andrew Fuller’s words as follows, “Our undertaking to India really appeared to me, on its commencement, to be somewhat like a few men, who were deliberating about the importance of penetrating into a deep mine, which had never before been explored. We had no one to guide us, and while we were thus deliberating, Carey, as it were, said, ‘Well, I will go down if you will hold the rope.’ But before he went down, (continued Mr. Fuller,) he, as it seemed to me, took an oath from each of us, at the mouth of the pit, to this effect, that [we] ‘while we lived, should never let go of the rope.’ You understand me. There was great responsibility attached to us who began the business” (267, the bracketed note is Nettles’, quoted from John Ryland Jr., Life and Death of the Reverend Andrew Fuller [London, 1816], 251).
See also Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 1785–1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 6: “most Baptists would not recognize what they termed alien immersion—immersion performed by non-Baptists—conceiving that no minister who believed in infant baptism could validly baptize even by immersion.”