For the next few posts, I intend to offer a brief critique of the latest Founders Journal entitled "Sandy Creek Revisited." Editor, Dr. Tom Ascol, writes of this issue that:
"It analyzes aspects of the Sandy Creek tradition in fresh ways. Tom Nettles has an excellent article on Shubal Stearns that is taken from volume 2 of his work on The Baptists. Gene Bridges also has a ground-breaking article on the sociological differences between the "Charlestonians" and "Sandy Creekers." This is one issue that you will want to have on hand the next time you have a discussion about Southern Baptist origins" >>>
Given such a hearty promotion, I anticipated a formidable challenge to those of us who view the Sandy Creek tradition as another tributary to the Baptist river, which tributary, by the way, became the dominant one among Southern Baptists, triumphing over the more rigid Calvinism of the Particular Baptists, for at least the last one hundred years.
I apologize in advance to those who do not have a copy of the Journal. Eventually, it will go online, I assume, as do the other volumes. I encourage all Southern Baptists to read it, if, for no other reason, to check my thoughts about it--to critique my critique, so to speak--and validate whether or not the issues I raise, from your perspective, remain valid.
To keep the critique in readable chunks, I will post three essays. The present one deals with the overall Journal structure and offers some remarks about the style and documentation. The second post will deal primarily with the thesis of Gene Bridges since his paper, from my view, defines the entire Journal issue.
The last post I offer focuses on the clearest statement I have read to date of the major difference between Founders Calvinists and nonCalvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention. We should forever be indebted to Gene M. Bridges for his contribution to us in constructing this statement.
So, let's begin.
While Southern Baptist origins are not the hottest topic to discuss in Bible study home cell groups, that does not mean origins is not significant. Most of us realize our personal family trees are a viable interest to us.
No less, then, should our spiritual roots concern us. That's the importance of Sandy Creek, North Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina--two traditions representing two different Baptist groups who populated the South with Baptist churches, eventually forming the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.
We do not desire to minimize, of course, the reality of multiple tributaries to Baptist life in the South. Indeed the first Baptist churches in North Carolina were General Baptists who undoubtedly later became The Free Will Baptist Church. Also, there were other pockets of Baptist groups such as the Sabbatarian Baptists.
But most historians believe that the largest and most influential Baptist traditions that eventually merged into the Southern Baptist Convention were two in number: The Separate Baptists who came out of Sandy Creek and the Regular, Particular Baptists who came from Charleston. The Separates contained in their ranks, it is asserted by these historians, both those who were Calvinistic and nonCalvinistic in doctrine but the Particulars held almost exclusively and rigidly to the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, an Americanized version of The Second London Confession of 1689.
In the issue under review, Founders Ministries challenges the majority view with three essays written by Dr. Tom Ascol, Dr. Tom Nettles and Mr. Gene M. Bridges. The first thing that struck me about the "Sandy Creek Revisited" issue is the inequity among the contributors.
Dr. Ascol begins the trilogy with less than a two page introduction entitled "Sandy Creek Revisited" and Dr. Nettles fires the last shot in six pages with the work "Shubal Stearns and The Sandy Creek Tradition." Mr. Bridges goes between them with a whopping twenty-three pages and some loose change! From my standpoint, I don't know why it wasn't entitled "Sandy Creek Revisited: A Challenge by Gene M. Bridges."
Personally I would rather consider, for my money at least, the reasoned arguments from a renowned professor like Dr. Nettles. Yet, even in the six pages he does offer, we still do not get that. Instead, we are primarily fed six pages of a research paper by Josh Powell, a student of Dr. Nettles, most content of which, is already available online at Founders.
This was not anticipated. I expected much more, given Dr. Ascol's assuring words to every Calvinist that "This is one issue that you will want to have on hand the next time you have a discussion about Southern Baptist origins."
Moreover, this fails also to fulfill Dr. Ascol's evaluation that this issue "analyzes aspects of the Sandy Creek tradition in fresh ways." I cannot recall any information thus far that could be considered "fresh." Dr. Nettles' bibliography contains only a couple of references I do not have in my very meager private library. I guess it's the new wine in old bottles perspective. That is, take the old sources and offer a new interpretation of them. Perhaps that's the "fresh[ness]" to which Dr. Ascol speaks.
This leaves us with the very long essay by Mr. Gene M. Bridges which, even by compulsion, I am happy to address. His paper is entitled "The Raw Calvinism of the North Carolina Separates: A product of Right Doctrine in the Right Place at the Right Time." My exposition and evaluation of Bridges' thesis will be the thrust of the second post. But I felt I must offer to the reader a few introductory comments about his paper as a research project.
First, Bridges' essay contains, at least for this reviewer, an imprecise, unworkable thesis which possesses too much tension to be useful. Bridges writes:
"In this article, we shall first review the confessional data, as Baptist historians have tended to concentrate their evaluations here. In the second section, we shall introduce some data...and suggest that perhaps the answer lies not in perpetually rehashing their confessional tradition, but in evaluating the actual nature of the differences between the Separates and Regulars in North Carolina in light of the cultural character of North Carolina and its people during the time in question. In short, what is the actual nature of the differences between the Regulars and Separates; what was North Carolina like, and how might this have affected the Separate tradition as a whole." (p.4, emphasis mine).
Bridges goes further in the conclusion by unequivocally stating that "...explaining Separate-Regular differences theologically seems hopelessly ad hoc." (p.24). The tension I perceive in Mr. Bridges' thesis is this: given that "the answer lies not in perpetually rehashing their confessional tradition" and concluding that such procedure seems "hopelessly ad hoc," why would the reader be required to wade through seven pages of "confessional data" when, according to Bridges, the solution lies elsewhere? Why rehearse confessional data that offers nothing to one's solution?
Because of this tension, I constructed my own version of Mr. Bridges' thesis that helped me sift through his essay. Warning: these are my words, not Mr. Bridges'. And, if you find his thesis clear, please use it rather than mine. I offer this only as the interpretive grid I used to supplement my understanding of his paper.
Thus, this is what I think Mr. Bridges desires to argue: "the historical record shows that Separate Baptists differed from Particular, Regular Baptists in cultural behavior, not confessional belief." Once I began to use this model of a restructured thesis, his paper made much more sense to me.
In the first part, Bridges argues confessional identity between Separates and Regulars (pp.4-12). He employs confessions and his interpretations for them to prove theological likeness between Separates and Particulars. Then, in the second part of the paper, Bridges argues, from the sociological context cultural idiosyncrasies that make Separates totally distinct from Particular Baptists. I can only assume this section constitutes the "groundbreaking" work Dr. Ascol envisioned.
For Bridges then, in Calvinistic theology, Separates were virtually identical to Regulars. But in cultural traits, Separates were miles apart from their Regular brothers. The former gave Separates unity with Particular Baptists while the latter offered only division.
Unfortunately, historians, from Bridges' understanding, thoroughly mistake behavior for belief and wrongly conclude Separate Baptists were another breed of Calvinists entirely--a softer, milder, "modified" Calvinist.
This, from my view, is what Bridges argues in his essay. Does he succeed? It must be concluded that he does not. I hope to address this in more detail in the next installment.
Secondly, Bridges' paper displays, from my view, a consistently combative approach. Rather than rehearse the historical data and allow the reader some semblance of experiencing the obvious from the documents at hand, Bridges immediately shifts into apologetic gear, offering for the reader an Objection/Response structure that seems awkward for a paper of this type.
Quite frankly, I do not think I've ever read a paper of this genre utilizing this particular structure. Perhaps this fulfills some of the "fresh" approach Dr. Ascol anticipates. And surely one expects interpretation when being given historical information. But Bridges delivers so much more--a staged question and answer approach that, at least for him, settles the issue once and for all: any fair reading will conclude that Separates and Regulars were confessionally alike.
Another combative illustration is Bridges' taste for dismissing with a vengeance views with which he disagrees. The first on his list are Fisher Humphreys and Walter Shurden who, according to Bridges, hold to a "popularized theory" of Baptist origins (p.3). Bridges simply dismisses their theory.
But to categorize Dr. Humphreys, a serious Baptist theologian and Dr. Walter Shurden, an eminent Baptist historian as embracing "pop theories" of Baptist history without engaging those theories, stands, for me at least, as irresponsible gobbledygook that should never have made it past the editors. Even worse, as I show in my next post, Bridges simply misstated Humphreys and Shurden's proposal.
Next on Bridges' combative hit list was Dr. Paige Patterson, who, according to Bridges, "perpetuates" the Humphreys-Shurden allegation about Baptist roots. Bridges writes:
"Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who would never recognize Humphreys and Shurden as friends of the conservative wing of the Convention, has perpetuated this thesis." (p.3).
It's the descriptive phrase Bridges offers toward Dr. Patterson I question. What has Dr. Patterson's recognition or not of Humphreys and Shurden as friends of the conservative wing have to do with his view of Baptist origins? That razor cuts both sides. One could just as well argue that Gene M. Bridges, who quotes Professor John Leith, a liberal from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA, would never consider Dr. Leith a friend of Reformed theology (p.10). This kind of tar baby tactics may belong to blogs, but not to serious inquiry.
Surely the reason this description of Dr. Patterson is offered cannot possess any positive value for its inclusion. Again, my mind queries precisely why the editors allowed Bridges to grease the water bucket as he did.
There are a few other choice phrases dusted throughout the paper. Bridges notes R.B.C. Howell "blunderingly called them [that is, Separate Baptists] 'Arminians.'" (p.3). But reading Howell in perspective, one must include his description of Separates as "Arminian in sentiment" (Howell's History, p.54). Even so, other Baptist historians also alluded to Separates, at least some of them, as Arminian in doctrine including Robert Semple and Jesse Mercer.
Thus to note that Howell alone "blundered" is to overlook an apparent tendency of historians to associate Separates in some ways with Arminians. Of course, to allow such undermines one's thesis that Separate Baptists possessed no theological differences with Particular Baptists. Interesting.
Another phrase that appears combative in tone is Bridges' subtle little statement that "'moderate Calvinists' [are ] (often Four-Point Arminians)"(p.6). This may appear too insignificant to most readers to mention. The reason I do mention it is because it simply stands as one more remark indicative that this paper is polemical from the beginning rather than a serious theory with which to contend. It's blistery style places it nicely, at least from my view, into what Bridges dubs of alternate theories about Baptist origins--"ad hocery" at its peak.
For me, it's hard to take this paper as dealing fair and square with the evidences. I intend to show that at least some evidences Bridges offers the reader is skewed and, consequently, questions his conclusions.
Finally, I wrap up this installment suggesting that another weakness in Bridges' essay is what can only be called padding the resources. Beginning on page twelve all the way through page eighteen, the reader is tortured with historical information about North Carolina that, in the end, makes virtually no difference to Bridges' argument.
He marshals demographic evidence (p.12,13), dates and times when other religious groups arrived (pp. 13-15), the borders of various counties (p.18), voting representation, governmental squabbles, on and on and on we are led through a jungle of data that gives the reader, from my view, no better understanding of Separate Baptists than when she started six pages back--almost like sitting through an alleged humorous story with no punch-line at the end. It kinda makes one a wee bit peeved when he finally gets through it and there's no real point--just collected data. The irrelavance of the historical data in this section is striking.
Is this the "ground-breaking" perspective of Sandy Creek Dr. Ascol has in mind? On the next post, we'll open up Bridges' thesis and look inside.
Grace. With that, I am...