Aaron Weaver (a.k.a. "Big Daddy Weave"), doctoral candidate and Graduate Fellow with the Baylor University Academy for Teaching and Learning, has a new book release entitled, James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom ($14.40, Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Macon, 224 pages) >>>
By any standard, James Dunn was a lightning rod during the Conservative Resurgence years. While his friends called him both "an institution" (XIV) and a "colorful" character2, those not so impressed by his fiery rhetoric toward the "fundamentalist" takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention sentenced him to silence3. But Weaver has given Baptists a closer look into the life, ministry, and impact of James Dunn in Soul Freedom.
One is first impressed by Weaver's candid admission to his readers. He lays all his cards on the table, writing on Dunn's contributions as a friend not an enemy or unbiased bystander. In fact, according to Bill Leonard, who authored the Foreword, Dunn is Weaver's hero: "Weaver readily acknowledges (confesses?) that Dunn has been a genuine hero to him from adolescence to adulthood" (XIII). Even so, as the reader makes his or her way through the volume, one is also struck by Weaver's judicious sense in getting the story straight.
After Leonard's brief Foreword, six chapters follow summing up Dunn's life and ministry career. The six chapters may be divided into three uneven sections. Chapters one to three describe Dunn's formative years, including his childhood, intellectual formation, and vocational choices. Chapters four and five rehearse the decade of controversy between Dunn and the Conservative Resurgence leaders, while chapter six informs the reader what Dunn has accomplished for religious liberty since the Baptist Joint Committee was de-funded and subsequently decommissioned by the Southern Baptist Convention (1990 and 1991 respectively). Chapter 7 serves as an epilogue recapping Dunn's continued influence in our nation's capital, followed by a thorough bibliography.
reviewing the chapters
More specifically, chapter one chronically focuses on "The Early Years" beginning with Dunn's Texas upbringing. According to Weaver, Dunn was ahead of the curve on the race issue since his parents often invited African-Americans as guests into their modest home (pp.2, 5). Dunn was only a young boy when his family joined Evans Avenue Baptist Church (now known as Southcliff Baptist Church) in Fort Worth. At the time, T.A. Patterson (father of Paige Patterson) was the pastor though Dunn did not make profession of faith until after Patterson had moved on to another ministry (p.3).
After graduating from Texas Wesleyan College (1954), he entered Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and studied under the famed Southern Baptist ethicist, T.B. Maston. According to Weaver, the ethical thought and life of James Dunn cannot be "adequately understood without first acknowledging the pivotal influence of T.B. Maston" (p.8). Dunn served as pastor in several smaller churches as well as Baptist Student Union director for West Texas State University (p.15). However, the position which would set the pace for Dunn's future was becoming Associate Director of the Christian Life Commission (CLC) of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (p.16), a position he held for only a short time before succeeding Jimmy Allen as Executive Director in 1968 (p.18).
Chapter two shows how Dunn's intellectual life galvanized into applied, social Christianity. As Director of the Christian Life Commission, Dunn fought legalized gambling (p.25) and the alcohol industry (p.27). And, since Dunn served during the Viet Nam war, he also frequently addressed war and peace (p.28). In addition, both abortion and equal rights were often on the radar (pp.30-32). While Dunn personally had egalitarian views concerning women, he led the commission to avoid taking a public position on the controversial "ERA" constitutional amendment opting for a "white paper" describing the "pros and cons" of ERA (p.30). Similarly, Dunn attempted to take a "centrist" position on the volatile issue of abortion instructing the commission to also write a "white paper" dealing with it. From Dunn's standpoint, the CLC should serve Baptists as a "dispenser of information…rather than taking a conclusive position on either issue" (p.32). However, Weaver does not address Dunn's possible tension existing about the CLC's perceived role as a "dispenser of information" without a "conclusive position" for ERA and abortion while holding definitive views on gambling, alcohol, and race.
Even so, Dunn also addressed what has become an explosive issue in contemporary culture—homosexuality (pp.32-33)--citing the popular but questionable moral distinction between homosexual "orientation" and homosexual "behavior" (p.33). Other issues Dunn brought to the public square were sex and violence, juvenile justice, world hunger, environment, welfare, immigration, economy, race, and especially church-state issues (pp. 34-52).
Chapter three entitled "The Baptist and Soul Freedom" serves as the theological-intellectual core for James Dunn's contribution to the Baptist understanding of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Indeed, Weaver sums up Dunn's position well: "Dunn insisted that 'real Baptists' demand that church and state remain separate because of this uncompromising commitment to soul freedom" (p.59). After offering a brief historical sweep of religious liberty beginning with the sub-apostolic church, Weaver logs brief comments upon standard Baptist heroes of soul freedom including John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, John Leland, Roger Williams, and Isaac Backus.
No one makes more of an impression on Dunn's thinking, however, than E.Y. Mullins, whom Weaver describes as the "single most important shaper of Southern Baptists in the twentieth century and especially influential upon James Dunn" (p.65). In fact, Weaver asserts Dunn became the "heir of Mullins" and those in Baptist history who insisted upon "soul competency" as a definitive Baptist distinctive (p.67). And, what Mullins called "soul competency" Dunn called "soul freedom"; that is, "the fire that burns in the innards of every true Baptist."
For Dunn, "soul freedom" is prima facie true, a "self-evident truth" which needs no proof (p.68). That does not mean, however, that no biblical evidence exists to demonstrate the existence of "soul freedom". For Dunn, the creation narrative (Gen 1-2) shows human beings are "wired" with soul freedom by being created in God's image (pp.68-70). Hence, human liberty implies democracy in society, the complete separation of church and state, and even non-credalism in the church (p.70). In the end, the theological and historical starting place for Baptists is the biblical doctrine of soul freedom (p.78).
Chapters four and five may exist as the heart of Soul Freedom (at least for post-Conservative Resurgence Southern Baptists) since SBC leaders sparred with James Dunn for almost a decade. And, even though several issues surfaced between Dunn and SBC conservatives, Weaver appears to argue that school prayer was the dynamite which blew the two factions apart (pp. 91-103). Or, perhaps more correctly, the issue of school prayer exposed the un-crossable gap between Dunn's hardline distinction between church and state and SBC conservatives' growing accommodationist views on church and society4. Whatever the case, Dunn and conservative resurgence advocates fought endlessly throughout the eighties with the inevitable result of complete de-funding and decommissioning of the BJC in 1991. This divorce should not have surprised anyone, least of all, James Dunn himself since Dunn's colorful but taunting language against the "fundamentalists" never struck a neutral tone5.
Chapter five continues the fight for survival James Dunn encountered from increasing support conservative leaders gained from mainstream Southern Baptists. Though the first formal attempt to rid the convention of Dunn's influence was unsuccessful (pp. 118-119; 124), the conservatives ultimately succeeded in tying Dunn to the radical Liberal lobby group, People for the American Way (p.115), making much of his refusal to repudiate a pro-choice position on abortion (p.117), and, most of all, showed Dunn's outright rejection of the conservative resurgence's core concern6—the inerrancy of Scripture (p.127). Hence, Dunn's ousting from speaking for Southern Baptists in the public square became history (pp.132-134).
Weaver's final chapters (chapter six and the epilogue) rehearse Dunn's continued influence in Washington and among Baptists the globe over despite being shut out by Southern Baptists. According to Weaver, James Dunn and Bill Clinton became "Baptist buddies" (p.147), which obviously surprises no one among Dunn's many critics in Southern Baptist life. They loved Reagan and had little use for Clinton while Dunn loved Clinton and had little use for Reagan. Indeed Dunn's friendship with Clinton may be more indicative of his political views than one at first imagines7. And according to Weaver, while de-funding the BJC had immediate impact upon its work, it nonetheless survived the massive loss of funds and remains financially healthy today (pp.145-147). Dr. Dunn still serves as president of the Baptist Joint Committee Endowment (p.179).
assessing Soul Freedom
Aaron Weaver has given Baptists a fair look into the mind and ministry of James M. Dunn. Though a sparkplug during his years as spokesman for Southern Baptists, Dunn deserves credit for his honorable contributions to religious liberty8. And while Weaver's contribution in Soul Freedom commends itself in understanding James Dunn better, there exists a few weaknesses worthy of note.
First, as indicated above, Weaver does not address Dunn's possible tension existing about the CLC's perceived role as a "dispenser of information" without a "conclusive position" for ERA and abortion but nonetheless held tenaciously to definitive, objectionable views on gambling, alcohol, and race. There seems to be a tension but Weaver does not address it. If we are to fully understand one's public ethical policies and positions, it seems we need to explore tensions in their thinking.
Second, Weaver explains at length Dunn's doctrine of creation (pp.67-70), making the imago Dei the theological "cornerstone" (p.69) as it were for Soul Freedom—"We are wired up with a chooser and we live with the consequences of those decisions" (p.68). Even so, one looks in vain for a complementary doctrine of the fall. Should Genesis 3 in any way affect our reading of Genesis 1-2? If so, how? If the fall makes a difference in the creational freedom by which humankind is endowed by its Creator, what is the content of that difference? While I do not doubt Dunn believed in Genesis 3 and the Fall of humankind, one would not know this reading Weaver's account in Soul Freedom, nor to what extent, if any, the Fall affected humankind's imago Dei and, subsequently, the soul's freedom.
Finally, there are some lesser issues which, overall, do not significantly affect the book's usefulness. I noticed one misspelled word9. In addition, Weaver asserts that Dunn gave "three reasons" why Baptists must resist efforts to abandon the strict separation of church and state (p.73). Following the assertion, Weaver cites two reasons—theology demands it and Christian ethics requires it. However, my anticipation for a third reason remains unsatisfied. While I honestly could have overlooked it, I failed to find it.
While most Conservative Resurgence advocates will quibble over some of the interpretations made in this volume, Aaron Weaver's Soul Freedom is a responsible look into the life and ministry of James M. Dunn from a convictional Moderate Baptist perspective. I highly recommend it.
With that, I am…
1In 1990, the Southern Baptist Convention voted affirmatively for the Executive Committee's recommendation to slash BJC funding by 87%, and at the following convention, Atlanta messengers defunded the BJC entirely
2 Baptists and the First Amendment: an Historical Overview, C. Douglas Weaver, Baptist History and Heritage, Summer/Fall, 2008
3Paige Patterson reportedly said of the feisty ethicist , "1 think there will be something done to silence him" (Stan Hastey, THE SBC, 1979-93: WHAT HAPPENED AND WHY?, Baptist History and Heritage, [volume unknown, p.25])
4for an interesting comparison between varying views on church-state philosophy within Baptist history, see Barry Hankins, "The Evangelical Accomodationism of Southern Baptist Convention Conservatives," Baptist History & Heritage, Winter 1998, pp. 54-65. Hankins contrasts Dunn's philosophy of strict separation with Richard Land's allegedly innovative accomodationism
5Weaver candidly quotes Dunn's racy language including dubbing Ronald Reagan "deliberately dishonest" (p.96) in his approach to school prayer, being the "patent poppycock" it was. He also insinuated conservative leaders were parallel to Paul's critics, the Judiazers (i.e. "Stupid Galatians" p.119). Again, Weaver's honest approach to factual data lends integrity to his account
6of course, Moderate/Progressive/Liberal Baptists do not accept inerrancy of Scripture to be the core idea of the Conservative Resurgence. Instead, they routinely view the Conservative Resurgence as a "takeover" by power-mongering "fundamentalists," a view which will never be acknowledged by conservatives
7that's only the reviewer's opinion
8even conservatives praised Dunn for his public opposition to Reagan's blunder in appointing an ambassador to the Vatican (pp.111-112)
9Weaver quoting Dunn, "A smug arrogance mars the mien of those who presume to sit in critical judgment…" (p.126). Presumably, the correct word is "mind." Then again perhaps not