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Very Brief Introduction to Baptist Theology, Then and Now

Note: See links at bottom of page for resources concerning historical Baptist theology.

Historically, Baptists are a diverse people bound together by a belief in freedom of conscience, the truthfulness of Scripture, believer's baptism by immersion, Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State, local church autonomy, and the Priesthood of all Believers. Apart from these commonalities, internal dissension has abounded, including disagreements over Calvinism and Arminianism, missions, denominational structures, worship styles, music, and many other issues. As a result, Baptists have split many times over into dozens of distinct groups within the United States and hundreds worldwide.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, many Baptists in America -- particular among Southern Baptists and other fundamentalist Baptist groups -- came to understand diversity as undesirable, insisting instead upon forced conformity. In many instances in modern Baptist circles, long-held Baptist beliefs by the late 20th century gave way to modernistic theology (fundamentalism, forged in the late 19th century) committed to the enforcement of doctrinal purity. The time-honored doctrine of biblical authority in matters of faith, for example, has been denied and discarded by fundamentalist Baptists and replaced with the modern theological concept of "biblical inerrancy." Creedalism is now common in Baptist life despite Baptists' strong historical aversion to creeds. Likewise, the foundational Baptist belief of freedom of conscience now competes with the political and theological correctness espoused by fundamentalists. Traditional Baptist belief in religious liberty for persons of all faiths or no faith, and the cherished Baptist concept of separation of church and state, both secured in America after 150 years of persecution and spilled blood, have been discarded by some in favor of church-state union. Local church autonomy is valued less and less by many Baptists who now defer to religious hierarchy. And many (Southern Baptist in particular) fundamentalists are increasingly turning to strict Calvinism, generating tension within the larger fundamentalist community (many of whom remain hostile to the primary tenets of Calvinism).

On the other side of the modern Baptist spectrum, mainstream conservative and moderate Baptists (represented by many dissenting Southern Baptists, as well as American Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, African-American Baptists and others who collectively comprise about 20 million of America's roughly 38 million Baptist population) maintain a commitment to the historic Baptist principles listed above, while increasingly opening the doors of church leadership to women (some women deacons and preachers have been present in Baptist life at least as far back as the mid-18th century), focusing on freedom-centric (rather than propositional-centric) faith, emphasizing the social justice themes prevalent in the Bible, and displaying a willingness to learn from other historic Christian traditions.

On a denominational level, the Baptist World Alliance, created in 1905 and currently comprised of over 200 member Baptist groups worldwide, is a joint Baptist effort to witness, minister and advocate Baptist beliefs and practices throughout the world. While theological nuances abound within member bodies, BWA Baptists are committed to religious liberty, separation of church and state, human rights, and freedom of conscience.

In addition, within the contemporary scholarly world, a new generation of Baptist theologians (dubbed Bapto-Catholics) are now re-examining the Baptist commitment to freedom, expressed in a growing effort to reconcile Baptist freedom with hierarchical faith.

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A Few Recently-Published Introductory Baptist Theology Books

R. Kirby Godsey -- Is God a Christian? A provocative new book that examines overarching theological questions and explores a path of religious understanding and toleration in the 21st century.

James Leo Garrett -- Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical.  The only systematic theology written by a Baptist who extensively quotes other Baptist writers, theologians, and exegetes.

James Leo Garrett -- Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study (published by Mercer University Press, 2009)

William H. Brackney -- A Capsule History of Baptist Principles (a brief overview of Baptist theological foundations, published by Baptist History and Heritage Society)

Bruce T. Gourley -- A Capsule History of Baptist History (while not a theological treatise, this very brief volume provides a broad overview of the development of Baptist theology; published by the Baptist History and Heritage Society).

A Baptist's Theology -- Various Authors; Published by Smyth & Helwys

Recent Books on Baptist Distinctives
Books on Biblical Authority
Books on Religious Liberty
Books on Priesthood of Believers
Books on Baptist Church Polity
Books on Fundamentalism and Social Change
Books on Politics and Religion

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Selected Baptist Theology Online Resources

Center for Baptist Studies -- offers essays, articles and reviews related to theological issues in Baptist life
Baptists and Their Theology -- by Fisher Humphreys (former prof. of Theology, Beeson  Divinity School)
Calvinism and Traditional Baptist Theology -- by Fisher Humphreys
Open Theism and Theology Today -- by Fisher Humphreys
First London Confessions of Faith (17th century) -- text of early Baptist confessions with annotations
New Hampshire Baptist Confession (1833) -- reflects a moderated Calvinistic perspective
Baptist Faith and Message (1963 and 2000) -- the Southern Baptist Convention statement (pdf)
List of Baptist Confessions - from Wikipedia
Founder's Journal -- devoted to the Calvinistic dimension of Baptist theology and history

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