Stephen R. Holmes, Baptist Theology (T & T Clark, 2012), 179pp
You wait for one Steve Holmes book, and then two come along. Earlier this year, Holmes published a historical study of the doctrine of the Trinity, this new book is a study of Baptist theology, in the T & T Clark Doing Theology series.
Holmes is well placed to write on Baptist theology, having studied at Spurgeon's College and been involved in a number of different Baptist conversations both internally in England and Wales and latterly in Scotland and also ecumenically with the Church of England. Holmes has also contributed to Baptist theology with particular essays on tradition, missiology, ordination, baptism, the Bible, Christology, the church meeting and ecclesiology.
In a fairly brief study of seven chapters, Holmes surveys the story of Baptist life and theology, Baptist contributions to Christian doctrine (what he calls here 'ecumenical theology'), and Baptist understandings of eccleisology, of liberty, and of mission. The first chapter tells the story of Baptist beginnings and this is one of the best introductions I've read in a while - in terms of length and readability - that is, it tells a fairly complex story with clarity and brevity. The second chapter tells the story of Baptists beginnings in North America, this is arguably even more complex, but as someone who always found it difficult to grasp all the different expressions of Baptist life in America, Holmes makes sense of the developments, drawing attention to key players and key theological choices. The third chapter picks up the story again in the UK and also now in Europe and the rest of the world. Here Holmes again gives a helpful description of how Baptist theology developed in the UK and Europe, although struggles with regard to the rest of the world (aside from Australia), which Holmes says is due in large part to the current lack of published work.
In chapter four Holmes makes the argument that there is not much that is distinctive about Baptist understandings of most Christian doctrine - Baptists agreed with thirty-five of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England. Baptist theologies of God, the work and person of Christ, of creation and eschatology and of revelation and theological method find themselves mirroring and sometimes contributing to basic content of a broad Protestant theology. Where Baptist theology is distinctive is the subject of the next two chapters on eccleisology and liberty. In the ecclesiology chapter the Baptist emphasis on believer's baptism, the local church, congregational government, interdependence and leadership are all explored here. In the final section on leadership Holmes makes a Baptist argument for the ministry of women on the basis of our practice of communal discernment in, and the authority of, the church meeting, to which we only ask that Baptists of another view take heed. The chapter of liberty introduces the reader to the important characters of Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus and their arguments for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. This is followed by a discussion of the work of the influential North American Baptist, E. Y. Mullins at the turn of the 20th century who argued for what he called 'soul competency' (the competency of each individual to relate to God), which ultimately Holmes finds unhelpful (democracy becomes an idol) and misleading (for it is only Christ makes a human competent).
The final chapter sees Holmes focus on mission and holiness, which includes a section of the place of the child in Baptist thought. Holmes identifies the problems for Baptists not practicing infant baptism, and that as a result, the Baptist approach to children is evangelistic rather than catechetical. In an argument in a short forthcoming book on the child in Baptist thought, I have made the argument, that at the very least, the child who is attached to the church, who grows up in the church, is more akin to a member of the catechumenate, than an object of church's mission, wanting to emphasise that an ecclesial relationship is established in infant presentation. The section on holiness, which explores the Baptist language of 'walking together and watching over', is very good, and deserves to be read by every member of a Baptist church in what membership means.
In the introduction and conclusion Holmes argues that Baptist theology has two central foci: the individual believer and the local church. There is an 'intense individualism' in Baptist theology and practice, to which this reader finds more concerning than Holmes. I suspect that is because I remain closer theologically on this point to Gunton and Zizioulas, than Holmes now does. I am not qualified enough to judge this on the basis of the history of theology, but it does appear to me that to emphasise the individual in our highly individualistic culture is unhelpful and so the theology of the person found in Gunton and Zizioulas makes an important contribution today, but this may reflect that my Baptist-ness is tempered by a greater concern for catholicity. This is not to suggest that Holmes gives in to the culture of the day, because the second central foci, the local church, ensures that any individualism is balanced by the importance of the local church.
This is an excellent book. Holmes writes with a broad audience in mind and many parts of the book give an important account of Baptist thought, both for the Baptist Christian and for ecumenical friends, who find Baptists a somewhat strange bunch. I have said elsewhere that Baptist theology is currently flourishing - now we just need to get Baptist churches to take some time to be nourished and challenged by it! The book will surely feature on all Baptist college reading lists, to be read alongside Fiddes' Tracks and Traces and Wright's Free Church, Free State.