Dr. Roger Olson on the Baptist Tradition [Voices from the Branches]

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{This is the fifth installment of a series on Christian traditions called Voices from the Branches–a collection of interviews with pastors, bloggers, and scholars from various traditions. Read more about it here.}

Dr. Roger Olson is Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology of Ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. Before Truett, he taught at Bethel College in St. Paul, MN. He has written numerous books, including: 20th Century Theology (co-authored with the late Stanley Grenz), The Story of Christian TheologyThe Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theologyand Against CalvinismDr. Olson also hosts a blog on Patheos where he writes on theology and ethics from an Evangelical Arminian perspective.

Tell us your story. How did you end up in the Baptist tradition?

20091021_rr_50497I grew up in a northern Pentecostal denomination which was not all the different from Baptist. I attended an evangelical Baptist seminary and, while there, decided I “fit” better as a Baptist than as a Pentecostal. I no longer believed in the Pentecostal distinctive doctrine of speaking in tongues as necessary for Spirit baptism. I have never joined a Baptist group that rejected the contemporary reality of the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit. In some ways I am and have been a “bapticostal.” I still believe, with some other Baptists, in the reality of the subsequent-to-conversion experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Give us a brief introduction to the Baptist tradition. How did it begin?

This would take a long time to answer. In brief, as I understand it (not all Baptists agree), the Baptist tradition began with the Radical Reformation in Switzerland in 1525 with the “Swiss Brethren” (first Anabaptists). The tradition we call “Baptist” (as distinct from Anabaptist) began in 1610 with Thomas Helwys and John Smyth in the Netherlands. They were English congregationalists who fled to Holland to escape British persecution. There they came under the influence of Mennonites (Anabaptists) and adopted believer baptism. I regard Baptists as part of the larger “baptist” tradition including Mennonites and Pentecostals.

What are the distinguishing doctrines of Baptist theology?

The one main doctrine that is relatively unique to Baptists (with a capital “B”) is “soul liberty” or “soul competency.” It is the idea that the individual Christian needs no human mediator to relate to God. Baptists think other Protestants do not take this as seriously as we do. Baptists share with all baptists belief in separation of church and state, believer baptism as sign of conversion/regeneration (necessarily following that), and congregational church polity.

Tell us about the variations in the Baptist tradition as far as denominations go.

Again, this would require a book to fully answer. The Handbook of Denominations (Abingdon Press) lists twenty-some denominations as “Baptist.” There is good reason to believe there are at least 57 varieties of Baptists (not including all “baptists”) in America alone. There’s a Caribbean form of Baptist known as “Spiritual Baptists” that practices a form of communication with the dead. Their worship is extremely emotional. At the other extreme there are “high church” Baptists that are very liturgical and theologically liberal. There are fundamentalist Baptists and even “Full Gospel” (Pentecostal) Baptists. The varieties are many and the diversity great.

What are the differences between Anabaptists and Baptists as we know them today?

In my “book” they are both “baptist” (with a small “b”). They have much in common. However, most Baptist groups do not insist on pacifism. Anabaptists (e.g., Mennonites) have historically insisted on it. Most Anabaptists baptize believers by pouring whereas most Baptists baptize by immersion. Anabaptists are much more community-centered with less individualism than Baptists.

What is the Baptist view of the separation of church and state?

Traditionally Baptists believe Christians ought not to accept privileges from the state (not available to non-profit organizations in general) or attempt to control the state (e.g., by getting laws passed that reflect distinctively religious doctrines or ethics). More importantly, perhaps, Baptists traditionally believe government should be neutral in religious matters and all persons of any faith (or none) should be free to worship (or not) as they please without interference from government.

Why are Baptists non-creedal? How do Baptist confessions/statements of faith differ from creeds?

In Baptist taxonomy a “creed” is an instrument of doctrinal accountability to which, for example, a candidate for ordination must swear allegiance. A “confession of faith” is a statement of the consensual belief of a congregation or association of congregations. Baptists do not have denominations as such; we have “conventions” and “associations” of independent congregations that are not accountable to any higher authority (e.g., a bishop or synod).

What resources would you recommend for getting more acquainted with Baptist theology?

There are many good books on Baptist theology. One widely respected scholar who writes them is Bill Leonard. His Baptist Ways: A History is magisterial. However, like many good Baptist scholars he tends not to trace the Baptist tradition back to the Radical Reformation (Swiss Brethren) in 1525. One who does is Glen Stassen. Another is William McClendon. The latter two Baptist theologians use “baptist” to gather together Baptists and other “free church” Christians under one umbrella. I personally find McClendon’s book Doctrine (volume two of his three part Systematic Theology) the best approach to baptist/Baptist theology.

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