Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher

Monthly Archive: May 2012



May 2012



On Public Baptismal Testimonies

Written by , Posted in Ministry, SBC, Theology

During my Christian life, I’ve been a member of four different Southern Baptist churches. I’ve also served in short-term interim positions in five other SBC-related congregations. Each of these churches could be characterized as theologically conservative, more or less (often officially) affirming the confessional consensus of the current Baptist Faith and Message. Each of these churches cared very much about reaching lost people with the gospel, baptizing them, and then teaching new disciples what it means to follow Jesus as Lord.

Over the course of my nineteen years as a Southern Baptist, I’ve probably witnessed a couple hundred baptisms. In most cases, the pastor administering the baptism simply introduced the baptismal candidate to the church, asked her a handful of basic questions about the gospel, then baptized her in the name of the Triune God. This was my own practice the handful of times I baptized someone on behalf of congregations I was serving as interim pastor. Yet, it always seemed like something was missing.

When Leah and I were first visiting First Baptist Church of Durham, one of the first things we noticed is that baptismal candidates share their testimonies before the congregation prior to being baptized. On the first Sunday we visited, we heard the story of a teenage boy from a strong Christian home who had recently turned from his sins and cast himself upon Christ’s mercies. As a lover of Baptist history and theology, I was elated that the church embraced what at one time was standard practice among Baptist churches. This was one of many practices that cemented our desire to join FBC Durham.

Southern Baptists are credobaptists, meaning we only baptize those who can give what appears to be a credible testimony of saving faith. But unlike some other credobaptists, Southern Baptists have historically argued that baptism is an ordinance closely tied to local churches. In fact, we have argued that it is in most cases the church itself that baptizes new converts. The individual immersing the baptismal candidate, normally a pastor, is acting as the congregation’s representative when he immerses a new follower of Jesus Christ. This emphasis on local church credobaptism is the main reason I’m such a strong proponent of every church incorporating public testimonies prior to baptism.

The church should hear the salvation testimony of the person whom they are about to baptize. This testimony serves at least three functions. Theologically, the testimony helps ensure that the congregation is actually practicing credobaptism by immersing someone who claims to have trusted in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Ministerially, the testimony is an encouragement to the whole congregation as it hears about what God has done in saving a sinner and bringing him to the point of publicly identifying with the body of Christ through believer’s baptism. Evangelistically, the testimony provides a clear gospel witness to unbelievers who might observe the baptism.

Some churches might be hesitant to require public testimonies prior to baptism. What if the baptismal candidate is scared of public speaking and/or isn’t a very good speaker? I know plenty of seasoned Christians who would be scared to death to share a public testimony before the whole church. What if the testimony isn’t clear or it’s heterodox and brings confusion? We’ve all heard sketchy testimonies at one time or another. What if including testimonies adds too much time to a worship service? It’s always tough deciding what ought to be “cut” out of a corporate worship gathering when something special is added to the mix.

First, I’d recommend that any baptismal candidate meet with a pastor a couple of days in advance of the baptism to discuss the whole event, including the testimony. (I’m assuming she’s already met with a pastor one or more times for spiritual counsel related to conversion, baptism, church membership, etc.) I’d encourage the baptismal candidate to write out her testimony, not necessarily word for word, but at least in summary form. The combination of meeting with a pastor and writing out the material will help make the testimony clear, succinct, and orthodox. Frankly, this just seems like good shepherding on the part of pastors.

Second, if the Lord is blessing a church with numerous baptismal candidates, I’d recommend setting apart a special gathering for baptisms. This could be done in the place of a Sunday evening worship service or at another time when most of the body can gather together. A separate baptismal celebration would alleviate concerns about multiple testimonies adding too much time to a regular weekend worship gathering. I know of a few churches that hold monthly or quarterly baptismal celebrations, often in public places like a lake or the beach, in part because of this very scenario. (For what it’s worth, outdoor baptismal celebrations are another classic Baptist practice I’d love to see revived.)

Finally, in terms of public speaking concerns, both candidates and churches should be taught the importance of a public baptismal testimony. The baptismal candidate should know that he isn’t being asked to preach a sermon, but to give a three or four minute summary of his new-found faith. If he is really nervous about speaking, he could always write out the testimony verbatim. For candidates who have trouble speaking English, a translator should be secured (assuming the congregation is primarily English-speaking). The church should be encouraged to celebrate the testimony of all baptismal candidates, even if the speaker isn’t eloquent. After all, the church isn’t delighting in the words themselves so much as the spiritual realities the words are describing. I’m a proponent of live testimonies, but in a case where a baptismal candidate is deathly afraid of public speaking, a pre-recorded testimony could be played for the congregation.

At FBC Durham, we’ve baptized three women in the past month. One is a collegian who has been raised in one of our church’s families, but has only recently come to faith in Christ. Another is an Asian graduate student who was recently introduced to the gospel through our church’s outreach ministry to internationals living in Durham. The third young lady is a collegian who was converted several years ago, but who had never followed the Lord in believer’s baptism. I know all three of these stories because each of these women shared their testimonies with our church before we baptized them. I’m thankful they shared their stories with us and that our church provided them with an opportunity to do so. I’d urge your church to do the same.





May 2012



Summer Reading Plans

Written by , Posted in Books, Culture, History, Ministry, Missions, Theology

One of the reasons I love summers is because I have a chance to read a little more than I read during semesters. After tweeting about some of the topics I’d be reading on this summer, several folks asked me for some titles. What follows is a list of some of the books I’d like to read in between now and the start of the fall semester in late August.

I do need to offer a few caveats. For starters, I’m only including books I’d like to read (or finish reading) in their entirety. Like perhaps many of you, there are many books I read only portions of, but I’m not counting them. Also, I’m not counting books that I’m reading (or skimming) for various writing projects; those titles, most of which are related to Baptist history and Baptist identity, aren’t really “summer reading” so much as they are “necessary research!” I’m not counting books I have to read because I’m writing reviews of them for various journals (topics include “lost” Gospels, the future of Baptist identity, evangelical missions in the nineteenth century, a church history survey text, and the influence of Jonathan Edwards on Andrew Fuller’s theology). Finally, I’m not counting books that I’m reading on along and along as part of my morning devotional time.

Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971). I’ve actually read this before, but we’re reading selections in my Theology Reading Group this summer. I’m very excited to be revisiting some of my favorite short stories by one of my very favorite authors.

Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Crossway, 2012). I’m very interested in reading the authors’ attempt to chart a middle way between the Covenant and Dispensational systems. Count me among those folks who appreciate elements of both approaches, yet isn’t wholly persuaded by either.

Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan, 2011). I started reading this book last year, but had to put it down for a season to focus on other works. I hope to finish it this summer.

Jason C. Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology, NAC Studies in Bible and Theology (B&H Academic, 2009). This is a book I’ve wanted to read for several years, especially since I read Tom Schreiner’s 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law. I hope to read it in the next week or two.

Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Crossway, 2010). This is another book I started reading a while back and hope to finish up this summer.

Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology (IVP Academic, 2006). I picked up this book a few weeks ago and look forward to meditating on its themes as I reflect on my own pastoral responsibilities at First Baptist Church of Durham.

Timothy C. Tennant, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology (Zondervan, 2007). I’ve been reading a lot about modern Global Christianity in the past few years, most of which is written by historians or historical missiologists. I’m looking forward to reading this book, which focuses more on theology.

Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Zondervan, 2010). I read Wright’s The Mission of God three or four summers ago. I’m looking forward to reading this follow-up volume.

John G. Turner, Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America (University of North Carolina Press, 2008). This is one of those books I’ve intended to read for a long time, but it keeps getting left on the “to-be-read” shelf as others rise to the top. I hope to finally read it this summer.

John D. Hannah, An Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalism (Zondervan, 2009). Dallas Seminary is one of the most important seminaries in the American evangelical orbit. I enjoy books that are part institutional history, part window into the wider religious and cultural context. See Marsden on Fuller Seminary and Wills on Southern Seminary for good examples.

Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012) and Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus (Crossway, 2012). I strongly resonate with Leeman’s views on church matters in general, so I’m looking forward to reading these two short books.

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May 2012



Meaningful Church Membership in an Age of Social Networks

Written by , Posted in Culture, Ministry, Theology

I’m currently reading through an interesting collection of essays titled Beyond 400: Exploring Baptist Futures (Pickwick, 2011). Beyond 400 is one among a spate of recently published books reflecting on the future of Baptist identity and theology. These particular essays were written by Baptist scholars from England, Australia, and New Zealand on the occasion of the fourth hundredth anniversary of the Baptist movement in 2009.

In an article titled “Meeting for Minutes? Baptist Congregational Life in the Age of Twitter,” Martin Sutherland of Laidlaw College in New Zealand offers the following reflections on the importance of local church membership and congregational polity in an age of social networking:

In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, Christians have been reconciled to God. Thus, in us too the plan for the end of time is now mysteriously fulfilled. The church plays an integral part in the unfolding plan of God. We are imperfect to be sure. We may still groan and wait for adoption to become evident in our midst, but, for all that, we are the body of Christ, declaring God’s new order to the universe. This is what is signaled in Ephesians 3:21. Amazingly, God may be glorified in the church as well as in Christ. The concept of “glorifying” God here is a rich one…. Christians do not merely offer praise; they participate in God’s glory as they participate in Christ. Conversely, in manifesting the fulfillment of the mission Dei, the church glorifies God, displaying to the universe who God is and what God has done, demonstrating by its very existence the divine nature.

Now, this notion that the church tells forth the glory of God is a little troubling for those of us who know the church! We think of our own congregations and wonder just what exactly this poor specimen of the children of God is unveiling to the universe. But this is only problematic if we have an over-realized eschatology that imagines we become some perfect community in this time. We are fallen, often inadequate, frequently quarrelling, “a fractious and divided people.” That being so, what can a congregation hope to show of the mission of God? It shows the mission in action. It shows the reconciling power of the Spirit being worked out in real time.

This is our role in the mission of God. This is the cosmic dynamic that we call non-believers to join. As an incarnation of the mission Dei, church does not merely do mission, it embodies it. Crucially, the mission is demonstrated not in our perfect being but in the development of our becoming. In this openness to the transforming power of the Spirit we incarnate the missio Dei.

I use “incarnate” deliberately, not to diminish the unique role of Christ of course but to emphasis [sic] it. If we are to “glorify” God we will do so incarnationally. Here congregational life becomes crucial. We may joke that “we love the church but it is Christians we can’t stand,” but that jibe does identify a key issue. Jesus came to his own in flesh and blood. The Baptist vision forbids us to pretend we can be church in general without being congregations in particular. It is a conceit to imagine that we love the people of God otherwise than in loving these people of God.

Thus, I suggest the face-to-face-ness of the congregation simply cannot be escaped. It does not glorify God to press “delete” on difficult relationships, or on those who don’t look, smell, or sound like us. Facebook and Twitter attract the easily connected; the gospel brings together the irreconcilable.

Rich stuff here. You should read the whole essay. See Martin Sutherland, “Meeting for Minutes? Baptist Congregational Life in the Age of Twitter,” in Beyond 400: Exploring Baptist Futures, eds. David J. Cohen and Michael Parsons (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011), pp. 53–54.



May 2012



New Blog: The Anxious Bench

Written by , Posted in History, Links

I keep up with several blogs related to the history of Christianity in America. Some of my favorites include Religion in American History, Religion in America, and Confessing History. I also like to read History of Christianity, which deals more broadly with the field of church history. These blogs often offer great initial forays into important topics in American Christianity. They’re also often good places to read some of the earliest critical reviews of new books in the field.

I was excited to learn about a new blog connected to Patheos, cleverly titled The Anxious Bench. The early posts are promising. The contributors include historians Tommy Kidd and Philip Jenkins of Baylor, John Fea of Messiah College, and John Turner of George Mason University. I look forward to regularly reading their insights.

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May 2012



Baptist History and Heritage Society Annual Meeting

Written by , Posted in Conferences, History, SBC, Theology

Baptist History & Heritage SocietyThis year, the Baptist History and Heritage Society (BHHS) is holding its annual meeting in Raleigh, NC. I’m looking forward to attending the gathering for the first time in several years. The topic is “Baptists and Theology,” which, as a historical theologian with expertise in the field of Baptist Studies, is pretty much my favorite topic in the world. I’m really looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, the BHHS meeting often conflicts with our spring graduation at SEBTS. In part for this reason, and in part because most of my fellow Southern Baptist colleagues are involved in other scholarly societies and annual conferences, in recent years I’ve participated more in the Baptist Life and Thought Study Group at the Evangelical Theological Society (I’m a member of the steering committee), the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, and the International Conference on Baptist Studies. (The latter is a triennial meeting that is being hosted by SEBTS this summer. More on that in a later post.) Nevertheless, I’m delighted that BHHS is meeting close by and that I’ll be able to attend. It’ll be nice to catch up with some friends I don’t get to see in person all that often.

The plenary addresses for the conference are as follows:

Glenn Jonas (Campbell University Divinity School) – “Nurturing the Vision: Highlights from a 200 Year Old Baptist Church in Raleigh”

Bill Leonard (Wake Forest University Divinity School) – “Conviction and Contradiction: Reassessing Theological Formation in Baptist Identity”

Fisher Humphreys (Beeson Divinity School) – “To Go Forward We Must First Go Back: Baptist Theology since 1950”

Parallel papers will be read by a wide variety of historians and theologians, including my SEBTS colleague John Hammett, my Sunday School class member Jan Martijn Abrahamse, my favorite Baptist iconoclast Curtis Freeman, my first Baptist history professor Doug Weaver, and the troubler of Israel himself, Aaron Weaver (the lesser Weaver).

I want to especially encourage my SEBTS faculty colleagues and students to consider attending this conference. You can register for the BHHS annual meeting online.