Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher

Monthly Archive: March 2013



March 2013



I’m a Historian, Not a Prophet

Written by , Posted in History, SBC

Historians are often asked to be prophets. In my classes at Southeastern Seminary, hardly a week goes by that one or more students don’t ask me to speculate about how the past might influence the future. This phenomenon is even more pronounced when I teach on church history in local churches. It is most common, both in class and in the church, when I teach on Baptist history. Many folks suppose that being relatively learned in Baptist history means that one is able to discern what will happen in the future. That might be true of Michael Haykin or Lloyd Harsch or Jason Duesing or Jim Patterson, but not this historian.

Recently, I was reading George Nash’s fine book Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism (ISI Books, 2009). Nash has spent his career studying the conservative intellectual movement in modern America (see his landmark monograph on this topic). Apparently, historians of conservative intellectual history are similar to historians of Christian thought when it comes to requests for one don the prophetic mantle. I like what Nash writes in the introduction to Reappraising the Right.

“Historians are not necessarily good prognosticators, but by deliberately taking a longer view we can try to liberate our readers from the provincialism of the present” (p. xviii).

Now we’re talking. I have no idea if the Cooperative Program will go the way of the buffalo, if the SBC will divide on account of soteriological debates, if the Convention will become less southern and southwestern in its cultural ethos over the next generation, or who will be the next president of such-and-such theological seminary or mission board or other denominational agency (to mention but a few of the questions about which I’m regularly asked to prophesy). I’m a historian, not a prophet.

However, I do know that history reminds us to take the long view on each of these issues. The Cooperative Program has only been around for about half of Southern Baptist history and took a generation to catch on after its inception. Though critically important and worthy of our generous support, the CP is not intrinsic to our identity. The relative center of Southern Baptist soteriology has shifted over time because of a variety of factors, some of them non-theological in nature. Besides, its rather difficult to tell to what degree grassroots Southern Baptists have been in step with the relatively small handful of SBC leaders writing on soteriology at any given point in SBC history. The contemporary SBC is far less southern and southwestern (and Caucasian) than it was two generations ago, even if this isn’t entirely clear at the SBC Annual Meeting. But then the Convention is also more age diverse than is evident at the SBC Annual Meeting. As for denominational ministry presidents and other leaders, you simply never know when someone might retire (or not) and who will arise as a good candidate in such kairos moments. Nobody would have guessed in 1975 that Paige Patterson would become the president of not one but two SBC seminaries, to give but one example.

Historians aren’t prophets, and they shouldn’t pretend to be. But historians have something to offer our students and ministry colleagues as we ponder the great questions of our day. That something isn’t some infallible or even possible future, but rather historical perspective. And maybe, just maybe, if we inject a bit more historical perspective into our discussions of said great questions, such conversations might prove to be more profitable (though not prophet-able) than they so often are.

(Note: this post is cross-published at Historia Ecclesiastica, the blog of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies)




March 2013



On Evangelical Spirituality

Written by , Posted in Ministry, Theology

From David Parker’s essay “Evangelical Spirituality Reviewed”:

girl reading BibleAccording to its theology, Evangelicalism focuses on the Christian life as a personal relationship between the believer and God, through the indwelling, regenerating power of the Holy Spirit by virtue of the merits of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, appropriated by faith….

Thus fellowship with God is direct and personal; it is not mediated indirectly by church, liturgy or sacrament….

This helps explain why evangelical spirituality has not developed a universal system of spiritual disciplines in the way Catholicism has. For evangelical spirituality, the system is more fluid because the focus in on the personal faith-relationship with God and on his glory, rather than the disciplines per se, or even believers and their spiritual development. Thus it is open for every practitioner and spiritual guide to develop the basic principles in a way that seems appropriate to their own needs and context….

Therefore, the indispensable starting point for Christian spirituality is conversion, whether it is an emotional, datable experience or not. This contrasts strongly with the sacramental spirituality which takes all baptised people as already able to develop and grow in their spirituality.

Then, from conversion, onwards, the Christian life is one of “knowing God,” walking by faith in harmony with his will, seeking his glory and serving his purpose. In common with other forms of spirituality, evangelicalism makes use of a variety of means to further these ends, whether it be prayer, pastor guidance or witnessing through evangelism. But these means of grace are regarded in a fundamentally different manner in evangelical spirituality for they are strictly secondary to the ultimate end, rather than being of merit in themselves.

The Christian life is one of pilgrimage, with the believer walking humbly as an alien in this world, answering to the Lord from heaven, and looking towards the final hope which is the consummation of all in God’s Eternal Kingdom. This spirituality is “world denying” in the sense that it does not credit this life and this world with ultimate autonomy. However, it is also “world affirming” in that it confesses that this world is God’s creation and therefore not to be abused or ignored, but to be used carefully and sensitively for his glory. It also affirms that this world is the medium and context of salvation and Christian service, and is ultimately to be redeemed.

David Parker, “Evangelical Spirituality Reviewed,” Evangelical Quarterly 63.2 (1991): 129-31.

(Image credit)



March 2013



What Happened During Holy Week?

Written by , Posted in History, Theology

A few years ago, Justin Taylor posted a great short series on Holy Week that looked at each day of Jesus’ final week leading into his crucifixion and resurrection. It’s a helpful resource for personal devotional study this week as you prepare for celebrating the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ this coming Lord’s Day.

Holy Week: What Happened on Sunday?

Holy Week: What Happened on Monday?

Holy Week: What Happened on Tuesday?

Holy Week: What Happened on Wednesday?

Holy Week: What Happened on Thursday?

Holy Week: What Happened on Friday?

Holy Week: What Happened on Sunday?

Note that there are two Sundays. The first marks the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which many churches commemorated last Lord’s Day by celebrating Palm Sunday. The second Sunday is of course the day of the resurrection. There is no post for Saturday, because on that day Jesus was dead in the tomb and his followers were despairing. But on that second Sunday, up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes!

(Note: This post is cross-published at Between the TimesImage credit)



March 2013



You Have Been Raised

Written by , Posted in Links

This coming Sunday at First Baptist Church of Durham, our congregation will be singing the song “You Have Been Raised” during our corporate worship gathering. Our worship team introduced us to the song last week. I think it is a delightful song, so I thought I would share it with you. Check out the YouTube video below.



March 2013



Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?

Written by , Posted in Ministry, SBC, Theology

Note: Last week, I offered some brief thoughts on baptism. I mentioned in that post an earlier article from Between the Times on the topic “Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?” I have re-published that earlier article below, with some very minor edits.

* * *

Article ImageSeveral years ago, Southern Seminary president Albert Mohler wrote an influential essay titled “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” In that essay, Mohler argues that a key to spiritual maturity is being able to distinguish between primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines. According to Mohler, primary or first-order doctrines are those that are essential to the faith–you cannot reject these beliefs and still be Christian in the biblical sense of the term. Mohler’s examples include such matters as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, justification by faith alone, and the full authority of Scripture.

Secondary or second-order doctrines are those that generate disagreement among authentic Christians and typically result in an inability to be a part of the same denomination or often even the same congregation. Mohler’s examples of second-order doctrines are gender roles and baptism.

Tertiary or third-order doctrines are those doctrines that engender disagreement, but do not normally prevent two Christians from being part of the same church or group of churches. Mohler’s cites disagreement about the finer details of eschatology, presumably the nature of the millennium and the timing of the rapture, as textbook tertiary doctrines.

Southern Baptists have responded in a variety of ways to Mohler’s paradigm. Some argue it is a helpful way to think about the nature of Christian cooperation. They claim we all do theological triage, even if subconsciously and without using the label. Others voice concerns that Mohler’s views, or at least some possible applications of his views, lead to a downplaying of important theological convictions. They claim that theological triage results in our picking and choosing which biblical commands we will obey and which we will fudge on for ecumenical purposes.

For my part, I am firmly in the camp that agrees that theological triage is a helpful term that describes what all Christians already do, even if they don’t know it. I reject the notion that categorizing doctrines as either primary, secondary, or tertiary in principle necessarily leads to some sort of inappropriate compromise. When I choose to work with others with whom I disagree on secondary or tertiary convictions, I am not endorsing their convictions–I’m simply recognizing that what I believe to be their error doesn’t preclude us from working together in certain matters.

I think one reason the idea of theological triage raises concerns for many Baptists is because ecclesiological distinctives, and particularly baptism, are almost always considered second-order doctrines. Mohler himself uses baptism as one of his examples as a secondary doctrine. How should Baptists, and particularly Southern Baptists, think of the doctrine of baptism (and ecclesiology in general)? Is baptism a second-order doctrine?

I think the answer is both yes and no. There is a sense in which baptism is most certainly a secondary doctrine because a certain form of baptism is not necessary for salvation. In other words, you can be really converted and really love Jesus and really be growing in your faith, yet hold to an erroneous view of baptism. It is a secondary doctrine.

But as Southern Baptists, it is important to recognize that a particular understanding of baptism–the full immersion of professed believers–is a core distinctive of our churches and our denomination. While every Southern Baptist I know would agree that baptism doesn’t contribute to our salvation, almost every Southern Baptist I know would argue that confessor’s baptism by immersion is the explicit teaching of the New Testament and that other Christians who sprinkle babies and call it baptism are in error, even if they don’t know it.

Baptism is a secondary doctrine, but one that Baptists honestly believe is taught in the New Testament and should be embraced by other believers. To argue baptism is a primary doctrine is sectarian and smacks of a bapto-centric spirit that values the sign of the new covenant over the realities of the new covenant, even if implicitly. But to argue that baptism is unimportant or a matter of adiaphora is to disregard a doctrine that Scripture ties to the gospel (Rom. 6), missions (Matt. 28), and the church (Acts 2). Baptism is very important, but it is not of first importance.

For the record, I think Mohler would likely agree with my argument (though he’d no doubt make it more eloquently were he writing this). I don’t see anything in his essay that hints at the idea that baptism–or any other secondary or even tertiary doctrine–is unimportant. In fact, he argues that disagreements about secondary doctrines help define denominations and churches. Baptists give special emphasis to the secondary doctrine of baptism, which necessarily helps distinguish us from other types of Christians.

Southern Baptists should not retreat one inch from our commitment to New Testament baptism. But neither should we act as if an erroneous view of baptism necessarily calls into question one’s regeneration and/or his gospel usefulness. We should speak prophetically to our brothers and sisters in Christ when it comes to baptism (and ecclesiology in general), but we should also humbly recognize that God is working among those who are wrong on baptism, sometimes to a much greater degree than he is working among Baptists. I hope we will work with them in every way we can without sacrificing our baptismal convictions.

(Image credit)