Religious Liberty and the Baptist Tradition

First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty was originally published in 2005 after a conference on Baptist distinctives held at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in 2005. A new edition appeared in 2016. A Baptist distinctive worth noting, and one continually under attack, is that of religious freedom. In the book, the authors aim to provide an introductory look at the biblical and historical beginnings of religious liberty. In so doing, they hope to remind believers in the 21st century of the price paid for such liberty by believers, particularly those from the Baptist tradition.

There are three general editors who also contribute specific chapters. Jason. G. Duesing is provost and associate professor of historical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Malcolm Yarnell serves as a professor at SWBTS. Thomas White is the president of Cedarville University. Together these three men compile a number of essays that offer a wealth of theological, historical, and pastoral reflection to the issue of religious liberty from a contemporary Baptist point of view.

Below I’ll outline both the introduction and first chapter of the book. I’ll leave the reader to pick up and explore the rest of the book on their own.

Introduction

J. G. Duesing sets the stage by highlighting the fact that when the American colonies split with the British motherland it cleared the way for a wall of separation between church and state. Before Thomas Jefferson stated that idea explicitly, Baptist pastor Isaac Backus promoted this point as early as 1773. However, it was in a letter penned by Jefferson in 1802 where the famous phrase is first put into print. Jefferson responds to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut who were hoping Jefferson’s election as president would pave the way for New England states to be “bastions of freedom” (3). Jefferson replies with the assertion that the 1st Amendment provided “a wall of separation between church and state” (3). Though many assume these words are found explicitly in our founding documents, they are instead the individual words of Thomas Jefferson.

Around the time the American colonies are developing their libertine ideas, a British man undertakes the study of Baptist history. Edward Bean Underhill forms the Hanserd Knolly’s Society in the 1800’s. This society produces a fair amount of literature that chronicles the pursuit of religious liberty by Baptists throughout history. Through the research and publications of Underhill and his society, people were once again reminded of the “price paid for their freedom” (5), particularly the price paid by Baptists.

Before closing the chapter Duesing helpfully outlines the major contributions of each chapter to follow. Thus, in the introduction to the book the reader is attuned to the fact that Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic have played an important role in the establishment of religious liberty.

Chapter 1: Mutually Exclusive or Biblically Harmonious? Religious Liberty and Exclusivity of Salvation in Jesus Christ

Paige Patterson, the current president of SWBTS, begins by asking whether or not someone can hold to an exclusivist position (one must believe in Jesus to be saved) and also defend religious freedom/liberty? Is this logically consistent? Are the two views mutually exclusive of one another?

Patterson seeks to answer the question in two ways. First, he looks at the Bible. Second, Patterson surveys the historical witness. His wrestling with Bible involves a look at the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament (NT). Patterson shows that Jesus and the NT writers presented a consistent exclusivist position. He then shows that neither Jesus nor his apostles resorted to coercion in their evangelistic endeavors. Instead, Jesus and the apostles present a persuasive posture. That is, in reliance on the Holy Spirit, they sought to use their skills of reasoning to persuade non-believers to embrace Jesus by faith.

Patterson eventually takes up his pen to show how this pattern is adopted by later Christians. Namely, the early Anabaptist groups held to the exclusivity of Jesus and yet did not use coercive measures to compel conversions. Instead, they shared the good news of Jesus, challenged false ideas, and left the decision to believe to the individual. Thus, the Anabaptists are a group that stands in the tradition of modern-day Baptists and is one example of Christians who held to both exclusivist theology and religious liberty.

Takeaways

There are several points worth noting in these opening two chapters.

First, the particular phrase, “wall of separation between the church and the state,” is not part of the original founding documents. However, the idea is certainly implicit in the founding documents of the nation. Furthermore, though understood in various ways by others throughout history, a type of separation between the church and state is clearly in the mind of at least one of our earliest leaders. How that informs our approach to religious pluralism and political engagement by those with well-formed religious convictions is a conversation we must continue to have.

Second, the exclusivity of Jesus is a biblical idea. Though Patterson doesn’t deal with the various theological questions theologians have raised in light of this doctrine, he does a fine job of showing plainly that Jesus and the apostles believed there was salvation for only those who believed in Jesus. This is a doctrine Christians must preserve and proclaim. However, in defending the exclusive claims of Jesus we must not become coercive in our evangelistic endeavors.

Third, historically speaking, religious liberty is part of what it means to be a Baptist. If we are to preserve our own freedom to gather and worship King Jesus, and our liberty to proclaim freedom to the captives in Jesus’ name, then we must advocate liberty for every person. The government capable of telling one religious group they cannot exercise their religion is free to tell every group their religion is out of bounds. Those in the Baptist tradition have noted this and defended religious liberty for all people.

 

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