George: Ghosts of Baptist History Teach Today

October 11, 2002

The namesake of OBU's Herschel H. Hobbs Lectureship was cited as one of several figures from Southern Baptists' past whose legacies can help Baptists analyze current conflicts. In the fall Hobbs Lecture earlier this month, Dr. Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, referred to Hobbs and other "ghosts" of Baptist history.

"Baptists have always been a fractious and fissiparous folk," George said. "One of the legacies of Hobbs' life, work and ministry was to guide Southern Baptists through a time of great conflict in our history."

George introduced students to three Southern Baptist personalities who were at the heart of movements dealing with critical issues of Christian faith during the 19th century.

"These ghosts still stalk the Southern Baptist Zion, forcing a new generation to face old questions about the marks of the church and the limits of Christian fellowship," he said.

The first figure, Alexander Campbell, led the Restoration movement to restore the true New Testament church, said George. He described Campbell as an extreme biblical literalist who protested against creeds or confessions of faith. Campbell believed Baptists didn't need any creed but the Bible, George said.

Baptists have always been confessional but have never been credalistic, George told students, adding that confessions should be understood as under the authority of the Bible.

Credalism is dangerous, he said, but a confessionless Christianity is an even greater danger.

"If we forsake that tradition of the faith, then we make everyone's hat his own church and we give way to a kind of rugged individualism that is not grounded in a New Testament understanding of the church," he said. "We need to understand confessions, and covenants and catechisms, not as ends in themselves, but as means to the instruction of all our people of the great fundamental doctrines and practices of the faith."

The second figure George presented was a powerful preacher in Tennessee in the mid-19th century, J.R. Graves, who believed there was no need to restore the church to the true church because in his view, Baptists had never lost it.

Graves developed the ideology of Landmarkism, which charted an unbroken lineage of Baptist churches all the way back to New Testament times. Because they believed theirs was the only true church that ever existed, these Baptists became more and more enclosed into themselves, George said.

Many congregations today still have practices that root from Landmark views, like closed communion, rebaptizing believers from other denominations, and avoiding fellowship with those who are not Baptist.

George told students the challenge for Baptists is to balance the importance of denominational identity with the importance of Christian and evangelical commitment. This is a major issue for Baptists today, George said, because it "reveals deep-rooted concern for an evaporating sense of identity in an increasingly post-denominational world."

"More churches don't use the word 'Baptist' anymore even in their church name, yet they do hold to gospel, they do believe the Bible, they are winning people to Christ," he said. "How do we balance Baptist identity along with our Christian and evangelical commitment?"

The third figure George discussed was Daniel Parker, a hyper-Calvinist who taught a form of predestination stemming from his interpretation of Genesis. 3.

Parker believed that it was useless to preach the gospel to the unconverted because they would never accept it unless they had the "right seed" in their heart, which only God could place in them, George said. He taught that when God wanted to convert them, he would do it without human aid, the scholar explained. Thus, Parker thwarted efforts to promote Sunday school, colleges, missionary trips and seminaries.

The legacies of these three men, however extreme, give Baptists an idea of where they are and where they need to go, George said.

"My hope is not for the removal of conflict, but for the elevation of dialogue, for the kind of substantial historical and theological engagement that has always been central to the cultivation of a vibrant Christian orthodoxy," he said. "This is a distinctive mark of the Baptist tradition at its best."

"If we do that I think we can find our way, as I think Dr. Herschel Hobbs would have liked for us to do, past some of our present dilemmas into a future that is 'as bright as the promises of God.'"

George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School, which is part of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. He also serves as the senior editor of Christianity Today. Before taking the helm at the seminary, George was professor of church history and historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for 10 years.

A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., George earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a master of divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School, and a doctor of theology degree from Harvard University.