Book Notes - Baptists Through the Centuries by David Bebbington


Bebbington, David W. Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010.

This book was runner-up in my textbook adoption process for my Baptist history course. I have not yet read this book in full, but I have found portions of this book to be helpful as I prepared lectures. I chose not to select this book as required course reading for two reasons:

  1. Published as it is by Baylor University Press, it costs slightly more than Leonard.
  2. Bebbington follows a synthetic rather than chronological approach to the details of Baptist history. He describes the synthetic approach in the paragraph quoted below.

“It is primarily a work of synthesis that attempts to put the pieces of the puzzle into an intelligible framework. Its approach, therefore, is topical. In accordance with the maxim that it is better to study problems rather than periods, each chapter addresses an issue in Baptist history. … A second feature of the book is its effort to set the problems at hand in a wider context than Baptist history. Baptists did not exist alone, and so the analysis gives space to the broader influences—intellectual, social, and political—that played on religious developments. … The third aspect worth mentioning is the principle of organization. Countries are not kept apart, for that misrepresents the reality of the past. For all the contrasts between different nations, Baptists traveled between them, read each other’s writings, and corresponded across oceans. What happened in one part of the world was often duplicated elsewhere.” (pp. 4–5)

This approach is self-evident when you look at the chapter titles, listed below:

  1. Introduction
  2. Roots in the Reformation
  3. Anabaptists and Baptists
  4. Particular and General Baptists in the Seventeenth Century
  5. Baptists and Revival in the Eighteenth Century
  6. Divisions among Baptists in the Nineteenth Century
  7. Theological Polarization among Baptists
  8. Baptists and the Social Gospel
  9. Gospel and Race among Baptists
  10. Women in Baptist Life
  11. Church, Ministry, and Sacraments among Baptists
  12. Baptists and Religious Liberty
  13. Baptists and Foreign Mission
  14. The Global Spread of the Baptists
  15. Baptist Identity
  16. Conclusion

There is certainly plenty of merit for the use of a synthetic approach to historical study, and I’ve benefited immensely from reading other works that follow this approach (in fact, Turning Points by Noll is highly synchronic in some chapters). However, I don’t think a synthetic approach would work well for beginning students who had no general chronological framework into which to plug the disparate concepts a synthetic study would bring to the surface. However, for readers with a general familiarity with the Baptist story, Bebbington’s work may prove a refreshing approach. The synthetic approach is somewhat of a current trend in historiography, but I was encouraged to find that others share my relative antipathy towards it as a practice. For instance, John Aloisi (Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary), gave the following recommendation for this book on his blog:

This book is a very interesting read…. Although described by the publisher as “a chronological survey” (back cover), Bebbington’s work is largely arranged in a topical format that can be be helpful though it also has the potential to be a bit disorienting at times. For example, I found it rather odd to read about William Carey almost 100 pages after Walter Rauschenbusch when Carey was born exactly 100 years before Rauschenbusch. Similarly, the book includes a chapter titled “Women in Baptist Life” (ch. 10). I wondered, why not just discuss key Baptist women at appropriate points in the historical narrative (e.g., in the first nine chapters)? I don’t see a compelling reason for making that topic a distinct chapter. A similar observation could be made about the chapter on religious liberty (ch. 12). On the other hand, if one wants to read an insightful chapter on these topics or on things like Baptists and the social gospel (ch. 8) or Baptists and race relations (ch. 9), Bebbington is a very good place to turn. Overall, Bebbington’s work is definitely helpful and well worth reading, but the potential reader should realize that Bebbington doesn’t tell the story of Baptist history in anything like a chronological narrative. So I’m recommending it with the caveat that if you like to read history in a generally chronological format, Bebbington may drive you crazy. But if you want to read about some key topics in Baptist history, this is a helpful book by a first rate historian.

So anyway, if you’re glazed over with all this rambling about historiography, let me just bring this back to a point of usefulness by sharing Bebbington’s own statements summing up the overall point of the book:

“This book attempts to address the question of who Baptists have been over the four centuries of their existence. It tries to take account of ways in which they adapted to the societies in which they lived as well as their central practices. … [I]t must not be assumed that Baptists possessed a single, consistent identity. There were, after all, many types of Baptists. … The variety of Christian bodies called ‘Baptist’ has to be taken into account. So does the consideration that there was great deal of change over time. The circumstances of the early seventeenth century, when Baptists first arose, were very different from those of the early twenty-first century. It was a hallmark of the denomination to be strongly attached to the Bible, but ways of understanding the place of scripture in ordering church life altered over the centuries. Again there was much variation over space.” (p. 2)

“The coverage of this book extends not just over England in the period from 1609 to the present but also over the world at large. … There is, therefore, a need for Baptist history to have an international dimension. Because research on many countries (including some of the nations just mentioned) is at a very preliminary stage, there are all too many gaps in the coverage of the present volume. The aim here is not to deal with every country where Baptists have existed, but to discuss broad trends with representative instances.” (pp. 3-4)

Doctrine of Assurance


This Sunday in my Adult Sunday School class, I’ll be taking advantage of a scheduled break in our regular teaching schedule. We just finished teaching through First, Second, and Third John last week, and will be beginning a study of John’s Gospel on November 16. To take advantage of the break in between books, I plan to focus on a topic that frequently arises in 1 John: assurance of salvation.

In the Sunday School class, we’ll be working through a number of Bible passages as they are presented in chapter 40 of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (available from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or CBD). His organization is helpful, and I find his comments on Hebrews 6:4–12 particularly useful. I’d recommend this chapter to anyone who is interested in a thorough understanding of Scripture on this topic.

Another helpful resource is a brief blog series from Tim Challies. While I wouldn’t express everything exactly as he did, of course, his thoughts are helpful (and free!):

  1. Sincerity and Assurance of Salvation
  2. Assurance of Salvation (Part 2)
  3. Assurance of Salvation (Part 3)

Book Review - Rediscovering the Church Fathers by Michael Haykin


Rediscovering the Church Fathers
Rediscovering the Church Fathers

Haykin, Michael A. G. Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. ISBN 9781433510434. 172 pages. Includes index.

In this book, Haykin combines his remarkable knowledge of the earliest period of church with his zeal for heart-warming devotional Christianity to produce a work that both informs and edifies.

Haykin writes to counter the fact that, in his view, “far too many modern-day evangelicals are either ignorant of or quite uncomfortable with the church fathers” (13). In this regard, he observes, that “certain strains of anti-intellectual fundamentalism have discouraged an interest in that ‘far country’ of church history” (14, my emphasis). He understands that this problem is not entirely due to bad reasons, however, because our “desire to be ‘people of the Book’—an eminently worthy desire—has also led to a lack of interest in other students of Scripture from that earliest period of the church’s history after the apostolic era” (14). Despite this trend, Haykin argues that we should read the church fathers for several reasons. We should read them for “freedom and wisdom,” to understand the New Testament, because of bad press about them, to aid in defending the faith, and for spiritual nurture. In the book, Haykin’s goal is to spark our interest in reading more of the fathers “by looking at several case studies, as it were” (29). These case studies serve to introduce important themes in both the early history of the church and the development of cardinal doctrines. As such, this book is not a comprehensive survey of the fathers, a feature that is apparent by the fact that although there are chapters on many important fathers, some of the most important (like Athanasius and Augustine) are actually left out.

Table of Contents:

  1. Rediscovering the Church Fathers: A Vital Need for Evangelicals
  2. Dying for Christ: The Thought of Ignatius of Antioch
  3. Sharing the Truth: The Letter to Diognetus
  4. Interpreting the Scripture: The Exegesis of Origen
  5. Being Kissed: The Eucharistic Piety of Cyprian and Ambrose
  6. Being Holy and Renouncing the World: The Experience of Basil of Caesarea
  7. Saving the Irish: The Mission of Patrick
  8. Walking with the Church Fathers: My First Steps on a Lifelong Journey

Appendix 1: Reading the Fathers: A Beginner’s Guide Appendix 2: Reflections on Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600)

I would like to share just a few comments on how some of these chapters impacted me, without going into a summary of each individual chapter or a discussion of major themes that build throughout the book.

Many (if not all) of these chapters nurtured me spiritually. One of Haykin’s many research interests is the study of Christian spirituality, a topic that is the focus of a festschrift in his honor titled The Pure Flame of Devotion: The History of Christian Spirituality (edited by Weaver and Clary). This emphasis shines throughout the book, but I was particularly encouraged by Ignatius’ steadfast anticipation of his own martyrdom and Patrick’s dogged commitment to evangelizing his former captors in western Ireland.

As I expected, many of the chapters deepened my appreciation for the precise formulations of orthodoxy that we enjoy as a result of the diligent efforts forged by these men in times of doctrinal controversy. The chapters on the Letter to Diognetus and Basil of Caesarea were especially helpful in that regard.

On another note, my understanding was transformed by his chapter on Origen. I did not realize it, but I had allowed bad press on the Fathers to distort my understanding of their abilities. I began reading the chapter assuming that Origen’s famous penchant for allegory would mean that there would be little for me to learn about biblical interpretation. But I realized that my understanding of Origen was tinted by a gross misunderstanding. Rather than reading about a half-crazed mystic who simply allowed his imagination to run wild whenever he encountered something he didn’t immediately understand in the biblical text, I learned that Origen was a deeply devoted student of Scripture who understood that allegorical interpretations were not always appropriate (81–82). In fact, Origen actually affirmed three uses for the literal meaning of Scripture, rather than seeing it all as a deeply spiritual parable of something other than what it actually says, and said that the interpreter “should not resort too easily” to allegory (84). Although Origen is perhaps the best-known implementer of the patristic penchant for allegory, he only employed it when he felt it was appropriate, and he articulated principles for the appropriate use of allegory (85–86). Coming away from this chapter, I realized that I have misunderstood the church fathers and their use of allegory because I had not been listening to them. Instead, I had been allowing my own bias (which came from bad press) to keep me from a fair analysis of the facts.

Whitefield and the Great Awakening Conference


Whitefield and the Great Awakening
Whitefield and the Great Awakening

I am looking forward to attending the annual conference for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies this year on “George Whitefield and the Great Awakening.”

Here is the introduction from the conference website:

George Whitefield was not only the most celebrated preacher of the eighteenth century, but he was also a central figure in the creation of modern Evangelicalism. His emphasis on the new birth, his passion for evangelism, his ability to cross denominational boundaries and build networks of Christians based on the gospel and Reformation convictions were central features in what we know today as Evangelicalism. In this conference celebrating the tercentennial (1714) birth of Whitefield, we will explore these key themes of this remarkable Christian’s life and what they meant for his day and mean for ours.

Here are the session titles, taken from the tentative schedule posted on the AFCBS blog:

Session 1: “The Calvinism of George Whitefield” (Thomas S. Kidd)
Session 2: “George Whitefield: Anglican evangelist” (Lee Gatiss)
Session 3: “George Whitefield & the Wesleys” (Stephen Nichols)
Session 4: “Preaching George Whitefield” (Steve Lawson)
Session 5: “The Spirituality of George Whitefield” (Bruce Hindmarsh)
Session 6: “Whitefield’s preaching and the politics of Empire” (Jerome Mahaffey)
Session 7: “The Legacy of George Whitefield” (David Bebbington)
Session 8: “The Hymnody of the Great Awakening” (Esther Crookshank)

George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father
George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father

As another neat bonus, a few days ago I received my copy of Thomas Kidd’s new biography titled George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (ISBN 9780300181623). I’m looking forward to digging into this book over the next few days. The hardcover is available from Amazon and CBD, and there is also a Kindle version available.

Book Review - Turning Points by Mark Noll


Turning Points by Mark Noll
Turning Points by Mark Noll

Noll, Mark A. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012. ISBN 9780801039966. xii + 356 pages. Includes index.

Available for purchase here:


This book takes an unusual, and interesting, approach to telling the story of the church by focusing on key turning points throughout the church’s history. Noll describes this approach as “one of the most interesting ways to grasp a general sense of Christian history” (2). The process of identifying these turning points is necessarily subjective, yet he argues that it yields several advantages:

  • “It provides an opportunity to select… and so to bring some order into a massively complicated subject.”
  • It provides “an opportunity to highlight, to linger over specific moments so as to display the humanity, the complexity, and the uncertainties that constitute the actual history of the church, but that are so often obscured in trying to recount the sweep of centuries.”
  • It provides “an opportunity to interpret, to state more specifically why certain events, actions, or incidents may have marked an important fork in the road or signaled a new stage in the outworking of Christian history.” (2)

The turning points Noll chose can be seen in the table of contents, seen below. [N.B.: The numbers in parentheses for each chapter are dates, not page numbers.]


Introduction: The Idea of Turning Points and Reasons for Studying the History of Christianity

  1. The Church Pushed Out on Its Own: The Fall of Jerusalem (70)
  2. Realities of Empire: The Council of Nicaea (325)
  3. Doctrine, Politics, and Life in the Word: The Council of Chalcedon (451)
  4. The Monastic Rescue of the Church: Benedict’s Rule (530)
  5. The Culmination of Christendom: The Coronation of Charlemagne (800)
  6. Division between East and West: The Great Schism (1054)
  7. The Beginnings of Protestantism: The Diet of Worms (1521)
  8. A New Europe: The English Act of Supremacy (1534)
  9. Catholic Reform and Worldwide Outreach: The Founding of the Jesuits (1540)
  10. The New Piety: The Conversion of the Wesleys (1738)
  11. Discontents of the Modern West: The French Revolution (1789)
  12. A Faith for All the World: The Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910)
  13. Mobilizing for the Future: The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization (1974)

Afterword: The Character of Christianity and the Search for Turning Points


Noll emphasizes that “the fourteen turning points singled out for special attention … are by no means the only ones that could have been selected” (3). He explains that the process of selection itself is an important and useful exercise, and notes that “if the book inspires others to think about why the turning points found here are not as important as other possibilities, it will have been a successful book” (4). He then briefly outlines the structure of each chapter, noting that he always begins with “a relatively detailed account of the turning point itself” followed by more theoretical discussions of “why, how, and so what” (4). Additionally, each chapter features a hymn and a prayer from the general time period of the chapter as well as several longer quotations from people involved in the events of the chapter.

After explaining the structure and nature of the book, Noll takes up a larger question: why be concerned about church history at all? Noll offers several reasons why the study of church history is valuable.

  1. “Studying the history of Christianity provides repeated, concrete demonstration concerning the irreducibly historical character of the Christian faith” (5).
  2. It “provide[s] perspective on the interpretation of Scripture” (6).
  3. “The study of church history is also useful as a laboratory for examining Christian interactions with surrounding culture” (7).
  4. Because “God sustains the church despite the church’s own frequent efforts to betray its Savior and its own high calling, … study of the past can be useful … in shaping proper Christian attitudes” (8).

In the introduction, Noll mentions a few of his own convictions which influence his portrayal of the events of church history. He generally prefers the term “history of Christianity” over “church history,” partly because he believes that “‘Christianity’ means something definite with boundaries that are fairly well defined by the major creeds.” Beyond that, Noll writes with “evangelical Protestant convictions” that “lead [him] to think that revitalized forms of Reformation faith are the truest and best forms of Christianity” (9–10). Noll qualifies this belief, however, with the observation that “historical study has convinced me that confessional Protestants have sometimes honored the ideals of the Reformation more in words than in reality. Historical study also shows that believers in other Christian traditions regularly display Christlike virtues and practice humble dependence upon God’s grace more than my confessional Protestant convictions tell me they should.” As a result, he has “tried to write with as much respect as possible for the widely diverse forms of Christianity that have been practiced with integrity, and continue to be practiced with integrity, in all parts of the Christian church” (10).

Of course, Noll’s statements regarding Catholicism reflect his perspective as an endorser of Evangelicals and Catholics Together in 1994. I think it is useful to read authors from outside my own tradition, but that does not obviate the need to read with discernment.

Noll’s book is helpful for a number of different reasons.

  • By approaching the history of Christianity from the vantage point of key turning points, he provides an interesting and unusual perspective. This also enables the chapters to stand on their own while still making sense to a reader who reads the book through from beginning to end.
  • Noll’s writing style is simultaneously lucid and dense. He is capable of drawing complex connections between seemingly unrelated events, yet throughout the process his ideas remain incredibly clear. My students all said that they enjoyed his writing, but that he always forced them to think carefully.
  • Over the course of the book, he develops several key ideas into recurring themes. One example appears in Chapter 1, where he argues that the fall of Jerusalem created a new problem for the Christian church. Suddenly severed from any connection to its Jewish roots, the church was forced to emerge as an independent entity while maintaining a connection to its apostolic roots. The need to establish apostolicity could be resolved in three different ways: by appealing to the authority of the New Testament canon, by appealing to the authority of the emerging episcopacy, or by appealing to the authority of the apostolic creeds. What is interesting about these three distinct sources of stability is that Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox each tend to place more emphasis on one of those three, as displayed in the chart below:

    Tradition Stabilizing Element

    Protestants

    Canon

    Roman Catholics

    Episcopacy

    Orthodox

    Creed

    As the history of the church progresses through time, Noll quite effectively shows how these three contrasting sources of authority shape future conflicts within the church.

    Another example of a recurring theme throughout the book is the concept of Christendom, the idea which began to develop in the post-Roman European world that Christ’s kingdom extended to a specific geographical location (Europe), and that thus church and state ought to be deeply entwined. The idea of Christendom appears to climax in the coronation of Charlemagne, and much of the spiritual and political energy of the Medieval period is wrapped up in preserving that (un)holy (un)Roman (un)Empire.

Although each chapter is interesting and carefully researched, it does become evident that some chapters play more to Noll’s strengths than others. From time to time, he indicates in a footnote that he is depending upon another secondary source for much of his material in a chapter. In other chapters where the subject material is within an area where he has done extensive research, he writes with considerably more freedom as he draws upon his own extensive knowledge. An example of one of his stronger chapters is chapter 10 on the Evangelical Revival under the Wesleys (his name appears twice in the “Further Reading” section at the end of the chapter), and an example of one of his weaker chapters is chapter 9 on the Jesuits. Still, his skills as a researcher shine throughout, and there is a remarkable uniformity of quality throughout.

Speaking in BC and NC This Summer


This summer I will be in British Columbia and North Carolina to speak. I will be at Grace Baptist Church of Victoria July 6–12. I’ll speak in the church services that Sunday, and then during the week I’ll be offering my Th105 Church History Survey course as a block class throughout the week. Then, on July 27, I’ll be at Faith Baptist Church (Linville, NC) during the Sunday services. I’ll be giving three sessions on the area of Baptist history.

Man’s Wisdom vs. God’s Wisdom


Every now and then, you hear somebody preach a sermon that really sticks in your memory. For me, this happened when I heard this sermon by Brent Cook in chapel at Bob Jones University. The message takes 1 Cor. 1:18 as its foundational text:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18 NKJ)

I replayed this sermon for my students in my class on evangelism a year later (the link above goes to the website for that course), and I’ve listened to this message many times since. It came to mind again today as I was studying 2 Cor. 2:12–3:18.

Ryle on Preaching Simply


J. C. Ryle
J. C. Ryle

I just read a little booklet by J. C. Ryle. Titled Simplicity in Preaching: A Few Short Hints on a Great Subject, the book contains a lecture Ryle delivered in 1882 and spans 48 tiny pages (each page includes only a couple paragraphs). I suspect that the entire thing would work today as a lengthy blog post.

Much of what Ryle says is helpful, though some of it reflects the prevailing ideas of his times and is less useful now (e.g., his ambivalence towards the use of “Saxon words” in English). Though I recommend you read the whole thing, here are five directives Ryle gives to those who would attain simplicity in preaching:

  1. Have a clear knowledge of what you are going to preach.
  2. Use simple words.
  3. Seek to acquire a simple style of composition, with short sentences and as few colons and semi-colons as possible.
  4. Aim at directness.
  5. Make abundant use of illustration and anecdote.

HT: Steve Weaver
Image credit: By Kowalker [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Timeline of Old Testament Israel


Today I am making available a project that I’ve only recently begun. This project had its genesis a few years back when I created a timeline of events relevant to the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

Last week, I took that work and expanded it into something I’ve had in mind for a while—a more comprehensive timeline of the history of Israel. Right now, this only covers Old Testament Israel from the reign of Saul to the post-exilic period, and the details are sparse in some periods and heavy in others (esp. during the period of Isaiah’s life). There are many more things I’d like to do with this later, but I thought I’d make what I have so far available, especially since it’s relevant to the class I’m teaching right now on the Old Testament Historical Books.

Block Class on John’s Epistles


I’ll be teaching a block class on John’s letters this coming April 28–May 3. I thought I’d share the book for this class (as well as some general information) below. More details (including the syllabus and assignment list) will be forthcoming soon on the course website.

Description: An exposition of 1, 2, and 3 John, with an emphasis on John’s theology.

The Epistles of John
The Epistles of John

Textbook: Marshall, I. Howard. The Epistles of John. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001. ISBN 9780802825186.

Available for purchase here: