The Baptist Opportunity in the World of Modern Thought
Rufus W. Weaver, Th.D.
in Convention Teacher
Rudolph Eucken, professor of philosophy in the University of Jena, recipient of the Nobel prize in 1908, says in his recent book, "Christianity and the New Idealism:" "Christianity finds herself at a crisis which is deeper-reaching and more dangerous than any she has faced before in the whole course of her history." These startling words are penned by a man who ranks among the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century. P. T. Forsyth, a noted English theologian of the orthodox school, in his book, "The Person and Place of Jesus Christ," discussing our present situation, says: "The
crisis of society and the church is at present such that a clear issue is the first necessity - a clear issue for a final choice."
The limits of this paper do not permit the review of the arguments of Professor Eucken or Principal Forsyth which lead them to the common conclusion that the situation in the world of Christian thought is a most critical one. It is sufficient to say that no unprejudiced mind can read "The Problem of Human Life," "Christianity and the New Idealism," "The Truth of Religion," by Professor Rudolph Eucken, and "The Person and Place of Jesus Christ," "The Cruciality of the Cross," by Principal P. T. Forsyth, without reaching an agreement with them.
The people of God called Baptists have played an important part in every religious crisis since their emergence in history. They were given the name of Baptists because of their endeavor to maintain a regenerated church membership, and this endeavor led to the emphasizing of the primitive form of baptism. They were the pioneers of religious liberty, and the forerunners of modern democracy. They led the way in carrying the gospel into foreign lands. More consistently than any other body of Christian believers, they have emphasized spirituality, and have done more than others to guarantee to the individual his religious rights and consequent responsibilities.
The environment of this people accounts in great measure for their history and their achievements. They met the issues that each successive age thrust upon them. A regenerated church membership, baptism by a burial in and a resurrection out of water, the establishment of religious freedom, the missionary crusade in behalf of the nonchristian world, the rearing of Christian schools and other uplifting agencies did not arise as by magic, but came into existence as the Baptist idea, embodying not only its distinctive principles, but all its principles, met each new religious situation.
During the past century Baptists have grown rapidly in the English-speaking world. They have come into competition with Protestantism rather than Catholicism or heathenism. This competition has led naturally to the emphasizing of what is called "Our Distinctive Baptist Principles." Thinking of ourselves as one of the evangelical denominations, and each local church being most concerned about its own local problems, we have failed to realize our obligation to give to the world a complete and distinct interpretation of New Testament Christianity. The world has come to think of us as a body of Christians who practice immersion as the form of baptism, and who hold to restricted communion. We are not understood. There is so much that we hold in common with
other evangelical denominations that our distinctness is recognized only in regard to those things in which it is evident that we differ.
The three great bodies of Baptists are English, Northern and Southern. Our English brethren are so oppressed in common with other nonconformists by the Church of England that they do not feel themselves free to give full valuation to our principles. Among our Northern brethren the right of private interpretation has been exercised to such a degree that Baptist solidarity is not deeply felt. In the Southland this Baptist solidarity is the wonder of all observers. Not only are we a harmoniously united people, but our numbers give us commanding influence. Not only do we lead throughout the South, but in five of the states we outnumber all other religious bodies combined. Because of our unrivaled position we are able to work out our principles unhindered. We have the opportunity of weaving these principles into the civilization of the New South, and making the new social order in warp and woof baptistic. Here, too, and nowhere else, may we expect the formulation of the Baptist system of thought, stated in the vocabulary of the twentieth century, setting forth our distinctive, yet comprehensive interpretation of Christianity - our contribution to the religious thought of the world.
The emphasis which we have placed upon our so-called distinctive principles has obscured our fundamental principle. There may be difference of opinion as to the phrasing, but the principle is embodied in the following: "The religious experience precedes its expression, and the religious expression must follow and be in harmony with the experience." Baptists affirm the reality of the spiritual world, and the competency of the human soul to relate itself to that world through faith in Jesus Christ. Thus Baptists stand for an interior, voluntary act of the soul, and they demand that the experiences of the soul shall be truthfully set forth. Baptists emphasize the worth of man, the necessity of the new birth, and the preservation of truth in Christian symbols, but these points of emphasis inhere in the fundamental principle. The individual is of highest value, since all religious forms wait upon his experience. The new birth is the initial Christian experience, while the preservation of truth in Christian symbols in baptism and the Lord's Supper is but the expression of the religious experience of the individual in harmony with his experience.
This fundamental principle which Baptists hold is central to any true interpretation of Christianity. This principle is coextensive with the domain of Christian faith, and any form of
organized Christianity, any system of Christian thought, any expression of Christian life which does not preserve and disclose this principle fails just so far from being true. The elaboration and full application of this principle it is the privilege of Southern Baptists to set forth. This is our supreme Baptist opportunity.
"Either religion," says Rudolph Eucken, "is merely a product of human wishes and ideas under the sanction of tradition and social convention - and then neither art nor might nor cunning can prevent so frail a fabrication from being whelmed by the advancing tide - or else religion is based on facts of a supra-human order, and in that case the most violent onslaught cannot shake her; rather, it will help her in the end through all the stress and toil of human circumstances to discover where her true strength lies, and to express in purer forms the eternal truth that is in her."
The world of modern thought needs above all else the establishment of our fundamental Baptist principle. Our fathers maintained the primitive form and established beyond controversy that immersion was the primitive mode. It is our opportunity through the primitive mode to declare with new and convincing power the reality of the spiritual experience through faith in Jesus Christ, and to challenge by the consistency of our thought and the
spirituality of our lives the attention of the modern world. Magnificent were the achievements of our fathers, but we face a greater opportunity than they, and loyalty to our fundamental Baptist principle, and the interpretation of that principle in life, in literature and in all the ways of approach to the minds of men will enable us to surpass the achievements of our fathers.
Twenty years ago the establishment of our Sunday School Board for the publishing of Sunday school literature marked an epoch in the history of Southern Baptists as a literature-making people. The recent action authorizing our Board to enter upon the publication of books in an extensive way makes possible a distinctive Southern Baptist literature. The appearance of a complete commentary of thirty volumes, the work of thirty different Southern Baptist scholars, will prove a notable event in the history of the religious literature of the South. This will be the first complete commentary issued by a Southern press. It is appropriate that such a work should be produced by Southern Baptist scholarship. The field upon which our Board has entered guarantees the publication of those manuscripts of commanding worth that shall set forth more clearly our fundamental principle in form and in spirit. We have not been uninterested in the
movements within the world of modern religious thought, but the lack of a medium of literary expression has forced Southern Baptists to keep silent. We have been dumb, but through our own publishing agency we now can vocalize our thought, and we will. The appearance of Southern Baptists in the arena of modern thought, we dare to say, will prove eventful, for they will bring to the attention of the world the simplest, clearest and truest interpretation of Christian faith that shall challenge the judgment of the twentieth century, for they bear a message that meets the modern crisis, and they force the fundamental issue - "a clear issue for a final choice."
[From The Baptist Message, SSB/SBC, 1911, pp. 103-110. This book was provided by Steve Lecrone, Burton, OH. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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