Concerning Denominationalism *
Editor I. J. Van Ness, D.D.
This issue of the Teacher is largely devoted to subjects bearing upon denominationalism. These subjects are not all directly connected with Sunday school work, though, just at present, largely among Southern Baptists, and to some extent the world over, the denominational
* The numbers VIII-XVII are from The Convention Teacher, Nashville, Tenn., October, 1910.
aspects of Sunday school work are at the forefront. But the denominational aspect of the Sunday school is being considered only because the whole question of denominationalism is in the air. As the Sunday school is the most aggressive agency of the churches, and as it has been connected more closely with interdenominational effort than any other agency, it is natural that the feeling should be a little more intense. We shall solve the Sunday school question, however, only as we face the wider problems of deuominationalism and interdenominationalism. So in this issue of the Teacher, the broader aspects of this question are presented.
It may be well for us to try to sum up, if we can, the present conditions. For the last ten or fifteen years there has been a great cry for union. To some extent the appeal has been listened to. As we begin to study, however, the fruitage of this agitation we realize that it was largely a plea for undenominationalism. It was a plea for union rather than unity. It was a plea that all differences should be put out of sight, and that the minimum creed upon which we all could agree was the desirable one. The period of undenominationalism in religion has not been a fruitful one. Lack of belief is worse than division. Compromise of conviction
takes the life out of cooperation. When we begin to say it does not make any difference, and once take this as our creed, there is an end of positive belief, and when all positive belief disappears, instead of faith we have sentimentalism. The experiences of life and the toils we must face are too strenuous for anything less than a real faith. In the recent Edinburgh Missionary Conference, as it has been reported in the best English papers, while there was a great demand for unity on the mission field, there was a very earnest protest against the minimized creed and against a union which meant nothing in conviction. Missionaries upon the field realize that though their work may be hampered by the many divisions of Western Christianity, they cannot go to the heathen world with anything short of a positive, clear, and an earnest conviction. The Edinburgh Conference seems to have been a healthy turn in the tide, and an earnest expression of a desire for unity or agreement in matters of principle and doctrine, but not an undenominational minimizing of conviction. The Laymen's Movement and some other enterprises in this country have yet to catch the new note which seems to have been sounded at the Edinburgh Conference. While Baptists have little sympathy with movements for union on the it-does-not-make-any-difference
platform, they must always have sympathy for the movements for unity on the basis of conviction.
The question of union and of interdenominational work is a much more puzzling one to Baptists than to any other body of people. We have been a singular people during the entire course of our modern history; we have not ceased to be a singular people. All we can do short of the full surrender of our convictions cannot keep us from being classified by ourselves. Fortunately, by the favor of God we have become such a great people that when we are classed we must still be considered. Our doctrines run so directly across the doctrines to which nearly all other denominations are agreed. Our belief as to the place of the child in religion, our conviction as to the proper place in the ordinances, our plea for personal and individual religion, our fundamental conviction that the Bible alone is to be the creed of God's people, all these things faithfully maintained keep us apart by ourselves. This separation is increased by the tendencies of modern days. It has now come to pass that a great many leaders in interdenominational work believe in the Bible only as the highest expression of any nation's spiritual life, and so the best text book. Such
a view effectually sets aside the authority of the Scriptures whenever it pleases the modern man to put his own opinion against them. With such a view Baptists can have no smypathy. The current of modem religious thought is that children can be educated into the faith of a Christian. Modern teachers do away even with any grace through a covenant or any grace transmitted in infant baptism, and put the whole stress upon the proper education. Here, again, we have to stand upon our own conviction that salvation is by the grace of God for children and for men. Then, we are told nowadays with glowing emphasis that there is no positive doctrine; the best we can do is to say what we believe today. So all positive theology passes away. Creeds are nothing, and catechisms are useless timber. Over against this we must still stand, believing that there is a certain Bible doctrine which is God's eternal revelation of himself to man, and that it must be taught and should be believed in. The theory that the modern world is going to give Baptists anything but an opportunity is a figment; the currents of modern thought may make it possible for us to get a hearing, but that the tendencies of modern thought are going to sweep the world any nearer to us is but an idle dream. Though in some things our doctrines today find more
ready acceptance, we shall find that in other things we have a greater contest than ever upon our hands.
As we have said above, however, Baptists can never be careless when questions of real unity are in the air. We must long for that as much as any one else. All we can ask is that it shall be a unity of truth. And along-side of the movement for undenominationalism there is coming a second movement equally strong. The denominations are endeavoring to justify themselves by restating their convictions, for to live they must be able to show the world that they stand for something that is real and positive. Such a process, under-taken in sincerity and honesty, will be a far greater step toward real final unity than was ever possible with the undenominational minimizing of the creed. It is along this line that Baptists must work. We have come to a new time when we must not take it for granted that people understand our views. There have been times when we have needed to combat the views of others to protect our own people; the time now is not to defend our views, but to proclaim them. The world about us has too largely misunderstood us; they need to hear our message proclaimed in the spirit of love, and we must do it with full assurance on
our own part, and with unanimity in our ranks. We must through it all, in every proper way, show our love for other Christian people, and while we are strict with ourselves, be tolerant and generous in the liberty we grant to others. This has always been the historic Baptist spirit at its best.
Those of us who work especially in the Sunday school have great opportunities, and at the same time great problems. Just how far we shall continue in interdenominational effort is the question before us. Just how much energy and strength we ought to put into Baptist Sunday school work is not a question, but a condition. We shall all agree that we ought to do our very best, and do it at once. At the best we must fall far short of our ideals. The lesson question is now being considered. It is a more far-reaching question than most of our people suspect, and so it is the more difficult of solution. But one thing is certain - we have in the Sunday school of today the most perfect agency in the world for impressing ourselves as a denomination upon this and the coming generation. That the Sunday school ought to be used in some way for denominational upbuilding can hardly be a question. A denomination that does not care
enough for its convictions to perpetuate them has no business being alive. It ought to get out of the way for those who do believe something.
Throughout these articles, with whatever special subject the writer may be dealing, will be found one great common note. It is that our day of protest and defense and apology should be over, and instead of this we should as a denomination stand, today in the open to proclaim our principles. This is the new note which has come into our Baptist life, and it is a note of significant meaning. It is perhaps more dominant among Southern Baptists, yet no one can read the article in this issue on the "Baptist Message in Europe" and not feel the thrill of the same call as it invites us to the conquest of Europe. There is dawning among our Southern Baptists also a new sense of denominational solidarity, and this must ultimately lead them to catch a new spirit of denominational assertion. In Canada, where great plans are being set forward to combine the other religious denominations, our Baptist people will have an opportunity through their very loneliness. Perhaps the meeting of the World Baptist Alliance next year will be greatly fruitful in bringing to Baptists the world over not only a consciousness
of their strength, but also a consciousness of their mission and their power. We shall not win our way to the greater life of the future by compromise, though we must ever be loving and brotherly. We will not win it by giving up that which we believe, though we must always be fair and considerate with those who differ from us. We will not do it by boasting, though we must cherish in loyal hearts a true admiration for the deeds of our fathers and a humble appreciation of the blessings which God has brought to us. But the new day will come as we define clearly and definitely the things which we believe and both proclaim and live them; as we cultivate a new loyalty and a new faithfulness and a new generosity; and as we go to the world round about us telling them that we stand for a broad and complete New Testament conception of Christianity. It is a thrilling conception, and in the great host which shall help to bring it about, no set of people will have a greater place than those who are today teaching in the Sunday school.
[From S. H. Ford, editor, The Baptist Message, SSB/SBC, 1911, p. 36-44. This book was provided by Steve Lecrone, Burton, OH. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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