Baptists and the Bible. Revised and Expanded ed. By L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999. 422 pages. Softcover $31.99.
Although differences among Baptists range from church polity to debates on soteriology, Baptists have traditionally found widespread agreement on certain doctrines and practices within the church, including believer’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Typically, these disagreements and commonalities find their source in each party’s understanding of Scripture. Baptists have a rich heritage of being “people of the Book,” and L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles have outlined the most comprehensive study on the historical views of Scripture among Baptists in their book Baptists and the Bible.
Bush and Nettles, both professors at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at the time, published the original version of the book in 1980 amidst a battle between moderates and conservatives within the Southern Baptist Convention over the nature of the Bible, including its inspiration and authority. This book, hammered out in the crucible of Southwestern’s Fleming Library, challenged the moderates’ recollection of Baptist history and championed the Bible as the inerrant, infallible Word of God. Their motivation in writing the book was clear: “Baptists, no less than other denominational groups, need to reach some kind of a consensus on what they believe doctrinally if they are to face the future with an effective, bold mission thrust” (1).
Part One of the book traces Baptist heritage up through the middle of the nineteenth century. Through recounting stories of Baptists in church history and examining common Baptist confessions of faith, Bush and Nettles prove that Baptists have historically held strong theological convictions based on an unwavering commitment to the infallibility of the Word of God. The biographical summaries emphasize the theological views of early Baptist leaders in an objective format, thus disarming the reader of any presuppositions about Bush and Nettles’ own agendas and treatment of history.
Beginning with John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, Bush and Nettles demonstrate that the inerrancy of Scripture was a foundational doctrine of the earliest Baptists (13, 17). Additionally, General and Particular Baptists, although differing in their understanding of soteriology, both held to a high view of Scripture. This theological framework pervaded their confessions and sparked the modern mission movement through Andrew Fuller, William Carey, and Adoniram Judson.
As Part One closes, Bush and Nettles turn to American Baptists and the division into Northern and Southern conventions over the issue of slavery. Through biographical essays on individuals such as John Leland, Francis Wayland, and John L. Dagg, it is apparent that the division of North and South had little to do with disagreements on the doctrine of Scripture.
In Part Two, Bush and Nettles shift gears and trace the divergence of views concerning the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture to the Enlightenment. German higher criticism and Darwin’s The Origin of Species later challenged the reliability and authority of the Bible. Sounding the alarm, they write, “The Baptists’ radical commitment to the New Testament held them together for a while. But soon some of their finest scholars were persuaded by the German higher criticism” (178). They show the trajectory of growing tensions among Baptists that eventually led to modern debates.
On the forefront of the battle for Scriptural integrity in the late nineteenth century, men like James P. Boyce and Basil Manly, Jr. countered liberal notions of partial inspiration and sought to maintain theological consistency among the seminary faculty. J. R. Graves, best known for his outspoken adherence to the Landmark Movement, also contended for a view of Scripture that holds to inerrancy as well as the plenary verbal theory of inspiration.
Bush and Nettles do a remarkable job of contrasting the theological views of John A. Broadus and Crawford H. Toy in America as well as those of Charles H. Spurgeon and John Clifford in England, letting each party’s writings speak for themselves. Both Broadus and Spurgeon maintained the fundamental views of the divine inspiration and infallibility of Scripture, while Toy and Clifford relied on evolutionary theory and human reason as their authority. Bush and Nettles then compare the strong faith in the Scriptures among Southern Baptists with the growing neo-orthodox views among Northern Baptists that eventually spread from their schools to the mission field (321).
While conservatives in the North, such as Carl Henry and J.C. Massee, fought to keep a high view of Scripture, Southern Baptists faced their own controversies, including Ralph H. Elliott’s The Message of Genesis, which discounted the historical accuracy of the book of Genesis. Bush and Nettles give a fair treatment to both Northern and Southern Baptists, exposing the presence of moderates, conservatives, and liberals in both regions.
Part Three brings the historical study to a close and calls for a response from the current generation on what they believe about the reliability and authority of the Bible. Thoroughly explaining the nuances of terminology and margin for disagreement, Bush and Nettles champion the use of confessions of faith to solidify agreement among like-minded believers. Calling back to the early British confessions and connecting them to the Baptist Faith and Message, they draw a proverbial line in the sand. With the debate over inerrancy of Scripture at a boiling point, one can imagine how this ultimatum echoed through Southern Baptist circles in 1980. Bush and Nettles had effectively proven the lineage of faith in the truthfulness and clarity of Scripture and outlined the repercussions of those who rejected it.
The decision to structure the book around chronological biographies was strategically used to present an objective, fair assessment of the history of Baptist views of the Bible and therefore disarm moderates; however, a more effective structure could have been used. An alternative arrangement of the material would have been to group individuals according to their view of Scripture. For example, the doctrine of inerrancy could be presented and discussed, and then the arguments of the various men who spoke to the matter could be addressed in the same chapter. This would provide a stronger sense of unity between the men’s faith and practice.
Additionally, Bush and Nettles are, at times, too thorough in the biographies. While it might be interesting to know where these men were born and how they grew up, it is unnecessary for the book’s argumentation. With an alternative structure and shortened biographical treatments, the reader would not have to wade through 200 pages before getting to the real meat of the argument.
The emphasis on application alone makes Baptists and the Bible worth reading. Bush and Nettles stress the effect that men’s views of Scriptures have on the practical issues of their lives. For example, Carey and Judson’s high views of Scripture can be seen in their obedience to the missionary call as well as their dedication to translating Bibles into other languages (111, 123). Additionally, Bush and Nettles offer application by answering common objections to the inerrancy of Scripture with valid solutions.
In conclusion, Bush and Nettles provide strong support to their arguments that Baptists have a long legacy of believing that Scripture is inspired by God, infallible in its original presentation, and sufficient for all matters of life and doctrine. Baptists and the Bible serves as a historical reminder of the past with a call to action in the present. It is an invaluable resource to all Christians, both Baptists and non-Baptists.
MDiv student, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary