The Baptist Way. R. Stanton Norman. Nashville: Broadman and Homan, 2005. 212 pages. Softcover, $16.99.
In recent days a renaissance of interest in Baptist studies and distinctives has emerged. Conversations from the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting to seminary classrooms all the way to blog posts have become inundated with answers to the question of what it means to be Baptist. Although published in 2005, R. Stanton Norman’s monograph offers a helpful contribution to the current discussion.
Part of the increased interest in Baptist studies has emerged due to the generally acknowledged failure of contemporary approaches to church to deliver on their promises. Even members of these movements admit to such shortcomings—Willow Creek’s recent publication of a congregational self-study entitled Reveal is one example. In The Baptist Way Norman begins with a similar analysis of contemporary church culture and concludes that church health should not be measured primarily by numerical size or growth, but rather by theology. He contends that a healthy church is defined by adherence to the New Testament pattern and that “a healthy church is a Baptist church” (7).
The author highlights each Baptist distinctive in chapter-length sections. He deals with matters in the first two chapters, biblical authority and the lordship of Christ, not typically considered to be uniquely Baptist. Norman does not argue that these two matters are completely exclusive to Baptist belief, but rather he shows how Baptists uniquely understand and apply biblical authority and the lordship of Christ in the local church because these form the foundation for the rest of Baptist ecclesiology. In the next few chapters Norman gives a systematic development of regenerate church membership, church discipline, and congregational polity. In a helpful and practical chapter discussing related concerns, Norman includes a brief discussion of the usage of the term “church” in the New Testament, a section on the importance of church covenants, a short synopsis about the two offices, elder and deacon, in the church and how they ought to function, and finally a brief iteration of the mission of the church. The author takes another chapter to discuss baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The final chapter of The Baptist Way explores the Baptist understanding of religious liberty and provides a critique of three historic Baptist approaches to religious liberty typified by John Clarke, Isaac Backus and John Leland. Norman bookends The Baptist Way with a reiteration of his conviction that “wherever and whenever the New Testament has been read and followed consistently, Baptist churches have come into existence” (191).
Norman demonstrates a remarkable ability to condense and synthesize theological material in a way that the average reader can appreciate while at the same time avoiding vague generalities and unsupported conclusions that often plague popular literature on this subject. Even though he cites a wide variety of sources, most of which are not found on the shelves of the average Southern Baptist, Norman writes accessibly. This ability to write for church should be commended.
The Baptist Way is also well organized. Norman begins each chapter with a small section in which he defines his terms and presents a general overview of the chapter. His discussion proceeds logically and each chapter concludes with a helpful summary of the author’s argument. This further adds to the book’s readability.
Norman writes very little that merits a critical word, however, I am uncomfortable with two small matters, both of which seem to be caused by a word choice rather than by any doctrinal disagreement. First, while I found the discussion of neoorthodoxy in his chapter on biblical authority relevant and accurate, I would draw a much sharper demarcation between the “revelatory encounter” and illumination. Norman equates the two: “The ‘revelatory encounter’ of neoorthodoxy is what Baptists have classically considered illumination” (14). The problem here is not with Norman’s theology because he clearly indicates that the neoorthodox position is untenable, but rather with Norman’s word choice. Illumination opens the believer’s eyes to the Word of God (the text), presupposing its authority and inspiration while a “neoorthodox “revelatory encounter” is based on a faulty understanding of Scripture. Norman could have said the two concepts are similar, but such a close association between the two should be avoided.
Second, although the author describes a thoroughly Baptist understanding of the Lord’s Supper, he uses a term that some may find confusing or misleading. Norman argues that the Lord’s Supper is a reenactment of the death of Christ (147). Even though the act of breaking the bread and drinking from the cup portrays the crucifixion visually, to say the Lord’s Supper is a reenactment inadvertently carries the baggage of sacerdotalism. The term sounds Roman Catholic; perhaps the author could have selected a better term.
Norman makes the study of Baptist distinctives accessible and casts a vision for the importance of its continued study. The Baptist Way is a helpful tool that every pastor ought to have in his library, and it should be required reading for all seminary students.
Ph.D. Student, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary