Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A Dictionary of European Baptist Life and Thought, General Editor John H. Y. Briggs

A Dictionary of European Baptist Life and Thought
General Editor John H. Y. Briggs
Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009, xxiii + 541,
ISBN: 978-0-567-03367-3

This dictionary includes entries on subjects from Abortion to Zwingli. The editors’ purpose in compiling this  volume was to provide European Baptists with ‘an authoritative reference work to assist them to nourish their own constituencies in Baptist identity’. My assessment of this work is shaped by my convictions as a “Reformed Baptist”, that is a Baptist holding to the decidedly Calvinistic Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.

As is acknowledged throughout this dictionary, Baptists do not speak with one voice on all theological matters. From its beginnings in the sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, the Baptist family was divided into three main groupings; Anabaptists, General or Arminian Baptists and Particular or Calvinistic Baptists. What Particular Baptists think about predestination is quite different from their General Baptist cousins. Added to this, some Baptists have not always been keen on being tied to creeds or confessions of faith. This makes it difficult to say with certainty what Baptist thought might be on various theological matters. However, given this diversity of belief, the dictionary emphasises that most Baptists are broadly Evangelical in their doctrinal outlook.

From the reviewer’s standpoint the dictionary’s theological entries are the least satisfactory aspect of this work. Every effort has been made to be fair to the Calvinistic and   Arminian strands in Baptist theology. But the fact that the Baptist movement is divided along these lines does not make for a coherent presentation of the doctrine of salvation. The article on Sin speaks in terms of ‘total depravity’ and the entry on Regeneration stresses that the new birth is a monergistic act of God, but the piece on Humankind makes the virtually Pelagian statement that, ‘Humankind is able to follow the law of God, though recurrently fails to do so.’

It is repeatedly emphasised that Baptists hold to the final authority of Scripture, but the entry on Infallibility and Inerrancy of the Bible dismisses the traditional Evangelical position on biblical inerrancy, preferring to say that the Bible is ‘entirely trustworthy’ rather than without error. This represents a weakening of biblical authority. Also, little reference is made to Scripture in the dictionary’s treatment of major theological subjects. A case in point is the entry on the Trinity. Mention is made of the unorthodox view that in the Trinity God is asexual, the Son male and the Spirit female. But the biblical basis of the doctrine of the Trinity is not even hinted at. Neither is an account given of the Church’s historic confession of Trinitarian theology at the councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). It might be objected that space constraints did not allow for more in-depth treatment of this doctrine. However, given the central importance of the Trinity for Christian theology, that is not a valid defence, especially when the ample space devoted to other subjects of lesser magnitude is taken into account. The entry on the Trinity amounts to approximately one half-page column, while just over four columns are devoted to Social Class. Similarly, the article on Justification includes no references to the text of Scripture. The entry sets out the elements of the traditional Protestant understanding of the doctrine and discusses the relationship between justification and sanctification. But the reader is not referred to the biblical basis for this truth in Romans, Galatians or elsewhere in Scripture for that matter. Part of the dictionary’s stated aim was to provide a one-stop resource for Baptists in Eastern Europe, where theological literature is not so readily available. But Eastern European Pastors looking for a deeper understanding of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity or Justification will find little help here.

The atoning work of Christ is close to the heart of Evangelical theology. Yet this doctrine has recently been the subject of heated controversy, ranging around the teaching of penal substitutionary atonement. The article on Atonement mentions Steve Chalke’s view that this understanding of the cross amounts to ‘cosmic child abuse’. It is suggested that Chalke had ‘extreme versions’ of penal substitutionary atonement in mind. However, Chalke is on record as opposing the very idea that Christ bore the penalty of sin at the cross. The entry fudges the issue, saying that the controversy over Chalke’s views shows that there is room for differences of opinion in Evangelicalism on penal substitutionary atonement. Chalke, a prominent Baptist Union Minister is later singled out as a paragon of Evangelicalism (Evangelicalism, Baptists and). Along similar lines, the issue of whether the Bible teaches the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked or some form of annihilationism is left an open question. See Annihilation and Universalism and Judgement.

Some of the theological contributions are more helpful, but on the whole, the dictionary’s treatment of Baptist theology leaves a lot to be desired. The reference work’s treatment of the Baptist view of the Church is much better. There are solid entries on Baptism, Believer’s Church and Volkskirche, and Separation of Church and State. Pieces devoted to why Baptists reject Roman Catholic teaching on issues such as the Infallibility of the Pope and Purgatory are clear and incisive. But the dictionary is more open to Baptist involvement with ecumenical ventures such as the World Council of Churches than many Reformed Baptists would be prepared to tolerate. Articles on the pastoral Ministry imply that this form of Christian service is open to women as well as men. But on biblical grounds many Baptists would not accept female pastors. In keeping with the Baptist tradition associated with pioneer missionary William Carey, the dictionary has a strong emphasis on Mission, both in terms of preaching the gospel and helping the poor.

Articles are also devoted to on ethical concerns such as Abortion and Euthanasia, where the reference work’s stance is in line with mainstream Christian thinking. Interestingly, the entry on Just War Theory opens up the differences between those in the pacifist Mennonite camp and most other Baptists. Sadly, the piece on Sexual Orientation contents itself with describing various attitudes towards homosexuality the Baptist community rather than seeking to set out the authoritative biblical teaching.

The historical and biographical entries make for fascinating reading. It is moving to follow the story of the growth of Baptist churches in Eastern Europe despite much persecution during the era of Soviet Communism. Articles are devoted the Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin and key Baptist figures such as C. H. Spurgeon. In the interests of historical accuracy it should be pointed (contrary to what is said in Images:Icons, Baptist use of) that Welsh preacher Christmas Evans was only blind in one eye.

There are some good things here, but the dictionary’s disappointing handling of important theological subjects means that it is unlikely to receive a ready welcome among all European Baptists.

Review published in issue 20.1 of the European Journal of Theology.


Jonathan Hunt said...

So, in one word, your review is 'meh!' then?

I feel uninspired to add this to the reading list!

Exiled Preacher said...

I had to look up what 'meh!' meant. Let's just say that I wasn't too impressed.