Thursday, February 22, 2007

A reply to James A. Smith, “Is charismatic theology historically Baptist?”

A recent article in the Florida Baptist Witness by James A. Smith bears the title “Is charismatic theology historically Baptist?, as well as the sub-title “The current debate in SBC life concerning ‘private prayer language’ may hinge on whose Baptist history is correct.” I believe the thesis proposed by these titles is flawed from the beginning.

Among the main reasons I am Baptist is because I believe the interpretation of Scripture accepted by Baptists is closer to my own understanding of Scripture than that of other groups with which I might affiliate. It is my contention that the primary thing that describes who we are as Southern Baptists is an unswerving commitment to the authority of the Bible, as evidenced in both its inerrancy and sufficiency. I believe consistency to this commitment implies a concomitant commitment to the Reformation principle of semper reformanda (“always reforming”). We, as Baptists, have never claimed to have an infallible understanding of God’s truth, and as such, should always be open to being shown, from Holy Scripture, how views we may have taken in the past may be mistaken.

It is because of this that I am convinced that questions of Baptist history should hold a very relative importance in deciding matters of interpretation and practice for us as Baptists today. The question is not whether Baptists in a certain time and cultural context held to one view or another, as much as it is how do we today, in total submission to God’s revelation for us through His inerrant Word, understand we can best move ahead to obey His commands, and work towards the fulfilment of the Great Commission.

The main focus of Smith’s article, as well as that of an accompanying article entitled The Sandy Creek-Charleston Baptist Analogy,” is a response to Dwight McKissic’s reference to the “Sandy Creek” and “Charleston” streams of church life in early Baptist history in the south of the United States.

Consider the following quotes from Smith’s article:

McKissic’s historical claims to buttress his argument for latitude in the SBC on spiritual gifts rests on the scholarship of two Baptist church historians, Leon McBeth and Walter Shurden.

When asked if there is any historical evidence that Sandy Creek Baptists spoke in tongues or private prayer languages, Shurden responded, “I know of none in historical sources.”

Shurden told the Witness, “… Sandy Creekers were what I would call ‘little c charismatics.’ I know of no evidence to suggest that they spoke in tongues as in what I would call ‘large C Charismatics’ today.”

The apparent implication is that, if one is unable to demonstrate that Sandy Creek Baptists actually “spoke in tongues,” then McKissic's case collapses, and there is no basis for allowing freedom for the practice of “private prayer language” among Southern Baptists today.

Although it would be up to Rev. McKissic himself to either confirm or deny this, the idea I get, upon reading his various writings on the topic, is not that the legitimacy of “private prayer language” in Southern Baptist life has ever hinged upon the practice of Baptists in the past, whether at Sandy Creek or anywhere else. As I understand it, the example of Sandy Creek and Charleston are given, rather, to point to a model of cooperation and mutual understanding among Baptists of differing liturgical styles that might be taken as an inspiration to us as Southern Baptists as we deal with the present-day controversy over “private prayer language.”

Even if McKissic did mean to imply that Sandy Creek Baptists “spoke in tongues” (once again, something I doubt), I think it is a bit “over the top” to suggest that “the current debate in SBC life concerning ‘private prayer language’ may hinge on” McKissic’s or anyone else’s interpretation of Baptist history. It is my firm conviction that the implications of this discussion transcend the views of any one individual.

Smith, in another place in this article, refers as well, though, to one other person’s view of Baptist history:

Acknowledging isolated historical examples of Baptists who held ‘charismatic leanings,’ [Dr. Paige] Patterson said, “Overall, consistently, for all the years of Baptist theology, whether we are talking about Anabaptists, whether we are talking about British Baptists, or whether we are talking about American Baptists and certainly Southern Baptists have rejected the charismatic interpretation of spiritual gifts.”

This statement seems strange to me. How could Anabaptists and pre-20th-century Baptists have “rejected the charismatic interpretation of spiritual gifts” if the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement did not even begin until 1901? I do not deny that many Anabaptists, pre-20th-century Baptists, as well as Christians from many other ecclesiological streams, may have well been “cessationist” in their understanding of miraculous gifts. However, I believe the “cessationism” of many of these was more a reaction to the phenomena they observed around them in the Christendom of their time than a careful response to an objective study of Scripture itself on these points. I would propose, rather, that it has only been with the advent of Pentecostalism, and the Charismatic and Third Wave renewal movements within other denominations, that serious theologians have begun to study with any exegetical depth the possibility of the continuation or reappearance of miraculous gifts for the present time.

During the 20th century, without a doubt, many, both within Southern Baptist ranks, as well as without, have reacted to the excesses of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Some of this reaction, in my opinion, has been measured and well-directed. On the other hand, some has been of a combative, hysterical nature that has tended to be non-objective, oftentimes resorting to emotion-laden straw man argumentation. Since the 1960’s, however, some Baptists, both within the SBC, and especially in other parts of the world, have taken a more open position towards the continuation of miraculous gifts and the practice of such phenomena as “private prayer languages.”

The choice for us, as Baptists today, as I see it, is: do we want to dig in our heels in regard to all that our past has represented, or do we want to remain open to the continued direction of the Holy Spirit, new insights, as the result of developing scholarship, into the unchanging truths of Scripture, and the principle of semper reformanda? As I understand it, a choice to cling to the past implies at the same time a choice to embrace the views of our Southern Baptist forefathers on such things as slavery and race relations. It might also mean, for many, a revival of Landmarkism.

Smith also quotes Patterson as saying: For us to become charismatic in our emphasis now would be a major, new departure for Southern Baptists. If, by “charismatic in our emphasis,” Patterson means accepting the traditional Pentecostal/Charismatic distinctive of the normative expectation for all believers of the baptism in the Holy Spirit accompanied by the initial sign of speaking in tongues, than I would pretty much be in agreement with him here. However, to imply that those who are advocating the freedom within Southern Baptist life to practice a “private prayer language” are necessarily “charismatic” in their emphasis is just not true.

In closing, I find especially disconcerting the following reference in Smith’s article:

Noting that differences of interpretation on spiritual gifts is one reason why different denominations exist, Patterson invoked a baseball analogy, suggesting Baptists and charismatics are not on the same denominational teams: “Why would I want to wear a Red Sox uniform if I want to play for the Yankees?”

As born-again members of the Family of God, I believe it is a fundamental biblical principle that we are all essentially on the “same team.” In the supposed “game” of Christian service, I would hope we would all be able to say: “I do not play for the ‘Baptists,’ and I do not play for the ‘Charismatics’; I play exclusively for the same King of Kings and Lord of Lords who once said “He that is not with me is against me” (Luke 11.23).


Tim Sweatman said...


Superb post. I especially love the final paragraph. I wish that more of us felt the same way.

It seems to me that those who continually refer to Baptist history or traditional Baptist beliefs to support their position rarely provide any direct biblical statements for their position.

Jonathan K. said...


I agree as well. There are no Baptists, or even charismatics in heaven, ONLY children of God.

Ken Sorrell said...


A very well stated commentary on this issue. I would like to ask for help in answering a question that I have yet to see anyone comment upon. What is the perceived fear or understood implications if we as a denomination decided that miraculous gifts did not cease during the 1st century?

Also, I've always believe that history can give us insights from the past to better understand the present, but interpretation and application of Scripture is not the same as case law where precedence overrides a thorough study of God's Word.

Perry McCall said...

I think it is important to know from where we have come from. I think our theological heritage is very important in guiding us through troubled waters. It is always important to be debating and learning from the best in every generation. But you are spot on when you point us back to our reformed roots of "always reforming" and "scripture alone" as our final destination. Our heritage reminds us of our commitment to, "what does the scriptures say?" Great post!

Did I answer your question about my thoughts on the open/closed communion issues with the BF&M? I think we were on Bussey's blogs when you asked me my opinion.

David Rogers said...

Perry (and Ken),

I agree that history has its place. We definitely need to be willing to learn from those who have come before us. However, as I said in my post, I see that importance as "relative" when compared to the authority of the Bible and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I understand you are agreeing with this as well.

In relation to the comments on Kevin Bussey's blog, yes, you answered adequately my questions there. Thanks.

David Rogers said...


It is hard for me to enter into the minds of other people, but, since you asked, I will take a stab.

First of all, I think that many have observed how, in some occasions, some advocating Pentecostal and Charismatic views have tended to be manipulative in their techniques, using promises of emotional and supernatural experiences as a short cut to spiritual maturity. Also, some have communicated an attitude of spiritual superiority and "gift projection," inferring that those who have not had the same experiences as them are not as spiritual or not as committed to the Lord, or not as open to the Holy Spirit. In Baptist churches (and in other churches as well) these problems have provoked division. Some Charismatics have had a strategy of infiltrating churches, and seeking to influence the direction of the church in a more Charismatic direction. Due to all of this, many have felt threatened. The natural reaction to feeling threatened is defensiveness, and then, in many cases, counter-attack. In counter-attack mode, dubious methods such as "guilt by association" are often employed. The best protection against Reformation is Counter-Reformation. Or so the argument goes. And, the best protection against doctrinal extremes, and the problems they bring with them, is "running a tight ship." In a way, it's similar to the "total abstinence" argument. The best protection, supposedly, against alcohol abuse is requiring total abstinence. And then, just to be sure, just practicing total abstinence isn't enough. You have to agree the Bible teaches it as well.

Ken Sorrell said...


I guess I would have to admit that I too would express a fair amount of fear and uncertainty to changes that seemed contrary to my understanding of Scripture. How we respond to challenges to our beliefs may indeed reveal more about who we are than where we end up after the discussion ceases. Correct me if I am wrong, but much of the discussion today seems to be revolving around our expressions of worship more than any other aspect of the Christian life. Interesting.

Alan Cross said...

This is outstanding, David. I wrote a post last week that I never put up dealing with this article. Your analysis is exactly what I was thinking. I'm glad I didn't print mine, because you say it much more eloquently than I could have. I'll just point over here. Keep up the good work - I hope that multitudes are reading it. said...

As usual, great observations! When we start using history for Scriptural perspective and interpretation, it begins to "strike" a sensitive nerve! Through the years, those have been objections I've raised with Roman Catholic acquaintances who refer to their acquiesence for self imposed emphasis on "Traditionalism" as simply the pracitical application of "historic models"! I begin to have denominational indigestion when I hear Baptist's attempting to exercise similar arguments!

bryan riley said...

I often cite to John 17 and Jesus' prayer about unity. Then, what Jonathan K. said, which is often said, led me to think of something else Jesus said... He told us to pray in the following way:

Abba, Father


Thy Kingdom come, on earth just as it is in heaven...


Hmmmm, why is it we want to set up earthly kingdoms of baptists, and non-charismatics, and etc. and so on ad infinitum, when Jesus encouarged us to follow Him, the writer of Hebrews told us to fix our eyes on Jesus, all of Scripture shows us that it is all about God, and not us, and we are told that we are to live for His Kingdom here and now and forever, yet we continue to clamor about our distinctives as baptists (or other groups clamor about what makes them great), and let those human understandings of distinctiveness distract us from the Real??

Thank you for a well written post. May it lead all readers of it to a focus on the One we should focus upon.

Electra said...

Great work.