The Baptist Way: A Review

R. Stanton Norman.  The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church.  (Nashville: Broadman & Houghton), 2005.

R. Stanton Norman currently serves as the Vice President for University Relations at Southwest Baptist University.  He earned his B. A. from Criswell College, and his Master of Divinity and Ph.D from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  His areas of specialization are systematic theology, historical theology, Christian doctrine, and Baptist history.  Throughout his ministry Norman has served as pastor of a number of churches and has taught at a variety of institutions.  In addition to The Baptist Way, Norman is also the author of More Than Just a Name: Preserving Our Baptist Identity, published in 2001.  His unique experience as both a professor and a pastor give him the ability to speak with competence and practicality to a wide range of concerns.

In The Baptist Way, Norman outlines a series of distinctives that he believes separate Baptists from other denominations.  While he admits that other traditions may be “baptistic” in one way or another, he nevertheless maintains that there are certain Baptist beliefs and traits that make Baptists unique (7).  Norman unfolds his case by listing seven characteristics that have made, and continue to make, Baptists distinct: 1) Biblical authority, 2) the Lordship of Christ, 3) regenerate church membership, 4) church discipline, 5) congregational polity, 6) ordinances, and 7) religious freedom.

Norman begins by pointing out the need to restate Baptist distinctives.  He believes that recent monographs on this issue fail to thoroughly treat the subject, or lack strong Baptist convictions.  For example, he laments the fact that most people reduce Baptist distinctives to congregational polity and believer’s baptism (7).  Speaking particularly with a concern for Southern Baptist churches, Norman believes that if Baptists do not take this issue seriously, they risk losing their identity (1).  Intent on not seeing this happen, Norman writes with integrity and as someone who is a Baptist by conviction.

On the issue of biblical authority, Norman concedes that Baptists are not the only Christians who hold the Scriptures in high regard.  Yet he remains firm in his position that other groups allow either tradition, experience, or a rationalistic approach to reason to color their view of Scripture (12-17).  In contrast to these groups, Norman asserts that Baptists believe the Bible “is the sole authority for faith and practice” (18).

With respect to the Lordship of Christ, Norman is emphatic that “the church exists and functions in submission to the person and will of the resurrected Savior” (33).  Once again, while not insisting that this truth is unique to Baptists, Norman argues that Baptists have submitted to the Lordship of Christ “in unique ways” (34).  Before launching into a biblical-theological exposition of the Lordship of Christ, Norman lists some of these “unique ways.”  Norman says that Baptists have not created a hierarchical system of church government that attempts to mediate Christ’s blessings.

When speaking about regenerate church membership, Norman acknowledges that many people identify this as the core distinctive of Baptists.  While Baptists recognize that not every church member is regenerate, this is the ideal.  This is one reason why Baptists restrict baptism to those who profess faith.  Critics of Baptists assert that this teaching stems from an over-realized eschatology.[1]

The themes of baptism and regenerate church membership lead to the discussion of church discipline.  Norman acknowledges that many Baptist churches do not practice discipline, but insists that if churches want regenerate membership, it is absolutely crucial.  The fact that each church member has a responsibility to keep the church pure speaks to the Baptist conviction of congregational church polity, which Norman deals with at length (84-111).  After discussing the Baptist position on baptism, Norman turns to the Baptist position on the Lord’s Supper.  Without taking note of different positions held by Baptists, Norman says that Baptist hold to a Zwinglian understanding of the Supper (150).  Lastly, Norman covers the Baptist contribution of religious liberty.  Undoubtedly, the Baptist influence in this area is undeniable.

Norman’s purpose for writing this book was clear from the outset: “The present work is an attempt to identify and describe the distinctive traits of Baptists” (9).  Considering the topics covered and the fervency with which Norman writes, I would say the purpose of the book was achieved.  In addition, taking into account how other Baptist writings treat the uniqueness of Baptists, Norman’s writing stands out since he writes as a convinced Baptist.  He is not “moderately Baptist,” as he accuses other writers of being (1).

Norman’s style of writing in this work is mostly at a popular level.  The book is not intended for the scholarly community but with the layperson in mind (10).  That being said, those involved in academics could read this book and gain invaluable knowledge of Baptist traits.  Since Norman’s target audience is the church, however, the language and tone of the book is simple and conversational.

Though Norman writes as a convinced Baptist, and despite the fact that he claims to “elaborate on those theological tenets that are distinctive of the Reformed tradition of Baptist distinctives,” he does not actually follow through with this.  Perhaps his bias toward all things Baptist has prevented him from actually engaging with traditionally Reformed authors.  Specifically, I am referring to his misrepresentation of the Reformed understanding of sola Scriptura.  Norman incorrectly defines the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura as the Bible alone being the church’s sole authority (18).  While this may sound pious and admirable, it is technically untrue.  The Reformers specifically stated that the Bible is the church’s only infallible authority; not that it is the church’s only authority.[2]

Regarding this issue it seems that Norman has read into this Reformation principle a post-Reformation understanding.[3]  While I certainly applaud Norman’s supreme allegiance to Scripture, it seems that in criticizing other traditions for their lack of following the Bible, he does not take into account what their responses would be to him.  In other words, Norman can appeal to Scripture all he wants, what is at issue is one’s interpretation of Scripture.[4]  I am afraid that Norman has made the serious error of failing to realize that all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture.

In my mind, this is the biggest error of the book.  Rather than dealing with this issue, Norman makes remarks without considering the repercussions.  For example, he says, “We may respect the judgments of other believers, but we as Baptists believe that we have the right to disagree with the teachings of another if we are convinced from Scripture that such are in error” (19-20, emphasis mine).  One might ask Norman what he would say to Unitarians who are “convinced from Scripture” that God is not a Trinity.  What will become evident is that simply appealing to the authority of the Bible does not solve theological disputes.[5]  As Nathan Hatch notes, during the Unitarian controversy in America, what happened was “the unraveling of theological orthodoxy by an exclusive appeal to biblical authority.”[6]

In addition, Norman’s discussion of congregational polity needs further explication.  This is especially true given his assertion that Baptists have the “right” to disagree with others as long as they are convinced in their own minds that the other person is incorrect.  Norman says that “congregational polity does not mean that the church votes on the will of God.  The goal is to ascertain what is the will of God and then to obey him.”  Even if the church votes on an issue, the majority does not rule “if the vote is contrary to the will of God” (106).  Unfortunately, this answer is unsatisfactory and only leaves readers with more questions.  If the church is to ascertain the will of God, how are they to go about doing this?  How are churches supposed to know if their vote is contrary to the will of God?  What if some members disagree with a decision?  Would this be a case where a believer should exercise his or her “right” to disagree?  One wishes that Norman would have spoken more to this issue.  It seems that the issue of authority will continue to be Protestantism’s achilles’ heal.[7]

In summary, The Baptist Way is helpful in providing interested readers with a basic introduction to Baptist distinctives.  Norman writes with passion and conviction and makes his case for why Baptists ought to remain devoted to their core principles.  While I do not agree with everything he says, I found the book to be a mentally stimulating read that caused me to think over some very important issues.

[1] R. Scott Clark, Baptism, Election & the Covenant of Grace (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship Inc.:2007), 17.

[2] For more on this subject see Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura.  (Moscow: Canon Press, 2001), See esp. 258-260.

[3] For proof of this see D. H. Williams, “Scripture, Tradition, and the Church: Reformation and Post-Reformation,” in The Free Church & The Early Church: Bridging the Historical and Theological Divide, ed. D. H. Williams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 101-126.  Williams says Martin Chemnitz, Francis Turretin, Johannes Wollebius, and Herman Witsius failed to distinguish between Tradition with a capital “T,” and tradition with a lowercase “t.”  Tradition with a capital “T” refers to the body of doctrine summarized in the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds; while tradition with a lowercase “t” refers to spurious doctrines promulgated by the Roman church.  Williams says many of the post-Reformation theologians failed to make this necessary distinction.  They often equated Tradition with the Council of Trent’s “unwritten traditions.”  Thus, “‘Tradition’ would ever after have a negative connotation.”  See pgs 123-124.  It seems to me that Norman has followed suit with the post- Reformation theologians who failed to make this distinction.  This line of thought has continued unabated in American evangelicalism.  For more on this see Nathan O. Hatch, “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” in The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History, eds.  Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll (NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), 59-78.

[4] Perhaps Norman and others should read James B. Torrence, “Authority, Scripture, and Tradition,” Evangelical Quarterly 87:3 (1987): 245-251; he may also wish to consider D. H. Williams. Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999); idem. Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).

[5] See D. H. Williams, “The Search for Sola Scriptura in the Early Church,” Interpretation (1998): 354-366.  Among other things, in this essay Williams does a case study looking at a theological debate between Augustine and Maximus in 427-428 A. D.  Maximus denied that Christ was fully God.  Interestingly, Maximus was “quick to establish the orthodoxy of his position by maintaining that his doctrine is derived solely from Scripture” (pg. 360).  Also see, Phyllis Rodgerson Pleasants, “Sola Scriptura in Zurich?” in The Free Church & The Early Church: Bridging the Historical and Theological Divide, ed. D. H. Williams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 77-99.  This is a particularly interesting essay since Pleasants looks at the debate over baptism between Conrad Grebal, Balthasar Hubmaier, and Ulrich Zwingli.  Pleasants notes, “The conflict over baptism emerged between people of good will, all of whom claimed to be following the principle of sola Scriptura for defining truth. . . .  Studying the conflict from the perspective of the participants’ reliance on Scripture reveals that Scripture is never alone.  It is always understood within a specific historical context with all the limitations of understanding ‘thereunto pertaining.’”  Pleasants’ conclusion is that “Scripture is not self-evident.  Notwithstanding the protestations of the Reformers that they were presenting the plain meaning of Scripture, it was never plain enough that they agreed on what Scripture meant” (pgs. 77-78).

[6] Nathan Hatch, “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” 63.

[7] Robert Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism (NY: Oxford University Press, 1961), 171.


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