Baptists and the Bible

This post is by professor of theology at Vose Seminary, Michael O’Neil.

Baptists and the Bible 1

In January 2009, an international group of Baptist scholars gathered in Cardiff, U.K. to explore the theory and practice of Baptist hermeneutics; the result of their meeting was an excellent collection of essays published by Mercer University Press The “Plainly Revealed” Word of God: Baptist Hermeneutics in Theory and Practice. The essays examine how Baptists have used and interpreted Scripture, how they have understood the nature, authority and function of Scripture, and how they might navigate the troubled waters of interpretative plurality. The essays portray a tradition in which Baptist exegesis is ‘rich, complicated, conflicting and conflicted … a living, evolving, self-correcting hermeneutical tradition that creates space for both an emerging consensus and dissent to that consensus’ (25).

What distinguishes a Baptist reading of the Bible?

The mention of ‘dissent’ highlights an attribute which is perhaps typical of Baptists, and which in some contemporary Baptist circles, is under threat—although true dissenters will not likely heed such threats. The quote comes from the opening essay by Mikeal C. Parsons, who examines how early Baptists used the Book of Acts to form and articulate their identity. His chapter is a fascinating foray into the seventeenth-century Baptist mindset, exploring how typical Baptist ‘postures’ with respect to theological authority, beliefs, and the relation of church and state, introduce tension into their use of Scripture. According to Parsons, ‘early Baptists were constantly negotiating the dialectic between authority of scripture and liberty of conscience, both governed by the Lordship of Christ’ (9). Overall, Parsons finds that Baptist hermeneutics are…

a) Diverse, consisting in a variety of perspectives and interpretations grounded in polemical discourse and particular theological and social locations; that is, ‘commitment to biblical authority does not necessarily produce any kind of consistency in interpretation’ (25)

b) Ecclesiologically oriented, articulating and shaping a Baptist vision of the church, that is, a radical ecclesiology combined with an orthodox theology whether Calvinist or Arminian;

c) Hermeneutics in service of the mission and ministry of the church.

“Scriptural interpretation for early Baptists was always within the context of articulating and shaping the Church and the Church’s mission in the world. This concern runs through the middle of the twentieth century, but then something changes, especially among the ‘professional’ interpreters in North America. … Of course, what changed, at least among white male Southern Baptists in North America, was that the historical-critical method finally gained a foothold in their theological institutions and among their faculties and students. The historical-critical method rightly aimed to release the stranglehold that the Church had on the interpretation of Scripture by developing ‘objective’ methods employed by ‘objective’ interpreters—unimpeded by confessional commitments—who would produce the singular and definitive interpretation of ‘what it meant’ that both believer and agnostic could affirm” (25-26).

Parsons acknowledges that this move was ‘probably necessary’ and healthy but that it also involved certain down-sides. Interpreters lost the ability to articulate their core theological convictions and social location: rather than being explicitly or distinctively Baptist, most contemporary Baptist commentaries on Acts are ‘at most generically Protestant’ (26). Also lost was the sense of the biblical texts as irreducibly religious and multivalent, and thus interpretations which ‘might reflect to some degree the wonderful and mystical polyvalence and ambiguity of the language of scripture that continues to baffle its readers with its attempt to explain the ineffable’ (29).

Parsons’ essay distinguishes the distinctively Baptist from the generically Protestant. Is this to be celebrated or lamented? What of his claim that responsibility for this lies with professional biblical scholars using historical-critical methods of interpretation? Or is it the case that the social location of these Baptists changed so that being Baptist no longer meant what it once did?

What distinguishes, in your view, a Baptist reading of the Bible?

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  • Alan K

    Scot, can you clarify what “generically Protestant” means? From what is written above I can only conclude that it means a departure from the local church as the center of interpretation. Am I correct or do I err?

  • Scot Miller

    I grew up as a Southern Baptis, was educated in a Southern Baptist university an a Southern Baptist Seminary (actually, “The” Southern Baptist Seminary… Al Mohler lived down the hall from me…), and was licensed and ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, so I have some familiarity with Southern Baptist hermeneutics. In graduate school I did a lot of work in philosophical hermeneutics (mostly Gadamer, but some Ricoeur), and I came to the conclusion that Baptists read the Bible with little sense of historical distanciation. In other words, Baptists tend to read the Bible as if there is little to no difference between their understanding of scripture and the “original” meaning of scripture. (In the words of the old song, “It was good for Paul and Silas, and it’s good enough for me…”)

    Without recognizing that the text has a historical horizon of meaning that is different from the historical horizon of the person reading the text, Baptists believe that their contemporary understanding of scriptures is identical to the biblical text. Hence they project a contemporary ecclesiology, and a contemporary understanding of mission and ministry on the text and claim that their contemporary understanding is what the Bible says all along. They think they’re going back to the Bible, when they’re really reading the Bible to proof-text their own unreflected prejudices.

  • Colton

    Scot, I am curious as to what your standard of truth has become if you can’t read the Bible and understand it? I am relatively new to this blog and would be on the “conservative” side and much more literal with scripture than many others here.
    It worries me to here that I can’t pick up the Bible, having never read anything about its history or a source critical method, and receive truth from it.
    Maybe I misunderstood.

  • Amos Paul

    Scot Miller,

    Was the past tense narrative of your post indicating that you are no longer a Baptist minister, then?

  • Scot Miller

    Amos, I was ordained by a Southern Baptist church, but now I’m a Christian (Disciples of Christ). I served a Southern Baptist church in Cambridge, MA, as an interim minister for about 3 or 4 months back in the mid 1980s, but I haven’t served any other churches. My framed “Certificate of Ordination” is in my office at my wife’s pediatric clinic, where I am now her office manager.

  • Rick

    Colton #3-

    “It worries me to here that I can’t pick up the Bible, having never read anything about its history or a source critical method, and receive truth from it.”

    Do you read that totally as an individual, or at least as part of a church tradition (taking into consideration of those in the faith that have come before you)?

  • phil_style

    @Colton, “It worries me to here that I can’t pick up the Bible, having never read anything about its history or a source critical method, and receive truth from it.”

    Why does that worry you? We are all in the same place as the Eunich are we not? He required St. Philip to explain how to understand the scriptures he was reading…
    We should not be afraid or worried of our own limitations.

  • Brian

    @ Coulton #3

    speaking for myself, I’d draw a distinction between the confidence in that we can read the Bible and understand the core message and confidence that we thereby can grasp everything in scripture without paying attention to issues of context, culture, genre, etc. The core message about Jesus and the Kingdom spread through the Roman Empire long before everything was solidified into our present canon of scripture — surely that has to say something about how God can use the basic story to transform lives, even as we benefit from having the Bible in the form it is now.

  • Scot Miller

    Scot #9, maybe Colton was addressing my comment (Scot Miller #2). After all, you and I are both blessed with being named “Scot” (with one “t” instead of two).

  • Michael

    Alan #1: I think Parsons means that particular church traditions lose their distinctive contributions to the “church” as a whole. So, do Baptists have a positive and unique contribution to make to the Body of Christ as a whole, and does this contribution get “lost” so that what remains is something any Protestant could agree with. It raises an interesting question about what constitutes unity – uniformity, or kindliness and love in the midst of diversity.

  • Michael

    Scot Miller #2:
    Perhaps that is why Parsons acknowledges that use of historical-critical methods was ‘probably necessary.’

    But perhaps more can be said:
    1. James McClendon’s famous characterization of baptistic hermeneutics bears repetition: “Scripture in this [i.e. a baptistic] vision effects a link between the church of the apostles and our own. So the vision can be expressed as a hermeneutical principle: shared awareness of the present Christian community as the primitive community and the eschatological community. In a motto, The church now is the primitive church and the church on judgment day; the obedience and liberty of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth is OUR liberty, OUR obedience, til time’s end. … This is not merely a reading strategy by which the church can understand Scripture; it is a way – for us, it is THE way – of Christian existence itself. … Just such a reading of the Bible and especially of the New Testament, read as interpreting the present situation, is characteristic of the baptist vision wherever we find it.” (Ethics, rev. ed., 30).
    2. It raises an interesting question about the nature of Scripture: is Scripture MERELY a historical work. What does it mean to accept as fact the claim of 2 Tim 3:16 regarding inspiration? Is historical exegesis sufficient?

  • Scot Miller

    Michael #11:

    To be clear, I do NOT think the meaning of the text can be reduced to the conclusions of historical-critical methodology. To think that one can develop some method to arrive at the real “meaning” of a text is an error based in the Enlightenment’s over-confidence in reason. (Again, I’m influenced here by Gadamer’s Truth and Method.) It’s what Gadamer called a “prejudice against prejudice.”

    I think there can be a “link between the church of the apostles and our own,” but only if one begins with recognizing that the contemporary horizon of meaning of the interpreter isn’t the same as the horizon of meaning in the text. Each of us begins in a particular place at a particular time with particular assumptions. It is part of the human condition that we already bring these fore-understandings and anticipatory judgments to every act of interpretation. The problem is when one is unaware of one’s prejudices and substitutes one’s own prejudice for understanding the object of interpretation. So it is always important to be aware of one’s situation in approaching the text so that we can respect the difference and “otherness” of the text.

    The fusion of horizons of text and interpreter (or, “the link between the church of the apostles and our own”) therefore begins with the assumption that the prejudices I bring to the text may not be the same as the prejudices embedded in the text itself. My initial understanding is a misunderstanding unless I admit the prejudices I bring to the text.

    Generally, Baptist hermeneutics acknowledges neither the prejudices inherent in the interpreter nor the historical distanciation between text and interpreter. Understanding is not a once-for-all achievement, but an ongoing process of reading, re-reading, correction, re-evaluation, etc.

  • I’m really enjoying this discussion as a newly-placed minister in the deep South because I am seeing these dynamics in action. I’ve never encountered “Baptist hermeneutic” this up-close before, and it has been somewhat stressful to navigate in my own setting. From the posture of dissent, mistrust of all traditions, and modern-day obscurantism which insists we have the only key to unlocking and interpreting Scripture – I have occasionally found some bold-faced parishioner trying to debate me with very little understanding except their “surface reading” of the text. It’s exasperating to hear “The Bible doesn’t talk about the Trinity”… “where in the Bible does it say ‘denominations'”… and then the smug conclusion – “That’s unbiblical.” *sigh* I welcome the corrective. But I don’t welcome the indefatigable suspicion, skepticism, and obscurantism. It’s like sticking fingers in your ears and saying “LALALALALALALALA”

  • Cal


    The problem is the illusion that they’re operating outside of a tradition when they’re really inside of one. Most Baptists think under the same headings of Darby’s Dispensationalism and woe be unto you if you stray from Conservative politics.