Nathan Finn: Southern Baptists and Evangelicals – Passing on the Faith to the Next Generation

Dr. Nathan Finn begins the last day of the conference with an address on “Southern Baptists and Evangelicals: Passing on the Faith to the Next Generation”.   Finn serves as Assistant Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Finn is the co-editor of Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution (Mercer, 2008) and has contributed to Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialog (B&H, 2008) and Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future (Crossway, 2009). He also serves as associate editor of The Journal for Baptist Studies.

Finn begins by stating that, as a seminary professor, he is self-consciously trying to pass on the faith to the next generation of ministers and missionaries.

First, we need to once again revisit the relationship between Southern Baptists and evangelicals. And second, we need to consider what it means to pass on the Southern Baptist and/or evangelical faith to the next generation.

Southern Baptists and Evangelicals

Evangelicals Defining Evangelicalism

  • Some describe evangelical Christianity using primarily theological categories (Bebbington and Rosell).
  • Some underscore evangelicalism’s diversity by emphasizing activism (Wallis, Sider, Perkins, and Dobson).
  • Some understand evangelicalism as some sort of common affinity (Marsden and Carpenter).
  • Some focus on evangelicalism as a common piety (Grenz, Olson, and Franke).

The one thing all of these approaches have in common is that they focus predominantly on white, or at least western, believers. This is important because there are strong indications that the ethnic ethos of American evangelicalism is changing (see the works of Philip Jenkins).

Southern Baptists Defining Evangelicalism

The same definitional ambiguities that characterize the aforementioned scholars also plague Southern Baptists who have addressed this issue.

I prefer to make a distinction between the terms evangelical and evangelicalism.  I agree with Bebbington and Rosell that an evangelical affirms a high view of Scripture, a conversionist piety, the centrality of the cross in human salvation, and a gospel-inspired activism, especially (though not exclusively) evangelism and missions. Any piety that might be common to evangelicals is necessarily shaped by these core convictions and priorities.

Thus, not all evangelicals are participants in evangelicalism, which I would argue is more a movement than a set of beliefs and priorities.

Southern Baptists and Evangelicals Revisited

  • Southern Baptists as Evangelicals
    Most Southern Baptists would have no trouble affirming a list of basic evangelical convictions about the Bible, conversion, and the cross, though we might nuance those categories in ways that differ from some other types of evangelicals. The same goes for activism; from its inception the SBC has been a body that draws together autonomous churches for the purpose of gospel endeavors, especially missions and evangelism.
  • Southern Baptists Must (sometimes) Be Against Evangelicals
    Southern Baptists are denominational evangelicals who are at odds with those card-carrying evangelicals who find their primary identity in parachurch evangelicalism.  Most Southern Baptists remain a people committed to the primacy of the local church. As long as evangelicalism remains a parachurch-driven coalition, Southern Baptists will remain nervous about certain types of cooperation with the broader evangelical movement.
  • Southern Baptists Among Evangelicals
    Despite the above concerns, I’m in favor of continued Southern Baptist engagement with other evangelicals, even within segments of movement evangelicalism.  Southern Baptists have been involved since the 1940s in engaging evangelicals.  I agree with Albert Mohler that a healthy future for the SBC “lies in the rediscovery and reclamation of an authentic and distinctive Southern Baptist evangelicalism—genuinely Baptist, and genuinely evangelical.”

    Southern Baptists must recognize that we are ourselves evangelicals who must at times swim against some evangelical currents, nevertheless always seeking to remain in the evangelical river itself. Balancing our respective identities as Southern Baptists, evangelicals, and Southern Baptist evangelicals is crucial to passing on our faith to the next generation.

Passing on the Faith

  • Catechesis: Passing on Our Convictions
    By catechesis, I mean that Southern Baptists and evangelicals must pass on our convictions in our preaching, discipleship programs, life-on-life mentoring, theological education, and parenting.
    1. We must seek to inculcate a Christian way of reading Christian Scripture.
    2. We must seek to pass on a robust view of the gospel.
    3.  We must pass on what I call a “gospel instinct,” which I believe will help us to be very hesitant about aberrant doctrines that seem to undermine faithful gospel proclamation (Ex.inclusivism, universalism, annihilationism, and hyper-Calvinism).
    4. We must pass on a balanced commitment to activism, including cultural engagement, evangelism, and missions.  . But I don’t want to see the next generation engage culture at the expense of personal evangelism and church planting, both in North America and to the uttermost parts of the earth.  I believe Jesus would have us weep for the lost and the hungry, to share the gospel and clothe the poor, to speak out against all manners of injustice and speak out about our personal testimonies.
  • We must make sure that the faith we pass on is a distinctively Trinitarian faith.
  • We must pass on the distinctives that are uniquely emphasized by our tradition.
    I argue in my classes that Baptist principles are simply the consistent application of the gospel to ecclesiological matters. We must pass on our belief that local churches, as communities of the gospel, ought to be comprised of individuals who give evidence of regeneration. We must pass on our conviction that believer’s baptism by immersion identifies a believer with the gospel and marks him out for the community created by the gospel. We must pass on our conviction that we live out the gospel personally by embracing the principle of individual liberty of conscience, under the lordship of Christ, and in submission to Christian Scripture. We must pass on a healthy understanding of congregational polity that enables us to practice the gospel in community with one another. We must preserve the freedom of each gospel community to pursue its own gospel agenda by passing on our belief in local church autonomy. We must defend the preservation of gospel freedom by passing on the firm conviction that a free church best flourishes in a free state where religious liberty for all is a basic civil right.

But there are some tendencies that both evangelicals and Southern Baptists must not pass on to the next generation.

  • Southern Baptists must not pass on a cultural captivity that too often has confused southern culture with biblical Christianity.
  • We must not hand down an ethnocentrism that is still present, albeit often subconsciously, in many quarters of our Convention.
  • We must not pass on a denominational arrogance that has often assumed that we are the greatest group of Christians in history just because we are the largest Protestant denomination in America.
  • We must not pass on our sometimes sectarian and/or overconfident tendency to withdraw from other believers and go at it alone, though we should be prepared to face some considerable resistance on this point.
  • We must not impart an atheological pragmatism that continues to influence not a few of our churches and denominational ministries.
  • We must not pass on our penchant for confusing bricks, budgets, baptisms, and bottoms with the blessing of the Almighty.

Narrative: Passing on Our Stories

We Southern Baptists have our own stories we need to pass on to the next generation. We are part of a tradition that advocated for full freedom of religion long before Jefferson’s and Madison’s grandparents were born. Our denomination has a unique ethos that is shaped by a number of traditions identified with locations like Charleston, Sandy Creek, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas. Our missionaries have been leaders in taking the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth and virtually every corner of North America.  We have undergone a Conservative Resurgence that has returned our Convention to its theological roots and likely prevented a theological downgrade similar to those that have infected so many of the mainline denominations. These stories must be told.

We have our own heroes. We must tell the next generation about figures like Mercer, Boyce, Rogers, McCall, and Pressler. We must also pass on the stories of other Baptist heroes like Thomas Helwys, John Bunyan, Thomas Grantham, William Carey, Andrew Fuller, Daniel Taylor, Isaac Backus, John Leland, Gerhard Oncken, Adoniram Judson and his three remarkable wives, Charles Spurgeon, Nannie Burroughs, W. B. Riley, and Martin Luther King Jr.

We should also note that Southern Baptists and movement evangelicals share some common stories and heroes.  All of their stories must be passed on too.

Billy Graham’s torch has apparently been passed on to the next generation. It is my sincere hope that Southern Baptists, evangelicals, and Southern Baptist evangelicals will be able to likewise pass on our faith to the next generation. After all, as Graham himself has reminded us on so many occasions, God has no grandchildren.


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