Wait . . . What? Baptist Dispatches From Church History, Part 5

This is Part 5 of this series.  I’ve been looking at church history and exploring the reasons I am a Baptist despite the fact there were no Baptists prior to the early 17th Century.

Here is Part 1.

Issue 5: If evangelical Protestantism is true, how could an illiterate peasant in rural, 8th Century France be a faithful Christian?  This might at first glance seem to be a ridiculous hypothetical question.  However, it is the life situation of most humans ever.  Evangelicism presumes easy access to a Bible and its people being able to read it regularly.  But in reality the vast majority of humans in history have been illiterate and have lived in rural isolated places far from churches and education.  Furthermore, books were very expensive to print and distribute.  Being a faithful evangelical by today’s standards would have been impossible for most people, so how can it be the truest expression of the faith?  In short, were there evangelicals before the printing press?

Answer: This is perhaps the most difficult of all five questions for me to answer.  But it is also the most irrelevant.  Let me explain.

Even though modern evangelicism may be largely infatuated with publishing, marketing, technology, stream lined small group studies, and consuming all sorts of new media as the foundation for spiritual growth, it doesn’t have to be that way.

I agree with the more ancient churches on this point.  We, as thoroughly modernized evangelicals, need to realize that many of the religious practices we sneer at as “dead rituals” developed preciously because of the life situation described above.  When people can’t read or don’t have access to books, other means must be developed for the Book to saturate their lives.  That’s exactly what the church did and continues to do.  Remembering this reality might help us to not only appreciate the past, but to see some of our own cultural and spiritual blind spots.

For example . . .

We would do well to have our lives shaped more by the rhythms of the church calendar and liturgy.  Because generating emotional fervor every week is not sustainable.  We need a connection to something bigger and a structure to guide us.  However, many evangelicals are waking up to this.  My own church has celebrated Advent the last few years as have many others.

We would do well to be inspired by the lives of the saints beyond Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and Billy Graham . . . though I certainly respect and appreciate all four.  By learning about different types of heroic Christians from various professions, ethnicities, genders, ages, and social classes we can more fully see with the various ways the Gospel can profoundly influence a life.

We would do well to be transfixed by the transcendent architecture of places like Chartres and the paintings of people like Rembrandt.  A thousand years ago Christians built and painted things that still amaze us in the CGI-special effects, anything goes era.  What are we building that will do the same in another thousand?

We would do well to relearn with the Desert Fathers the ancient craft of virtue cultivation and spiritual formation.  As stated by others such as Anthony Bradley, success and leaderhip too often replaces character and virtue in today’s evangelical churches.  How do you actually learn how to be more patience or self-controlled or peaceful?

We would do well to remember with Bunyan that we are pilgrims and life is a long, upward struggle and that we are all in this together.  It can’t always be fixed in three pithy points.

I think you get the idea.

But here’s the thing.  I don’t think I need to leave my Baptist church to integrate these practices into my life.  I need and appreciate the warm spirit and evangelical zeal of my Baptist faith.  I want my children to grow up an environment where each person is held accountable for their personal holiness and where loving service to others is an expected way of life.  I love that and wouldn’t trade it for anything.  I also think the liturgical traditions have much to learn from us.  I guess I’m hoping for both/and not either/or.

Furthermore, as I mentioned above there are already many signs this is happening  and that makes me very excited and hopeful for the future of our movement.  Click here, here, and here for a few examples.

So that’s it.  Those are the five historical difficulties with the Baptist faith and the reasons why despite them I choose to remain an evangelical Baptist.  To those who have joined in this conversation, thanks. I’ve enjoyed your diverse input and blessings on your own journeys.

In my next post, I’ll offer some concluding thoughts and since I’ve been pretty hard on Roman Catholicism I want to offer a few things I appreciate about that tradition.




24 thoughts on “Wait . . . What? Baptist Dispatches From Church History, Part 5

  1. I belong to a ‘liturgical’ church… In the States it is Episcopal ..in Canada where I am it is Anglican. I believe like most denominations there is a spectrum of how liturgy is used and also in the outreach, teaching etc. and even though there are issues within the Church, I will stay in it. I believe just as in a marriage if I might be bold enough to compare…there are things we might like different but we make some compromises in order to maintain the relationship and the marriage. The depth of a person’s faith lies with an individual and in the case of a child …with the parent’s help…. just my thoughts… Diane

  2. I’m glad you wrote about this, Ben. I’ve enjoyed this series, and while you and I view these things differently, I admire your honesty in how you tackle these things. There are plenty of people who don’t think about it enough to even recognize these issues exist, much less have an opinion about them.

    The problem you bring up here, of lack of information, is one that I’ve thought about quite a lot, and it was definitely a factor in my leaving Christianity. One of the passages I always thought about is Acts 17, where Paul is speaking to the Athenians. As you’ll remember, he walks through the city and makes note of all the different altars and temples to the various gods. He even sees an altar to the “unknown god,” and he uses this as his springboard to tell them about Jehovah and Jesus. In verses 29-31, he says that God overlooked the ignorance that led many to idolatry (Gentiles, of course), but now that Christ has come, God wants all to come to repentance.

    In this passage, it’s implied that the “times of ignorance” are now over. People, regardless of nationality, are now responsible to the gospel. As we know, and as your post discussed, the times of ignorance were actually far from over in Paul’s time. It’s now thought that the literacy rate in the Roman Empire was pretty good (not sure what percentage that means…), but after its fall, literacy plummeted. And like you said, the common man for most of the 2000 years since Paul’s time could not read, nor would they have had access to a Bible, even if they could read it.

    So how could God hold anyone accountable during those periods? And what do we make of someone like Paul making the statement in Acts 17:30, when he was supposedly inspired by God? For that matter, why would God make such a requirement when the vast majority of people could not be expected to meat it for centuries?

    In the end, the explanation that I found most likely is that Paul simply didn’t know what the future would bring. He didn’t have any actual divine guidance any more than Muhammad did. I know that’s not how you’ve come to terms with it, but as I said, I’m glad that we can at least agree it’s a problem.

    Take care,


    1. With the Harrowing of Hades all people would hear the Gospel and would be held accountable to repent (change their minds) if not in this life, then after entering the spiritual realm upon the death of their bodies. A few hundred years.after St. Paul made his observations as recorded in Acts 17:30, all of the Greek speaking world would become Orthodox Christian.

      For those who have heard the true Gospel in this life, they are held accountable for what they did with this illumination. For those who never hear the true Gospel, or who only hear a corrupted Gospel, they will be fully illumined when they enter the spiritual realm upon the death of their bodies. Those who teach that there is no repentance after death are far removed from the ancient Christian Tradition.

      1. Thanks again for your insight here. This is obviously hypothetical, but do you think some of the dead reject the Gospel after death? C.S. Lewis has an interesting take on hell. He pictures buses going back and forth from heaven to hell. People from hell get off the bus in heaven and see “certain people” in heaven. They then promptly get back on the bus for hell. I always that that was pretty profound.

      2. Hi Marc,

        The Harrowing of Hades is not something I’ve ever spent much time looking into. The only passage I’m aware of that might allude to it is in 1 Peter 3. And that’s not the plainest passage. You also said this:

        Those who teach that there is no repentance after death are far removed from the ancient Christian Tradition.

        Do you know any other passages (or references, if they’re outside the Bible) that support those points more fully? I’d be interested in reading up on it.


    2. I’m ok with your statement that Paul didn’t know the future to a large degree. In other texts he seems to think the “end times” were going to be in his own day. I don’t think that discounts his credibility. It seems he was just a bit optimistic on the timeframe. As Marc points out, Christianity did reach far corners of the world very rapidly. But then as impressive as that is it still leaves many millions “in the dark.” Certainly I don’t know how it all works out and I’ve only really begun to honestly wrestle with some of these issues. In the end, I have to believe God deals justly with us and will not hold people accountable for what they couldn’t know.

  3. Hi Ben,
    Regarding C.S. Lewis’ observations, I think that it is important to remember that to actualize the Gospel one must offer the same love and forgiveness we have been given by God to each other. If we choose not to love God and each other, we will not be reconciled and healed in this life or the particular judgment that happens at the end of this life. Only those who choose the way of love inherit eternal life.

    For those people who follow their conscience and do no harm to their neighbor, the particular judgment will lead to therapies of healing and change that are not too difficult. For those people who have lived their lives selfishly such as the rich man who ignored Lazarus, the particular judgment will lead to therapies of healing that can be very uncomfortable. For those people who hate God and perpetrate evil like Satan the devil, the particular judgment will be a sentence of eternal death in the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and the demons.

    Because the power of God’s love can move even the most hardened person to repentance, and those being saved must forgive and seek reconciliation with those who may have harmed them in their first life, we cannot know the eternal fate of anyone Although it would seem improbable, it is not impossible that at the final judgment no human being will follow the devil and demons into the annihilation of eternal death.

      1. The problem is that nobody is able to live up to the simple directive. We human beings are infected with sinful passions that disrupt our relationships with God and each other. This human condition is 100% fatal. It kills the body, and would kill the soul and spirit if not treated. God’s love for us is confirmed by what He has done to heal and save us (see John 3:16).

        The treatment required our Creator to become a human being to change the dying human condition. He had to trample down eternal death by His own death to open the path to resurrection. Although we must all experience the death of our current corrupt bodies to inherit a glorified physical body in the future, our spirits that are dormant and near death can experience the first resurrection even before the body dies.

        This first spiritual resurrection is often referred to as being born again. It requires that we pick up our own Cross and put our sinful nature to death. This can only be done through a life of repentance where we are striving to follow the way that leads to truth and eternal life. Some Christians are pathfinders for the rest of humanity. However, most of humanity will not experience the first spiritual resurrection until after the death of their current bodies.

      2. Yet many people have been great examples of love toward their fellow man who haven’t been Christians at all. To say that Christianity is the means to reaching such a state of compassion just doesn’t match the evidence.

        On top of that, Christianity has to first make you think you’re sick before it can “cure” you. Every problem that Christ came to solve was one of God’s own making. Christ had to solve physical death? He wouldn’t have if God hadn’t given us finite life spans. And before anyone blames that on Adam and Eve, remember that eating the fruit was something they did before they had gained the knowledge of good and evil. They certainly didn’t know what the consequences would be. It would be much like leaving a gun out on the table, telling a 4-year old not to touch it, and then blaming the 4-year old when he hurts himself or someone else with the gun.

        Christ had to save us from Hell? He wouldn’t have if God had never created it.

        Christ had to save us from sin? Why? Even if sin exists (and I don’t think it does), God could have decided to simply forgive us of it without requiring all the complicated rules concerning sacrifice, faith, and obedience.

        All of these obstacles were put in place by God. And we call Satan the adversary?

        Before I come across as too blasphemous, let me point out that I don’t believe in any of these characters. And it’s not so much that I’m criticizing God, as I’m criticizing the idea of God that’s put forth in the Bible. There are many, many reasons to question the validity of the Bible, and what it says about God is probably the biggest one.

        On a more positive note, I agree that doing more for our fellow man should be the main goal. So when it comes to how we live and treat one another, I’m on the same side as most Christians. We agree on the core concepts of how we should live; we just differ on the reasons why we should live that way.

        If there really is a God, then as Ben said, he can sort things out after we die. If we’re all doing our best, I imagine he’d have a hard time finding fault with that.

        Hope my comments didn’t come across as offensive — if they did, I apologize in advance!

      3. Well put Marc.

        To be clear I too believe communion with Christ is the only sure hope of salvation. What happens outside of that? I’ll leave that to God. What I was trying to say was I think the focus of life in Jesus is on this life, not just about escaping to the next as many (most?) of my co-religionists think. It’s about becoming a loving person who lives in service of others, it’s about the world being turned upside and the poor and downtrodden being given dignity and humanity. When we begin to do that, we begin to be saved. I believe it is Christ who makes that possible by breaking the hold of ourselves over ourselves so to speak through rooting our identity in him instead of in our own pride or whatever. It is that new identity that best enables us to forgive and love as we are designed.

        Yes, of course, I believe many non Christians do great things in the world. I’ve known several agnostics and several more New Age type practitioners who were some of the most generous people I’ve met. However, I do believe that goodness flows from God and is part of his common grace to all humanity.

        I would challenge a bit the idea that Christianity creates it’s own problems. I don’t think it’s fair to say the bible created sin. It simply makes the observation that every person does things they regret and that all human systems are somehow flawed and names that reality sin. It then addresses our need to be healed and offers the story of how God accomplished that through Jesus. So it’s not that God couldn’t just forgive us. He could (I guess). But he also wants us to be healed and be able to take our rightful place again.

        Anyway, that’s a lot of ground to cover for one comment, but just my two cents.

      4. Nate,
        I am not the least bit offended by your comments. I understand that you reject the revelation of the Bible so your comments reflect that. I would say that it is a bit of a reach to blame God for everything gone wrong in this world, but you are not alone in doing so. God did indeed make angels and human beings with a free will, so I guess you can blame God for their collective bad decisions. Unlike a four year old, the angelic and first human beings that rebelled against God were mature enough to be morally responsible for their actions. They understood what death was when God warned them of their choices.

        Regarding the difference between those who follow their conscience and live God pleasing lives apart from Communion with Christ, their pathway to the Church in the Heavenly Jerusalem may be smoother than that of many professing Christians. But the fact remains that Communion with Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life. This Communion requires illumination in truth, and purification of spirit. Only a few enter into this Communion before they enter into the spiritual realm upon the death of their bodies (see Matthew 7:13-14).

      5. Hi Marc,

        Thanks for taking my comments in the manner they were intended.

        To your point about the angels and Adam and Eve understanding what they were being told and knowing that death awaited them for disobedience, did they really understand? We would definitely like to think so, because it’s unpleasant to think of God punishing people who are ignorant of the consequences of their actions. But at the same time, Adam and Eve didn’t realize they were naked, and they hadn’t yet eaten of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” So could they really have known what they were doing?

        In addition to that, they had never seen death before, because there was no death in the Garden, right? Same with the angels. How could they have known what it would mean?

        As to the rest of your comment, there’s just so much we don’t know about what happens after this life. It’s true that the Bible teaches people can only be saved through Christ, but it’s not clear that people can still do that after this life. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is told that there’s gulf fixed between the two realms, and he can’t cross over. The rich man would obviously like to — he has come to realize that he didn’t live the way he should have, but the message is that it was too late. Many other passages give the same indication.

        It sounds nice to say that even non-Christians will have a chance to be reconciled one day, but the Bible is far from clear on that. Most passages seem to be against the idea.

        I still have to read that article you linked to, though. Maybe there’s something there that I haven’t considered.

  4. Hi Nate,

    Regarding the rich man and Lazarus, this story reflects the reality of Sheol/Hades before the Lord entered it and changed it forever. The essay about the Harrowing of Hades explains the important changes.

    Adam was created outside of the Garden of Eden, so he witnessed the death of animals and understood the concept. Angels assisted God’s creative process so they also understood the concept of death. Just because Adam and Eve were innocent, does not mean they were ignorant. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the fruit of the tree of live are associated with being like God. This potential for human beings was to be realized as they remained in communion with God and grew in grace and knowledge. At the appropriate time in this process Adam and Eve would have been invited to eat the fruit of both trees and inherited eternal life. The reality of the Garden of Eden would have expanded to make the whole earth a paradise.

    Part of the problem that many people have in understanding the Bible, is the belief that it can be understood apart from the Holy Tradition that produced it. This has led to ever expanding Christian sectarianism, and the rejection of the Gospel by folks who read the Scriptures outside the perspective of the community of faith (Israel/Church).

    1. Yeah, thanks for giving us the space to discuss this, Ben!


      Thanks for the info on how the Harrowing of Hades plays into the story of the rich man and Lazarus — I promise I’ll get to that article soon! 🙂

      Per your second paragraph, could you give some support for those statements? I agree that Adam was created outside the Garden, but it seems that he was immediately placed there — not much time to witness anything else. In fact, according to Genesis 2, there weren’t even plants at this time (contrary to what Genesis 1 says). But as to your point about animal death, there are a number of Christians who believe there was no death until sin entered the world. According to Gen 1:29-30, God tells Adam that he and all the animals are to eat plants:

      Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground — everything that has the breath of life in it — I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

      So what need would there be for animal death, prior to The Fall? This is why so many Christians believe that sin brought in everything wrong with the world: death, sickness, hunger, etc. If you could point to some support for that as well as the claim that angels assisted in creation, I’d appreciate it.


  5. Hi Nate,

    When reading the Scriptures I think we all have perspectives that can lead to assumption. The point about how long did Adam live outside of Eden before God put him there is a case in point. The answer is, we just do not know. The English translations of the Bible often translates the Hebrew “erets,” to earth, although it can mean land or ground. When we read the word earth, we tend to think of the globe as a whole, however just like in the flood account the word can mean the land visible from a specific point.

    Genesis 2 begins with a summary of the creation account of Genesis 1 by revealing that the days of Genesis 1 were not 24 hour periods of time. Genesis 2 uses the same word “day” to explain the time specific to all of God’s creative activities. Then Genesis 2 focuses upon the special creation of Adam and Eve in a specific place and time that begins the story of the those who would descend from them leading to Jesus Christ. The earth spoken of in the Genesis 2 account is specific to Eden and the lands near by.

    Regarding the role of angelic beings in the creation process, this is more of deduction from what has been revealed than a specific revelation. The angels and archangels were messengers to human beings and had knowledge of what was going on in the material realm as well as the spiritual realm. Because the angelic host and the spiritual realm were created prior to the material realm, there are opinions from the early Church period that the angels assisted in the creative process of the material cosmos.

    Regarding Genesis 1:29-30 we encounter that same issue of perspective and assumption. The food chain of all animal life begins with plant life. The lack of mention of intermediate carnivore activity does not preclude it. All green plants are not necessarily fit for food as stated in this passage, so a broader understanding of this passage seem reasonable.

    The laws of physics, particularly the second law of thermodynamics requires that life forms supported by a metabolic process to have limited life cycles. Human beings are a special creation having the capacity to inherit a glorified body that is not sustained by the metabolic process. While death is a part of the natural created order of plant and animal life, it is not natural for human beings but rather the effect of the fall. Had the fall not taken place and the reality of Eden spread to the rest of the world, the natural created order would have changed.

    1. Hi Marc,

      I agree that a lot of assumptions enter in to how people read the Bible — I actually think that’s what’s at play with what you’re saying. You might be right that Genesis 2 is only talking about the area immediately around the Garden of Eden, but the context doesn’t give us anything to support that:

      5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, 6 and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— 7 then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

      I think your explanation of Genesis 1:29-30 is another good example of that. The passage says that God was giving plant life as food for all animals. To say that the meaning of the passage implies carnivores still ate meat is stretching it, I think. God could just as well have said that all life would be supported by the sun, since that’s what ultimately sustains all energy on our planet.

      While death is a part of the natural created order of plant and animal life, it is not natural for human beings but rather the effect of the fall. Had the fall not taken place and the reality of Eden spread to the rest of the world, the natural created order would have changed.

      This seems like another huge assumption to me. Are there any passages that tell us this?

      1. Nate,

        I remember on your blog discussing the creation narrative. I maintained, and still do maintain, that the revelations of God transcends the Scriptures. The Scriptures were written by those who were members of the community of Faith (Israel/Church), but they are not inerrant. The Scriptures are not limited to the time frame in which they were written. God’s revelation in the creation of the cosmos and His incarnation add illumination for those who believe the Gospel.

        Because your Christian experience is from a “Sola Scriptura,” perspective, I think your approach to the Scriptures is flawed. I have great respect for you Nate. You have expressed your desire to get to the truth and have shown that your heart is sincere. I can only suggest that you explore the Ancient Christian Faith, to see if there is anything there that makes sense to you.

      2. Thanks! I have a great deal of respect for you too (and Ben).

        Thanks for the great conversation — I know we’ll be talking more in the future. 🙂

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