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7 Southern Baptists on 7 Salvation Questions (Introduction)

What have Southern Baptist systematic theologians taught about the doctrine of salvation? In this study, I develop and answer seven questions concerning the doctrine of salvation from the systematic theologies written by John L. Dagg, J. P. Boyce, E. Y. Mullins, W. T. Conner, James Leo Garrett Jr., Dale Moody, and Ken Keathley.[1]

Why focus on the Southern Baptist tradition? First, it is my own tradition as well as the largest Protestant group in the United States. Those reasons provide personal motivation and academic justification. Second, it is a theological tradition whose doctrines are currently disputed among some historians and church leaders. Third, identifying one’s theological tradition is the first step toward identifying the presuppositions and preconceptions one brings to the Bible. Without such critical self-reflection, readers will simply find in their reading of the Bible the theological formulation which they already affirm. The goal of this study is to describe the various views on the doctrine of salvation found among Southern Baptist systematic theologians.

Four qualifications are in order. First, the views of earlier Baptists will not be considered. Although it would be instructive to survey the views of leaders from the Anabaptist and English Separatist movements, doing so would expand the study into a much larger treatment.[2] Second, other works of systematic theology have been and are currently used in Southern Baptist colleges and seminaries as well as by pastors. Some of those are fine works of theology, such as those written by Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, and Norm Geisler. Although useful volumes, they are not included in this study because they were not written by Southern Baptists. Third, some outstanding Southern Baptist theologians did not appear in the study, either because their views on salvation have not yet been published in a work of systematic theology (such as Malcolm Yarnell and Albert Mohler) or their book was not used widely (such as Fisher Humphreys and Herschel Hobbs).[3] Fourth, teachings in a systematic theology textbook do not necessarily reflect the views advocated by all the people in the pews. To accurately articulate a group’s views, it would be necessary to draw upon various confessions and sermons from prominent pastors and evangelists within the tradition. With those qualifications in mind, we will proceed with the study.

The systematic theologies of the following Southern Baptists will be explored:

John L. Dagg (1794–1884) was a Baptist leader who wrote in the areas of theology, ethics, and apologetics. He would serve as president of Mercer University, and his Manual of Theology was the first systematic theology written by a Baptist in the United States. Incredibly, “Dagg was virtually blind, mute and lame at the time of his greatest productivity.”[4]

His students referred to him as “Jim Peter.” James Petigru Boyce (1827–88) was converted while a student at Brown University, the first American college founded by Baptists, and was mentored by Francis Wayland, an organizer of the Triennial Convention. He trained at Princeton Theological Seminary under Charles Hodge and other Presbyterian theologians. In 1859, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) was founded, and Boyce became its first president and served faithfully until his death in 1888.[5]

E. Y. Mullins (1860–1928) pastored churches in Kentucky, Maryland, and Massachusetts before serving as President of SBTS (1899–1928), President of the Baptist World Alliance (1923–28), and President of the Southern Baptist Convention (1921–24). Mullins led the convention to adopt its first statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message (1925). He maintained peace when three issues polarized the convention: Calvinism, Landmarkism, and the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.[6]

W. T. Conner (1877–1952) was raised in the poverty of the post-Civil War South. He pastored in Texas and was educated at Baylor University (BA), Baylor Theological Seminary / Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) (ThB), Rochester Theological Seminary (BD), and SBTS (ThD and PhD). His mentors and teachers included B. H. Carroll, Walter Rauschenbusch, A. H. Strong, and E. Y. Mullins. He pastored churches near Fort Worth throughout his systematic teaching at SWBTS from 1910 to 1949.[7]

Dale Moody (1915–92) was educated at Baylor University (BA) and SBTS (ThM, ThD). He also studied under Paul Tillich (1944–45) and Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Oscar Cullmann, and Walter Eichrodt (summer 1948). In 1966, he completed a DPhil at Oxford University. Moody taught theology at SBTS from 1945 until 1983. Moody’s most controversial theological viewpoint was his defense of apostasy.[8]

James Leo Garrett Jr (b. 1925) was educated at Baylor University (BA), SWBTS (BD), Princeton Theological Seminary (ThM), SWBTS (ThD), and Harvard University (PhD). After pastoring three churches during his time at SWBTS, Garrett began teaching at the school in 1949. Ten years later, he accepted an offer to teach at SBTS. In 1973, he accepted a teaching position at Baylor University.[9] In 1979, he returned to SWBTS where he continued to teach classes and write books into his 80s. He no longer teaches classes, but he maintains the title of Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology.

Kenneth Keathley (b. 1958) was educated at Tennessee University (BA), Southeast Missouri State University (MNS), and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) (MDiv, PhD). He serves as Professor of Theology, Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, and Jesse Hendley Chair of Biblical Theology at SEBTS. Before accepting a faculty position at SEBTS in 2006, he served on the faculty of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for two years and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for six years. During his ministry, he served as interim pastor at churches in South Carolina, Missouri, Louisiana, and North Carolina.[10]

The following questions about the doctrine of salvation will be answered from each systematic theology:

  1. Does the theologian identify who initiates salvation, God or man?
  2. Does the theologian advocate decretal theology, also known as covenant theology?
  3. What is the theologian’s definition(s) of election?
  4. Does the theologian understand God to love all people and want all people to be saved?
  5. Does the theologian understand God’s grace to be resistible, irresistible, or something else?
  6. What is the theologian’s definition of salvation?
  7. Does this definition of salvation require individual and explicit repentance and faith in Jesus Christ?

Tomorrow, I will attempt to answer Question 1 by quoting from each systematic theology.

Click here for a free PDF of the first four chapters of a new book I co-edited, Anyone Can Be Saved: A Defense of “Traditional” Southern Baptist Soteriology. This book sample is provided with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. The book can be purchased here.

[1]John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology (1857); James Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (1887); E. Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression (1917); W. T. Conner, Christian Doctrine (1937); Dale Moody, The Word of Truth (1981); James Leo Garrett, Systematic Theology (1990; 1995); Kenneth Keathley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007; rev. ed. 2014).

[2]For a comprehensive survey of these earlier Baptists, see James Leo Garrett Jr, Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study (Macon, GA: Mercer University, 2009).

[3]Herschel Hobbs, for example, will not be represented in the lineup of systematic theologians because his doctrinal work Fundamentals of Our Faith (Nashville: Broadman, 1960) is brief and written for a general audience. It could be argued, however, that due to his influence on the 1963 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message as well as his decades of writing Sunday School literature for the Baptist Sunday School Board, he may have been the most influential Southern Baptist theologian in the second half of the twentieth century.

[4]Tom Nettles, “Preface to the New Edition of Manual of Theology,” in John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano, 1990), n.p.

[5]Timothy George, “James Petigru Boyce,” in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, ed. George and Dockery (Nashville: B&H, 2001), 73–89.

[6]See Fisher Humphreys, “Edgar Young Mullins,” in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, 181–201.

[7]See James Leo Garrett Jr, “Walter Thomas Conner,” in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, 202–215.

[8]Garrett, Baptist Theology, 377–87.

[9]See Paul Basden, “James Leo Garrett Jr.,” in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, 297–316.

[10]“Ken Keathley CV,” available at http://apps.sebts.edu/FacultyUploads/Ken%20Keathley%20CV.pdf.

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