Historically, one of the key differences between Baptists and Presbyterians—fellow Kingdom-sojourners for much of their respective histories (one thinks of the friendship of Andrew Fuller and Thomas Chalmers, for example)—is an area that is rarely discussed, namely, the concept of a learned ministry. Far more Baptists than Presbyterians have recognized that God can and does call to pastoral ministry men who have not had formal theological education. In Baptist history, one thinks of John Bunyan, for example, or John Gill, that indefatigable commentator, or Fuller, the theological father of the modern missionary movement, or William Carey or those remarkable preachers C.H. Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones (yes, the “Doctor” was a Baptist—read his lecture on baptism in his three-volume study of Christian doctrine). To be sure, these men read and studied and were self-educated, but they lacked formal credentials.
Having spent twenty-seven years in formal theological education, I am more than ever conscious that while such an education is extremely desirable for an effective ministry, it is not indispensable. And I am ever so glad that my Baptist forebears made room for men like those listed above, some of whom are among my theological mentors as a Christian. To think that because a man lacks formal credentials, he cannot reason and write with powerful acumen and insight is simply a species of arrogance.
Andrew Fuller, by trade a farmer, by calling one of the profoundest theologians of the Baptist profession, surely had it right when he said:
As to academical education, the far greater part of our ministers have it not. [William] Carey was a shoemaker years after he engaged in the ministry, and I was a farmer. I have sometimes however regretted my want of learning. On the other hand, brother [John] Sutcliff, and brother [Samuel] Pearce, have both been at Bristol [Baptist Academy]. We all live in love, without any distinction in these matters. We do not consider an academy as any qualification for membership or preaching, any further than as a person may there improve his talents. Those who go to our academics must be members of a church, and recommended to them as possessing gifts adapted to the ministry. They preach about the neighbourhood all the time, and their going is considered in no other light than as a young minister might apply to an aged one for improvement. Since brother [John] Ryland has been at Bristol, I think he has been a great blessing in forming the principles and spirit of the young men. I allow, however, that the contrary is often the case in academies, and that when it is so they prove very injurious to the churches of Christ. [“Discipline of the English and Scottish Baptist Churches”, Works (Sprinkle Publications, 1988), III, 481].