By Nathan A. Finn
Ever since “evangelical” became a household word in 1976, scholars have been debating the relationship between Southern Baptists and evangelicalism. In 1982, Mercer University Press published a book titled Are Southern Baptists Evangelicals? In that volume, James Tull essentially moderated a debate between James Leo Garrett and Glenn Hinson. Garrett argued Southern Baptists are “denominational” evangelicals, while Hinson distanced Southern Baptists from American evangelicalism.
In 1994, David Dockery edited a collection of essays for B&H titled Southern Baptists and American Evangelicals: The Conversation Continues. Some of the contributors were Southern Baptists (including Garrett and Hinson), while others were non-SBC evangelical scholars. Most of the contributors argued for some form of continuity and discontinuity between Southern Baptists and the broader evangelical movement.
Since 2006, several scholars have revisited this discussion in the form of journal articles and contributed book chapters. Examples include Malcolm Yarnell, William Brackney, Jeff Robinson, and Nathan Finn. Others such as Dockery, Al Mohler, Steve Lemke, Timothy George, and Russell Moore have also participated in this discussion through conference addresses, popular articles, and online writings. Still other scholars don’t so much enter into the debate as they assume that Baptists either are or are not evangelicals.
This scholarly discussion applies to Baptists and evangelicals in general, not just in America. At this year’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I will be participating in a session that looks at various perspectives on Andrew Fuller’s thought. My paper is titled “Andrew Fuller: An Evangelical Theologian.” I hope to dialogue with the mostly Baptist authors who are reticent to identify Baptists with evangelicalism, but I also hope to engage scholars who discuss Fuller as if he were a generic evangelical who just happened to be a Baptist. (David Bebbington, Mark Noll, and Bruce Hindmarsh fall into the latter category.)
I will contend that Fuller, like most Baptists, most certainly was an evangelical. But, it would be anachronistic to divorce Fuller’s evangelical emphases from his Baptist identity. He was a Baptist evangelical, or, perhaps more specifically, a Baptist Edwardsean. His version of evangelicalism, while certainly exhibiting the characteristics of evangelicalism is general, was filtered through his robustly baptistic understanding of ecclesiology. Keith Grant goes partly down this road in his recent monograph on Fuller’s pastoral theology, but I hope to push a bit farther. Prior to the advent of nondenominational evangelicalism—a mostly 20th-century phenomenon—most evangelicals filtered their evangelicalism through the lens of their denominational identity. And for Fuller, that denominational identity was Particular Baptist.
I would suggest that contemporary Southern Baptists who are convictionally baptistic but also committed to a broader evangelicalism might learn something about our own identity from the Fullerites who wed similar emphases in their own context. To be a theologically orthodox Southern Baptist is to be an evangelical, albeit a particular type of evangelical.
Nathan A. Finn is associate professor of historical theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC and a senior fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.