I was recently invited to write a post on the purpose of theological education for the Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. My post focused on theological education as habitus formation. Here’s a bit:
In these perilous times (and all times are perilous before that great and terrible day of the Lord), we stand in need of a renewal of theological education that is centered on the word of God, interpreted and applied in the context of the church (both local and universal), with a view to the theological and moral formation of the minister and those to whom he or she ministers. In short, theological education exists to form a theological habitus, a virtuous disposition, in its students as they follow Christ and preach his word…
Theological education, then, is habitus formation in a Christian mode: it aims to produce in its students intellectual and moral virtue through certain curricular and extracurricular practices, both theological and spiritual, taught and modeled by faithful professors. Obviously, the means are not foolproof. Professors and administrators can only do so much. The students must bring to the equation their own studiousness, docility, and compunction. They must be willing to “study to shew thyself approved” (2 Tim 2:15 AV), and they must be open to having their minds shaped and their consciences pricked by the word of God.
But from the institutional side of the equation, what kinds of elements should be included in theological education in order to produce this theological habitus? Virtue formation in the Christian religion is ordered to the word of God. It especially employs the ear as the primary organ of religion through a humble and faithful listening to the voice of Christ in the pages of Holy Scripture. It invites students, with Mary of Bethany, to choose the “better part”: sitting at the feet of the Master, heeding his life-changing message. Only then can students, like Martha, rise to serve the faithful. The divinity school serves as a conduit for the word of Christ in several ways.
I then go on to describe four main ways a divinity school forms its students in the Word:
Studying God’s Word
Interpreting and Synthesizing God’s Word with the Great Tradition
Teaching and Applying God’s Word
Prayerfully meditating on God’s Word in corporate worship and private devotion
You can find the post and the others in the series here.
In the classic 1984 film rendition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, starring George C. Scott, the Ghost of Christmas Past rebukes Ebenezer Scrooge for his failure to give careful attention to the world around him. She points out how Scrooge’s nephew looks so much like his mother, Scrooge’s sister. Scrooge replies, “Does he? I never noticed.” The Ghost responds with chastisement but compassion, “You never noticed? I think you’ve gone through life with your eyes closed. Open them. Open them wide.”
I think many of us go through life with our eyes closed. We are like the father in another cinematic masterpiece, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, who confesses: “I wanted to be loved because I’m great, a big man. I’m nothing. Look: the glory around us, the trees, the birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.” I can sometimes justify myself by claiming, “Well, I’m just not a very observant person,” which my wife can attest is often true! But a failure to attend to reality is not just a character trait; it’s a vice. It’s folly. It’s a failure to live in prudence, a virtue that entails docility (docilitas, aptness to learn), a disposition of “open-mindedness which recognizes the true variety of things and situations to be experienced and does not cage itself in any presumption” of self-deception. Docility requires “the ability to take advice,” “a desire for real understanding,” and “genuine humility” (Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues, p. 16). Virtue demands that we open our eyes wide and “notice the glory.”
In his excellent new book, Ross Inman suggests that a Christian approach to philosophy is an invitation to wonder. He writes that wonder is “a window through which we can see reality in its proper light; what is genuinely good, true, and beautiful–and subsequently worth pursuing–tends to evoke wonder.” And as Ross demonstrates, philosophy is not the exclusive preserve of tweed-jacketed academics. We are all invited to take on the philosopher’s mantle, as we seek to live in light of the truth and to pursue the good life. Wonder is not just about contemplating weighty metaphysical or epistemological questions (though it includes those, as well). It’s not even just about transcendent moments of rapture, say, at the expanse of the Pacific Ocean or the sheer granite walls of Yosemite Valley. It’s also about simply noticing the glory all around us: the wrinkles and flaws on the face in the mirror, the movements and shouts of children playing the yard, the music of the morning songbirds, the rustling of the water oak leaves under our feet, the smiles and grimaces of the faces we meet, the pleasures and pains of mundane human existence.
Christian spiritual masters have long recognized that the objects of meditation include, not only the truths of Scripture, but also the glories of the creation around us and the depths of meaning within us. The better part of communion with God is learning to open our eyes to awe: to the glory all around us in creation, to the beauty and dignity of the people right in front of us, to the sacred truths of Holy Scripture, to the presence of God within us, and to the being and attributes of God himself. So, open your eyes, friends. Open them wide.
Christmas starts earlier every year. It’s not unusual to see the candy aisle at the local supermarket well-stocked with Christmas confections the day after Halloween. Christmas music can be found on certain radio stations throughout November and December. The long-awaited red cups and gingerbread lattes show up just as early in Starbucks. Small wonder. We long for the joy and nostalgia of Christmas. We cling to it as long as possible. We lament the moment when the final present is opened or the last meal shared on Christmas Day. December 26 is perhaps the most dreaded day of the year on many personal calendars.
But there is an older framing of the holiday season that gives space not only for mirth but also for mourning, and in the process places joy in its proper context, allowing it to shine with its full brilliance after the long night of darkness. The season of Advent, the four Sundays before the Feast of the Nativity (December 25), marks the beginning of the traditional church year. Originally, Advent was a time for remembering, not the first, but the second advent of the Lord: his appearing on the last day to judge the living and the dead (for more on this history, see this excellent book). The four Sundays of Advent often commemorated the so-called quattuor novissima, the “four last things”: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The hymns and carols of the season carefully resisted the pull toward joy and celebration and focused instead on themes of longing, yearning, and hope. The famous “O Antiphons” are indicative, with the most well-known antiphon crying out, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” Another traditional Advent hymn invites us to “look from afar” and “see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth.” This older liturgical tradition can seem jarring to our holiday sensibilities, and yet, if we are bold enough to be honest with ourselves, it rings truer to our experience.
The joyful mystery of the Nativity is set against the backdrop of pain. The coming of the Lord only makes sense to a people who know what it means to wait—to a “people prepared,” as Zechariah prays in his Benedictus (Luke 1:17). Advent invites us, like righteous Simeon and faithful Anna, to wait for the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:25, 38). Advent is not about sappy sentimentalism, gauzy nostalgia, and cheap grace. It is about a “weary world” in desperate need of rejoicing. The land of Advent is spotted with deep valleys, impassable mountains, and crooked paths (Isaiah 40:4). As the Lord himself would remind us, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
And so, Advent welcomes our mourning. It has a place for our pain. It allows us the freedom to be honest about our losses, either through our own sins or the sins of others. It tunes our heart to sing, not only of God’s grace, but also of our sin and guilt and suffering. To be sure, we already live in the luminous reality of the first advent. No season of the year is entirely devoid of that joy. We need not pretend otherwise for some kind of pious effect. But we also live in the time between the times, in the overlap of the ages. The kingdom of Christ has been definitively inaugurated through the incarnation, birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but it is not here in its full glory and felicity. We, too, wait for consolation and redemption. And in this liminal space between the two advents, we can welcome a third, “middle advent,” as many spiritual writers have articulated: the coming of Christ in our hearts through the ministry of the church and personal devotion.
The season of Advent invites us to a kind of delayed gratification. We mourn before we rejoice. We sing of our weariness and captivity before we herald “Joy to the World!” In some traditions, Advent, like Lent before Easter, is a penitential season of fasting and self-examination. Only after the long night of sorrow can we rejoice that “the dayspring from on high” has visited us (Luke 1:78). Advent reminds us that Jesus didn’t come to a people who had their stuff together. He came to a broken world longing for healing.
With all of this in view, I would invite you to craft your own spiritual rule this Advent, one that centers mourning rather than joy, longing rather than realization. Obviously, none of these things are binding. The church year itself is not binding. But it is a useful tool for framing our time as sacred and centered on the whole life of Christ.
Limit your holiday music (as much as you can!) to Advent themed songs until Christmas Day. Sing “Come Thou long expected Jesus” before you get to “Joy to the World! The Lord is come!” Create your own playlist of Advent hymns and carols.
Read traditional Advent texts from Scripture. Consider using a lectionary (a list of readings) like this one.
Consider fasting for one meal or one full day each week. You might even consider abstinence from something you would otherwise enjoy during this season, as many do during Lent.
Practice these spiritual disciplines with others. Even if you don’t attend a church that observes the church year, you can still practice these rhythms with your family, roommates, or friends.
The good news is, mourning eventually gives way to joy. In the church calendar, Christmas isn’t a single day but an entire season! We call it Christmastide, the famed “twelve days of Christmas” that we forgot actually existed! And Christmastide gives way to Epiphany, which expands the joy, as we celebrate the manifestation of the Lord to the nations. Epiphany is traditionally marked by a reflection on the Visit of the Magi, when the Gentiles first meet their Savior, and the Baptism of the Lord, when the Triune God is manifested in the Jordan. Lent follows Epiphany, as we once again enter into a season of repentance, fasting, giving, and praying before the sorrowful mysteries of the Passion and the glorious mysteries of Easter. After seven weeks of Eastertide, we move on to the Ascension and to Pentecost, which frame our “ordinary time” as life in the Spirit. And so, the whole church year takes us through what John Calvin called the “whole course of Christ’s obedience”: from his advent to his birth to his ephipany to his suffering and death to his resurrection and ascension to his gift of the Spirit and back again. What joy awaits us as we are set to begin a new church year! For those hidden with Christ in God, mourning never has the last word. “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:6).
In the liturgical calendar, today is the feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Traditionally four archangels–Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel–are especially commemorated. Only two of these are named in the the Protestant canon: Michael and Gabriel. Raphael figures prominently in the apocryphal book of Tobit, and Uriel is mentioned in 2 Esdras and other non-canonical texts. Even if we cannot name these last two with any degree of biblical authority, we do know that the heavenly Jerusalem is populated by “innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Hebrews 12:23). Presumably they too have names that perhaps only God knows. In the Thomistic treatment of angels, given that angels are pure forms (not composed of matter and form or genus and species, like embodied creatures), each angel is his own species. Each elect angel is known and loved by God and does his holy bidding on behalf of God’s people.
In my experience, many evangelical Protestants have an impoverished view of the angels. Reacting to excesses and speculations on the part of some Roman Catholics and charismatics, evangelicals often swing the pendulum the other way. We take the other extreme that C.S. Lewis describes with reference to the demonic realm: rather than an unhealthy fascination, we end up thinking of the angels not at all.
Why should we care about and study the angels? Let me provide four brief reasons.
1. It Is a Delight
So why should we study the doctrine of angels and demons? For starters, it is difficult to improve upon the answer given by the Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft: because it is fun! Maybe fun is not the best word. Kreeft also writes this: Believing in angels “feeds the feeling of wonder, fascination, curiosity.” So, one reason we should study this doctrine is the pure delight it can bring. Studying this wondrous, imagination-stoking aspect of God’s creation is not just a means to some other end. In one sense, it is an end in itself.
2. It is Biblical
A second, more fundamental, reason we should study angels is that they exist. And we know that they exist because, the Bible has quite a lot to say about them. Angels and demons show up in every genre of literature and in every phase of the unfolding biblical storyline. They are present at creation, at the fall, in every era of redemptive history, and at the final judgment and end of the age. Angels are especially prominent in and around the climactic event of the Bible: the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, to the degree that we are care about the Bible, and its central Figure, we will care about angels.
3. It Is Theologically Beneficial
Third, we should study the doctrine of angels and demons because it is theologically beneficial. So much of the history of Christian doctrine has been concerned with angelogy. The church fathers, especially Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius wrote extensively about the angels. The medieval theologians were especially interested in the topic. Thomas Aquinas is often referred to as the “Angelic Doctor,” not only because of his eloquent expression of Christian truth but also because he spent so much space in his writings on the angels. Similarly, Bonaventure has received the moniker the “Seraphic Doctor.” Likewise, the Reformers and their theological heirs have been careful to address angels as an important part of the doctrine of creation. It may not be a stretch to say that Martin Luther was rather obsessed with the supernatural, often speaking directly to the devil (often in colorful language). Furthermore, studying this doctrine impinges upon every other doctrine in the system of Christian belief. Just as angels show up in every phase of the biblical story, so too they show up in every topic of Christian theology: everything from creation and providence to Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. So, to the degree that we care about Christian doctrine, we should care about angels.
4. It Is Practically Beneficial
A final reason we should care about angels and demons is that this doctrine is practically beneficial to the Christian life. Many Christians never think about the angelic realm, and, quite frankly, they do not know what they are missing. Studying angels and demons enriches our worship, our prayers, our battle against sin, our thanksgiving for the saving work of the Triune God, and our hope in the future redemption. It is not just that this doctrine equips us for spiritual warfare, though it certainly does that. But this doctrine also equips us to know and love God, which is the ultimate end of all theological reflection. The Western world has become demystified, and one of the most countercultural and spiritually beneficial things we can do is to recover the wonder.
For what it’s worth, I am contracted to write a book that will be a lay-level introduction to the doctrine of angels and demons. It has been on the back burner for a bit, while I finish up another book (co-authored with Matt Emerson) on the Trinity. But stay tuned for more on the angels!
 Peter Kreeft, Angels (and Demons): What Do We Really Know about Them? (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), 38.
Rod Dreher has a scathing and important review of the new book by Andrew Isker, The Boniface Option, which riffs on Dreher’s own 2017 title, The Benedict Option. I have read the latter, but not the former. So, I’ll leave it to others to determine how accurate the review is. But Dreher’s piece is important in its own right as a diagnosis of a broader phenomenon, namely, the very online angry young men who are so attracted to the Christian Nationalist cause. Here are a few relevant lines from Rod’s post:
Isker is “not interested in thinking and conversing, but only emoting and getting high-fives from church bros for owning the libs. I can’t emphasize this enough: The Boniface Option is a book for angry young men who enjoy being angry, young, and male.”
“Again, every page of The Boniface Option bristles with intense anger. Over and over, Isker says that we must train ourselves to ‘hate’ — but he offers no advice on how to keep that hatred of evil from turning into hatred of human beings, or the hatred from poisoning one’s heart. One gets the clear impression that he thinks hatred in defense of holiness is no vice.”
“In the end, I know very well what Andrew Isker hates, but I have no idea what he loves. I know what he thinks war should be like, but I can’t figure out what peace is to him, other than the vanquishing of his enemies. I know what his idea of justice looks like, but I can’t see even the slightest hint that mercy matters to him.”
Again, these are problems that are broader than any one author or book. The Christian Nationalist Right, or whatever we want to call it, has a Christian virtue problem. They revel in transgression–in hate and name-calling, not to mention the often overt anti-semitism and racism–and call it courage and faithfulness.
What use is Christian Nationalism if it isn’t even Christian in any demonstrable sense of the term?
Incidentally I’m reading Benedict XVI’s final writings, and it’s striking how different his perspective is from the Protestant Nationalist/Catholic Integralist tendencies that are so en vogue in certain corners of the Christian internet. Ratzinger, of course, knew the problems of modern liberalism well. And he, too, was concerned that Christians stand strong against the cultural pressures–like the Maccabean words of defiance, “We will not obey the king’s words.” But the “zeal” of the Maccabeans “is not the form in which Christian zeal is expressed. Authentic ‘zeal’ takes its essential form from the Cross of Jesus Christ.”
Christian responses to what Ratzinger often called the “dictatorship of relativism” must be, well, Christian, which is to say, they must be cruciform. More Ratzinger:
“As far as the truth is concerned, I would simply like to defer to Origen: ‘Christ wins no victory over someone who is unwilling. He conquers only by persuasion. Not for nothing is he the Word of God.’ But at the end, as an authentic counterbalance to all forms of intolerance, stands Jesus Christ crucified. The victory of faith can always be achieved only in communion with Jesus Crucified. The theology of the Cross is the Christian response to the question about freedom and violence; and in fact, even historically, Christianity won its victories only thanks to the persecuted and never when it sided with the persecutors.”
I’m not on Twitter anymore. So, mercifully, I don’t see the daily crazy. But it came to my attention this week that a group of posters associated with the Christian Nationalist right were on there feigning ignorance of and then questioning the “narrative” about the lynching of Emmett Till. Apparently, we can’t acknowledge one of the most well-documented cases of racist terrorism in American history simply because it is a part of the “official narrative” of “the left.” The brutal disfigurement, mutilation, and murder of a 14-year-old boy, which was racially motivated by his murderers’ own admission, may have not been “wholly unprovoked, or as thoroughly driven by racism as is claimed.” This vile and tribalistic thinking betrays a profoundly relativistic mindset that is more concerned with posturing in the contemporary political landscape than it is with the truth or with Christian morality. Flagrantly racist attitudes are now treated as merely different “opinions on race.” And it appears to be a part of a growing trend on the so-called dissident right to cozy up to anti-Semitic and overtly white supremacist voices. One of the leaders in this movement suggested to me on Twitter a couple years ago that genetic inferiority is as likely an explanation for racial disparities in America as any lingering effects of systemic racism. The ethnic dimension to the rising ethno-nationalism on the right is becoming more transparent. The mask is coming off.
It is easy to get angry about all of this. And to be sure, righteous indignation is appropriate. But I would suggest the leavening of another emotion: pity. I genuinely pity those who still find a perverted solace in the myth of racial superiority and the hardened path of racial division. I feel sorry for those who are so blinded by a “no enemies to the right” way of thinking that they have departed so disastrously from the way of Christ, where “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
There is a reason why we included an article on racial unity in our Manifesto for Evangelical Baptist Catholicity. Racist attitudes and expressions even within the church aren’t making a comeback. Sadly, they never went away. In the Manifesto, we write,
We affirm that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, are created in God’s image and, if they have repented and believed in Christ, are brothers and sisters together in the one body of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Because of this shared imago dei and because of Christ’s saving work among all nations, peoples, and tongues, we believe that one major task of Baptist catholicity is to promote racial unity, especially within the body of Christ.
The last several years have put a major strain on efforts toward racial reconciliation within evangelical and Baptist circles. We are at a point now where things that almost everyone agreed on a decade ago—about the need for empathy, the acknowledgement of past wrongs (and their lingering effects), and the pursuit of racial diversity in the body of Christ—are dismissed as “critical race theory” or “cultural Marxism.” Few have the courage to poke their heads up in favor of racial reconciliation in this landscape. This too is pitiable.
For Southern Baptists, it would be a good time to revisit our Resolution on Racial Reconciliation on the 150th Anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention. Again, it says things that would get you run out of town as an allegedly CRT proponent today. It spoke of both conscious and unconscious racism and of both individual and “systemic racism.” It apologized and repented for our racist past. It sought forgiveness and healing. It made commitments to eradicate racism from our midst. And it anchored all of it in the Great Commission that our Lord solemnly gave to the church to make disciples of every tribe, tongue, and nation. We should pursue racial justice, unity, and reconciliation not because they map onto any left-right analysis of contemporary American politics, but because they are demanded by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rediscovering and making good on these resolutions is the only possible path for a Baptist future blessed by the Savior of the world.
Myk Habets and I have recently published a book with Lexham Press on how the theology of T. F. Torrance interfaces with evangelical theology. Lexham interviewed Myk and I about the book here. One of Myk’s comments sums up well why you should be interested in the book and in Torrance’s theology more generally:
At the heart of Torrance’s theology is the conviction, from Scripture and the tradition, that Jesus is the exclusive two-fold movement from God to humanity and humanity to God. Christ is our High Priest, Mediator, Savior, Model, and King. What Evangelical would disagree with that! But, Torrance goes further and takes this as seriously as anyone in the Tradition, and argues for the vicarious humanity and ministry of Christ. This is something that is fundamental to the Gospel and yet subtly eclipsed in much modern Evangelicalism. This book is an attempt to in part, correct this. To do this, a clear and compelling doctrine of the Trinity is required, a mature and faithful commitment to the authority of Scripture is needed, and from there, everything else will flow. This book is a partial contribution to the renewal of Evangelical thought and practice today.
One my favorite British Baptist theologians, Steve Holmes, has written a reflection on the Coronation liturgy of King Charles. It’s straight Baptist fire. His concerns center on the Baptist conviction, beautifully expressed in the First London Baptist Confession of Faith, that Christ alone is the true Prophet-Priest-King of the New Covenant people of God. As Holmes explains, this doctrine of Christ’s threefold office (munus triplex) had important precedents in earlier Christian history, but it takes on a particular force in Baptist theology:
Thomas Aquinas presents the doctrine like this; Calvin starts to use it as an organising principle for narrating the work of Christ. The expansion of its range amongst the English Separatists and Baptists is extensive and perhaps surprising. It is also dependent on a further claim that King Jesus does not delegate any of these offices: he is our great high priest, so there is no need for any human priesthood; he alone is the true prophet, and so we look for truth nowhere other than his word; he alone is king, and so no-one else may presume to command any congregation of his people.
Now, both the expansion of the scope of the offices and this point about the lack of delegation are contestable, of course, and so other theological constructions than a Baptist one are possible. But the instinctive Baptist fear/complaint/demand is always that some human authority is trying to muscle in on a role that belongs to Christ alone.
British Baptists have not, generally, been anti-monarchy: there is a temporal realm, that requires governing, and a monarchy is a possible way to do that. The seventeenth-century English Baptists, even when persecuted, did not stop declaring their loyalty to the crown—but they thought that, in imposing forms of worship and doctrine, the crown had badly over-reached its authority, and was trying to govern where Jesus alone can reign.
Read the whole thing. If the coronation represents an expression of “Christian nationalism” or whatever you want to call it, the Baptist complaint against it not just that it’s a relatively empty symbol in a nation even more secular and progressive than the United States. No, even if the ceremony had more teeth–especially if it had more teeth–the problems are systemic, on a Baptist reckoning. No king or government should pretend to usurp the place that belongs to Jesus alone as the King of the Church and Lord of the conscience.
To prevent mistakes, however, it is proper to observe that the patriotism required of us is not that love of our country which clashes with universal benevolence, or which seeks its prosperity at the expense of the general happiness of mankind. Such was the patriotism of Greece and Rome; and such is that of all others where Christian principle is not allowed to direct it. Such, I am ashamed to say, is that with which some have advocated the cause of negro slavery. It is necessary, forsooth, to the wealth of this country! No; if my country cannot prosper but at the expense of justice, humanity, and the happiness of mankind, let it be unprosperous! But this is not the case. Righteousness will be found to exalt a nation, and so to be true wisdom. The prosperity which we are directed to seek in behalf of our country involves no ill to any one, except to those who shall attempt its overthrow. Let those who fear not God, nor regard man, engage in schemes of aggrandizement, and let sordid parasites pray for their success. Our concern is to cultivate that patriotism which harmonizes with good-will to men. O my country, I will lament thy faults! Yet, with all thy faults, I will seek thy good; not only as a Briton, but as a Christian: “for my brethren and companions sakes, I will say, Peace be within thee: because of the house of the Lord my God, I will seek thy good!”
Among the many biblical, theological, and historical reasons the earliest Baptists gave for religious liberty, is one that is sometimes forgotten or neglected, namely, evangelism. It’s not a stand alone argument. The biblical-theological, covenantal case has to be made. The regulative principles of the New Testament must be exegeted. The freedom and dignity of the human person must be defended. But among those other reasons, Baptists can also appeal to the free proclamation of the gospel as an additional rationale for religious liberty.
It is remarkable that some of the earliest Baptists argued for religious liberty, not only for themselves and their fellow Protestant dissenters, but even for other religions. Thomas Helwys’ famous lines from The Mystery of Iniquity (1612) are always worth repeating: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” Part of Helwys’ argument is that true obedience to God must be “spiritual obedience,” that is, willing obedience to Jesus, free from governmental compulsion. In other words, if you want non-Christians to be truly saved, religious liberty must be granted to them.
Roger Williams, whose influence on Baptists in the New World outlasted his own brief tenure as a part of a Baptist church, made a similar argument in The Bloody Tenent of Persecution (1644). Williams appeals to Paul’s imperative that meekness and gentleness be shown to “all” in the hopes that God might grant them repentance and salvation (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Williams applies this call to universal patience to the various religious opinions in society: Jews, “Turks” (=Muslims), “Antichristians” (those who preach a false Christ), and pagans. Williams asks his readers to remember their own former spiritual blindness and the mercy extended to them in the Lord Jesus. He concludes, “And to all these sorts–Jews, Turks, Antichristians, pagans–when they oppose the light presented to them, in sense of [the soul’s] own former opposition and that God peradventure may at last give repentance, I add [that] such a soul will not only be patient, but earnestly and constantly pray for all sorts of men, that out of them God’s elect may be called to the fellowship of Christ Jesus. And lastly not only to pray but also to endeavor (to its utmost ability) their participation of the same grace and mercy.” Religious liberty, not religious persecution, is the conclusion of those sensible to God’s sovereign grace in their own lives.
Many Baptists since have understood the evangelistic and missionary benefits of religious liberty. The Baptist insistence on “a free church in a free state” is motivated, in part, by this evangelistic impulse: “the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power” (Baptist Faith & Message, 2000). That doesn’t mean religious liberty has no limits. As the BF&M says elsewhere, “Freedom in any orderly relationship of human life is always limited and never absolute.” When religious liberty brings physical or moral harm, it may be limited in a principled and carefully qualified way. But otherwise, men must be free to reject, if they are to be truly free to accept, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the church must be free to share and to persuade but never to compel or to coerce. Religious liberty, in this understanding, is an evangelistic stewardship as much as an enumerated right.