Baptists In The Wilderness

Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition, by Paul M. Harrison (Princeton University Press, 1959, 248 pp., $5), is reviewed by Carl F. H. Henry, Editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY and one-time Professor of Systematic Theology at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.

This is a bold, provocative book. If it does not explode with atomic fury among Baptists—especially in the American Baptist Convention—we may assume that Baptists no longer cherish their denominational distinctives.

The author’s analysis of Convention power blocs yields must reading for every Baptist minister and lay leader, and for every Baptist seminarian. This book (fruit of a doctoral study at Yale) ought to be discussed at congregational meetings, urged on delegates to Baptist assemblies, and evaluated openly on the convention floor. For Baptists must now either reaffirm and reapply their historic distinctives, or they may lose their identity as Baptists.

Dr. Harrison demonstrates that denominational patterns and power structures in principle compromise the classic Baptist emphasis on the “autonomy of the local church” and in practice repudiate it. His documentation will grieve many hopeful Baptists, even if it does not totally surprise them. Baptist leaders maintain the semblance of democratic polity (p. 192), he contends, but “the original function of the Convention—to serve the churches and help them achieve their common goals—has been drastically altered. The preservation of the organization and program has now become an ultimate purpose of the denomination” (p. 206).

This predicament faces Baptists with two options: 1. A recovery of Baptist distinctives (which apparently disinterests Dr. Harrison); or, 2. gradual loss of the ...

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