An Anglican amongst serious Baptists
October 23, 2014
This week I've been enjoying the warm and friendly hospitality of THE Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. It's the biggest seminary in the world ever, with thousands of students. And it's well known that some of my best friends in the interdenominational Calvinist cohort are baptists.
The reason I've been in the USA for the first time (having previously only crossed the Atlantic to visit Texas) was the conference organised by the inimitable Michael Haykin to celebrate George Whitefield's 300th birthday. If it helps flog copies of my edition of Whitefield's sermons, then that's a boon for my employers who get all the royalties from it.
I was there to remind our American brethren that Whitefield was English, and an Anglican to boot. Imagine! Having previously been privileged to defend the honour of my beloved mother church amongst the ravaging wolves of nonconformity at Westminster, I was prepared for heckling. But apart from one question posed by a diffident fellow countryman (which I may have cheekily suggested contained more errors in it than words), I got away pretty lightly this time, considering.
Tommy Kidd gave a great account of Whitefield's Calvinism, and his new biography of Whitefield is this tercentennial year's must read publication on the great English, Anglican evangelist. Stephen Nichols said some things about Whitefield's friendship with the Wesley boys, and Whitefield came back from the dead in the form of a fiery, convicting sermon from Steve Lawson. Bruce Hindmarsh was eloquent on Whitefield's "melting", "dissolving" Spirituality (with a capital S), and Jerome Mahaffey helped us get into the politics of Whitefield - the George most beloved of pre-Revolutionary British America.
There were afternoon sessions by a range of superstars on aspects of Whitefieldiana, the women in his life, his biographers, his friends. David "quadrilateral" Bebbington gave a masterful lecture on Whitefield's legacy, and Esther Cruikshank got us to actually sing some hymns of the great awakening.
So it was a delight to be part of these conventicles, to chat with students keen on Reformed orthodoxy and evangelical theology, to encourage fellow Anglicans enduring the trials of life in The Episcopal Church (one of whom gave me a Stetson), and to enjoy the loud pop concert in chapel with a Tim Keller lookalike preacher and everything. I loved chatting to the gentle giant Tom Nettles, watching Ian Clary sip a girlie drink in an Irish pub, and being entertained by the humble Gary Steward, whose forthcoming book on old Princeton (P&R, imminently) is a serious, studious, stimulating summary of that grand tradition.
All over the Southern site there are banners declaring their earnestness. "We are serious about missions" says one; "we are serious about theology" says another (with the beaming face of Tom Schreiner reassuring us that this is true). The campus has a bookshop bigger than the library at Oak Hill. It has a swimming pool, several gyms, two chapels, and I had two TVs, a microwave, fridge, and coffee machine in my guest suite (WEST doesn't boast such luxury). In the President's Dining Room the conference speakers were treated to fabulous food with SBTS branded butter in our SBTS branded comfy chairs. Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and Ridley Hall, Cambridge can't match that. With iced tea though. Hmmmmm.
I didn't get immersed while I was there, and nor did I come home with a new suit or $650 fountain pen from the on-campus emporium (it had an 18 carat gold nib, they enthused; it would have to come with gallons of 18 carat gold ink before I spent that much on it, I assured them).
Maybe John Piper was right, and it would be too easy to get comfortable in such a splendid environment. Would it equip you to suffer for the gospel in ministry when you left? Would it encourage you into the obscure, hard places? I don't know.
Still, I praise God for these guys, whatever Mark Jones says about how some baptists effectively cast doubt on the salvation of people like Whitefield who were only baptised as infants. The faculty is superb. The students keen. May their serious tribe increase, and fill the world with a Whitefieldian passion for Christ.