The Formation of Christian Doctrine (Book Review)

In his book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, Malcolm B. Yarnell attempts to disclose how the formation of Christian doctrine developed from a theological foundation. Moreover, Yarnell aspires to reveal the free churches’ theological depth and their development of ecclesiology. The goal of this review is to provide a balanced analysis not only by critiquing some of the methods and themes articulated by the author, but emphasizing some of his strongest arguments in relation to his narrative.

Yarnell begins his quest for a theological foundation by revealing the historical shaping of dogma found in the competing historiographies.  He contends that the Anabaptist and Baptist, sometimes referred to as the free churches, have a historical link with water baptism, that is, only believers should be allowed to take place in the process. Beyond water baptism, there exists deep comprehensive truths which are used to characterize the Baptist and their theology. The Great Commission, for example, has been a central theme since the sixteenth century. However, when it comes to the process of salvation, the Anabaptist adhered to Christian orthodoxy, but they differed in the degree to which the “fruits of faith” should be expressed in a believer’s life. Yarnell explains, the Anabaptist believe that salvation starts with justification, continues through sanctification, and ends with glorification—Nachfolge.[1]

The Anabaptists applied this doctrine to the community. This, according to Yarnell, was their contribution to Christian history. This personal and communal discipleship was passed down to the Baptist who interpreted the Bible in the same way. He goes on to explain the theology of the Separatists, General Baptists, and Particular Baptists, all of whom fought for their beliefs. Also, all of which had a common fundamental belief that Christ promised to be with the church, a belief supported by Scripture. This was their practice in keeping with their personal relationship with Christ, where Christ was, His disciples desired to be. Their theology was found in His Word, the Bible, illuminated by the Spirit. The difference, with respect to adhering to their beliefs among the various Baptists groups, was that the General and Particular Baptists faced death, if convicted of heresy, making their convictions more dangerous to live by.[2]

The theological position held by the Baptists in the mid-seventeenth century turned political. Many publications suggested that they were on the verge of repeating the violent activities of Thomas Münster during the Peasant’s War of the early 1500’s. Thus, according to Yarnell, they adapted a language of anti-communism, obedience to the magistrate, and condemnation of polygamy, evident in their 1644 confession.[3] However, there are discrepancies within this narrative Yarnell attempts to construct between the confession, communism, and Münster that will be critiqued in the following section.

Critique of Chronology and Preservation Issues

When explaining the theological beliefs of various denominations, Yarnell attempted to show why the Baptists took care to deny “communism, disobedience [to the magistrate] or polygamy.” This was because these traits, according to Yarnell, were associated with Münster. The problem is their [the English Baptists] confession was written in 1644. In fact, this entire era that Yarnell is explaining took place in the mid-seventeenth century. How is it possible for the Baptists to deny an ideology (communism) that did not yet exist? Furthermore, Münster was not associated with communism, he led a peasant’s rebellion against the burdens of the lordship. He was against the feudal system and the harsh treatment by the lords.[4] Although, some historians argue he set up a type of communist system when he took over the Muhlhausen town council. Nevertheless, formal systematic communist ideology was non-existent until the 1800’s when Karl Marx introduced it into his political and economic ideology for society. This was when, according to Merriam-Webster, the word ‘communism” originated.[5]

Furthermore, Yarnell’s citation discloses that he did not use the Baptists’ confession to extract this information, he used Mark R. Bell’s publication Apocalypse How? Baptist Movements During the English Revolution, as the source for the information.[6] The line most relevant to the obedience of the magistrate, has nothing to do with anti-communism:

That a civil magistrate is an ordinance of God set up by God for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well; and that all lawful things commanded by them, subjection ought to be given by us in the Lord: and that we are to make supplication and prayer for Kings, and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a peaceable and quiet life in all godliness and honesty. (London Baptist Confession of 1644, XLVIII).[7]

Nowhere in the 1644 confession do the Baptists deny communism or even mention it. Moreover, the next citation Yarnell used was extracted from the 1644 confession, but the passages he chose have more to do with the origin of Christian theology, arguing it comes from God, not man, and nothing to do with ideology. This diminishes the scholarly expectations of the research. However, it does not do significant damage to the overall narrative the author is developing. 

The second critique has to do with the Southern Baptists’ beliefs concerning the Bible and inerrancy. Yarnell disclosed that the Southern Baptists’ position on inerrancy indicates they believed that the original manuscripts where perfectly accurate regarding history, science, and doctrine.[8]  Yarnell does an excellent job of articulating their position on sufficiency of Scripture, but fails to provide an adequate explanation regarding their position on the inspiration of Scripture, which is directly related to inerrancy. The study on inerrancy is important to Christian theology because it relates to the trustworthiness of the Bible. Inerrancy supports the claim that Scripture is the inspired Word of God. This is an important subject for Christian doctrine because, if the Bible is not shown to be fully truthful, the Christian view of inspiration would also be endangered. The position the Baptists take, which Yarnell used attempting to show a sound development of doctrine, has preservation issues. For example, why is it that God did not preserve His Word as it was recorded by scribes throughout history? Not dedicating more time to this subject damaged the narrative of providing a deep theological development regarding church doctrine. For this reason, the author should have further developed or explained the Baptists’ position on inerrancy, or perhaps why the term inerrancy is not sufficient for describing the Bible’s message. The term needs an explanation for the context in which it is used by most Christian scholars and theologians, rather than from the perspective of scientific exactness, from which the Bible appears to contain errors. Yarnell could have explained that these accusations would not extend into faith or the Christian message. The errors are inadvertent errors not an indication of falsehood; in matters of faith and salvation the Scriptures disclose perfect truth.[9] However, the Baptists may not believe this regarding Scripture. Perhaps, they believe the original manuscripts did not contain errors. If that is the case, Yarnell should have provided an explanation for the preservation issue.

Strongest Arguments

To provide a balanced approach of Yarnell’s narrative on how the formation of Christian doctrine developed from a theological foundation, this review now considers some of the author’s strengths.The Southern Baptists’ approach to Scripture also contains a doctrine of sufficiency, according to Yarnell. Although the Baptists’ position on inerrancy is not adequately explained, with respect to theological development, Yarnell thoroughly explained their position on sufficiency of Scripture. The Baptists identify the supremacy of Scripture as the authority in orthodox theology.[10] Thus, according to Yarnell, the Baptists believe that the Bible, the Word of God, is sufficient for salvation. Yarnell supported his argument with Scripture, creeds, and confessions often used by Baptists. This was an important development revealed by Yarnell that supports his overall narrative; perhaps, the most important theme in the formation of Christian doctrine.

Yarnell’s personal baptism story provided a strong supportive argument regarding the church’s position on water baptism, a theological tradition developed in the early stages of Christian doctrine. The questions asked by his pastor where evasive enough to provoke thought but not overwhelming (though convicting to the much younger Yarnell). By the time Yarnell’s baptism came he experienced what it meant to sin, the power of forgiveness, and the importance of believer’s baptism.[11]

Final Remarks

The narrative takes a modern worldview in terms of theological development when Yarnell used the three theologians to evaluate the theological foundations, to locate the believer’s church theological method within Christian thought. Specifically, when Wiles’ theology is revealed regarding inerrancy of Scripture, which may help explain the position the Baptists have continued to adhere to on the subject.[12] Yarnell had already demonstrated a theological foundation, but perhaps felt the need to use the three as examples to disclose Catholic, Anglican, and Reformed theological differences. Chapters three and four seemed more applicable to the alternatives regarding Christian doctrine and its formation. Nevertheless, Yarnell was able to demonstrate that, a true church may fail at times, but they must not become heretical. Moreover, God’s grace is sufficient for salvation and the Word of God is perfect. Although, a person’s interpretation of it must depend on the Spirit.[13]

Bibliography

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

Merriam-Webster, “Communism.” Dictionary. Last modified 2019, https://www.merriam-

             webster.com/dictionary/communism.

Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Early Modern Europe 1450-1789. Cambridge: Cambridge

            University Press, 2013.

Spurgeon Archive. “London Baptist Confession of Faith A.D. 1644.” Accessed April 17, 2019,

http://www.romans45.org/creeds/bc1644.htm.

Yarnell, Malcolm B. The Formation of Christian Doctrine. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing

            Group, 2007.


[1] Malcolm B. Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2007) 13-14.

[2] Ibid., 16-19.

[3] Ibid., 18-19.

[4]   Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe 1450-1789 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 175-176.

[5] “Communism,” Merriam-Webster, Dictionary, last modified 2019, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/communism.

[6]  Malcolm B. Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, 19.

[7] “London Baptist Confession of Faith A.D. 1644.” Spurgeon Archive, Accessed April 17, 2019, http://www.romans45.org/creeds/bc1644.htm.

[8] Malcolm B. Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, 25.

[9] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 194.

[10] Malcolm B. Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, 28.

[11] Ibid., 30-32.

[12] Ibid., 45.

[13] Ibid., 203.

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