The Formation of Christian Doctrine. By Malcolm B. Yarnell III. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2007. xx + 218 pages. Softcover, $19.99.
Reading Malcolm Yarnell’s The Formation of Christian Doctrine reminded me of recent journeys to the Alaskan wilderness. There I discovered the difficulty of attempting to carve new trails in the thickly forested areas where often only the paw of the bear had rested. Yarnell’s self-imposed assignment is no less difficult and is certainly hedged with more potential landmines, yet this brief volume of only 200 pages in the final analysis constitutes one of the most wide-ranging and thoughtful volumes that I have read in many years. The book will doubtless be helpful to many, but especially to those who are serious about doing theology in a free-church context. This book is essential for at least four reasons.
First, this brief tome is the most erudite and interesting volume that I have read in the last three years. Yarnell interacts helpfully with theologians of the patristic, reformation, modern, and contemporary eras with equal ease. He assesses Roman Catholic theologians both prior to and subsequent to Vatican II, responds to Orthodoxy, to the Magisterial Reformers, to liberal thinkers and neo-orthodox theologians and does so with remarkable even-handedness and insight. A case in point is his very helpful analysis of Oscar Cullmann, a theologian not often cited positively by conservative Southern Baptist theologians. However, Yarnell, while certainly not agreeing with Cullmann in some of his historical-critical conclusions, finds Cullmann’s critique of the enlightenment ethos to be quite serviceable in the hands of free-church thinkers. Likewise, he encounters Maurice Wiles, Joseph Ratzinger, Herman Bavinck, John Henry Newman, and a host of others, finding meaningful assistance and providing thought-provoking critique of all. At the same time, he brings to light the thinking of Pilgram Marpeck, Balthasar Hubmaier, and a host of other early Baptist and Anabaptist thinkers.
This leads to the second great contribution of the book. Those familiar with Baptist terrain know that contemporary Baptists have debated among themselves for years concerning their own origins. Do modern contemporary Baptists develop out of English Separatism, or do they have even earlier roots in the Radical Reformation of South Germany and Switzerland? Yarnell severs this Gordian Knot with one swipe of his rapier-sharp incisiveness, pointing out that an organic historical connection may be of interest to the historian. The more important feature is that the Anabaptists of South Germany and Switzerland, as well as the Baptists of England and contemporary Baptists, have all come to the same sorts of conclusions about the nature and interpretation of the New Testament. In that sense, contemporary Baptists have a great deal to learn from both of the groups and have sometimes learned those lessons well. By taking this approach to the problem, Yarnell may leave the historical enigma in place, but he certainly advances profitable theology and ecclesiology in a way that has most often been missed in the etiological discussion.
Third, the book is helpful because, unlike the Landmarkers among Baptists, Yarnell recognizes and clearly documents Baptist dependence upon others who have preceded them. He knows that the debates of the Christological Councils and the writings of the church fathers of the first five centuries provide valuable building blocks for the Baptist edifice. Even more so, he recognizes the affinities that Baptists have with Luther, Calvin, and the other Magisterial Reformers and asserts the intrinsic value of their relationship with all of these. But, on the other hand, unlike ecumenists among contemporary Baptists, Yarnell recognizes the unique contribution of Baptists and believes that those contributions are worth preserving. In the process of developing a prolegomena to theology and in developing the doctrines that Baptists hold dear, Yarnell believes that the English Baptists and the Anabaptists of the continent edged closer to the New Testament pattern than the Magisterial Reformers did and consistently applied many of the principles which the Magisterial Reformers did not succeed in maintaining consistently. In fact, the strategic importance of the book is that it represents one of the few attempts by a Baptist at providing a manual for the formation of Christian doctrine. Future development of these themes will have no other alternative except to take Yarnell’s substantive and seminal work into account.
Finally, the book is valuable in that while Yarnell definitely believes that the rich heritage of Baptists and Anabaptists are well worth preserving, this is not hagiographa of the Baptist movement. To the contrary, one of the most prominent rebukes to Baptists in the book concerns the very genesis of the Southern Baptist Convention and its support of slavery and that in direct contradistinction to one of the most cherished Baptist principles—namely, liberty of conscience. Citing David Walker, an African American Christian, Yarnell makes the point that no one is right about everything but that it is especially reprehensible when the most ardent advocates of the Great Commission violate the terms of that commission by embracing racism.
For these and many more reasons, this manual is important far beyond its slender girth. As I stated on the cover of the book, if you are a participant in the Baptist experiment, Malcolm Yarnell’s The Formation of Christian Doctrine is the most important book in the past fifty years. If you are not a Baptist, but maintain the slightest curiosity about why Baptists have charted a dissenting and exclusive, to say nothing of lonely, path, here is the tome that will not only answer your question but will also precipitate the thoughtful stroking of your academic beard. If I could prevail upon every pastor in Baptist life to read just one book, I would plead that is be this volume.
President, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary