Friday, November 6, 2009

White, Duesing, and Yarnell, eds. First Freedom - A book review

White, Thomas, Jason G. Duesing, and Malcom B. Yarnell III, eds. First Freedom. Nashville: B&H, 2007. 183 pp. $ 1.16.

This volume is a collection of papers presented at the first annual Baptist Distinctive Conference at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that took place in September of 2005. The title of the conference was “The First Freedom: A Conference on Religious Liberty,” and included papers from Emir Caner, Barrett Duke, Daniel Heimbach, Richard Land, Craig Mitchell, Russell Moore, Paige Patterson, Paul Pressler, Thomas White, and Malcolm Yarnell III. Each paper constitutes a different chapter in the book with topics covering theology, history, ethics, comparative religions, and jurisprudence.


As stated by co-editor Jason Duesing in the introduction, the book has mainly two purposes: “to provide an introductory look at the biblical and historical foundations of religious liberty,” and to remind “Baptists in the twenty-first century of the price that was paid by their forefathers for the establishment and defense of religious liberty” (4). Duesing also offers, in the introduction, a useful summary of each of the ten papers presented in this volume. I highly recommend it to anyone who quickly wants to determine the content of each chapter. Not wanting to repeat needlessly his effort, I will provide here a short summary of the book as whole, dealing with individual authors as needed, but not necessarily dealing with each individual paper. The structure of the book, as will be discussed in more detail in the critical evaluation, is of ten individual chapters, and while each chapter is a unit in itself, one can detect a flow, throughout the book as a whole, from theology to history to application. Duke and Patterson, therefore, begin the volume with a biblical analysis of the foundations of religious liberty. The concept of religious liberty is seen to stem from fundamental human rights, as seen in Scripture, and to be congruent with the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, “Christians embracing the exclusivity of Christ as the only saving and accurate expression of the true and living God are properly the most effective advocates of absolute religious liberty” (46). As Duke articulates it, for God “[t]o have designed humans to seek him and find him, and then to ordain an institution with the power of life and death to restrict them from this search, would be equivalent to creating people with a need for water and then not providing any water to drink” (22).

While all the authors offer some historical support for their positions, the chapters by White, Yarnell, and Land provide the historical background section for the volume. This volume, thus, presents a historical perspective of the ideas associated with religious liberty starting with the European Anabaptists, through the English Baptists, and crossing the pond to the American Baptists. The latter are reviewed from two different perspectives: the contributions made by some who were instrumental in the foundation of the Southern Baptist Convention and the contributions made in the founding and development of America. In the words of Basil Manly Sr., this rehearsal of history is meant to help “Baptists fulfill their duty by furnishing direction, imposing restraints, supplying powerful motives, and promoting perseverance” (91).

The volume then takes a turn to the applied, starting with a look at the interaction between natural law and religious liberty and its application to today’s social and political atmosphere. Following it, we find an explanation of the differences between religious liberty and religious autonomy with its application to politics. On its tail, we find an exposition of 1 Tim 2:1-10 with its implications on the American church, for our children and grandchildren “will find religious liberty ... not in the words of the Constitution or in the ‘natural rights’ of humanity, but by being hidden in Christ and living together in his body” (153). It is on a similar note that Caner subsequently optimistically approaches an analysis of the possibility of religious liberty in Islamic countries. He concludes in the affirmative, but warns the reader that “the road to freedom in countries that have been immersed in tyranny and theocracy for centuries can be a tough and long one” (168-69). The volume ends with an analysis of the current (2005) American political situation in which Pressler presents a good historical and logical understanding of the first amendment and an overview of some current efforts by believers not to allow the “national secular religion” (181) to deprive them of their, and others’, God-given right to religious liberty.

Critical Evaluation

The structure of the book presents the major plight of this volume. While the ordering of the chapters does present a somewhat flowing argument, each chapter is truly a unit in itself, not necessarily connecting with the previous or the following one. This allows each unit to be self-sufficient, but also results in several weaknesses. First, had this been a single work, the material could have been organized much more efficiently and effectively allowing for the volume to be more fluid. Second, had this been a single volume, there would not be so much repetition. Most of the authors, attempting to make their point, include some mention of history, especially Anabaptist history. Many of the same facts are therefore needlessly repeated by multiple authors; this is epitomized in the duplication of a quotation by Roger Williams by both Duke (20) and White (64). Third, one has to look at the whole work to gain an understanding of all the theological or all the historical arguments present in this volume, in a sense decreasing its usefulness as a research tool.

Given the number of theological writings which are purely philosophical or historical in nature, this volume’s detailed look at Scripture is a breath of fresh air. This being an introduction, many, but not all, Scriptural arguments were presented (for example, the justification for religious liberty from the perspective of the sovereignty of God was not investigated) and therefore only constitutes a good first source to start getting acquainted with the arguments or to start further research. Nevertheless, as an introduction it serves its purpose. From a Scriptural perspective, the only fusty aspect was found in Yarnell’s essay’s title, which promises theology, but really only delivers a historical evaluation of William Screven’s, Oliver Hart’s, and Richard Furman’s Political theology and how it impacted the Southern Baptist Convention. As interesting as it was, a detailed scriptural development of Political Theology would have been much more invigorating for the soul.

While, as mentioned above, the historical background could have been more effectively combined in one single section, its presence in this volume was also well appreciated. The sober reminder of the sacrifices paid by our Anabaptist and Baptist forefathers helps the reader to have a greater appreciation for his/her religious liberty, and it provides support for Caner’s thesis that change can happen even in Islamic states, where it seems unlikely, though change will be costly. The historical explication of the road to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the expounding of the intents of the founding fathers provided yet another sober reminder that while religious liberty for Christians might be counter cultural in today’s secularly dominated society, it is a basic right at the foundation of the American government and a way of life stemming from the faith of the masses who crossed the ocean in centuries past.


While this volume has much to commend it as an introduction to the topic of religious liberty, ultimately its greatest strength lies in the fact that throughout the volume, the reader is reminded that religious liberty stems from the Almighty, and therefore Christians, as His followers, are to “be courageous advocates of religious liberty, defined as the free marketplace of ideas,” for “we never have to fear such liberty because with the truthfulness of Scripture and witness of the Holy Spirit of God empowering that message, truth will always ultimately carry the day” (48).

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