Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Carroll. Ecclesia: The Church - A Book Review

Carroll, B. H. Ecclesia: The Church - Bible Class Lecture, February, 1903. The Baptist Distinctives Series, vol. 38. Louisville: 1903. Reprint, Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 2006. 174 pp. $17.19.

A Texas native and a Civil War soldier, at first with the Texas Rangers and then in the regular army, B. H. Carroll is better known for his pastoring of First Baptist Church, Waco, his organizing of Baylor Theological Seminary in 1904, and the founding of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1908. At the latter, he served as the first president until his death in Fort Worth, on November 11, 1914. Carroll published thirty-three volumes during his life, including, among others: a thirteen volume commentary, several books of sermons, and this collection of class notes on the church (171-73).


This Baptist Distinctives Series re-publication of Ecclesia - The Church is comprised of the transcription of two of B. H. Carroll's 1903 lectures on the topic, three appendices, and a small biographical sketch of B. H. Carroll. In the first lecture, Carroll sets out six important divisive questions about the church which he intends to discuss, however he answers only one: what is the church? While he intends to answer the other five in the second lecture (32), he finds himself answering questions that arose from the first lecture in lecture two and relegating the answers to the other five questions to future class periods (72), which were not recorded in this volume. Since his answer to "What is the church?" is centered on the etymological meaning of the Greek word ecclesia, in between the two lectures, this volume produces Appendix No. 1, which contains examples, given by Carroll to his students, of the classical Greek usage of the word ecclesia, and the complete list of the Septuagint usage, Apochryphal usage, and New Testament usage of the word. Carroll's remarks on all these usages are also included in this appendix. Two other appendices follow these two lectures. Appendix No. 2 includes three sermons about Baptist distinctives: "Baptism in Water," "A Discussion of the Lord's Supper," and "Distinctive Baptist Principles." Appendix No. 3 is a short, one-page exhortation by John A. Broadus on why Baptists should win over protestants to Baptist Views.

Critical Evaluation

The heart of Carroll's argument is the etymological meaning of ecclesia. He denies that ecclesia could be used "in a new and sacred sense" and claims, therefore, that it must retain its ordinary meaning (34). He also warns his reader that, while illustrating by synonyms can be useful, defining by synonyms is dangerous (56). The "primary meaning" of ecclesia, according to Carroll, is "an organized assembly, whose members have been properly called out from private homes or business to attend to public affairs." This concept of assembly forces Carroll to create a dichotomy between the "particular assembly of Jesus Christ on earth" and "his general assembly in glory" (15-6). These, according to Carroll, are not and cannot be co-existent (critiquing the creeds, 24), for the nature of the membership of the general assembly forces it to be an assembly only "in prospect" (17). Nevertheless, "each particular assembly is a representation or type of the general assembly" (29). He accepts applying the "figures" for the church to both the particular and the general assembly, but he denies the use of them for the "particular assemblies collectively" (19).

It is commendable that Carroll included Appendix No. 1 "to enable the country preacher with few books, and who knows nothing of Greek, to form his own conclusion as to the meaning of ecclesia" (33). This speaks, not only of a heart who cares for learned and non-learned people alike, but also to his belief in the overwhelming evidence found in the usage of the word and in a lack of any attempt to hide any contrary evidence. Case in point of this last remark is his candid admission that the use of ecclesia in Acts 9:31 is difficult to explain (62). There are a few arguments from logic or from government which are not very convincing (i.e. argument from confusion, 30), but overall Carroll's argument is pretty tight and convincing if his primary assumption is valid.

As for Appendix No. 2, Carroll presents a very Baptist view of baptism, starting with the great commission and moving forward, systematically explaining the proper subject, the meaning, and the design of baptism. His only weakness here is his argumentation for baptism having to be performed by an officer, based on a parallel with secular government (83). Throughout this section of the appendix, one can tell that he was clearly dealing with many Presbyterian objections, answering them by: presenting a great parallel with the purification of priests (96-7), dealing with pedo-baptism and the baptism of unbelievers using John as an example (85), and addressing the wrong parallel of baptism and circumcision (99). Very appreciated is his reminder that baptism should not be approached lightly, as many apparently did then (95), and still do today. His section on the Lord's Supper is the transcription of a sermon dedicated to "truth-loving Pedo-Baptists," as a loving appeal to "their reason and love of justice" (107). For this reason, the majority of the section is directed toward the "Trojan horse" (136) of open communion. His arguments are well formulated, impassioned, but never get pugnacious or hostile in tone. A good summary of his main points is found on p. 139. The last section is a reprint of a sermon printed in Baptists and Their Doctrines and originally presented at the Pastor's conference in Dallas, TX, in 1903. Here he disclaims that Baptist are characterized by two doctrines (immersion is baptism and baptism is essential to salvation), and, after having corrected the misconceptions associated with these, he presents five areas of distinctive Baptist principles. These are presented in a logical flow: starting with Scripture, with a focus on the New Testament, moving on to the individual's responsibility with respect to God and his freedom of conscience, which is then followed by the understanding of salvation, and finally the understanding of the church. His well known imagery of circles and the river of baptism summarizes this whole concept, but overall is not very helpful.


In a fashion appreciated by an engineer, Carroll presents the data and his analysis of it as he teaches on the church. Unlike many who spend all their time discussing only the distinctives of the church, Carroll starts by seeking to understand the essence of the church and then deals with her distinctives. Any serious student of ecclesiology should read and be engaged with the ideas presented in this volume. In addition, Carroll's understanding of the church is crucial to understanding the view of the church held by some modern Baptist theologians who seek to be consistent with their Baptist traditions. If for no other reason, the reading of this book has great historical value, especially in an era when many Baptists seem to be enamored with Presbyterian ecclesiology.

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