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Baptist Contribution to Understanding of Holy Spirit

Baptists, historically, are preoccupied more with Christology – doctrines concerning the nature and person of Christ – than with pneumatology – doctrines concerning the Holy Spirit.
“Baptists have emphasized the preeminence of the person and work of Christ, and … have largely undervalued or overlooked the Third Person,” according to William Brackney, professor of Christian thought and ethics at Acadia Divinity College and Acadia University in Canada.

Even when Spirit language is used by Baptists, often the preference is for terms such as the “Spirit of Christ” or the “Spirit of holiness.”

Brackney was presenting his paper, “Baptist Contributions to Theological Reflections on the Holy Spirit,” at the 8th Baptist International Conference on Theological Education (BICTE) in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, from June 28-30.

Making special reference to the United Kingdom and North America, Brackney asserted that Baptists “have been less creative and experimental in their development and articulation of a doctrine of the Holy Spirit” than other Christian groupings and traditions.

Baptists, he claimed, “are timid in the experience of the Holy Spirit and reluctant to define carefully the Spirit’s person and role outside the historic creeds and Protestant/evangelical confessional statements.”

Despite this, however, there have been notable formulations, statements, writings and declarations on the Holy Spirit by Baptists, beginning with John Smyth, a Baptist pioneer in the 17th century.

Brackney said that Smyth believed the true church to be that which “has been understood to be gathered by the Holy Spirit in Christ’s name. Such congregations are given spiritual gifts for ministry and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.”

Some early confessional statements by Baptists made reference to the Holy Spirit in Trinitarian formulations, following closely the Nicene Creed and affirmations by Anglicans, Puritans and Congregationalists.

“17th century Baptist confessions form a bedrock of collective doctrinal understanding of the Spirit,” Brackney said.

There was a flowering of “theological development among Baptists of the 18th century,” Brackney claimed.

This includes copious writings of Englishmen John Gill, whose “treatment of the Holy Spirit grew out of his discussions of the Trinity;” and Andrew Fuller, who “offered an instrumental conceptualization of the Holy Spirit not only to his own community, but to hundreds of Baptists in North America who read his work with authority for generations.”

The 19th century saw increased interest in the work and ministry of the Spirit by Baptist Christians in the United Kingdom and North America.

“The influence of revivalism, particularly in 19th century United Kingdom and North America, led to Baptist awareness of a need for an enlarged emphasis on the Spirit,” according to Brackney. Baptists also placed “much emphasis upon the work of the Holy Spirit in evangelism and missions.”

Among the noted influencers and shapers at this time were Adoniram Judson Gordon, William Newton Clarke, H. Wheeler Robinson and Walter Rauschenbusch – the latter a key figure in the social gospel movement that flourished in the U.S. during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Robinson’s contribution to the doctrine of the Spirit,” said Brackney, was “his view of the social dimensions of the work of the Spirit,” mirroring “the social gospel aspects of spirituality found in Walter Rauschenbusch.”

Even though in the first half of the 20th century “nothing new on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit emerged among Baptists,” Baptists nevertheless “kept an eye on the growing constituencies of Holiness theology and Pentecostalism,” said Brackney, who, over many years, has sat on a number of committees and commissions of the BWA.

In addition to the Holiness and Pentecostal movements, conservatism, fundamentalism “and the Cessationist School of dispensationalist hermeneutics began to have a remarkable influence upon Baptist understanding of the Holy Spirit.”

Cessationism holds the view that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues, prophetic utterances and faith healing, ceased being practiced early in Christian Church history. According to Cessationists, the focus of the Christian life “is to seek the ‘higher’ or more desirable gifts of faith, love, gentleness, etc.”

But some Baptists in North America have been open to the manifestation of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, many influenced by Clark Pinnock, whose “impact upon Evangelical Christianity and Baptists, in particular, cannot be overestimated.”

Brackney noted that “Pinnock’s influence has resulted in significant numbers of Baptists in North America being open to various angles of the charismatic movement. … He finds the Baptist disconnection of water baptism and Spirit Baptism inadequate, and likewise critiques his denominational family’s preoccupation with liturgical proprieties and Cessationist interpretations.”