The “Individualism” of Baptist Theology

A few months ago, Jason Farley made waves on the CrossPolitic podcast when he claimed that the evangelical church cannot deal with the problems of transhumanism because “we caused [these problems].” He further elaborated that transhumanism is “just the modern individualistic Christianity that says, ‘Let kids grow up a little bit and then they’ll choose their identity’—this is just that in a materialistic setting.” Even though he spoke in first-person plural language, he was clearly not attacking his own Presbyterian tradition. It’s the Baptists who claim regeneration must precede the sign of baptism. It’s the Baptists who have provided the world with this new definition of selfhood by insisting that their children repent and believe. The Baptists, therefore, “caused” transhumanism. Transhumanism, he says, is “just American Baptist theology secularized.”

Critique of this assertion could go any number of ways. Fundamentally, any sound historical work must recognize complexity. Historians understand that lines of causality are never straight. There has never been one single cause for any historical phenomenon. Historians keep studying topics covered by previous generations of historians because they understand that causality has yet to be exhausted. I’ve heard John Wilsey remind first-year history students many times, “History resists our efforts to simplify it.” Given the complexity of history, the attempt to draw a straight line of causation from Baptist theology to modern-day transhumanism is laughably naïve.

But I want to focus on something else. I want to draw attention to the way we use “individualism” today. The word is prevalent in the CrossPolitic conversation, but none of the participants ever define it. One of the speakers makes a reference to Carl Trueman’s brilliant book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. In that book, Trueman examines the complex social factors that have led to our culture’s new understanding of selfhood, one in which “it is increasingly easy to imagine that reality is something we can manipulate according to our own will and desires, and not something that we necessarily need to conform ourselves to or passively accept” (41).

According to Trueman, transhumanism becomes plausible when a culture comes to believe that reality conforms to the individual. Due to complex causes explored in Trueman’s book, many modern people believe that their own opinions and feelings determine reality. I can be whatever gender I feel like being. Why? Because I feel like it. Baptist theology has always affirmed an appropriate theological individualism while repudiating the kind of individualism that Trueman describes.

In fact, if you let me define “individualism,” I’m happy to own the label. Baptists believe, in the words of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, that “those who personally profess repentance toward God and faith in and obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ are the only proper subjects of [baptism]” (29:2). In other words, our rich tradition has long championed the view that God saves elect individuals upon individual faith and repentance and that those same individuals are the only appropriate candidates for receiving the sign of the New Covenant.

Was Jeremiah opening the door to transhumanism when he foretold of a coming “new covenant,” unlike the old covenant, in which all the individual members of the covenant community would “know” the Lord, “from the least of them to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)?

Was John the Baptist causing modern-day expressive individualism when he urged Israel to stop taking comfort in their ethnic heritage as “children of Abraham,” because the time had now arrived when God would require each individual tree to bear fruit (Luke 3:7-9)?

If such “individualism” is to blame for our modern predicament, what are we to make of Jesus’ continued calls to individuals? It seems the entire Christian movement was predicated on individuals who chose to break away from the bonds of family and tradition. The call to “hate” father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters to follow Jesus was a call for individuals to repudiate the collective because the collective was condemned.

That a certain individualism can be found in Christianity is not a new observation. The Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen once wrote that historic Christianity “rejects altogether any means of salvation which deals with men in a mass; it brings the individual face to face with his God. In that sense, it is true that Christianity is individualistic and not social” (Christianity and Liberalism, 158).

Blaming Baptist individualism (which I would argue is merely Christian individualism) for the expressive individualism behind transhumanism commits the fallacy of equivocation. These two “individualisms” are worlds apart. By insisting that each individual respond in faith to Christ, Baptists have historically called the world to submit to the objective reality of Christ’s Lordship. Reality does not bend to the will of the individual; the will of the individual must bend to the reality of the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Messiah. The baptism of the individual is the declaration that the individual is now joining the body of Christ in committing to live under the lordship of Christ. Baptism is not a case of chosen identity, but gifted identity.

Historically, Baptists have tempered this individualism with strong ecclesiology. While each person stands alone before God, each person does not live the Christian life alone. Regenerate individuals are baptized into the body of Christ. Baptist individualism is checked by emphasizing church membership, confessionalism, church discipline, and associationalism. If the Baptist tradition deserves critique on this issue, it’s because we have allowed cultural individualism to weaken these commitments. But that’s a topic for another day.

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