Frontier in Baptist Ethics History: A Panel

By Tillman, William M., Jr.; Owens, Estelle et al. | Baptist History and Heritage, Summer-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Frontier in Baptist Ethics History: A Panel


Tillman, William M., Jr., Owens, Estelle, Stricklin, David, Baptist History and Heritage


In the twentieth century, T. B. Maston, Henlee Barnette, Bill Marshall, and Martin England courageously spoke out against racism, social injustice, and the misuse of power. The following articles highlight the work of these four Baptist pioneers in ethics.

Barnette and Maston: We Need Them More Than Ever

William M. Tillman Jr.

Frederick Jackson Turner's seminal essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" built off the thesis that the American frontier had closed. (1) Indeed, no more new lands remained to explore. His attention was scant toward intellectual frontiers and essentially ignored theological frontiers. Turner's larger observations are helpful for setting a context for the matters that follow: the theological and specifically ethical frontiers.

With Turner's American frontier, scouts moved ahead of the general population. These individuals learned the topography and trails. They could look at a vista and diagnose how to traverse it and beyond. They were sought for counsel as to the timing for a party's movement. They engaged life circumstances in such courageous ways as to awe modern-day persons. (2)

With this paper's title, "Barnette and Maston: We Need Them More than Ever," I submit to you that Henlee Barnette and T. B. Maston have served as scouts in the Baptist theological and ethical landscape. They have been pioneers. They beat out the pathways for Baptist Christian ethics. They have served as interpreters of the gospel and its engagement with the culture. But, we need them, or their kind, more than ever, because, as a friend has insightfully observed: "The pathways grow over. The frontiers reappear with each succeeding generation."

The real theme of this presentation is, Where do we go from here? Emphases in Christian ethics are on the wane. (3) Fewer people give emphases to the discipline, especially among Baptists. (4) Recently, a slight furor was created when the statement was made that no one in the Maston tradition was going to be needed at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the Christian ethics department. (5) The sentiment is, no doubt, in place in the other six Southern Baptist seminaries with regard to Barnette, Glen Stassen, Paul Simmons, Thomas Bland, Glen Saul, John Howell, Bob Adams, and Furman Hewitt, to name a few others.

Is it possible that delineating some of Barnette's and Maston's attributes could help identify what we are needing? Consider some of those attributes with me.

Identifiers of Ethical Topography

Both Barnette and Maston understood that the pathways can grow back over even though the basic landscape remains the same. Issues of money, sex, and power, which cover the landscape, are ever with us. Yet, Barnette and Maston pointed us to the fact that human nature is such that ethical matters have to be revisited. Our sense of ethical direction has to be retuned and resharpened from time to time. (6)

Barnette's and Maston's calls for revisiting our values took some basic shapes. These shapes were on the same track. Barnette's catch phrase has been contextual "principled-agapism." By this he meant that our life's actions are to form around the sense of the whole context in which we live, based on principles or compass directions and not a detailed roadmap, and that our life's actions are to will the well being of the whole creation, our relationship to God, relationship to others, and to ourselves. (7)

One of Maston's concise demarcations is that of the ethic of the cross. He asked, "What does it mean in a more specific way for one to take up a cross? ... A cross is something on which one dies. It involves for the Christian the crucifixion of self with selfish ambitions and purposes." (8)

Maston presented another dimension he shared with Barnette, a sense of the personal and social dimensions of the gospel. Maston noted:

   The spirit symbolized by the cross is to be applied personally by
   the Christian. … 

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