Mullins, Edgar Young. The Axioms of Religion: A New Interpretation of the Baptist Faith (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1908)
Edgar Young (“E.Y.”) Mullins was born in Franklin County, Mississippi in 1860. From 1899 to 1928 he served as the fourth president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Mullins is remembered for leading Southern Baptists through some of the most tumultuous decades of American religious history. He was a Baptist statesman, theologian, and educator. As a student at Southern Seminary, Mullins was profoundly shaped by the thought and leadership of James Boyce, the first president of Southern. Mullins’ other works include The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression (1917), Why is Christianity True? (1905), and Baptist Beliefs (1912).
Mullins was also the denominationalist. In chapter one he reminds the reader, “Since the Reformation denominationalism has been the characteristic expression of Christianity on its ecclesiastical side.” (12) Mullins recognizes that the right of private judgment has led to a great variety in the interpretation of the New Testament. For him, “The progress of events and the conditions of Christian work are the best interpreters of Scripture.” (13) Through time and effort, we gradually unfold our exegesis. Mullins identifies the truly safe leader to be one who navigates between extremes of traditionalism and progressivism. Any permanent “union” of these parties begins by first training the conscience in the truth. As to social service and the church, a Christianity that is indifferent to the former is at loggerheads with Christ’s commands. Ever the statesman, Mullins pens the beginning of his Axioms as a recognition of the best of each side of the theological aisle. Nevertheless, the author concedes “that controversy is a duty when circumstances demand it and truth is in peril.” (18) The spirit of the anti-institutional age is contrary to this notion. Still, the church lies in need of a “cohesive principle.”
All church problems, at their heart, are problems of “spiritual temperature.” One of the most relevant questions facing Baptists is one of money: how shall wealth be drawn into the service of God’s kingdom? The Spirit of God should compel Baptist unity. Mullins then dives into the issue of polity, which should be grounded in the authority of Scripture. Polity for Mullins is not a strictly “political” discussion, but rather “the kingdom of God brings to us a personal as distinguished from a positive religion.” (28) This begins with faith. Moreover, this relational kingdom finds emphasis in the divine personality and love, or the Fatherhood of God. It is also a kingdom of revelation and redemption.
The Gospel, or the word of God, becomes personalized in the human agent of redemption. Mullins describes this as the man who “incarnates the word.” (32) Christ, therefore, is the object of the soul’s trust, and sanctification is the progressive apprehension of the grace which came when that soul was regenerated. For Mullins, the kingdom precedes the church in order of time. Its laws give form to the church, and there are seven according to Mullins: law of salvation, worship, filial service, liberty, Interdependence and Brotherhood, Edification, and Holiness. The consistent record of Baptists include the freedom of the soul, separation of Church and State, believer’s baptism, and a regenerate church-membership. Mullins contends that the principle of soul freedom/separation of Church and State “seems to have been a divinely given prophetic insight into the meaning of the gospel and the implicit teaching of Scripture.” (47) The historical axioms of Baptist history, according to the author, are simply the expression of the universal elements of Christianity.
In total, Mullins identifies Baptists’ historical significance in one sufficient statement: the competency of the soul in religion. (53) This denotes a competency under God, not self-sufficiency. Baptists do not defend cold individualism, but rather the capacity for action on the part of the sinner. Therefore democracy in church government is an “inevitable corollary” to this doctrine: “The priesthood of all believers, again, is but the expression of the soul’s competency on the Godward.” (56) This is the “right” of private interpretation and obedience to the Scriptures. As a result, Mullins believes paedobaptism strips the child of their privilege of individual initiative in salvation. The competency of man in religion is the competency of men everywhere. Politics and government and the social institutions assume man’s moral competency.
According to Mullins, “the plea of Baptists is a plea for the religious rights of mankind.” (76) Therefore the author rejects the notion that Baptists are a sectarian-minded people. Chapter six begins with the premise that the holy and loving God has the right to be sovereign. This has been a stumbling block for many, but they do not understand that sovereignty is not at odds with God’s love: “character vindicates sovereignty.” (80) For example, the incarnation is the greatest expression of God’s sovereignty.
His holiness is found in his refusal to violate man’s moral nature. There is a likeness between man and God through the divine image. This is based upon the principle of the soul’s competency. Therefore there can be no special classes in religion. Mullins asserts a “principle of individualism in religion.” (91) As Christ is the mediator between God and man, man’s religious life is sustained through Christ. Each man examines His revelation for himself, answering directly to God in faith. All souls have an equal right to direct access to God.
The threefold plea of the Reformers was the supremacy of the Scriptures, justification by faith, and the priesthood of all believers. Luther himself resisted the Catholic doctrine of sacramental efficacy without faith. Interestingly, Mullins believes it “probable” that infant baptism was practiced in the New Testament church. However, Mullins opines, “There is no possible mode of conceiving or defining the church which shall include infants and adults without introducing fundamentally contradictory views.” (124) The church is a brotherhood. There is a twofold relationship in the church: one to Christ and the other amongst brethren. Church polity is in some sense a union of absolute monarchy and pure democracy. Mullins cites the event at Pentecost and the drawing of individuals to form a Spirit-knitted church body. Even Luther himself, says Mullins, acknowledged that the real church and real authority is the local congregation. As to creeds, Mullins posits that they are “useful as interpretations of Scripture at any particular period but so soon as they come binding they become divisive.” (143)
The Gospel message is never forced upon the will. Mullins insists that Jesus taught the moral freedom of man. The author defines freedom, in all spheres, as “self-determination.” (153) Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. God respects the will by making use of persuasion. In his polemic against infant baptism, Mullins opines that the distinction between church and the family, natural and spiritual heredity, must be maintained. He recognizes that “the principle of Erastianism has for a long time exerted a powerful influence over English thinking on the subject.” (190) However, Mullins acknowledges that the functions of Church and State are quite distinct. This is why he supports tax-exempt status for churches. According to Mullins, to impose a tax is to assert sovereignty.
Christian civilization has affirmed the worth of the individual as well as that man is a social being. For this reason, Mullins affirms, “We are disloyal to Christ so long as we regard the political or commercial world as a foreign country to the Christian.” (208) Jesus cannot be claimed as a special portion for just one social cause, but rather he is the truth in all of them. Baptists oppose the Church state as well as the State Church. Instead, Baptists rely upon the principle of voluntary co-operation. Centralized government, therefore, is an inherent contradiction. According to Mullins, “Papal infallibility is the inevitable logic of all forms of religious authority.” (215) Mullins also takes note of the remarkable unity amongst Baptist in spite of their freedom and individualism. The author insists that Baptists achieve all their results in general organization on the “principle of federation – that is to say, on the voluntary principle.” (226)
Therefore the Lambeth articles are insufficient in their endorsement of episcopacy. According to Mullins, “God’s fatherhood and human brotherhood are the core of Christianity – the glowing heart within.” (235) The church is a spiritual society, held together through a common faith in Christ. Mullins contends that “open membership policies in Baptist churches are a “two-edged sword.” Contrary to what some say, liberty is not impugned simply by requiring baptism of those who wish to enter the church.
According to Mullins, civilization is undergirded by the face that political and religious life both travel on parallel roads. There is parity in some sense. Hence there must be some delineation of a spiritual society. Mullins insists, “We hold to a regenerated church-membership because thus only can the church become a spiritual organism progressing by growth under God’s Spirit, instead of a human mechanism progressing by accretion under man’s manipulation.” (261) Therefore church polity must be so organized as not to disturb “anybody’s peace.” Mullins goes so far as to state, “Baptists gave to American civilization the complete idea of liberty.” (266) Baptists have furnished the “spiritual analogues” of the entire American political system. Society as God envisioned is a moral fellowship of persons. This crosses into the business and political realms as well!
Mullins presents evangelism as a striking illustration of the Baptist doctrine of soul competency in the things of religion. He goes on, “The incarnation is God’s self-revelation as a person; the atonement is his provision for human sin.” (281) Evangelism, therefore, is a “central force” in all modern civilization, because the freedom which religion gives is the only inclusive freedom. Mullins’ view of education is imbued with the concept of freedom as well: “the educational process culminates in the axioms of religion. The right of the child to its individuality in education, to direct access to God, its equality of privilege in the schoolroom with all other children, its freedom and responsibility, its self-activity” are Froebel’s fundamental principles. (299) Their counterparts in religion is that for which Mullins is contending. Mullins avers against socialism and its dangers. In the end, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is fit to lead the progress of human civilization, and this is precisely what Mullins believes as a democratic Baptist.