Bill Leonard – Can I Get A Witness… Again?


The permanent transition that characterizes American religious life offers an opportunity to revisit the word “witness” and its meaning for the future.

This month Mercer University Press will release Can I Get a Witness?: Essays, Sermons and Reflections, a collection of materials that I have written during the last few years. Most are previously unpublished, except for a few excerpts from this Associated Baptist Press column of the same name.

As the 21st century muddles along, I continue to believe that the phrase “Can I get a witness?” — a rhetorical interrogative common to many African-American congregations — will sharpen our thinking about the current state of religion in American culture.

Indeed, the permanent transition that characterizes American religious life offers an opportunity to revisit the word “witness” and its meaning for the future.

For my 17th century Baptist forebears the idea of witness seemed inseparable from prophetic dissent from the state-privileged religious culture that denounced and harassed them as preaching a false gospel. Continue reading “Bill Leonard – Can I Get A Witness… Again?”

Bill Leonard – As One Unknown

Bill Leonard
Bill Leonard

These days, many postmoderns are discovering or rediscovering Jesus, what he says and what he means.

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake side, He came to those … who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (Albert Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus.)

“Since the Reformation, Protestant churches have generally interpreted Jesus through the Apostle Paul. Today, many postmodern Christians are learning to interpret Paul thorough Jesus.” (Tony Campolo, New Baptist Covenant convocation, 2012, paraphrased)

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” (African-American spiritual) Continue reading “Bill Leonard – As One Unknown”

Bill Leonard on Dangerous Lent

Bill Leonard

Bill Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University. I had the privilege of meeting him once in Bucharest, during a research conference, and I was impressed with his humility and his academic competence.

In the latest column he published on the ABP website, he deals with the topic of Lent, one that is usual for people belonging to the Baptist tradition, be that a non-fundamentalist one.

Bill writes:

In my Baptist upbringing we didn’t pay much attention to Lent. Ash Wednesday, for example, was just another prayer meeting night. Yet, we did not disregard the classic Christian struggles — repentance, confession, humility, mortality — that bubble up during the Lenten season.

Rather, they overtook us at seasonal revivals, when sinners saved and unsaved were called to conversion, repentance and renewal. People got saved “hard” at those revivals — “testifying” to all sorts of sins, omitted and committed, that had weighed them down and held grace at bay far too long.

It was not until I attended Texas Wesleyan University that Lent entered my liturgical radar, carrying me along that paradoxical path that winds through Golgotha to Good Friday. Continue reading “Bill Leonard on Dangerous Lent”

Bill Leonard – Rescuing Advent from Christmas


The modern “Christmas Season” is a cultural reality but has little to do with faith.

n 394 CE the Spanish nun Egeria visited Holy Land sites, participating in the church’s great liturgical moments from Epiphany to Easter. She kept a wonderful diary of her exploits that includes this experience in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.

A footnote in my copy of Egeria’s diary reports that toward the end of the 4th century, St. Jerome — who lived in a cave under the Church of the Nativity — complained that the “manger of sunbaked mud,” supposedly the original, was replaced by a silver one. Is that when Christmas started going downhill?

Reading Egeria after watching scenes from this year’s Black Friday rituals — mobs of people trampling, fighting, cussing each other — it dawned on me that this “Christmas season” we are a hell of a long way (theologically speaking) from “that little nook of the earth.”

So here’s a proposal for the postmodern church, toward dialogue if not implementation: Let’s give up on “the Christmas Season.” Continue reading “Bill Leonard – Rescuing Advent from Christmas”

Associated Baptist Press – Opinion: The Bible tells me. So?

Associated Baptist Press – Opinion: The Bible tells me. So?.

Here is how this though provoking article by Bill Leonard begins:

Everybody is quoting the Bible these days. In the church and the public square Bible-based rhetoric and mandates echo throughout the culture, often with varying, even contradictory, interpretations. Such convictions can be deep and culture transforming; they can also be mistaken, perhaps even dead wrong. The Bible may say it and we may believe it, but that doesn’t always settle it.

Christian history suggests as much. Lent, the season of reflection and repentance, offers opportunity for those of us who live in and out of the Bible to acknowledge that the church’s history is full of acts and imperatives thought to be grounded in Holy Scripture that led the church to make horrible mistakes. Reflecting on those errors, and their sinful ramifications (it is Lent after all); we might revisit our own claims to be “Bible-believing Christians.”

… and how it ends:

And what of us? While grateful that such destructive misuses of Scripture are no longer acceptable, we must ask ourselves: what texts are we using to promote practices for which later generations will call us to account?

For which of our “biblical defenses” will our children or grandchildren be compelled to repent? Good questions for reflection, perhaps even repentance, then and now. Lent, you know.

Bill Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University.

* * *

I would encourage you you to read it all. It is worth it.

Bill Leonard – Listening to Rob Bell

These days simply say the words “Rob Bell” where two or three are gathered together and you provoke immediate conversation, if not controversy.

Bell, a popular writer and founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., recently published the overnight bestseller Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and The Fate Of Every Person Who Ever Lived. When the publisher (HarperOne) first “leaked” news of Bell’s views on hell the debates began.

Hell, Bell believes, exists within and beyond this world, horribly painful, potentially redemptive; but not eternal. Both now and in “the end” God’s love prevails, as revealed, indeed personified, in Jesus of Nazareth. The God Jesus described and incarnated is ever moving “from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life.”  Continue reading “Bill Leonard – Listening to Rob Bell”

Bill Leonard on the Decline of Revivalism

Where have all the revivals gone?

By Bill Leonard
Thursday, February 17, 2011

Recent articles in Baptist periodicals cite “professional evangelists” who confess that their preaching schedules have been reduced considerably since “churches are just not holding revival meetings” as they once did. For many congregations the tradition of one-to-two-week revivals is long gone, replaced by a Sunday to Wednesday schedule if at all. One evangelist reported being asked to conduct a “one-day revival!” Another observer commented that “some churches believe revivals are obsolete or no longer work.”

A longtime staple of evangelical church life, especially in the South, revivals were both controversial and culturally conditioned vehicles for rejuvenating churches and evangelizing sinners.

For advocates of a “Believers’ Church” that required a faith commitment of all members, revivals offered ways for explaining the need for grace and the process for experiencing it. They warned sinners “of the wrath that is to come” and called churches to spiritual renewal. With the demise of revival methods, what “new measures” help 21st century churches retell the “old, old story?” Continue reading “Bill Leonard on the Decline of Revivalism”

Bill Leonard on the Southern Baptist Identity Crisis

Bill Leonard is one of the best known Baptist historians alive. He retired recently from the position if founding Dean of the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University.

I met Professor Leonard a few years ago, during a research conference organised by the Baptist Faculty of Theology at Bucharest University (he is a friend of the Dean of this faculty, Prof. Dr. Otniel Bunaciu, the President of the Romanian Baptist Union) and I was impressed by his scholarship and Christian realism.

Bill Leonard has published recently on ABP about the current identity crisis of the Southern Baptist. To be fair, I doubt SBC leaders will listen to this analysis, as one of the comments to that article indicates. It takes a lot of humility to listen to your critics, a virtue that is great demand among SBC leadership.

Continue reading “Bill Leonard on the Southern Baptist Identity Crisis”

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