Baptists and the Creeds

Should Baptists have “no creed but the Bible”?  Consider this answer from the General Baptists’ Orthodox Creed of 1678:

The three creeds, viz. Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and the Apostles Creed, as they are commonly called, ought throughly to be received, and believed. For we believe, they may be proved, by most undoubted authority of holy Scripture, and are necessary to be understood of all christians; and to be instructed in the knowledge of them, by the ministers of Christ, according to the analogy of Faith, recorded in sacred Scriptures, upon which these Creeds are grounded, and catechistically opened, and expounded in all christian families, for the edification of young and old; which might be a means to prevent heresy in doctrine, and practice, these creeds containing all things in a brief manner, that are necessary to be known, fundamentally, in order to our salvation.

According to William Lumpkin, “The [Orthodox] Creed is alone among Baptist confessions in including and setting forth the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds” (296).  Other prominent Baptist confessions (the two London confessions, the New Hampshire Confession, etc.) certainly set forth the substance of the ancient creeds in terms of their Trinitarian and Christological conclusions.  But I think Thomas Monck (the principle author of the Orthodox Creed) and his General Baptist compatriots were onto something.  Inasmuch as they set forth the basic contours of the biblical God and the biblical gospel, the creeds “ought throughly to be received, and believed”–and utilized in the preaching, liturgical, and catechetical ministries of the church.

Through A Glass Darkly

I’ve recently finished the following books in my research on Baptist catholicity and liturgy:

  • Steve Harmon, Towards Baptist Catholicity
  • Barry Harvey, Can These Bones Live? A Catholic Baptist Engagement with Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, and Social Theory
  • Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World
  • James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom

While each of these authors worship and work in different traditions (with only the first two in the Baptist tradition), and while each of them emphasize certain aspects of liturgical life in their books, what struck me in all of their writings is that worship is the means by which Christians encounter reality. In song, prayer, greeting, creedal recitation, confession, preaching, giving, and eating, Christians are participating together in the sign of the coming kingdom, and in doing so they begin to understand what the kingdom, inaugurated but not yet consummated, looks, tastes, and feels like. As Smith in particular is at pains to argue, our worship practices shape what Christians love. What is truly real, Christ’s victorious reign over all things, is encountered through the means of grace, and by encountering it repeatedly Christians are taught to love it.

But “teaching” and “love” aren’t only intellectual; they are emotional, affective, guttural. As we encounter the Kingdom and the King together we learn to long for it together. Seeing reality shows us the true nature of what we usually consider reality, the world in which we live Monday-Saturday. But singing, praying, hearing, and tasting on Sunday train our hearts and minds to know that this world is passing away, and that the world of the last days has been inaugurated at Christ’s first coming and will be immanently consummated at his return. Fellowship with the Triune God is what is to be desired, and worship trains our hearts to love him. His new creation is what is real, and our home is there, not here.

This is not to say that worship is escapism; far from it. The new creation is a renewal of the old, not an annihilation of it followed by a second creation ex nihilo. The signs that Jesus has given us to proclaim his kingdom – bread, wine (or grape juice for us Baptists), and water – are thoroughly entrenched in this creation order, and so there is no hint of a Death Star-like destruction of this world. There is, however, an eschatological upheaval, a transformative act that burns away sin and its effects from creation, and we shouldn’t forget that along with the continuity that comes through Christ’s renewal there is also a discontinuity that comes with his judgment. The liturgical life of the church encapsulates this already/not yet tension, as it uses creational signs to embody the new creation.

In worship, therefore, we are “looking through a glass darkly.” We see and act out the signs of the coming kingdom, the only true kingdom that has already been inaugurated but not yet consummated. Our hearts are trained to love this kingdom and its king instead of this world and its rulers, principalities, and authorities. Worship gives vitality to the believer’s common life; it gives both the heart and the eyes true vision, spectacles that bring the Triune God and his kingdom into focus. It turns the heart and the eyes toward what they are truly meant to love, taste, and see, and turns them away from what can never satisfy. Corporate worship thus fuels, empowers, and directs the life of the believer in their vocation, home, and recreation. The individual life of the believer thus also becomes a sign of the kingdom, as their interaction in the world is patterned after the vision of reality given in the corporate worship of the church.

This is why the liturgical life of the church is so important. Rather than being boring, repetitive mechanics, singing, greeting, reciting, giving, preaching, praying, and eating train our hearts and minds to love God and love others, to see and love reality instead of seeing and loving what is illusory and transitory.

Baptist Catholicity Paper at ETS

At this year’s ETS meeting the Baptist Studies session group has decided to focus on the four marks of the church articulated in the Nicene Creed – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Luke Stamps and I are grateful to the session’s organizers to have the opportunity to present on “Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church.” This couldn’t have come at a better time, given my and Luke’s desire to write and blog about this subject more in the coming months. Our abstract reads:

In recent years, several prominent Baptists in the United Kingdom as well as a cadre of moderate Baptists in the United States have been engaged in an ongoing project to re-envision Baptist identity within the context of the broader Christian tradition. But to date, these movements towards “Baptist Catholicity” have been relatively unengaged by evangelical Baptists in North America. This paper seeks to fill this lacuna by exploring some ways in which conservative, evangelical Baptists might better situate Baptist faith and practice within the historic Christian tradition. After an examination of the biblical material concerning the universal church and a brief historical survey of Baptist engagement with the church’s catholicity, the paper will suggest some ways in which contemporary Baptists might more consciously and critically engage with the broader catholic tradition, including its creedal identity, liturgical forms, sacramental theology, and spiritual practices.

And here’s the full schedule for the session:

8:30 AM—9:10 AM
Matthew Emerson
Luke Stamps
California Baptist University
Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church

9:20 AM—10:00 AM
Michael Haykin
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Baptists and the Holiness of the Church

10:10 AM—10:50 AM
Chris Morgan
California Baptist University
Baptists and the Unity of the Church

11:00 AM—11:40 AM
James Patterson
Union University
Baptists and the Apostolicity of the Church

Cultural Liturgies and Scriptural Imagination

As I continue to work through Barry Harvey’s Can These Bones Live?, I’m consistently reminded of Jamie Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” project. Both Harvey and Smith argue that the church’s worship practices are formative for her people, both in their growth in Christ-likeness and in their witness to and mission in the world. The liturgical life of the congregation is thus vital for the believers’ ability to live in the world while not being of the world, especially since, as Smith in particular is at pains to demonstrate, every culture has its own liturgies that compete with the church’s. In the West, and particularly in the US, consumerism, materialism, and therapeutism are drilled into our brains through the repeated patterns in advertising, television and movies, and even the shape of our cities. The pull of the immediate, the pleasurable, and the stimulating is always on a screen, whether it be an electronic billboard or a TV or a smartphone.

The church’s practice of Word and table, of proclamation and participation, smacks in the face of our Western cultural liturgy. Instead of feeding on instant gratification, celebrity culture, self esteem, and visual stimulation, we feed on the Word of God as it is read, prayed, sung, preached, and tasted. Instead of seeking a city that is already here, which we have built, we are constantly reminded of a city that is to come, whose author and builder is Yahweh. We are not the products of the moment, YOLO-ing ad nauseum, but the heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the new Adams and Eves bought by the second Adam, the new Israel, the new Temple of God, the bride of Christ. We stand in the long tradition of those called out by the Spirit of God, conversing with and learning from Athanasius and Augustine and Anselm and Thomas and Calvin and Wesley about how to speak about the Triune God and his work for us. As we read and pray and sing and preach the Scriptures, we are reminded of who we are in Christ, not who we are on social media. As we recite the creeds we are reminded that we are not products of the moment who finally arrive at the truth but heirs of the Great Tradition. As we partake of the Lord’s Table we are reminded that we are a purchased people who are put into fellowship together by our fellowship in Christ and who await his return in glory, not a social contract or a homogenous interest group or a political lobby with no real hope and no real foundation. And as we eat the bread and drink the cup we are reminded that our nourishment is God and God alone, not fast food or gourmet food or sex or power or self esteem. As we give, we are reminded that our money is not for own pleasure and gratification, and indeed is not even our own, but is given to us as stewards for the advancement of God’s kingdom through the proclamation of the gospel. And that task, that Great Commission, is something we are called to each week in the benediction, as we are sent out together to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with all who will listen, whether near or far, so that they too might sit with us and feast.

As both Harvey and Smith state, the effect of the church’s repeated worship practices is thus to form believers’ imaginations. How Christians perceive the world is impacted by how they worship. Further, as Harvey notes in chapter 4, as Christians hear the Word and see the Word in worship, their imaginations are formed primarily in scriptural terms. Their perception of the world is shaped by scriptural images and stories instead of by the culture’s images and stories.

A few implications come to mind as I think through both of these men’s work:

  1. Intentional, repeated worship practices are vital for the health and growth of any local church. (I’m grateful to be at a church where what we do in worship is intentional and repeated; more on how we incorporate some of these practices in a later post.)
  2. In Harvey’s explanation of shaping the Christian imagination, he says that we should look to scriptural types to understand our current situation (e.g. the African American civil rights activists looking to the Exodus narrative). He then also cautions against misappropriating types, such as Eusebius of Caesarea’s application of messianic OT language to Emperor Constantine. I’m unclear how he distinguishes a correct and incorrect application of scriptural types, so while I’m sympathetic to his discussion of shaping Christian imagination, I’m cautious about appropriating his call for a typological reading of current events in the church.
  3. I can’t help but think of the swath of mass shootings that have occurred over the last two decades, and their seemingly rapid increase in the last five, and of our culture’s attempt to explain them. In my mind part of the explanation lies in how we form and shape the next generation, and right now our culture forms people through a barrage of gratuity, whether violent or sexual, instant gratification, self worth, entitlement, consumerism, and therapeutism. That’s a bad mixture when someone with a gun isn’t feeling great about themselves or their peers.

Scripture and Tradition

My friend Ryan Godfrey, a Roman Catholic, and I have agreed to write a number of short position papers on a variety of topics. We’ve agreed to answer a few questions in each paper, but there is no set format. We’ve also agreed to keep footnotes to a minimum, although I’ll probably break that rule frequently.

These are intended to highlight areas of agreement and disagreement, not to be sweeping generalizations about where we think each other is going to end up in eternity, or who should be thrown in the stocks, etc. etc. We will each post our own position papers, after which we’ll give each other time to respond. Those responses will also be posted here.

The first of our topics is Scripture and Tradition. I’ve posted my position paper below. Ryan’s can be found here.

Enjoy.

 

Scripture and Tradition

1. What is Scripture?

Scripture is the Triune God’s self-communication to his people, inspired by the Spirit, testifying to the Son, and revealing the Father. It is the revelation of Yahweh, given in the context of his redemptive covenant,[1] and has as its end both the communication of who God is and the transformation of his people into the Son’s image. It is thus a revelatory and redemptive document. “Scripture” is synonymous with “Bible”, and by Bible I mean the 66 books of the Protestant canon (more on canon below).

The source of Scripture is ultimately the Holy Spirit, who “breathes out” the text (2 Tim. 3:16), “carrying along” the prophets and apostles, who wrote it down (1 Pet. 1:21). Because Scripture’s source is the Holy Spirit, it is infallible and inerrant in everything it says. Further, because the Spirit inspires the scriptures, their aim is bound up with the Spirit’s, namely to testify to the Son and his work (John 16:4-15), bringing conviction, judgment, and repentance. The Spirit’s inspiration of the text also places the foundation for Scripture’s authority squarely in the hands of the Triune God. While the people of God certainly passed down what was given to them, the Bible’s source is ultimately God, not men.

Scripture is not the only means by which God has revealed himself, but it is the only enduringly accessible means by which his people know him. God’s power and creative act are seen through nature (Rom. 1:20-21), but general revelation is only properly interpreted by special revelation, and namely by Scripture. Other means of special revelation include events (e.g. Moses and the burning bush), direct communication (e.g. via the prophets), and, ultimately, the person of Jesus. We should be clear that the ultimate revelation of God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, but as soon as we acknowledge this fact we are confronted with his bodily residence at the right of the Father. He is therefore only known through the scriptures that testify to him. Likewise, we only know of and understand the events and direct communication both testaments through the scriptures. Thus the Bible is the only enduringly accessible means of special revelation available to the people of God. The Bible is therefore the Spirit-inspired Word of God that gives us access to the Word, the second person of the Trinity, who in turn makes known to us the Father. It is the ultimate authoritative source for Christian doctrine and practice, teaching God’s people about him and how to live in relationship with him.

 

2. What is Tradition?

Tradition is also authoritative, but derivatively so. Its reference point is always Scripture, because Scripture gives it its aim and operation. Both of these are captured in 2 Tim. 2:2 – “. . . what you have learned in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Likewise in Deuteronomy 6 the people of God are instructed to pass down God’s instructions to their children. Tradition, then, is the faithful passing down of prophetic and apostolic instruction from one generation to the next. Note here, though, that this prophetic and apostolic instruction is Scripture. The prophets and apostles, or Old Testament and New Testament, are the source for the Christian tradition, and the Christian tradition is held accountable to be faithful to that source.

In the history of Christianity, this “passing down” has generally been accomplished in three ways – hermeneutically, doctrinally, and liturgically. Hermeneutically, the rule of faith has served as a summary of biblical teaching, both in terms of its redemptive narrative structure and its focus on Christ. Doctrinally, the three ecumenical creeds served as accurate summaries of biblical teaching on the nature of God and the work of Christ. Liturgically, early Christian worship was structured around scriptural patterns and ordinances (e.g. reading a Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, celebrating the Lord’s Supper). In each of these areas, though, their authority is derived not from their ability to explain an otherwise unfathomable text but rather from warrant given by the text for their instruction. For instance, Jesus gives the disciples the rule of faith on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:27, 44); Paul instructs Timothy and Titus to pass on sound doctrine in the Pastoral Epistles; and, as already noted, liturgical practices find their warrant and shape in Scripture.

 

3. What is the relationship between Scripture and tradition?

As is already evident by the way the previous two sections are structured and articulated, for Protestants, Scripture stands over and above tradition. Although tradition has a derivative authority in the life of the church, Scripture has the ultimate authority. Sometimes this means that parts of the tradition must be modified or rejected in light of fresh understandings of biblical teaching. Tradition certainly contains much weight, as does the community in which one practices their Christian faith, but Scripture supersedes both of these.[2]

An issue that presents itself immediately in this articulation is how to account for the canon and the rules that help us read it (regula fidei, creeds). With respect to the

canon, both Roger Beckwith for the OT[3] and, among others, David Trobisch for the NT[4] have demonstrated that the people of God recognized a distinct set of books for both testaments. I am more familiar with NT studies, and in that field MSS evidence for an early NT canon continues to grow. It is becoming commonplace in scholarship to recognize that, by the mid second century at the latest, the NT was circulating in four distinct codices – the four Gospels, Acts and the General Epistles, the Pauline Epistles, and Revelation. Given that this is the terminus ad quem for this means of circulation, it is possible, perhaps even probable, that John was responsible for the collection of the Gospel corpus (which includes his Gospel), the Acts plus General Epistles corpus (which includes his letters), and Revelation (authored by him). This leaves the Pauline letters, and many scholars recognize that Paul or one of his disciples probably collected and circulated these in a codex. In other words, the New Testament canon is not a product of fourth century council decisions, but of the recognition of the Spirit-inspired and apostolically testified character of these books by the people of God. Canonization is the church’s recognition of the inherent character of Scripture, not its decision about which books to include and exclude. It is thus a product of its source, the Holy Spirit, rather than of its recipients, the church.[5]

In terms of the rule of faith and the creeds, I’ve already noted the former’s reliance on Christ himself for its source and authority. Jesus taught the disciples to read the Scriptures, and the Spirit inspired the apostles to write that teaching down for us. Right hermeneutics is ultimately derived from the Spirit-inspired, Christ-testifying Word. Creeds, likewise, find their source in Scripture. As David Yeago has argued,[6] it is not enough to say that the three ecumenical creeds derive their teachings from Scripture; rather, we must say that their affirmations are found in Scripture. The creeds attempt to use conceptual terms to render accurate judgments about scriptural patterns of language. They are not documents that stand over Scripture, telling us how to read it, but rather the derivative summaries of Scripture’s doctrine. Thus Scripture stands as the norming norm of the creeds, and indeed of all confessions, conciliar decisions, hermeneutical methods, and Christian practices. It is the Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying Word that has ultimate authority for Christian faith and practice, and it is this Word that calls the church to Christ, shapes her faith in Christ, and patterns her practices to transform her into the likeness of Christ.

 

[1] Scott Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading.

[2] See, for example, Alistair McGrath, The Genesis of Christian Doctrine. See also Heiko Obermann’s distinction between Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 (the latter of which is static and unquestionable, contra what I am arguing here).

[3] Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church.

[4] David Trobish, The First Edition of the New Testament; idem, Paul’s Letter Collection. Another point to be made here is that the entire Bible is a tapestry of intertextual illusions, and it is apparent that the authoring process is one in which each book is tied textually to previous books. Thus the inherent Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying character of Scripture is wedded together between books, making the recognition by the church of inspiration a relatively easier task.

[5] For more on this, see John Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” pp. 9-46 in Word and Church (London: T&T Clark, 2001).

[6] David Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” in Engaging Theological Interpretation of Scripture, ed. by Stephen Fowl.

Steve Harmon and Baptist Catholicity

I recently read Steve Harmon’s Toward Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision. I’m beginning some sustained work with my friend and colleague Luke Stamps on Baptist life and its relationship to the larger Christian tradition, and Harmon’s collection of essays is one of the most prominent works on the subject. In this post I hope to affirm much in Harmon’s book, but also offer some pointed questions and critiques from a different perspective (i.e. conservative Southern Baptist evangelical) than his own.

First, the affirmations. I cannot say strongly enough how much I agree with Harmon on the need to position Baptist life within the larger body of Christ. Further, as Harmon argues, this happens not only on a theological level (e.g. the doctrine of the unity of the church) but on a liturgical level as well. In my opinion, Baptist life, and particularly Southern Baptist life, would be greatly helped by a more consciously traditional approach to belief and practice, as it roots our local churches not in the shifting tides of culture but in the historic faith and practice of God’s church. By “traditional” I do not mean “what we’ve always done” but what has been passed on to us by faithful believers throughout the church’s history. For me this means particularly affirming the three ecumenical creeds, as well as fitting worship practices that shape and form God’s people. I want to again affirm Harmon here, as he calls Baptists to more critically and consciously engage with the church’s tradition while still holding firmly to a Baptist understanding of religious liberty and the corollary rejection of using creeds to coerce someone’s conscience.

Part of Harmon’s call to embrace the church’s traditional faith and practice is a related call to reject modernist influences on Baptist thought, and I wholeheartedly agree here as well. Harmon ably demonstrates that statements such as “no creed but the Bible,” along with a rejection of many of the historic practices of the church, are not the result of biblical study but rather primarily an embrace of modernity and its axiomatic beliefs in autonomous reason and in jettisoning the past.

I, too, would like to see (Southern) Baptists more critically and consciously embrace the church’s traditional beliefs and practices, and I especially would like to see this in our understanding of patristic hermeneutics and in our worship. Harmon’s call for these is admirable and needed. Still, I had a number of questions and concerns about both his reasons for embracing traditional faith and practice and his articulation of the relationship between tradition and Scripture.

So, second, a question. Why is a more robust liturgical practice in Baptist worship a good thing? For Harmon, it appeared to me that, while eschewing antiquarian appropriations, he gave no more reason for adopting some liturgical practices than “this is the way that the church has always seen fit to shape its people.” That’s an important reason, but in my view it doesn’t go far enough. I would have liked to see more engagement with Augustine’s view of formation, where it is not only our cognitive faculties but also and sometimes primarily our repetitive bodily habits that transform us. Yes, praying the Lord’s Prayer, celebrating the Supper weekly, and reciting a creed or confession weekly are all good things, and yes, they are part of the church’s historic practice, but I think there is even more to it than that, namely that repeated practices shape the church’s beliefs and habits. To be fair, Jamie Smith’s works on liturgy and formation had not yet appeared at the time of Harmon’s book, so that is why I leave this as a question and not as a critique. Perhaps Harmon will adjust some of his language in his forthcoming work.

And lastly, a few critiques – I do not leave these until the end because I think they are unimportant; quite the opposite, actually. Rather, I want to make sure I affirm Harmon’s general purpose first, because I think this is a needed conversation in Baptist life. Still, as a Southern Baptist, I had more than a few issues with Harmon’s articulation of epistemology and Baptists’ relationship with other branches of the Christian faith. First, in terms of epistemology, there were a number of problems. At the beginning of the book Harmon seems to promote a problematic dichotomy between God’s authority and the authority of Scripture (27-29; I’d point to Vanhoozer here to link the two intricately via speech act theory), and throughout the book I sensed that, for Harmon, the Bible is the traditioned collection of writings for God’s people more than it is the direct revelation from God to his people. This is evidenced especially in his discussion on canon (43-46), where he argues that the canon is primarily a product of the church’s decision in the fourth century; Harmon uses this assertion to argue that even the Bible is a product of tradition, and so Baptists already use tradition in their faith in practice by accepting the canon as normative. There are a number of issues here, not least of which is an outdated view of the development of the NT canon - contemporary scholarship increasingly recognizes that what we know today as the NT was circulating in fairly uniform codices by the end of the second century – but the primary issue is that this view prioritizes tradition in the canonical process rather than the Spirit-led recognition of God’s special revelation in the biblical books.

Also in terms of epistemology, Harmon continually refers to Alisdair MacIntyre and George Lindbeck, as well as to a more general “postmodern” approach, and seems to root the church’s beliefs about the Trinity, Christology, and Scripture in a communitarian practice rather than in revelation. Harmon does want to affirm that the Nicene-Chalcedonian doctrinal affirmations have their “raw material” (44) in the NT, but in my opinion this is not enough. As David Yeago argues in his essay “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” it is not enough to say that the church’s doctrines are derived from Scripture; we must also say that they are found in the text of Scripture. The doctrinal statements of the fourth and fifth centuries use conceptual terms to render accurate judgments about the language patterns of Scripture. In any case, Harmon consistently refers to a communitarian authority without moving behind it to a supra-communitarian norm, namely God’s revelation of himself in Christ as he is seen in the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. Harmon is right that we cannot humanly achieve a modernistic fantasy of supra-cultural objectivity, but this does not mean that one has not been provided for us outside of ourselves – indeed it has, in Christ who is known through the Bible.

A second issue is found in Harmon’s last chapter, and one that I believe he shares with Peter Leithart. It seems to me that both of these men slide over doctrinal differences with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, particularly in that they do not give attention to texts like Galatians 1 and 1 Timothy 1. In these passages it is doctrinal error that results in church discipline to the point of “casting out,” not just behavior. Harmon calls differences with Rome on justification, Mary, and Petrine primacy “negligible” (198-201), and suggests that a more careful reading of Rome’s statements on them would render them negligible to other Protestants. I am simply not convinced this is the case based on my own understanding of Roman Catholic dogma.

I’ll conclude this by saying again that I am appreciative of Harmon’s willingness to engage this important topic, for his call to recover in Baptist life many of the church’s traditions in both faith and practice, and for his ecumenical spirit. Still, I think from a conservative, evangelical, Southern Baptist perspective, there is more to be said on the subject and much that needs to be said differently.

 

Thoughts on “The Future of Protestantism”

On Tuesday night I attended a conversation on “The Future of Protestantism,” which consisted of 10-15 minute presentations from Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman, a discussion between the three presenters moderated by Peter Escalante, and Q&A from the audience. Biola University and their Torrey Honors Institute added to their track record from the first LA Theology Conference as superb hosts, and it was nice to see Rusty Reno of First Things (also a sponsor of the event) attend and briefly interact with the presenters at the end.

Some thoughts:

  1. I thoroughly enjoy reading Peter Leithart, namely because he is one of the best typological and intertextual readers of Scripture of which I’m aware. I also resonated with much of what he said regarding Protestantism, both in his original article at First Things and in his presentation and response last night.  Namely, I appreciated so much his calls to abandon the tribalism endemic to much of Western Christianity, and especially American Christianity, and to return liturgically, doctrinally, and historically to a more robust faith. I don’t want to pass over these things quickly, because they are important calls that I think the church needs to hear. But I think there are a number of issues with his proposal which were only exacerbated and made clearer as the night progressed, and I sensed that Sanders and Trueman wanted the same things as Leithart but had a much more precise vision for it.
  2. First, I’m worried as a Baptist where I fit into Leithart’s vision. The only comment he made about Baptists was a dismissive one in which he called us to let go of a primary distinctive (congregationalism). The larger problem here is that, in Leithart’s proposal and especially in his further comments last night, he appears to be the one who decides which ecclesial bodies need to give up which doctrinal distinctives in order to overcome tribalism. Although he eschewed a top down approach to ecumenism, one can’t help but wonder if that’s inherent to his proposal.
  3. Second, it seems to me that Leithart’s proposal relies heavily on an unsupported typological reading of Western history. It’s one thing to say that God reunited Judah and Israel in Christ, and another to say that we should therefore expect God to reunite Protestants and Catholics. I’m not comfortable with taking what I see as a legitimate typological pattern in Scripture and then, without any support other than our own reading of subsequent church history and our current situation, apply that reading to a prophetic call to action.
  4. Third, and related, Leithart mentioned his “eschatological vision” a number of times. He never said it explicitly, but it seems obvious to me that his goal is one born partly out of his postmillennialism. If one is a postmillennialist, then I suppose Leithart’s expectations are warranted. But I’m not convinced that the NT gives us much warrant for that type of eschatological outlook, especially given Jesus’ warnings at the end of each gospel about people falling away, Paul’s continued fight against false teachers, and the cyclical nature of the structure of Revelation. There is an already/not yet tension inherent to the NT’s structure, and Leithart only seems to pass over that tension and focus too heavily on the “already”.
  5. Fourth, and finally, I don’t see how Leithart’s vision takes into account the very clear instructions of at least Paul and John to cast out those who depart from sound doctrine. In other words, there is a warrant for church discipline not only on the basis of behavior but also on the basis of belief. I’m thinking specifically of Galatians 1, where Paul anathematizes those who preach a soteriology contrary to Scripture; 1 Timothy 1, where Paul says that Hymenaeus and Alexander have been handed over to Satan in order to be taught “not to blaspheme”; and 1 John 4, where John instructs the church to discern the spirits primarily through judging their beliefs about the incarnation. Leithart, in my opinion, did not take this into consideration at all in his proposal. He did state a number of times that we should be honest about our doctrinal differences and attempt to convince one another, but, in the case of both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, there are fundamental soteriological doctrinal differences that I think warrant consideration of the verses listed above.

Sanders and Trueman ably brought up many of these critiques, although I’m not sure I heard much on eschatology or doctrinal discipline. Nevertheless I was convinced that they possessed a more rigorous and precise understanding of how to articulate and implement many of the most important aspects of Leithart’s vision without ignoring some of its evident problems. In the end I’m grateful that these three men had the courage to tackle this difficult topic and to have been able to attend in person. My hope is that the conversation continues well into the future.

 

Scholarship and Christian Charity

Yesterday I was reminded again by a good brother of how important it is to speak with love and humility towards those with whom we disagree. This has me thinking today about Christians and scholarly engagement with one another’s differing theological stances. Of course, I’m also reminded of this because of the continuing debate about Calvinism within my own denomination. The following is not really an argument for anything or a set position on what it means to have charity in Christian scholarship, just a few thoughts about the subject.

First, as I think about this issue, I’m reminded of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4 that the church, the body of Christ, is unified in Christ. When we engage other brothers and sisters on matters in which we disagree, our first thought ought not to be how I can win the argument but how I can love and be unified with my co-heir in Christ. I’ve encountered the statement elsewhere that “unity is accomplished through the truth,” and while I understand this on one level – the church MUST guard against false teaching – I do not in many cases think this is the best approach. On second and third level issues, where the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints” is not at stake, such as Calvinism, I doubt that the way to unity is continued argument until one side capitulates. When we engage fellow believers on these types of issues we certainly ought to do so with conviction, but shouldn’t that also be coupled with a strong dose of humility? I know that I am not right about everything, nor will I ever be, and so the idea that I can only be united in fellowship or missional cooperation with my brother if he “comes to the truth” (i.e. agrees with me) about a certain matter seems to me to be the exact opposite of humble. The idea that everything is a first order issue – that if you don’t agree with me then we are of a different faith altogether – seems to me to fall under this category.

Second, I have heard writers, speakers, theologians, and preachers mention Luther (or some other such person) and his tone towards those with which he disagreed as evidence that a certain invective tone is permissible in theological argumentation. Again, this seems wrong headed to me for a few reasons. No one theologian is ever correct about everything, and this includes the tone they use. I’m not so sure that Luther, giant as he is, ought to be commended for the vindictive way in which he speaks of his opponents at times. Further, our culture is 500 years separated from his, and while I abhor some of the ways in which “political correctness” has permeated our speech, we do not swim in the exact same linguistic, cultural, or emotional waters as the Reformers. Then there’s the fact that none of us is Luther, or any of the Reformers for that matter.

Finally, I also have noticed an increasing amount of people, whether Baptist or Anglican or Methodist, Calvinist or Arminian, egalitarian or complementarian, liberal or conservative, who seem to be waiting for someone, usually a “celebrity” pastor or theologian, to say something upon which they can pounce. Why do we do this? Part of the answer, I think, is that controversy is what draws people to books, blogs, websites, tv shows, and even churches and pastors. And so, in our American sub-conscious desire to rise up, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and get rich and famous, we stir the pot. We nitpick at each other.

This all bothers me. And it bothers me that I am so easily ensnared in it. I do all of this and more, and so I am not in any way trying to pull out anyone else’s speck while ignoring my plank. But I hope that we, as the body of Christ, bought by his blood and raised to new life by his Spirit, can treat each other with more Christian charity and humility than I have seen of late.

Ephesians 4 and the SBC

Yesterday in Sunday school I walked with my class through Ephesians 4, which includes the following from Paul:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:1-6).

In our study of Ephesians we’ve talked about Paul’s emphasis on the unity of the body and specifically about the racial unity of the church. Paul is keen on showing how Gentiles have been grafted into the people of God and urges his readers to live as “one new man” in Christ (2:15). In this section we talked a bit about racial unity, but we also talked about what it means to be unified around God (one Spirit…one Lord…one God and Father of us all) and the gospel (one body…one hope…one faith, one baptism). Even though I didn’t use the language of “theological triage,” I think it’s a helpful way to think about cooperation among Christians and we talked about how a) all Christians around the globe are part of Christ’s one body but that b) denominations exist because we understand certain things differently, especially baptism and church polity, and that c) local congregations and even denominations should not let “tertiary” doctrines or practices divide us.

Therefore it was all the more disturbing, after having studied this passage, to learn of some different events in the last two weeks in churches around the SBC.

First, a friend of mine, who is not white, is being forced out of his church because of his skin color. Obviously, this is in direct contradiction to Paul’s point in Ephesians. This is actually the most disturbing one for me, but I don’t know many of the details and don’t want to share them anyway for his privacy’s sake so I’ll just leave it at that.

Second, another friend, one of my best friends, is being forced out of his church because of his theological stance on a certain issue (I’m sure it won’t take long for you to figure out what that stance is…but I’ll just leave it at that for now). This stance has never in the history of the Church been considered heretical or heterodox, and has strong roots in the history of the SBC. The situation is all the more disturbing because of how it has happened. Although I can’t share all the details, the relevant points are these:

  • My friend never taught, preached on, or publicly or privately alluded to or mentioned his convictions on this issue;
  • One church leader guessed at my friend’s convictions after a teaching series in which my friend used a prominent, non-SBC pastor’s book as a guide (the book had nothing to do with the issue at hand);
  • The church leader had read pejorative articles about this famous pastor in Baptist newspapers, and especially about this pastor’s particular beliefs on this issue;
  • This one leader forced the conflict after a long time of discussion on the issue with my friend. The church leadership decided that it just isn’t what the church believed, even though by their own admission they had never studied it.

Again, my friend was not forced out because he taught something contrary to Scripture, or to Baptist distinctives, or even because he taught anything at all on the issue. He was forced out for merely holding a particular theological stance on one particular issue, a theological stance that is well-grounded in biblical theology and the SBC’s history.

Third, an SBC pastor recently posted a letter on his church website in which he calls for designated giving around SBTS and SEBTS because of their “Calvinistic agenda.” First, I find it humorous that anyone would accuse SEBTS of having a Calvinistic agenda (I can’t speak for SBTS since I’ve never been there, but I seriously doubt their goal is to “make an ‘army’ of Calvinists,” which is what the pastor argues in the article). Second, here we have again dividing lines being drawn where they ought not to be drawn. Perhaps even more disturbing is another article by the same pastor, which argues against multiculturalism in the US. Again, dividing lines are being drawn in places where they shouldn’t be according to Scripture.

I’m writing this as a call to my SBC brothers and sisters: fight for unity. We are called to be unified as a body, and as a denomination when we divide over race and tertiary doctrinal issues, we are not testifying to Christ. We are testifying to our own sinful selfishness and divisiveness. Particularly, let’s fight for unity in two ways:

  • Fight for racial unity. We are clearly not past racism in some of our churches, and that is beyond abhorrent.
  • Fight for doctrinal unity, not on everything but especially on the “main” things, i.e. God and the gospel. Fight for doctrinal unity on Baptist distinctives (i.e. believer’s baptism, congregational polity, etc.). But don’t divide over tertiary issues. As has been stated numerous times by SBC leaders who are calling for unity, the BF&M 2000 is a big enough tent under which many diverse groups of Southern Baptists can unite for the sake of the gospel being proclaimed in all nations.
  • Obviously we can fight for this by proactively promoting and teaching the unity of the body to our people. But we can also fight for it through loving confrontation of those who are obviously not for unity but division (cf. Titus 3:9-11).