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).