One my favorite British Baptist theologians, Steve Holmes, has written a reflection on the Coronation liturgy of King Charles. It’s straight Baptist fire. His concerns center on the Baptist conviction, beautifully expressed in the First London Baptist Confession of Faith, that Christ alone is the true Prophet-Priest-King of the New Covenant people of God. As Holmes explains, this doctrine of Christ’s threefold office (munus triplex) had important precedents in earlier Christian history, but it takes on a particular force in Baptist theology:
Thomas Aquinas presents the doctrine like this; Calvin starts to use it as an organising principle for narrating the work of Christ. The expansion of its range amongst the English Separatists and Baptists is extensive and perhaps surprising. It is also dependent on a further claim that King Jesus does not delegate any of these offices: he is our great high priest, so there is no need for any human priesthood; he alone is the true prophet, and so we look for truth nowhere other than his word; he alone is king, and so no-one else may presume to command any congregation of his people.
Now, both the expansion of the scope of the offices and this point about the lack of delegation are contestable, of course, and so other theological constructions than a Baptist one are possible. But the instinctive Baptist fear/complaint/demand is always that some human authority is trying to muscle in on a role that belongs to Christ alone.
British Baptists have not, generally, been anti-monarchy: there is a temporal realm, that requires governing, and a monarchy is a possible way to do that. The seventeenth-century English Baptists, even when persecuted, did not stop declaring their loyalty to the crown—but they thought that, in imposing forms of worship and doctrine, the crown had badly over-reached its authority, and was trying to govern where Jesus alone can reign.
Read the whole thing. If the coronation represents an expression of “Christian nationalism” or whatever you want to call it, the Baptist complaint against it not just that it’s a relatively empty symbol in a nation even more secular and progressive than the United States. No, even if the ceremony had more teeth–especially if it had more teeth–the problems are systemic, on a Baptist reckoning. No king or government should pretend to usurp the place that belongs to Jesus alone as the King of the Church and Lord of the conscience.
To prevent mistakes, however, it is proper to observe that the patriotism required of us is not that love of our country which clashes with universal benevolence, or which seeks its prosperity at the expense of the general happiness of mankind. Such was the patriotism of Greece and Rome; and such is that of all others where Christian principle is not allowed to direct it. Such, I am ashamed to say, is that with which some have advocated the cause of negro slavery. It is necessary, forsooth, to the wealth of this country! No; if my country cannot prosper but at the expense of justice, humanity, and the happiness of mankind, let it be unprosperous! But this is not the case. Righteousness will be found to exalt a nation, and so to be true wisdom. The prosperity which we are directed to seek in behalf of our country involves no ill to any one, except to those who shall attempt its overthrow. Let those who fear not God, nor regard man, engage in schemes of aggrandizement, and let sordid parasites pray for their success. Our concern is to cultivate that patriotism which harmonizes with good-will to men. O my country, I will lament thy faults! Yet, with all thy faults, I will seek thy good; not only as a Briton, but as a Christian: “for my brethren and companions sakes, I will say, Peace be within thee: because of the house of the Lord my God, I will seek thy good!”
Among the many biblical, theological, and historical reasons the earliest Baptists gave for religious liberty, is one that is sometimes forgotten or neglected, namely, evangelism. It’s not a stand alone argument. The biblical-theological, covenantal case has to be made. The regulative principles of the New Testament must be exegeted. The freedom and dignity of the human person must be defended. But among those other reasons, Baptists can also appeal to the free proclamation of the gospel as an additional rationale for religious liberty.
It is remarkable that some of the earliest Baptists argued for religious liberty, not only for themselves and their fellow Protestant dissenters, but even for other religions. Thomas Helwys’ famous lines from The Mystery of Iniquity (1612) are always worth repeating: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” Part of Helwys’ argument is that true obedience to God must be “spiritual obedience,” that is, willing obedience to Jesus, free from governmental compulsion. In other words, if you want non-Christians to be truly saved, religious liberty must be granted to them.
Roger Williams, whose influence on Baptists in the New World outlasted his own brief tenure as a part of a Baptist church, made a similar argument in The Bloody Tenent of Persecution (1644). Williams appeals to Paul’s imperative that meekness and gentleness be shown to “all” in the hopes that God might grant them repentance and salvation (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Williams applies this call to universal patience to the various religious opinions in society: Jews, “Turks” (=Muslims), “Antichristians” (those who preach a false Christ), and pagans. Williams asks his readers to remember their own former spiritual blindness and the mercy extended to them in the Lord Jesus. He concludes, “And to all these sorts–Jews, Turks, Antichristians, pagans–when they oppose the light presented to them, in sense of [the soul’s] own former opposition and that God peradventure may at last give repentance, I add [that] such a soul will not only be patient, but earnestly and constantly pray for all sorts of men, that out of them God’s elect may be called to the fellowship of Christ Jesus. And lastly not only to pray but also to endeavor (to its utmost ability) their participation of the same grace and mercy.” Religious liberty, not religious persecution, is the conclusion of those sensible to God’s sovereign grace in their own lives.
Many Baptists since have understood the evangelistic and missionary benefits of religious liberty. The Baptist insistence on “a free church in a free state” is motivated, in part, by this evangelistic impulse: “the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power” (Baptist Faith & Message, 2000). That doesn’t mean religious liberty has no limits. As the BF&M says elsewhere, “Freedom in any orderly relationship of human life is always limited and never absolute.” When religious liberty brings physical or moral harm, it may be limited in a principled and carefully qualified way. But otherwise, men must be free to reject, if they are to be truly free to accept, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the church must be free to share and to persuade but never to compel or to coerce. Religious liberty, in this understanding, is an evangelistic stewardship as much as an enumerated right.
I mentioned in my previous post that the Baptist confessional tradition should be weighted more heavily than individual authors when we are making generalizations about the historic Baptist view on the civil magistrate. I also mentioned that the Second London Confession has a particular pride of place in this regard. The 1689 Confession influenced, in one way or another, most of the other major Baptist confessions in an English-speaking context. So, paying careful attention to what the confession says–and most tellingly, what it doesn’t say–about the civil magistrate is especially important.
You can find a tabular comparison of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 Confession here. Below is a screenshot of the articles “Of the Civil Magistrate.” Again, this comparison and contrast is especially important to considering how Baptists have historically positioned themselves in relation to the broader Reformed movement, and magisterial Protestantism more generally.
The portions in red indicate divergences between the two confessions. But note that the portions in black indicate continuity with the great Reformed confession. The seventeenth-century Particular Baptists were trying to strike a balance here: to express their solidarity with other Protestants as far as possible and to defend unashamedly their Baptist distinctives. They were aiming for, we might say, a Baptist Catholicity.
The first paragraph here is pristinely carried over from the WCF. God ordains civil government for his own glory and the public good. But the power of the sword is carefully delimited: to defend and encourage those who do good and to punish those who do evil (cf. Romans 13:1-7).
From there, the omissions tell the real story. These early Baptists believed, contrary to the Anabaptists, that Christians can rightly participate in the civil government. But the duties of the magistrate are limited to the maintenance of civil justice and peace. The WCF’s mention of “piety” as one of the aims of the magistrate is conspicuously absent. The church, not the civil authority, has within its jurisdiction the maintenance of piety. The jurisdiction of the civil government is limited to civil, not religious, matters. As Baptist historian Thomas Nettles has put it, “The Baptists would not have the magistrate insert any of his power into the divine prerogative of creating and maintaining piety in his people. That is the function of the Holy Spirt by the word of God under the faithful labors of God-called ministers of the word in the context of the church.”
Likewise, the WCF’s third and fourth paragraphs are omitted entirely and replaced with an original paragraph arguing for submission to and prayer for the magistrate. Gone are the magistrate’s duties related to the ministry of the church. The Baptists intentionally omitted any reference to the government preserving the unity of the church, keeping the truth pure, suppressing blasphemies and heresies, preventing abuses in worship, calling synods, and so on. Even the American revision of the WCF, which made space for the magistrate’s protection of all Protestant denominations, still affirmed the magistrate as the “nursing father” who has charge to “protect the church of our common Lord.” Regardless of what any individual Baptist thinker may have thought or written elsewhere, the Baptist confessional tradition knows nothing of a civil government with such explicitly religious responsibilities.
The difference between the establishmentarianism of the WCF and the separation of the civil and religious spheres in the SLBCF is rooted in the two groups’ distinct views on biblical theology. As Nettles notes, the position of the WCF, “assumes a direct continuity between Israel and political entities subsequent to the coming of Christ. It assumes that earthly kings have the same authority and duties of the king in that covenanted society. It does not embrace the distinction between Israel as an elect nation and the church as the ‘chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.’ These people are not all of any nation but are to be looked upon as ‘sojourners and exiles’ who once were ‘not a people, but now the people of God’ (1 Peter 2:9-11).”
In sum, the 1689 Confession intentionally and deliberately distanced itself from the the WCF on the matter of the civil magistrate. At least as far as our confessional tradition would bind us, the Baptist view on the separation of church and state seems clearly inconsistent with any kind of specifically religious authority being given to the civil powers. The magistrate is God’s servant for God’s glory and the public good but only within its limited jurisdiction: maintaining civil justice and civil peace.
Addendum: Note well that the Baptist belief in the separation of church and state does not entail a separation of church and society nor even a separation of morality and state. Civil justice demands, for example, the protection of the unborn from the evil of abortion and the protection of children and adolescents (and adults, for that matter) from the irreversible harm of so-called “gender affirming care.” I hasten to add this because so many people today seem to set up a false dichotomy: it’s either Christian Nationalism or radical progressivism. But Baptists have long been engaged in promoting moral legislation. Think of William Carey’s opposition of sati, or Andrew Fuller’s support of the abolitionist movement, or Charles Spurgeon’s opposition to slavery, or the SBC’s opposition to “racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.” (BF&M 2000). Baptists in America today can push for just laws right now, without blowing the whole system up and seeking to retrieve something more “magisterially” Protestant.
Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of chatter online about the promises and perils of Christian Nationalism. Definitions vary. If you espouse some form of nationalism (as opposed to globalism) and are a Christian, does this make you a Christian Nationalist? Or does Christian Nationalism entail something more? If it does, just what is that “something more”? The establishment of a particular denomination? Or at least some form of mere Protestantism? Or mere Christianity? Or mere theism? Does CN require that certain privileges be afforded to Christianity? Does it also warrant certain punishments for expressions of non-Christian beliefs? Does CN demand Sabbatarian or “blue” laws? Is the punishment of blasphemy and heresy permissible, at least in principle (even if prudence may call for some measure of toleration)?
To be honest, I’m not all that interested in the online wars over this (I got off Twitter for a reason!). My research interests lie elsewhere. And my normal tasks as a professor lead me elsewhere. I am more interested in helping people understand the trinity, the incarnation, and the atonement. I’m more interested in helping students mortify sin, grow in holiness, share the gospel, deal with grief and pain, and prepare for death and judgment. I’m more interested, in short, in helping people understand the gospel and its implications for their lives. To be sure, some of those implications are civil and political. But too many Christians (especially extremely online Christians) can give outsized importance to politics and political theory. By all means, know the issues, vote according to biblical principles, volunteer at the local level, etc. But don’t let the political tail wag the theological dog.
But I digress. As a student of Baptist history and theology, I get more interested when people start making appeals to our Baptist forebears in defense of this or that political theory. Can a Baptist be a Christian Nationalist? Can a Baptist even support a kind of magisterial Protestantism or a de facto “mere Christendom” establishment? In answering these questions, Baptists often and rightly look to our past for guidance. But danger lurks here. It is possible to cherry-pick quotes or particular thinkers, which may be outliers, and treat them as typical. It is possible to do what Matt has called “control-F” theology: you hit control-F on the keyboard to find a particular term in a historic text, read it out of context, and voila! find support for your predetermined conclusion.
This blog post isn’t going to settle the debate over the possibility of a “Baptist Christian Nationalism.” To lay my own cards on the table, I think such a notion is a contradiction in terms, if by CN you mean some kind of overtly religious establishment or giving the state the power to prosecute religious matters (the first table of the law). But I’m not here to make that argument. What I want to do in this post is more modest. I simply want to point to a few principles that should guide our appeals to Baptist history when making contemporary theological arguments. I think these principle have broader application, but I am thinking about them especially in terms of the CN debate.
History is subordinate. For the Protestant—and perhaps especially for the Baptist—the fundamental question of theology isn’t what this or that historic author wrote, but what Scripture teaches. The question of what we ought to believe is a matter of biblical theology, not historical theology in the first instance. For a Baptist political theology in particular, it is a matter of Baptist covenant theology and its logical and theological entailments: What is the relationship between the old covenants and the new covenant? What kind of hermeneutical priority does the New Testament have? What NT principles and precepts govern the development of a political theology? What jurisdiction does the NT give to the church, the family, and the state, and how are they diffferent? And so on. History can be a guide in answering those questions. But the Bible retains its pride of place as the infallible rule of our theology.
History is contextual. When we appeal to Baptist authors in the past, we have to recognize their particular historical location. They lived in particular times, in particular places, and under particular political arrangements. Their horizons were limited (and in some cases, perhaps, enriched) by those particularities. Baptists have thrived under a variety of political circumstances, in both persecution and toleration, but mostly from the margins of power (maybe with the exception of my home state of Alabama!). We have to be careful not to enshrine any of those circumstances as the standard Baptist view.
History is complex. Related to the last point, we also have to recognize that no particular author and no particular place speaks for the entirety of the Baptist tradition. Some have recently appealed to John Gill or Isaac Backus as possible sources in defense of a more explicitly Christian government. I’ll let the experts on those theologians and those eras make those judgments. But even if Gill says something more in line with the magisterial Protestants here or there, that doesn’t mean that he speaks for the Baptist tradition as a whole (We certainly wouldn’t want to appeal to Gill on, say, eternal justification as the standard Baptist view). Gill’s judgment that the magistrate has authority to prosecute the first table of the law puts him out of step with at least a substantial portion (the majority?) of the Baptist tradition more broadly (not just later authors in the early American republic, but also back to the foundational seventeenth-century Baptists). Furthermore, the Baptist tradition is not limited to Anglo-American majority culture authors either. The Black Baptist experience is also worthy of careful study, as is Baptist history in continental Europe and elsewhere. We also have to be careful not to judge our own moment in history as definitive either. To argue against CN is not necessarily to argue for the superiority of liberal democracy or anything else. We have to avoid both a whiggish view of history and a naively nostalgic view of history. Again, history, including our own present moment, is complex.
History is hierarchical. What I mean here is the hierarchy of tradition, which I have written about elsewhere. Under Scripture’s ultimate authority, the derivative, interpretive authority of tradition is stratified: creeds have the greatest authority as the expressions of the universal church; confessions come next as expressions of particular denominational convictions, and individual authors come last as important but subordinate standards. What this means for Baptist political theology, is that the confessional tradition deserves greater weight than any individual author, even an esteemed author like Gill. Especially significant in this regard is the great Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, which is the most influential confession in Baptist history. An examination of the so-called 1689 Confession and its statement on the civil magistrate is paramount on this question, especially the omissions and revisions it introduces to its source material, the Westminster Confession of Faith. For Southern Baptists, the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) is also worth careful inspection on these matters (especially articles XV—XVIII). If you want to make a claim about the historic Baptist view, the confessions are a surer guide than a particular individual author or two (who may be outliers).
So there you have it. A few principles to keep in mind when appealing to Baptist history. Again, this doesn’t settle the debate over CN. I’d have more to say about that, and perhaps I will in this space or elsewhere. But in meantime, here’s some homework: go read Andrew Fuller’s excellent sermon on Christian Patriotism (and Michael Haykin’s clarification about its historical context and place in Fuller’s overall thought).
At several different points in his monumental three-volume Jesus of Nazareth, the late Pope Benedict XVI contrasts the kingdom that Jesus preached with that of the ancient Zealots. According to Ratzinger, Jesus “left no room for political or military interpretations of the Messiah’s activity” (II: 181). Jesus’ cleansing of the temple signals his fight against “a politicization of the faith that would see God’s constant protection of the Temple as something guaranteed” (II: 20). Jesus comes not as a revolutionary but with the “gift of healing.”
Ratzinger knew all too well the dangers of confusing the kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this world. As an adolescent, he saw it firsthand in the terrors of the Third Reich. As a young professor, he saw a different kind of political idolatry in the Marxism of the student movements. As Prefect and Pope, he continued to battle the relio-political syncretism of Liberation Theology.
And so Ratzinger sees the kingdom of Christ–a kingdom of suffering love–as a direct confrontation to all attempts to bring about God’s work by dint of political action. Indeed, he sees the cross as the definitive end of every unholy alliance of religion and politics. “Through the message that he proclaimed, Jesus had actually achieved a separation of the religious from the political, thereby changing the world: this is what truly marks the essence of his new path” (II: 169). The cord was decisively severed at the cross: “Only through the total loss of all external power, through the radical stripping away that led to the Cross, could this new world come into being” (II: 171).
This separation of the religious and the political does not mean, of course, any kind of quietism in the face of injustice. Benedict quite obviously continued to defend the Church’s social teaching and to proclaim it prophetically and courageously to the world. The faith has political implications, to be sure. But Ratzinger’s point is that the kingdom does not advance by political means. Its work is of a different order, that is, an heavenly and eternal one. “My kingdom is not of this world,” our Lord confessed on this sober day of trial and suffering.
Too many today seem to miss this point. As B.B. Warfield once remarked, one of the most pernicious errors in the history of Christian thought is the notion what when Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” what he actually meant is that it is. But Jesus was not a Zealot. That option was open to him in first century Judaism. But he didn’t take it. He proclaimed and embodied a completely different sort of kingdom: a kingdom of self-giving, suffering love. He subverts our natural assumptions. Power is found in weakness. Victory is found in defeat. Life is found in death. And that is how he brings healing to the world on this Good Friday. Transformation cannot be coerced from without. It must be established within the heart of man: the kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). The change we needed couldn’t be effected in Pilate’s Praetorium nor on the Palatine Hill, where the emperor Tiberius reigned, nor on Washington’s Capitol Hill, for that matter. It could only be founded on the hill of Golgotha, with all of its shame and ignominy and all of its glory and grace.
It’s that time of year again when we find people debating the Cry of Dereliction online. Just what did Jesus mean when he quoted Psalm 22 from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matt has written effectively in this space about the theological and canonical parameters for understanding this text. The trinitarian, Christological, and hermeneutical stakes have been thoroughly rehearsed.
But one aspect of the debate that also deserves attention is related to the doctrine of atonement itself. What I mean is the assumption, often articulated only in underdeveloped ways, that somehow the Father cannot “look upon sin” and so must “turn his face away” from the Son. It is certainly true that God is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Hab. 1:13). But the context of this teaching is a complaint from Habakkuk that God might countenance evil people without judging them. It does not mean (and cannot mean theologically) that God somehow delimits or cordons off his omnipresence from the presence of sin. After all, “where shall I flee from your presence?” Even if I “make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:7, 8). Further, this is where we get all of the trinitarian and Christological errors: Is the Father alone so holy that he cannot look upon sin? Isn’t the Son a divine person too? Even if you make a reduplicative move that it is the Son in his humanity who is abandoned, it is still a divine person who is dying and making atonement on the cross. Saying that the cross demands that God turn away from Jesus ends up proving too much (or too little, depending on which way you look at it).
Which brings me to the point about atonement: the “Father turns his face away” approach to the cry of dereliction operates with a sub-biblical doctrine of atonement. The idea that God’s holiness requires that he remove himself from the presence of sin runs in the opposite direction of the biblical teaching on atonement. In his atoning mercy, it not that God turns his face away from sin; it’s that sin, when it comes into contact with the divinity, is thus cleansed and expiated. Consider the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). The cleansing of Israel’s guilt takes place in the burning center of God’s manifest presence among them: in the Holy of Holies. The blood of the sin-bearing victim, sprinkled on the mercy seat where God dwells between the cherubim, purifies the people from their sin. When sin comes into contact with God’s presence, he is not contaminated by it; it is cleansed by him. Only in this way can sin then be removed from the people, symbolized in the scape goat driven into the wilderness.
So, God’s presence with (and in and as) Jesus is not removed once the sins of the world are laid upon him. That would forestall the whole process. It is precisely because Jesus is a divine person, in unbroken communion with his Father (John 16:32) and their shared Spirit (Heb. 9:14), that his death can provide atonement for sin. As the late Joseph Ratzinger put it, “In his self-offering on the Cross, Jesus, as it were, brings all the sin of the world deep within the love of God and wipes it away.”
The revival continues at Asbury. But some are doubting. Social media skeptics abound. The questions range from the legitimate (what is the biblical and theological content of what’s going on?) to the nakedly cynical (why are there so many white people in these photos? why is there so much emotional singing?). But the reports seem pretty overwhelming at this point: something real and Christ-exalting is happening at Asbury.
Listen to this testimony from a visitor to the revival services, Robert Cunningham, director of Christ for Kentucky and a Presbyterian minister:
Lay down your doubts and believe. Open yourself to revival. A powerful exhortation.
Again, some initial questions are legitimate, but what does it say about us that we are so quick to be skeptical? We would rather remain cynical than risk looking naive. What does that choice say about us? Isn’t it better to believe and hope all things and risk the possibility of a later retraction or correction than to remain judgmentally aloof?
Something similar could be asked about the responses to the “He Gets Us” campaign and the commercials that aired during the Super Bowl last night. To be sure, there is a critique to be made of this ad campaign. Are all of these analogies between Christ and us really apt? What is the underlying theology? Why so much money devoted to this? All legitimate questions to ask. But that’s not really my point. The more revealing question is why are people this agitated by it? I have a friend who likes to say “mirrors before windows.” Before you focus on someone else, look at yourself first. Yes, there may be serious problems with the “He Gets Us” campaign, but why am I so bothered by it? It is not a little ironic that people got so angry over an ad that emphasized Jesus’ love for those who are the objects of our anger! Maybe you don’t like the message behind the ads. Okay. You can still use the conversations it raises to tell people about the biblical Jesus and his life-giving gospel.
Maybe these things are related. Maybe God is up to something in American Christianity. Maybe there are fresh openings for renewal popping up all around us. Maybe if we had eyes to see and hearts to pray, we would see more. Discernment is still needed. Every revival in history has had to distinguish between the true and the false. But, for my part, tenderhearted hope is a better posture than calculated coldness.
I don’t know about you, but I want revival on my campus! I want revival in my life and family and church. I want to see “each soul be rekindled with fire from above.” Don’t you?
UPDATE: Robert Cunningham has deleted the thread above. The gist of the thread was that this PCA minister witnessed an authentic revival focused on Jesus, Scripture, and prayer.
The fresh wind of revival seems to be blowing at Asbury University. Word started spreading on social media Wednesday that students simply didn’t want to leave the chapel service after it ended. I’m not on social media anymore, but I had several friends send me links to what was happening. Hundreds of students stayed or came back throughout the day to pray and sing and recite Scripture. And it kept going. Tom McCall, chair of theology at Asbury Seminary, gives an account:
Winfield Bevins, director of church planting at the seminary, shares a taste:
Testimonies continue to pour in on Twitter and Facebook. For the latest, just search for #asburyrevival.
Tom’s thread above captures my own sentiments well. I am the inheritor of a strongly revivalist tradition of Alabama Baptist piety, and I appreciate so much of the spirituality that gave birth to my own faith. But I see the weaknesses in it as well: the dangers of manipulation, an overemphasis on experience, and sometimes a neglect of more regular patterns of spirituality–gospel-patterned liturgies, regular observance of the ordinances, and worship and preaching that is oriented toward the edification of the body, not just the conversion of the lost. But for those of us who critique revivalism, we must be careful not to foreclose the possibility of true revival. The Spirit appears to be blowing where it listeth at Asbury, an institution rooted in Wesleyan spirituality. And we all need to be paying attention. And praying.
The reason why these early reports of revival are so moving, I think, is that we all have grown so cold and cynical toward the possibility of an authentic experience of the Spirit, and we don’t even realize it. Or else we don’t fully appreciate it. The Christian West is dying, withering, fracturing. Out of an apparent sense of desperation, many professing Christians are becoming more radical and divisive, drawing tighter and tighter circles of theological (and, more often, political) narrowness. Others are grasping for something, anything, to recover an authentic faith. Often we are searching for something historical, something back behind our current malaise: medieval scholasticism, Reformation- and post-Reformation-era political theology, Calvinism, etc. There is, no doubt, some utility in these arenas of retrieval. I’m interested in them as well. But for those of us whose spiritual patrimony lies, at least in part, in the Anglo-American revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, perhaps we have neglected something important. Maybe there is still some fire left in the embers of evangelical piety. God grant it.
In the Eastern calendar, today is the commemoration of the so-called Three Holy Hierarchs: Basil “the Great” of Caesarea (330-79), Gregory “the Theologian” of Nazianzus (329-90), and John Chrysostom, “the Golden-Mouthed,” the bishop of Constantinople (347-407). Many of us are more familiar with the grouping of Basil and Gregory with Basil’s younger brother Gregory of Nyssa, the trio known as the Cappadocian Fathers. But the grouping of Basil and Nazianzen with John Chryostom is rooted in an eleventh-century debate over which of the three was the greatest theologian, a debate allegedly resolved by a vision of the three to John the Bishop of Euchaita in which they declared their unity and equality.
All three were defenders of Nicene orthodoxy and were committed churchmen (as was Gregory of Nyssa). All three were men of holiness and prayer. All three were supported by close Christian friends and family members, many of whom are also canonized in the Eastern tradition (especially noteworthy is Basil and Nyssen’s sister Macrina, a profound theological and spiritual influence on them both). But each of the three had his own unique gifting and personality, and each has his own lesson for today’s church.
Basil the pastor underscores the importance of the church. He left a monastic life to pursue a public ministry in defense of the divinity of Christ. He soon conscripted his reluctant friend Gregory to the same task.
Gregory the theologian teaches us the value the intellectual life. He is given the title “the Theologian” for a reason. Among his other writings, Gregory’s Five Theological Orations, preached to a small band of orthodox Christians while the see of Constantinople was in the hands of the heterodox, remain a classic defense of the doctrine of the Trinity.
John the preacher reminds us of the power of proclaiming the Word of God. He was given the moniker “Golden-Mouthed” because of his remarkable gifts of oratory. Few in church history have moved the church more powerfully to obey all that Jesus demands in Holy Scripture.
Men like these are an inspiration to the whole church of Jesus Christ. One need not be Orthodox or Roman Catholic to find great value in the lives of the saints. Yes, we Protestants understand that all Christians are already saints through faith in Jesus Christ. No, we Baptists will not be found asking the saints in heaven to intercede for us. But we confess belief in the communion of saints just the same. We too believe that all Christians share life together in the one body of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. We too are the inheritors of the whole history of the church. All things are ours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or Basil or Gregory or John. And we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:22-23).
Considering the lives of the saints who have gone before us serves as inspiration to our own faith and life. Growth in Christian virtue takes place, by the grace of God, through habits inspired by exemplars. So, let us remember faithful pastors, theologians, and preachers like the Three Holy Hierarchs. And let us imitate their faith as they imitated our one Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 13:7; 1 Cor. 11:1).