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.