Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Debts to Other Christian Traditions

I post much on this blog about matters relating especially to Baptists, which is not surprising since this blog is dedicated to the intersection of theology, culture,  and politics–engaging especially in “religious  social criticism,”  and I am a Baptist.  As a member of the small Alliance of Baptists (newest member of the National Council of Churches), I am considered part of the “liberal” theological  wing of Baptist life. I guess that’s true although I am orthodox enough to be able to affirm all of The Apostles’ Creed and The Nicene Creed without fudging (but with several mental footnotes). (Having a traditional Baptist aversion to creeds as “tests of orthodoxy,” and preferring only confessions of faith as personal testimonies and group “guides to biblical and theological interpretation,” I DON’T usually recite these or any other creeds, but not from disagreement with the content.) I think my theology is reasonably classed as belonging at the intersection of the left end of the evangelical spectrum and the right end of the liberal spectrum. (In politics, the middle is bland, but I think the center is the most exciting and dynamic place in theology.)

So, I post quite a bit about Baptists–especially since I try to erase the distorted picture many have of Baptists because of the fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention, which is large and loud,  but NOT an accurate reflection of the best of historic Baptist views.  Baptists arrived in the early 17th C. out of the interaction of English Puritan-Separatism (which produced the Congregationalists) with two different streams of Dutch Anabaptism. (The Waterlander Mennonites influenced the beginning of “General” or Arminian Baptists in 1609-1611, whereas Collegiant Mennonites and Menno’s book, The Foundation of Christian Doctrine, influenced the beginning of “Particular” or Calvinistic Baptists in 1638-1641.) I admit to drawing more heavily on the Anabaptist stream of Baptist life than the more Puritan stream and to have mixed relations to the later Revivalistic stream. This makes me a minority within  Baptist life, I suppose.

But in my desire to show a different face of Baptist identity than that seen by those who only know the fundamentalists and Southern Baptists, I wonder sometimes if this blog is seen as too parochial–or even anti-ecumenical.  I assure you, Gentle Readers, that I have great appreciation for the great strengths of many traditions in the Church Universal. I have learned from many non-Baptist Christians.  So, let me acknowledge many of those debts here.

  • My deep appreciation for the Eucharist (Communion, Lord’s Supper) has been heightened by Catholics–even though I don’t share the Catholic theological view of what happens in the eucharistic meal.  I also deeply appreciate the major outlines of Catholic Social Teaching.  Catholic peacemakers from St. Francis of Assissi to Dorothy Day to Dan Berrigan, S.J. and John Dear, S.J. are sisters and brothers who deeply enrich my spirit and challenge me greatly in my own  discipleship.  I also owe much to Catholic contemplatives and, on a more mundane level, several Catholic educational institutions have employed me to teach theology and philosophy when Baptists would not.
  • I did not encounter Orthodox Christianity until after seminary. The Orthodox sense of mysticism is greatly helpful to me and, although I do not see the Early Church Councils as infallible as they do, it has been the Orthodox who led me to discover the theological depths of the Patristic (and Matristic!) writers. I confess, however, that I still find the Orthodox theology of icons too similar to the statues of saints in Catholic and Anglican circles. Sorry, friends.
  • My debts to Mennonites are so huge that they could become a book.  I have often considered becoming a Mennonite, but think I  am called to keep representing the Anabaptist tradition within Baptist circles.  I greatly appreciate the biblical  scholarship (and high biblical  literacy among laity) of Mennonites as well as their strong sense of history. The emphases on costly discipleship (following Jesus,  not just worshipping Jesus), service, resistance to materialism while sharing goods, simplicity of living, nonviolence, peacemaking, and strong  church-state separation are all areas where I share the Mennonite view deeply. (I do think some Mennonites take church-state separation to mean an apolitical quietism instead of a prophetic challenge to political figures.)
  • I have a turbulent relationship with Pentecostals and Charismatic Christians. My early encounters with white Pentecostals were not pleasant, although Black Pentecostals and Black Baptists were human agents of God in my late teenaged conversion to Christ.  My later experiences with the Pentecostal and Charismatic pacifists have helped me reconsider. I still understand the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” to be a New Testament metaphor for salvation rather than a later experience that creates a higher class of Christians and I do not rank any spiritual gifts (much less tongues and healing) as higher than others. And if I am in Pentecostal/Charismatic worship services for too long, I experience emotional exhaustion (and deep headaches).  Nonetheless, there is a joy in the Spirit that other traditions too often need.  If I could find a way to marry contemplative spirituality and pentecostal/charismatic joy, I would. Each speaks to something real in me, though I cannot dwell in either as a permanent home.
  • I love Quaker pacifism,  mysticism, simplicity and service. I am afraid, however, that I believe too strongly in water baptism and the eucharist to ever become a Quaker.  And, while Quaker silence (listening prayer) deeply informs my private devotions, I want group singing and preaching for corporate worship (most of the time). People are bodies,  not just spirits, and need to worship God bodily, too–in baptism and communion and in hymn singing and preaching and Bible study.
  • I greatly appreciate the Reformed/Presbyterian focus on an educated ministry and in theological education within congregations, too.  Though I do not understand the sovereignty of God in a 5-point Calvinist, Synod of Dordt fashion, the great trust in God’s sovereignty, the theological appreciation of the great drama of salvation in both Testaments, and  much else is truly helpful.  The Reformed tradition is broad and while I count narrow forms of it to be harmful to living Christianity, I celebrate the broader Reformed tradition that includes Karl Barth, Johanna van-Wijk-Bos, Amy Plantinga Pauw, Allen Boesak, and many others.
  • I love Martin Luther’s passion, humility, and love of Christ.  I love the Lutheran Christocentrism and am a huge fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I do think that some forms of Lutheranism (and Luther himself) encouraged German anti-Semitism and I am no fan of Luther’s two kingdoms theory which turns the church into a blind servant of the state.  But Luther’s focus on a theology of the cross in opposition to a theology of glory and triumph was right on target–and needs to be recovered today.
  • Since I was raised in an evangelical United Methodist family (but was personally agnostic until my encounters with the Black Church), I have saved this until the last. I have departed from Wesley in many ways, but his  emphasis on free will (the voluntaristic response to  the offer of salvation) is still  with me–and is why I keep failing to become a universalist. (I’d really LIKE to believe all will be saved, but I can’t see how it can happen without God overriding the free will of human persons–a form of spiritual rape, imo.) It’s also why I agree with the writer of Hebrews that genuine apostasy is a real possibility. More positively,  I love Wesley’s emphasis on the heart and his placing of Biblical authority within  matrix that also includes reason, experience, and the wisdom of Christian tradition–though  none of these sources is infallible.  I don’t see sanctification as a “second work of grace” and am skeptical of “entire sanctification” or Christian moral perfection (even a “perfection in love”) prior to death and glorification. Nonetheless, the Methodist focus on sanctification,  rather than reducing salvation only to justification (as some versions of Lutheranism do) is probably one of the impulses which make me a social critic and would-be reformer. (It probably also led me to the Anabaptist emphasis on active discipleship.)

I probably owe far more, to far more Christian traditions,  than  I have here acknowledged–or even recognize. This is surely a drop in the bucket.  For example, I forgot to mention that I think the Disciples are right in celebrating communion with every church service and the foot washing and Love Feasts of the Church of the Brethren are deeply in line with my view of NT Christianity ( and very moving, too). Is my theology coherent or just a hodge-podge collection? I hope the former, but I am glad that I am not a systematic theologian! I do think that what I have learned from other traditions fits best within the overall  Baptist shape of my Christian faith.  But I did not want my frequent postings on Baptist matters seem anti-ecumenical. 

Nonetheless, let me conclude by dissenting  from those who, whether or not in the name of “emerging” Christianity (a  movement so vaguely defined that I am never sure whether or not I like it!),  want to get beyond all particular Christian traditions.  Denominations, of course, are human institutions, and fallible.  But theological traditions and families have usually preserved vital aspects of the  gospel that are missed or downplayed by other traditions.  Generic forms of Christianity, it seems to me, do not end up recovering the fullness of the Gospel (whatever their intent), but in  losing ALL those vital elements preserved in various Christian traditions.  The scandal of the divided Church is not that we come in different traditions, but that we have so often been willing to deny that the others ARE Christian–at many times in history even being willing to shed blood over which was the “real Church.”

I love being in ecumenical meetings with people from other parts of the Body of Christ.  But I want the Catholics I meet to be authentic Catholics, the Presbyterians genuinely Reformed, etc.  We should  sing in harmony, not simple unity.

January 18, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, Christianity, ecumenism | 9 Comments