Baptist Catholicity with Dr. Steve Harmon

You’ve provocatively titled your book Towards Baptist Catholicity.  There will be those who see that title as being roughly analogous to something like Towards A Square Circle.  Aren’t the terms “Baptist” and “Catholicity” contradictory?

In the popular mind, those probably are contradictory terms—they represent the extreme poles on the spectrum of types of churches or denominations, in the way most people understand them.  I suppose only “Pentecostal Catholicity” might seem even more contradictory, unless it occurs to one that adherents to both of those traditions actually expect something supernatural to happen when they gather for worship!  At any rate, the title was intentionally provocative.  If it made anyone wonder how the book would put those things together, the title did its job.  A fellow Baptist theologian thought I should have titled it No Creed But the Bible?—with the question mark—since in the book I repeatedly called that mantra for some modern Baptists in the United States into question, but I’m satisfied with the title.

Where did the term “Baptist catholicity” originate and can you give a summary definition of what “Baptist catholicity” is?

In a 2004 paper presentation that served as the basis of a published essay that in turn was revised as the first chapter of Towards Baptist Catholicity, I employed “catholic Baptist” as a descriptor for an emerging movement among younger Baptist theologians who have been dissatisfied with the theological categories bequeathed by the recurring skirmishes of the twentieth-century Modernist/Fundamentalist conflict in Baptist life and who have sought a “third way” that values both the community gathered under the Lordship of Christ and the continuity of this community with the larger Christian community through the ages.  These Baptist theologians therefore have an interest in the tradition of this larger community, the creeds and forms of liturgy that have transmitted this tradition, and the sacraments that belong to the embodied life of this community.  I didn’t coin the label, however; Curtis Freeman, director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, had suggested the label “catholic baptists” in an essay in his co-edited book Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision.  Freeman’s lower-case spelling of “baptists” reflects the usage of James Wm. McClendon, Jr. in his Systematic Theology with reference to a larger pattern of Free Church Christianity of which Baptists, upper-case, are representative.

When I wrote of a “catholicity” towards which I thought Baptists ought to move, I had in mind the ancient sense of the Greek katholike employed by Ignatius of Antioch early in the second century to describe the pattern of an incarnational, sacramental, embodied form of fully orthodox Christian faith and practice that distinguished catholic Christianity from Docetism, Marcionitism, Gnosticism, and all manner of other heresies and sects—a qualitative catholicity.  This is a fuller notion of catholicity than the etymological sense of “pertaining to the whole”—catholicity in a quantitative sense—which is sometimes associated with affirmations of the universal church, understood as all the redeemed of all the ages.

I’d like to ask you about the accessibility of the terminology you and others have used.  Do you feel that the term “catholicity” might ultimately be an impediment to the proposal getting a fair hearing among Baptist laity as well as a number of pastors?  Do you think that the proposals of the programme will be heard over the prejudices that many hold surrounding the root of the word “catholicity”?  If so, do you think that an alternative way of stating the case would be helpful?

Some folks will probably not be able to get past the anti-Catholic prejudices that the term “catholicity” may arouse.  Another of my fellow Baptist theologians has called anti-Catholicism the last remaining acceptable prejudice among Baptists.  I think this prejudice needs to be tackled head-on instead of sidestepping it by employing a less troubling term.  I have similar thoughts about the practice of replacing “catholic” in the Apostles’ Creed with “Christian,” as in “I believe in the holy Christian church.”  When Luther substituted christliche for katholische in the vernacular version of the Creed—a substitution unfortunately retained in the worship books of the Evangelische Kirche in Germany today—he was trying to undercut an association of the church with a particular form of institutional life.  Today it only serves to reinforce anti-Catholicism, I’m afraid.  For that reason, while I was thrilled that the Centenary Baptist World Congress in Birmingham, England in 2005 recited together the Apostles’ Creed as an act of solidarity with the historic and global church (as the first congress of the Baptist World Alliance did in 1905), I was not thrilled with the substitution of “Christian” for “catholic” in the version they recited.  When Alexander Maclaren led the first BWA congress in confessing the Creed, it included the confession of belief in the “holy catholic church.”  We should have done likewise in order to confront anti-Catholicism in our midst instead of acquiescing to it.

On p.19-20 you acknowledge that the “catholic Baptist programme” seems to be being discussed almost exclusively among “academic theologians,” but then you state that it could be that these theologians will ultimately have the greatest effect on whether or not Baptist catholicity ever reaches the laity.  I’m curious to know how hopeful you really are that the proposals of Baptist catholicity will ever receive anything like a widespread hearing among Baptist laity?

This has to happen first in the context of theological education.  The future ministers of the church must be formed in such a manner that they see the need to recover our catholic roots in the worship and Christian education of local congregations.  A few of us are trying to teach with these things in mind; we’ll have to let a future generation be the judge as to whether we’ve succeeded in having some impact.

Is it unfair to suggest that you have introduced a careful and highly nuanced theological proposal in the midst of a church climate that appears to be increasingly a-theological?  Do you think that a great deal of foundation-work is going to have to happen before many are even able to give such a proposal a fair hearing?

The current church climate is indeed increasingly a-theological, and you’re right that this can hinder reception of the book’s proposals.  But I don’t think the solution is necessarily to hold seminary-like theology classes in the local church (though that’s not such a bad idea).  I think that instead of simply emphasizing the teaching of second-order theology in the churches, we need to invest ourselves in doing well the first-order practices that, if done rightly, can be the primary things that form Christians theologically: worship and catechesis, both of which should be informed by good second-order theological reflection even while remaining first-order practices of the church.  But I suppose if that happened, then much of what I hope Baptists will move toward will have happened, whether or not the specific proposals of my book have been received.

You’ve called for a “thick ecumenism” (p.16).  Is “Baptist catholicity” simply a synonym for “Baptist ecumenism”?  I have read one criticism of your work that seems to assume this to be the case.

The recovery of a catholicity to which all other traditions are also heirs does have important ecumenical implications, but it would be wrong to equate my call for “Baptist catholicity” with a mere call for Baptists to have more positive relationships with other Christian traditions.  Many Baptists associate ecumenism with “thin ecumenism,” the unity-via-lowest-common-denominator sort of ecumenism I decry in the book because it takes away any motivation for an earnest contestation of a shared tradition.  For that reason I prefer to write and speak of a Baptist catholicity that involves a thick ecumenism in which the doctrinal reasons for our divisions are not insignificant and must be contested on the basis of a mutual reading of Scripture and the tradition.  Some have called this perspective “particularity in the service of unity.”  I resonate with that, and I would add that an open-minded revisiting of the early history of Baptist particularity will reveal some surprising connections with a more catholic pattern of faith and practice than what now characterizes many expressions of Baptist life today.

You’ve spoken in your book of a “Baptist tradition of dispensing with tradition.”  Are you suggesting that tradition is unavoidable?  Are you suggesting that Baptist churches in fact have a liturgy, a traditioned hermeneutic, a traditioned ecclesiology?  If so, does not the very suggestion of the inescapability of tradition conflict with the frequent Baptist self-designation, “people of the Book”?

In a public radio interview with Jaroslav Pelikan on “The Need for Creeds” a year or two before his death, Pelikan observed that “The only alternative to tradition is bad tradition.”  Baptists do have a tradition at all the points you mention, but I fear that when we claim to be doing without tradition in doing worship, reading the Bible, and advocating a certain form of ecclesiology, we’re doing those things on the basis of very bad sorts of tradition.  In many expressions of Baptist life here, that unacknowledged tradition is a highly individualistic stream within the political tradition of American liberal democracy.

Now to be a “people of the Book” is in fact to be a people committed to a tradition.  To be committed to this Book, and not another book or another variation of that Book, is to be committed to a traditioned faith that has already ruled out Gnosticim, for example, as a viable configuration of faith and practice; thus the Book to which Baptists are committed does not contain the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, or any number of other alternative gospels that ended up in what Robert Grant called the “rubbish heap of the second century.”  A preacher in the most self-consciously progressive Baptist church imaginable is not likely to stand in the pulpit, read a text from the Gospel of Thomas, and then preach a sermon on the basis of that text.  That this is not a likely scenario illustrates the enduring power of the patristic traditions that configured our Bible, even if they are unacknowledged.

In your third chapter, you confront what you call a “radical Sola Scriptura hermeneutic.”  You suggest that this approach to Scripture is, in some sense, the-other-side-of-the-coin of postmodern deconstructionism.  Are you suggesting that the phrase “me and the Bible alone” is, in fact, a heresy?

In making the comparison with deconstructionism, I’m suggesting that certain radical applications of the Sola Scriptura principle treat the classical Christian tradition in precisely the same way that deconstructionism does; the only difference is that the commitment to the authority of Scripture keeps the Bible itself, at least in theory, from being subjected to the same deconstruction.  In both cases the individual who is reading the tradition is superior to the tradition; the tradition has no claim upon the one who interprets it.

“Me and the Bible alone” can lead to heresy if it represents an insistence on determining Christian faith and practice for oneself apart from the larger community that is also under the Lordship of Christ.  Last spring I attended a lecture by Richard Hays, whose New Testament scholarship many Baptists admire, delivered as part of the program of the conference on Preaching, Teaching, and Living the Bible sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and Duke Divinity School.  Dr. Hays’ address had to do with reading the Bible as the authoritative text of the church, and a question from the audience after the address asked about implications for more individualistic approaches to reading the Bible—no mention of Baptists in the phrasing of the question.  Dr. Hays responded, “What some Baptists do with the concept of ‘soul competency’ is a dangerous heresy that the rest of the church ought to resist.”  (My apologies for any inaccuracy in quoting.)  I think he’s right—though I think one can legitimately speak of the competency of the Spirit-empowered, church-equipped, socially-embodied soul.  If that’s what one means by this language, I have no quibble with it.  But if it means something like “All you need is a brain and a Bible,” then I think the end result of that is “All you really need is a brain,” since the Bible in that case will mean whatever you end up deciding it will mean, and this interpretive decision will probably reflect the way you already understood the world quite apart from divine revelation.

On p.43-44 you note that adherence to Sola Scriptura ironically accepts “the authority of at least one post-biblical doctrinal tradition” because it must depend on the Church that canonized said Scripture.  Is it fair to say, then, that all Baptists are, in fact, already catholic in a sense?

Yes—in the sense that the Christian canon (with both Old and New Testaments) is already qualitatively catholic, for it is an anti-Docetic, anti-Marcionite, anti-Gnostic canon.  It is catholic in the Ignatian sense of catholicity I mentioned earlier.  We simply need to be more conscious of the catholicity of our biblical faith.

You say this on p.59:  “The retrieval of tradition does not have to be an uncritical return to past doctrines and practices.”  Does this not open up a Pandora’s box, however, and place the individual above tradition, thereby once again falling into the “Enlightenment individualistic rationalism” that you criticize on p.56?  Will not those whose churches are more consciously associated with “The Great Tradition” see this as a kind of sola-ex-machina whereby we still get to pick and choose at the end of the day when things aren’t to our liking?

I grant that this is a problematic aspect of what I propose, and I have to admit that I’m not entirely comfortable with where this leaves us.  How do we go about determining which aspects of the tradition need retrieving and which ought to be left in the past?  Who should do that?  We run into the question of teaching authority in the church—magisterial authority, in other words.  It may be that communities in the free church tradition will need to look to the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communions for liturgical guidance, for example, rather than borrowing from the liturgical tradition in a very eclectic and idiosyncratic manner.  We could take a cue from Karl Barth’s patterns of interacting with theological dialogue partners in the Church Dogmatics, in which he privileges communal sources—the ecumenical creeds and conciliar decisions—over the contributions of individual theologians.  And it may be that those in the free church tradition should develop the habit of reading papal encyclicals and bishops’ letters as models of communal moral discernment, since we lack a tradition of this sort of ecclesial ethical reflection.  Free church Christians could thus regard the communion of the saints as something like a magisterium of the whole—but that still returns us to the problem of who will decide what to appropriate from these sources of guidance, and how.

You seem to be fairly appreciative of Thomas Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy project, yet you’re uneasy with the blind-spots of the Vincentian Canon (p.48-49).  Is consensus really so elusive?  Has there not been a rather surprising degree of consensus on the core of the faith, “mere Christianity”?

Again, I think Barth offers a model in his handling of the tradition.  And if we take stuff of early Christian doctrine as essentially narrative in character and the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed as concise summaries of the Christian narrative, then I think the creeds should qualify as expressions of fundamental consensus.  The broad outlines of the Christian story, summarized by the creeds still in essentially narrative form, can be considered “mere Christianity.”

I’m curious to know whether or not you are calling for the creation of a new Baptist confession on p.85:  “A Baptist confession conceived as an exposition of the Creed would flesh out the plot of this narrative summary with a Baptist spin on the story.”  Would you like to see this happen?

Baptist confessions have historically sought to accomplish at least two things: to demonstrate to non-Baptists that Baptists are in fact in continuity with historic Christian faith, and at the same time to set forth the points at which Baptists differ from other Christians.  More recent attempts at Baptist confessionalism have tended to be preoccupied with who the “real” Baptists are and have not had the ecumenical audience of the confession in mind.  I don’t know what sort of Baptist ecclesial body would do it or when it could happen, but I would indeed like to see some Baptist group adopt the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed as the expression of the convictions Baptists share with other Christians, supplemented by commentary on the Creed that sets forth distinctively Baptist beliefs and practices.  Some of the European Baptist confessions approach this, notably the confession of the German Baptists that affirms the Apostles’ Creed in the introductory section as a sufficient statement of the beliefs Baptists share with the rest of the church.

It seems to me (in the conversations I’ve had with non-Baptists about your proposals) that baptism, or, more specifically, re-baptism is “ground zero.”  The common sentiment I hear is that any attempt at “catholicity” that would require the re-baptism of somebody who was baptized as a baby is utterly vain.  You seem to be sympathetic to this when you write (p.126):  “At the very least, the ancient Christian consensus on the unrepeatability of baptism ought to give Baptist congregations pause before quickly requiring those whose infant baptism in another Christian communion was joined with subsequent faith to be re-baptized when joining a Baptist congregation…”  What will you say to the Baptist who says that this is not, strictly speaking, re-baptism since the person was never baptized in the first place?  Do you not have to sacrifice a Baptist distinctive in order to even use the phrase “re-baptize”?

I myself am convinced that Baptists ought to commit themselves to the call for mutual recognition of baptisms issued in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (WCC, 1982) and embrace the theological rationale offered therein for mutual recognition.  Not all Baptists agree, and I grant that most early Baptists (with a notable exception—see below) would disagree with this.  But if what the early Baptists insisted on was a baptism joined with personal faith, and they were convinced that Anglican infant baptisms, for example, did not always join the act with personal faith, then there may be more room for convergence on the basis of historic Baptist principles than one might imagine.  BEM insists that infant baptism must be joined with subsequent personal faith; for that matter, the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that infant baptism must be joined with subsequent personal faith.  With this we can agree, and on the basis of this we ought to be able to say, “we recognize your baptism as a valid baptism.”  If we do not, then we are really saying, “your church that administered your baptism is not a valid church,” and if we do not believe their church is not a valid church, then the theological implication of this is that we do not really believe they are truly Christians.  Much has been made in the media about recent re-assertions of the Catholic teaching that ecclesial communities not in communion with Rome are not, strictly speaking, churches in the fullest sense.  But the fact remains that if I decided to seek reception into the fellowship of the Roman Catholic Church, I would not be re-baptized; I would only be chrismated, and my Baptist baptism would be regarded as a valid baptism, as an instance of the one baptism of the church.

How sympathetic are you to early Baptist attempts (i.e., John Bunyan) and modern attempts (i.e. John Piper) at removing re-baptism as a condition for membership in a Baptist church?

See above!

I take it that “closed communion” is utterly incompatible with “Baptist catholicity”?

Not necessarily.  The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, it should be noted, are also “closed communion.”  Whatever else may be said about the Landmark Baptist tradition, its emphasis on closed communion represented a high view of the importance of the sacraments—or “ordinances”—of baptism and the Lord’s Supper for the life of the community, and I respect that.  Nevertheless, I myself do advocate that Baptist churches invite all baptized Christians to participate in the supper.

You say on p.152-153 that the “greatest contribution that a Baptist retrieval of patristic Christianity may make to the renewal of contemporary Baptist life is not through the retrieval of specific patristic theological perspectives…but rather through the recovery of worship as the primary means by which people are formed in deeply Christian faith and practice, accompanied by the recovery of particular patterns and practices of worship that are patristic in origin yet have great potential for forming the contemporary faith of the church.”  Why worship instead of theological renewal?

Theological renewal is indispensable, but unless that translates into a renewal of worship so that the practices of worship form Christians deeply in the faith, the average layperson who will never go to seminary but who will attend Sunday worship faithfully will remain unaffected by theological renewal.

Do you find it odd that many Baptist churches celebrate Mother’s Day with a passion bordering on violent, but not Lent?

Indeed I do.  I’ll do you one better: frequently Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost, coincides with Fathers’ Day.  Guess which one gets attention and which gets ignored?  And the result, of course, is that most Baptists have heard little, if anything, in church about the concept of God that sets the Christian understanding of God apart from all other understandings of the divine.  As fellow Baptist theologian Curtis Freeman has observed, “Most Baptists are really Unitarians who haven’t yet gotten around to denying the Trinity.”

You have called for a measured-sacramentalism regarding the Lord’s Supper.  Do you feel that Zwinglianism has had a hold on Baptists for too long?

I would be happy if Baptists would only recover the fully-orbed sacramental theology of Zwingli himself, who would never have claimed that the supper is “merely symbolic,” as have not a few modern (and mostly American) Baptists.  For Zwingli, there is an inseparable bond between the symbol and the thing signified.  The reductionistic version of Zwinglian memorialism embraced by many recent Baptists breaks that bond and reduces the bread and wine to nothing more than symbols.  Interestingly enough, Calvin had a much richer sacramental theology that featured a form of real presence that didn’t depend on an Aristotelian metaphysic of substance, and there are possibilities for retrieving this from the stream of the early Baptist tradition that was more heavily influenced by Calvin’s theology.

I’m deeply appreciative of your work here and am thankful that you’ve taken the time for this interview.  I wonder if you could close by sharing your own thoughts about the future of Baptist theology and church life.  What hopes do you have for the spread of “Baptist catholicity”?  How optimistic are you?  What do you see on the horizon?

And I’m grateful for your interest in my book.  I have no aspirations of launching a movement; in Towards Baptist Catholicity I have reported some surprising trends in that direction among Baptist theologians and situated my own work within those trends.  Since the publication of the book, however, I’ve received correspondence from quite a few Baptist Ph.D. students in theology and related disciplines out there who found that I named some perspectives at which they’d arrived independently.  And this is happening not just among Baptists proper, but in other free church/evangelical traditions as well.  The last few years the Evangelical Theological Society has sponsored a patristics working group at their annual meeting, and more and more seminary students from those traditions are choosing to go on to do Ph.D. studies in patristics.  This really wasn’t happening before the past decade; who knows where it will lead?  I’m encouraged by the possibilities.

2 thoughts on “Baptist Catholicity with Dr. Steve Harmon

  1. Would there also be Baptist Priests?
    Would this effect the priesthood of believers?
    Could this be a stream of larger Baptist Community, similar to what Anglo-Catholic is to the Episcopal/Anglican communions.
    Could there be an Evangelical community of Monks and Nuns?
    I for one Baptist would be excited to see such an expression of Baptist Christianity. I do think this would cause much excitement. If this God’s will it will happen. If not then some people are wasting a lot of time.

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