Johan Huizinga’s Erasmus and the Age of Reformation

869817Johan Huizinga’s Erasmus and the Age of Reformation (which can be had free for Kindle here) is a fascinating, well-researched, and engagingly-told tale of one of the most famed intellectuals ever to live.  The 15th/16th century humanist Desiderius Erasmus, self-styled as Erasmus of Rotterdam, was the illegitimate son of a priest.  He possessed a stunning mind, a sincere love of Christ, an independent spirit, and a desire to see Europe return ad fontes and usher in a return to classical learning, ordered society, a love of pure learning, and an appreciation of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.  He was also, as Huizinga tells the story, arrogant, thin-skinned, probably a hypochondriac, overly-obsessed with cleanliness, unable to admit when he was wrong, quick to offend and quick to be offended, a person who lived so much in the via media on so many of the crucial theological and ecclesiological issues of the day that he was unable to take strong stands when such were needed, lacking in courage, and not above manipulating people for money.

All of that is to say, Erasmus was a human being.

Erasmus was a Catholic though many of his works would later be put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by the Catholic church.  His Greek translation of the New Testament played a significant role in the Protestant Reformation, and in the development of New Testament studies in general.  He initially had some sympathies with Luther, yet Erasmus eventually recoiled in horror at Luther and his work and even entered into intense debate with Luther on the question of the will.  (Interestingly, Huizinga tells us that Erasmus was ill-equipped to enter into that debate, did not really even understand the issues involved, and was essentially bested by Luther.)  There were times when Erasmus was being harangued by Protestants and Catholics alike.  Perhaps he still is.  (A friend mentioned to me that Erasmus was brought out for a thrashing at the Together for the Gospel conference last week.  On the other hand, Baptist theologian Timothy George wrote an interesting essay largely commending Erasmus in First Things a few weeks back.)  His debate with Luther officially and openly placed him on the Catholic side, though many within Catholicism remained very skeptical of him.

Erasmus simply could not understand how his translation of the New Testament upset so many.  He approached the work, he said, objectively and wondered aloud how working to bring an uncorrupted and more accurate translation of the scriptures to the public could be seen as anything but commendable. In this, he showed an astounding naiveté to the dynamics of how people viewed and felt about scripture.  Or perhaps he was fully aware of these after all?

Erasmus basically moved about Europe soliciting the benevolent care of various rulers and ecclesiastics he felt might be sympathetic to him.  When challenged to settle down in a stable home, he countered that he was emulating the best elements of antiquity through his nomadic life of learning and writing.  He could be bitingly critical of those whom he felt had failed to feed and clothe him properly and especially of places and meals that he felt were dirty or uncouth.  (Huizinga offers a telling little collection of Erasmus’ letters at the end of the book that illustrate this point very effectively.)  He saw himself as a shining star of wisdom and wit and erudition and, at his best, he played the role well.  He truly was prodigious.  He was friends with intellectual greats like Thomas More and with popes and primates and kings and princes.  He was offered numerous offices and comfortable livings in the Church and refused them all.  Early in life, he entered the monastery but then came to hate the very idea of it.  He eventually was officially released from his monastic vows upon his request.

He spent his life writing, often in printers’ offices, and overseeing the publication of his works, or condemning the shoddy or unauthorized publication of his works, or defending himself in debates against his detractors, or writing letters voluminously and exhaustively about his own life (referring to himself in the third person a little too often for modern sensibilities).

What to make of Erasmus?  There is much to admire and emulate:  his mind, his work habits, his independence of thought, his ability to see the problems within his own ecclesial home, and his courage in naming aloud the problems in print, oftentimes at great personal risk.  There is also much to regret and avoid:  his elitism, his selfishness, his arrogance, his lack of courage, his refusal to take real and risky steps on the basis of what he knew and saw, his reticence to act, his snobbishness, and his over-simplicity and narrow-mindedness concerning the world and church affairs and problems.

Erasmus had an over-inflated view of his own importance to world history…yet here I am, five hundred years later, typing a blog-post about him.  The University of Toronto Press is publishing his complete works, a project that will eventually result in over eighty volumes.

For all of his faults, I do appreciate a great deal about Erasmus.  It was a big age of big characters who had big virtues and also big problems.  But it was indeed an age of giants.  And among them, the name of Erasmus continues on.  There is much about him that needs to be remembered and even imitated today.

Ole Erasmus would like that a great deal!

St. Patrick: His Confession and Other Works

St-Patrick-9780899421810Here is a beautiful and powerful little collection of works by and about St. Patrick.  I have thoroughly enjoyed and been inspired by this collection and highly recommend it. St. Patrick: His Confession and Other Works contains Patrick’s Confessio and his open Letter to Coroticus, the two writings that are accepted as coming authentically from Patrick’s pen.

Patrick’s Confessio is a moving if brief overview of his life written late in his life at a time when his detractors were seeking to undermine his reputation.  Obviously, this wounded Patrick, but his Confessio does not bear the marks of bitterness or some petty need to level the books.  Rather, this confession reads like a work of praise for the marvelous things that God had done throughout Patrick’s amazing life.  It is a compelling chronicle of one man’s conversion and clear sense of calling.  Patrick showed a courage throughout his life, particularly in his evangelistic efforts, that will not fail to inspire the modern reader.  His humility is apparent and also quite moving to see.  It is not that Patrick did not have a sense of just what God had accomplished through him.  It is just that Patrick did not see this as evidence of his own greatness but rather of God’s.

The Letter to Coroticus is a blistering broadside against a Roman British General who had come to Ireland and either killed or carried into slavery numerous Irish people, many of whom had been recently baptized.  Patrick rebukes Coroticus and all who showed him favor, pointing out that for any Christian to participate in the enslavement and murder of his brothers and sisters in Christ was a crime of unimaginable evil.  Even so, Patrick calls Coroticus and his men to repentance, a fact, the editor points out, that led to the idea of perpetual repentance within Catholic theology as opposed to a one time repentance for all pre-baptismal sins.

Patrick Francis Cardinal Moran’s biography of Patrick is also included in this volume and it is extremely well done, concise, and inspiring.  He includes Patrick’s “Breastplate” or “Lorica” prayer, which is just absolutely beautiful.  There are also a few other documents included as well that would be more interesting to Catholic readers than they were to me.

This is a nice little collection, and a great introduction to the life of St. Patrick of Ireland.

Two helpful Resources on Erasmus of Rotterdam

I’ve been thinking about Erasmus a good bit lately and have been reading his Paraphrase on Mark as I preach through that great gospel.  Erasmus of Rotterdam was a fascinating figure.  Timothy George published an interesting article on him in First Things a few weeks ago.  Also, here is an interesting podcast on his life and work from October 2014.

“Chesterton and the Baptists”: A New Article

GKCover300The Chesterton Review has published an article I have written entitled “Chesterton and the Baptists” in Volume 41, Issue 3/4, Fall/Winter 2015.  As it is currently for sale only, I will not post it here, but it can be purchased here if you are interested.  I have also updated the sidebar publications menu to include this article.

It was joy to be able to look more closely at what G.K. Chesterton had to say about Baptists.  I am grateful to The Chesterton Review for publishing it.

Garry Wills’ Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, & the Mystery of Baptism

Here is a fascinating, insightful work on a particular little slice of church history.  Garry Wills’ Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, & the Mystery of Baptism explores the nature of 4th century baptism in Milan and in Hippo through the stories of the two figures that dominated those two cities in that time:  Ambrose and Augustine, respectively.  The book also explores the complex relationship between Ambrose and Augustine and how, over time, Augustine was driven to a more explicit appreciation for Ambrose as he, Augustine, conflicted with the Pelagians (who likewise attempted to appeal to Ambrose).

The baptismal details are utterly fascinating.  Wills demonstrates Ambrose’s almost theatrical approach to the act of baptism with persuasive detail.  This is not to say that Ambrose indulged in empty, cheap theatrics.  Rather, it is simply to say that Ambrose developed a much more exhaustive, detailed and visual pageantry around the act than Augustine would after his departure from Milan for Hippo.  To some extent, Ambrose’s approach to baptism was shaped by his battle with the Arians just as Augustine’s will be by his battles with the Donatists and Pelagians.  Augustine’s more scaled-back approach would also be influenced by the more rustic and less-sophisticated nature of Hippo itself, in contrast to Milan.

As a Baptist Christian, the details of the baptismal practices of both men challenged me in many ways.  On the one hand, the seriousness with which they approached the preparatory rites for the catechumens has caused me to think long and hard about the amount of care we take in preparing people for baptism today.  While Ambrose’s approach was more exhaustive on the front end, he also held to an inappropriate (if I dare say it) degree of progressive revelation concerning the mysteries of the faith, many of which were only revealed in more detail after the act.  Augstine’s pre-baptism activities were less detailed overall but more forthright and, in this sense, preferable to Ambrose’s.  I was also appreciative of Augustine’s freedom of thought in not tying the act of baptism so stridently to Easter and being willing to baptize whenever it was needed.  In short, there was, I think, I kind of helpful reductionism in Augustine’s approach to baptism whereby he honed the act more succintly and more strategically (a relative term, I know) than Ambrose’s more flamboyant approach.

The relationship between the two men was very interesting, as Wills demonstrates with great effect.  In fact, it is legitimate to ask whether or not there really was a “relationship” per se between Ambrose and Augustine at all.  The younger Augustine found Ambrose to be an admirable, imposing but somewhat aloof character as he prepared for his own baptism at the Milanese bishop’s hands.  One can feel the frustration in Augustine’s complaint that all he wanted was a few minutes with the bishop to ask some important questions, but also the admiration in Augustine that the bishop was so busy and so focused in handling the behemoth amount of tasks before him that he could not grant such coveted one-on-one time.  Augustine appears to have shaped some of his ecclesiastical practices in contrast to Ambrose, but there is no real hint that this is done vapidly or merely to make a point.  Again, Augustine’s circumstances and the nature of North African Christianity played their own parts here.

In the end, Augustine is driven back to an appreciation for Ambrose and employs the man’s name and writings effectively in his battle with the Pelagians.  While a skeptical reading of this may suggest that Augustine simply needed Ambrose’s name, it seems evident enough that, despite their differences, Ambrose did indeed leave a significant mark on Augustine that lasted throughout Augustine’s life.

This is a wonderful and very insightful book on a fascinating period in Christian history.  Check it out.

Christopher Buckley’s Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir

Losing Mum and Pup is Christopher Buckley’s memoir about the experience of losing both of his parents within a one year period.  Buckley is the only son of conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. (WFB) and Priscilla Buckley.  Christopher is a famous author in his own right, writing primarily comic novels.  I know much less about Christopher than I do WFB (and I certainly don’t claim to know just lots and lots about WFB!), but what he’s written here is a fascinating, troubling, hilarious, and, at times, pitiful depiction of the death of a famous man and his almost equally famous wife.

I’ve been a big fan of WFB for a long time, as I suppose most people who are politically conservative are to varying extents.  I’ve never drunk the WFB koolaid, mind you, and I have likewise found reasons to disagree with him here and there over the years.  But WFB was an absolutely fascinating figure with an enthralling command of the english language.  One of the greatest reads I ever had was his collection of speeches, Let Us Talk of Many Things.  Also, if you ever saw Buckley on Firing Line or have seen him on interviews, you know that his unique cadence of speech, his verbal tics, and his unique viewpoints made him a man worthy of consideration, if not always agreement.

Christopher Buckley’s memoir paints a picture of WFB that is part indictment, part confession, and part admiration.  I’ll give Buckley this:  while some of his criticisms of his father left me feeling uncomfortable, he managed to avoid the kind of spleen-emptying vitriolic snideness and immaturity that Frank Schaeffer lapsed into in the hit-piece he penned about his own parents, Crazy for God.

Buckley paints a picture of a larger-than-life man who had larger-than-life shortcomings, but his portrait really is couched in a kind of consistent awe and admiration at the amazing journey of being WFB’s son.

A few thoughts stand out after reading this book:

  • Fame is apparently addictive, as evidenced by the pitiful revelation that WFB had set up Google alerts to let him know of the latest news about himself on the web.  (This surprised me for some reason.)
  • Alcohol appears to have played a huge role in the life of the Buckley family.
  • Some of Christopher’s criticisms seem appropriate (WFB’s absence from key moments of his life because of his own weird impulses), others seem humorous (WFB’s absurd control of the TV remote control), and others seem petty and unnecessary.

In terms of writing, Cristopher Buckley can be side-splittingly funny.  Ask Mrs. Richardson, who guffawed (to the extent, that is, that Mrs. Richardson can ever be said to “guffaw”) through long stretches of this book as I read it to her.  (The phrase “he is a river for his people” will just about make you lose it when you read it in the context provided by Buckley in this memoir).

Tragically, however, Christopher Buckley is somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist, and the book returns again and again to the conflict between his own loss of faith and his father’s admittedly idiosyncratic Christianity.  Christopher is good friends with Christopher Hitchens (he of God Is Not Greatinfamy) and, at points, it shows.

Christopher honestly recounts his growing doubts concerning Christianity as well as his father’s efforts to keep him in the faith.  Even so, Buckley ultimately makes a break with Christianity:

“This was not the moment to break what remained of his heart by telling him that although I greatly admired the teachings of Jesus, I had long ago stopped believing that he had risen from the dead; it’s an honest enough doubt, really, but one that rather undercuts the supernatural aspect of Christianity.”

At the very least, it must be stated that Christopher Buckley does understand the theological importance of the doctrines he is rejecting, as opposed to, say, certain liberal theologians who do not.  And yet there is a kind of reserve and self-reflection in Buckley’s disbelief that is utterly lacking in Hitchens’.   For instance, Buckley seems to quote H.L. Mencken’s absurd statement approvingly when he writes:

H. L. Mencken, to whose writings Pup introduced me, was proudly atheist but wrote that “If I am wrong, I will square myself when confronted in afterlife by the apostles with the simple apology, ‘Gentlemen, I was wrong.’”

Twice in the book Christopher recounts a sense of deep wondering about whether or not his father might really be in Heaven, and twice Christopher imagines his father interceding for him with St. Peter at the gates of Heaven.

“That night, going to sleep, I looked out the window and the thought invariably came, So, Pup, was it true, after all? Is there a heaven? Are you in it? For all my doubts, I hoped he was. If he was, then at least I stood some chance of being admitted on a technicality, with the host of Firing Line up there arguing my case. I doubt St. Peter was any match for him.”

And again:

“Yesterday, I was driving behind a belchy city bus on the way back from the grocery store and suddenly found myself thinking (not for the first time) about whether Pup is in heaven. He spent so much of his life on his knees in church, so much of his life doing the right thing by so many people, a million acts of generosity. I’m—I shouldn’t use the word—dying of curiosity: How did it turn out, Pup? Were you right after all? Is there a heaven? Is Mum there with you? (Grumbling, almost certainly, about the “inedible food.”) And if there is a heaven and you are in it, are you thinking, Poor Christo—he’s not going to make it. And is Mum saying, Bill, you have got to speak to that absurd creature at the Gates and tell him he’s got to admit Christopher. It’s too ridiculous for words. Even in my dreams, they’re looking after me. So perhaps one is never really an orphan after all.”

All of this is presumably intended to be humorous, to an extent.  And yet reading this work as a believer one so desperately hopes that Christopher will come again to know that there is both a Heaven and an Intercessor…though that intercessor is not his father, but the Father’s Son.

And the Son has a made a way, even for Christopher Buckley.

A fascinating and winsome read this was.  As far as shedding light on the persona of WFB, you cannot put it down.  In terms of how it reveals where Christopher Buckley is in life, it is sad.

On a personal level, this book cautioned me as a father to value my daughter and spend the time with her that she rightfully deserves.  It also made me evaluate my own life and how I treat my family.

I don’t know that I’d recommend this book for everybody, but I’m glad I read it.

Gabriele Amorth’s An Exorcist Tells His Story

Books on demonology must be approached with a great deal of care. Those who write with an excessive interest in the subject are too often shown to have commerce, not sound theology, on their minds. Some of the most popular Protestant writers on the subject have been discredited and shown to be nothing more than swindlers – hucksters trafficking in sensational tales of the demonic that, upon investigation, prove to be merely the inventions of creative minds. However, the untrustworthiness of many in this field does not excuse us from being serious about the subject or from trying to find works that can be beneficial to our understanding of demonology.

Enter Gabriele Amorth. Amorth is the student of the late Catholic Exorcist, Candido Amantini, who, Amorth explains, “was the only person in the world who could claim an experience of thirty-six years as a full-time exorcist.” (p13) Currently, Amorth is billed as “the Chief Exorcist of Rome.”

He is writing here as a Roman Catholic whose primary concern is the Church of Rome’s failure to take the reality of demon possession seriously. He argues throughout that Bishops must return to a Scriptural understanding of the subject and, furthermore, must begin training and appointing Exorcists once more.

As a Protestant, there are many things in this book that I reject. The use of holy water during the exorcism, the advice to call upon Mary for her protection and help (Amorth has written four books about Mary), and the use of the Roman ritual of exorcism.

That being said, I will still recommend this book to any who would like a serious, pastoral discussion on demon possession. While Amorth is certainly a Roman Catholic writer, he is not an anti-Protestant writer. In fact, Amorth praises Protestants for having taken the issue much more seriously than Catholics and for being very effective in this area. I am not sure I agree with his assessment, but I do appreciate his honesty.

We make take many of Amorth’s concerns and apply them to the Body of Christ at large. Demonology has for too long been shrugged off by the arrogant naturalism of skeptics in the church. On the other hand, it has also been too long squandered and abused by sensationalists who play fast with the truth.

Amorth’s voice stands in the midst of this abuse and calls for understanding. His handling of the inevitable issue of demon possession versus mental instability is masterful. Yes, many (and, Amorth says, most) of those who claim to be demon possessed are not, but some are, and while we must approach each case with wisdom and reason, we must not jettison a Biblical belief in the reality of demon possession in the process. Some people are victims of our adversary who can only be freed by the authority of the name of Christ in the act of Exorcism.

Having been disillusioned myself some years ago by authors on this subject (ever hear of Mike Warnke? Good.), it is refreshing to find a writer who approaches the issue with sensitivity, faith, reason and pastoral care. I have never ceased to believe in the reality of demon possession. And, while I have only encountered one case that I suspect was possession, I cannot help but believe that the spiritual war about which Scripture speaks continues to be waged all around us. Let us be thankful, then, for men such as Gabriele Amorth who take the battle seriously. It is not until we begin to do so as well that we will see victory.

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.