An Electronic Baptist Journal Bridging Yesterday and Today
[Vol. 12, No. 11]
Editor: Bruce T. Gourley, executive director, Baptist History and Heritage Society
The Baptist Studies Bulletin (BSB) is a free online journal produced by the Baptist History and Heritage Society (BH&HS) and offering scholarly analysis, informed editorials, book reviews, and special features for subscribers. You may access previous issues to or subscribe or unsubscribe from the BSB. Republishing of articles is allowed, but please provide credit and a link back to the Baptist Studies Bulletin.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
“The Baptist Calling”
Part Three: Living in Community
by Bruce T. Gourley
Theological Method: Give it a Spin (Part Four)
by Richard F. Wilson
“Book Notes: An End-of-the-Year Compilation of Interesting Books”
Compiled by Bruce T. Gourley
THE BAPTIST CALLING
Part Three: Living in Community
by Bruce T. Gourley
This is a series focused on how Baptists are called to live out their faith. Click here for the introduction to this series, entitled “Beyond Belief”.
The Baptist story began in 1609 with the conviction that God alone is lord of the conscience and therefore freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all persons is a God-given right that neither governmental nor ecclesiastical authorities may violate. As such, the Baptist calling begins with the essence of the God-created human being, the conscience.
Focused on the other from their beginnings, early Baptists scandalized Christendom by demanding freedom of conscience and religion for everyone, including Muslims and atheists, a stance for which Baptist co-founder Thomas Helwys was imprisoned by King James I and died while incarcerated.
Yet the Baptist calling did not, and does not, stop with freedom. While freedom of conscience and religion was due all, not all could be Baptists. Being Baptist involved living in a voluntary community of faith defined by, but not confined to, certain core biblical convictions and practices. Personal faith in Christ as Lord, believer’s baptism, belief in the Bible as spiritually authoritative, a commitment to basic individual freedoms, the spiritual equality and priesthood of all believers, and the autonomous, democratically-governed local church as the fundamental expression of corporate faith collectively characterized Baptist community.
The concept of a voluntary personal profession of faith in Christ as Lord and Savior prior to baptism and central to salvation countered a long-held orthodox narrative of baptism as salvific grace, to be administered upon infants by law. The Roman Catholic Church, in collaboration with the Roman Empire and its successors, had for over a millennia taught, demanded and enforced infant baptism. In turn, the Reformers and the Church of England retained infant baptism, associating infant baptism with salvation, but not as the means of salvation. Nonetheless, they demanded and enforced infant baptism by law. The early Baptists, discarding orthodoxy and focusing on scripture in rejecting infant baptism and requiring a profession of faith before baptism, taught that baptism was available only to voluntary believers, and that Christian community was comprised only of baptized believers. To Baptists, Christian community was separate from earthly citizenship and admission was voluntary, rather than coerced by ecclesiastical or governmental authorities. For their unacceptable form of religious community, Baptists were severely persecuted by Christian governments on both sides of the Atlantic, the persecution in colonial America lasting into the 1770s.
Early Baptist communities, comprised of baptized believers, also held in common a belief in the spiritual authority of scripture. Only in the past two centuries had scripture become accessible to common folk, a development that made possible both the birth of Baptists and their commitment to the primacy of scripture. Ancient church creeds, politically-facilitated documents to which Christians historically were required to submit and that abetted church state alliances (and were historically used as tools to persecute and even execute those deemed as heretics by the church state alliances), lacked authority in Baptist communities, were intentionally absent in the worship and functioning of local congregations, and little utilized by individual Baptists. The Bible alone was deemed sufficient in Baptist life, and individuals (and groups of individuals) were allowed to interpret scripture and even compose their own statements of faith, typically known as confessions (defined, in essence, as a non-binding statement of faith that spoke only for those who had composed it, and was a reflection of the circumstances and time during which it had been written). Some Baptist communities encouraged the study of commentaries and other peripheral material in order to better interpret scripture, while others discouraged such practices. Regardless, Baptist communities understood the Bible as their only authoritative written guide to spiritual faith and practice.
A commitment to basic individual freedoms of professing Baptist Christians also characterized early Baptist communities. Joining the community was voluntary, as was leaving the Baptist family: that is, a given Baptist congregation could vote to expel a member, but could not decree the offender to be not of the Baptist faith. The voluntary nature of community participation reflected Jesus’ emphasis on voluntary faith. Within the Baptist family at large, individuals were allowed to think, speak, live and interpret the Bible according to their own conscience. Baptists of like mind and doctrine, not surprisingly, often coalesced into local communities reflective, and sometimes protective, of certain beliefs and/or practices. The earliest Baptists were Arminian in theology, with Calvinist Baptist congregations emerging three decades later. Since that time, Baptist theology has become increasingly diverse. With individual freedom foundational to the Baptist family, all manner of theological, social, cultural and political thought and practice has been and remains evident within Baptist life. Today’s Baptist family is represented by some 250 different groups of Baptists, some of which are so different in terms of belief-systems that they seem barely related to one another. It may well be true that Baptists are the most diverse religious group in the world.
In addition, Baptist belief in the Reformation concept of the priesthood of all believers (see 1 Peter 2:5-9) was foundational to spiritual equality in early Baptist communities. Among the earliest Baptists this commitment found expression in the acceptance of women deacons and the placement of the preacher on equal footing, literally, with the remainder of the congregation during worship services. As late as the second half of the 19th century, many Baptist congregations in America selected their preachers on an annual basis by congregational vote, often choosing someone from within their midst to serve for the year. In practice, however, Baptists’ belief in spiritual equality has advanced haltingly over their four hundred-plus years of existence. Historically in America, women preachers were uncommon while black believers were often viewed to be inferior by dominate white believers. Today, spiritual equality is more pronounced in most, but not all, of the Baptist family.
Finally, early Baptists’ commitment to individual freedom translated directly into autonomous local congregations governed by democratic polity under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a New Testament model of community. Community autonomy and democracy, to be sure, was messy from the beginning. Rejecting outside ecclesial and civil authority in church governance, each Baptist congregation governed internally by democratic processes. For purposes of governance, the pastor was allowed the same one vote as every other church member. Baptist congregations thus modeled an early form of modern democracy in which–spiritually aside–personalities, powers of persuasion, clearness of arguments and the context of the times collectively impacted community direction and decisions. But unlike secular democracy, faith and scripture provided the foundation of Baptist community decision-making. Also, in the course of time many Baptist individuals and congregations created external structures–such as associations, societies and conventions–that expanded Baptist community through collaboration, while yet maintaining the primacy of the local congregation.
In short, the early Baptist commitment to God-endowed individual freedom of conscience led Baptists to redefine and shape Christian community in a powerful way that underscored biblical commitment over and above common historical practice. While it was far from clear in their early days as to whether Baptists would long survive alongside the historically coercive, dominant forms of Christian community, in time their freedom-centric model of community transformed Christendom and the world.
Note: For a historical primer on the story of Baptists as pertains to community, see Bill Leonard’s Baptist Ways: A History or C. Douglas Weaver’s In Search of the New Testament Church: The Baptist Story.
Next month — The Baptist Calling: Striving for Human Equality
Rick Wilson is a teaching theologian at Mercer University, where he is chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity. Rick also is the current chair of the Commission on Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance, and a member of the First Baptist Church of Christ at Macon, Georgia, where he has served as a deacon and a Sunday School teacher. His passions include the post-war recovery of Liberia, creative cooking, and the mysteries of professional baseball.
Last month this column was a continuation of the August and September columns making good on a promise. Over three months I confessed my unwitting trajectory from Enlightenment rigidity in matters of theological method, especially the attempt to compartmentalize the so-called “sources of theology” into the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (WQ) of “scripture, reason, tradition, and experience,” toward a more-nearly dynamic articulation of sources that underscores how such sources are multivalent. I suggested that rather than distinct sources, there are, instead different contexts in which all sources are pondered.
My alternative to the WQ is to identify the “complex matter of a lively mind (cognitive), a lively tradition (corporate), and a lively experience (charismatic)” that constantly are informed by and are informing theological reflection, speech, and applications.
The continuing promise, then, is a bold attempt to take up one of these lively contexts each month with the hope of clarifying my claim that all sources used in theological reflection, speech, and applications are multivalent.
Since I refuse to rank the WQ and prefer to see the dynamism of contextual integration, I had no option but to spin my teaching tool to see which context—corporate, charismatic, or cognitive—would occupy my writing for each month.
The starting point this month is the Charismatic; already we have spun the pinwheel twice and, so, only the Charismatic remains.
Each month Martin Luther has been something of a poster child for our explorations. That seemed right, given that we were building toward October and the inevitable reminders of the Reformation and its legacy. As we end our explorations, Reformation Day is a memory as lively as the contextual reconsideration of theological sources we have been pursuing.
Once more, Luther’s life mirrors and focuses the challenges of engaging sources without codifying them and setting barriers between and among them.
Among vignettes in theological biographies there is none so dramatic as young Luther caught in a thunderstorm, fearing for his life, crying out, “Help me, St. Anne! I will become a monk!” History or legend, it makes no difference. In one figure—Martin Luther—we see the crashing intersections of history (corporate), reason (cognitive), and a palpable me-ness (charismatic). Under duress, even the threat of death, Luther cried out to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin, to save him. Recognizing the anachronism, I ask: “How could anything have been more existential?!”
There is yet another legend from Luther’s life that raises the Charismatic to a climactic moment. Despite his doubts about his promise to St. Anne, Luther did become a monk and invested himself in study that lifted him to prominence in his day and beyond.
What we know is that in addition to Luther’s struggles with what he found in the biblical texts, specifically what he thought was Paul’s core teaching of justification by grace through faith, he also was in a protracted struggle with his own body.
Luther himself contributes to the legend that he suffered with chronic constipation, even as he struggled to understand “not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
Luther in the loo is a metaphor for the relief of the Reformation. His mortal, physical relief allowed him to move, at least, from experience to doctrine to the reformation of tradition.
To revisit the question, above, “How could anything have been more existential?!” I must say: “Luther in the loo.” Fear—the thunderstorm—drove Luther to the monastery. There he discovered, shall we say, a blockage between what he was taught in the tradition and what he experienced through his own reason and reflection. Luther passed the challenge, so to say, and came to a new awareness of how his traditional (Corporate) understanding and his reason (Cognitive) reflection were made more clear through his intimate experiences (Charismatic).
Looking backwards and forward from Luther we may see a similar development. The biblical Job challenges the efficiency of traditional readings of sacred texts. At least Job is a challenge rooted in experience (Charismatic) to the staid interpretations (Cognitive) and theological responses (Corporate) to day-to-day experiences (again, Charismatic).
Job is, at least, a critique of the shortcomings of tradition (Corporate) as a way to address the present reality (Charismatic).
I commend readers to explore, also, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s On Job as a contemporary example of how the Charismatic—both in personal (Gutiérrez) and “the poor” who are his ever-present partners in theological transformation—guides and illuminates one facet of the multivalent context in when theology grows and changes.
Whirrr. Click, click, click.
So, the dance continues. Charismatic. Cognitive. Corporate.
Books worthy of your reading
Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975
by Carolyn Renée Dupont
Publisher: New York University Press, 2013 (book webpage)
The author of this recently-published volume has mined archival material pertaining to local Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian congregations in Civil Rights-era Mississippi and produced a compelling new argument: namely, that southern white religion was not, as many other scholars have argued, captive to and uneasy with a racist and segregated culture, but instead (at least in the case of Mississippi) held firmly to a self-serving Christian theology that aided and abetted a culture of racial segregation.
Dupont’s narrative is a story that, albeit painful, needed telling. Portrayed vividly are the extraordinary efforts of Mississippi’s white evangelicals to deny public equality and a seat in white churches to the state’s black residents. From the distance of half-a-century, the evil committed by many of Mississippi’s white Baptists (as well as Methodists and Presbyterians) is obvious. Just as stark is Dupont’s depiction of the whites-only Gospel that defined Mississippi’s Christianity from the Civil War through the 1960s. This is must-reading for students of both the Civil Rights era and the rise of the white Religious Right that followed.
A Choosing People: The History of Seventh Day Baptists (Second Edition, Revised and Updated)
by Don A. Sanford
Publisher: Mercer University Press, 2012 (book webpage)
Originally published in 1992, this is the tenth anniversary revised and updated version of the hallmark history of Seventh Day Baptists, a distinctive group within the Baptist family that worships on the biblical sabbath, rather than on Sunday. Sanford illuminates significant persons, movements, themes, events and denominational trajectories in an engaging and authoritative narrative.
Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America
by Michael I. Meyerson
Publisher: Yale University Press, 2012 (book webpage)
Meyerson, Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law and Piper & Marbury Faculty Fellow, University of Baltimore School of Law, takes the middle road in the ever-present church state conundrum in America. His examination of the founders’ “original intent” leads to the conclusion that while America was founded upon the principle of church state separation, public expressions of inclusive and nonsectarian religion were utilized to help unify the nation. Meyerson repeatedly turns to the writings of Baptist evangelist and church state separation champion John Leland, offering further evidence that the post-Revolutionary era Baptist leader is experiencing a renaissance in the early 21st century.
Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith
by Fred Bahnson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2013 (book webpage)
Bahnson is the director of Wake Forest University School of Divinity’s pioneering Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative. In this personal journey of spirituality and community, Bahnson finds within the tilling of soil a sustainability of body, soul and human relationships. At a time when so much of the human experience in the Western world is cloistered by technology, Bahnson calls us “back to the land” in the form of community gardens as a way of rediscovering ourselves and reconciling with others. This is a volume that will make your re-evaluate how you are living your life.
A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice: Second Revised Edition
by Norman H. Maring and Winthrop S. Hudson; David Gregg, editor
Publisher: Judson Press, 2012 (book webpage)
This revised, 50th anniversary edition of the original classic was published because the majority of American Baptists today did not grow up in the Baptist tradition. Baptist ministers and church leaders old and new, however, will find this volume to be of great use.
An Experiment in Christian Internationalism: A History of the European Baptist Theological Seminary
by Carol Woodfin
Publisher: Baptist History & Heritage Society, 2013 (book webpage)
From the book cover: “The experiment in Christian internationalism began in 1948 when Southern Baptists announced they would found a seminary to train ministers to serve in a Europe ravaged by World War II. Many received the news skeptically, but the seminary soon gained the respect of European Baptists. Graduates have now served in more than sixty countries. The story unfolds against the backdrop of European post-war recovery, the rise and fall of communism, and greater Baptist interaction in Europe. The seminary has faced financial crises, a move from Switzerland to the Czech Republic, theological controversies, and changing needs of theological education, while continuing to serve as a unique academic center and community for European and world Baptists.”
People and Encounters That Impressed and Shaped Me, 1933-2008
by Karl Heinz Walter
Published in 2013
Email DL1UF@compuserve.com to purchase
Review by Jim Smith, Interim Coordinator of Global Missions, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship:
Dr. Karl Heinz Walter, well known German and European Baptist leader, describes significant people he met in life who shaped and influenced him. The book, first published in German, has now been translated into English thus providing unique insights into an era and Baptist movement which are not readily available to non-German speakers. Several chapters inform European Baptist life and dialogue today. The pace is quick and moves via decades to major world events often economically illustrated by larger-than-life personalities. Some examples are noteworthy. Walter’s father served in the Army during the Third Reich in North Africa with Rommel. He was captured by the Americans and sent to Texas as a POW. Karl Heinz was a member of the Hitler Youth during the war and struggled with whether or not to report his mother for being skeptical of the Nazi movement and listening to BBC broadcasts. Walter, fresh out of seminary, served as youth pastor in a Baptist church shortly before most of the members left Germany and immigrated to Chile forming the “Colonia Dignidad.” This paramilitary, secretive and extremely exclusive group maintained a close relationship with the Chilean dictators and feared secret police. Walter was active with BWA which provided multiple unexpected connections. One was with Martin Luther King Sr. In the appendix he explained the influence of MLK Jr. on Europe. In short, these are the insights provided by a well-traveled Baptist leader who was often deeply moved and shaped by others . His pilgrimage and impressions along the way offer a rare glimpse into a world which has remained obscure for generations of English speakers.
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March 28-29 2014 — Annual Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina General Assembly, First Baptist Church, Greensboro. More information.
June 4-6, 2014 — Annual Baptist History & Heritage Society conference, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Hosted by Sioux Falls Seminary. Theme: “Exploring the ‘Other’ Baptists.” More information.
June 23-27, 2014 — Annual national Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, Atlanta, Georgia. More information.