Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Challenge of Ecumenism...

I am truly grateful for the insight into the current ecumenical dialogue between Baptists and those of other Christian expressions, especially our Roman Catholic friends. A special thank you to Steve and Cameron for their generous insight into the contemporary situation, as well as the opportunity from my friend Bruce to engage in this area. As a Baptist in the most 'classic' sense, I've been concerned primarily with our own intra-denominational divide, rather than the greater divisions within Christ's universal church.

As Baptists, we are a loosely connected association, held together by only the most modest of ties: a spartan ecclesiology, simple biblicism and a tacit commitment to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. It should come as no surprise that we have splintered into so many disparate elements. It would seem that as soon as we Baptists attempt a more binding theological (read 'creedal' or 'confessiona'l) communion, we find a way to disagree over the minutiae and part company; sometimes neatly, sometimes messily, but always with great pain. In the past 40 years, the pain of separation has been felt in almost all Baptist sects - Southern Baptist, Cooperative Baptists, American Baptists, Baptist General Conference and the list goes on and on.

The result of this messy separation is not just a falling out between churches and denominational entities, but most prominently in our own children. Many of our children no longer see the point in being "Baptist." All they have known is struggle and infighting. Indeed many of my former students at Howard Payne University - most of them in fact - were not concerned about 'remaining' Baptist. There are now other churches that can meet their spiritual needs and they have no problem letting go of what they perceive as 'the futile struggle in Baptist life'. Indeed, even I was one of those at one time. But now these young men and women seek a way out or a way through. Unless Baptists find a way either to find unity or respect diversity, then our future is truly, 'post-denominational'…

A Brief, Personal Recap of Baptist Fragmentation

In my personal experience of Baptist life in Texas, Virginia, the Pacific Northwest and now the Northern Rockies, I have slowly categorized my experience of Baptists into several distinct family groups according to the following loose collaborations: Reformed, Moderate, Liberal, Fundamental and now Bapto-Catholic. What follow are some brief, quasi historical descriptions. None are intended to provoke debate or scholarly critique, but rather to elucidate the popular mindset.

Some segments of the Baptist family have sought unity within a strictly Reformed understanding of Baptist roots, stemming from the early London confessions of the seventeenth century. In the United States, this has led to an increasingly narrow Calvinistic theology of this group.

Some elements of the Baptist family have sought refuge in the modernist thought of E. Y. Mullins with its emphasis on individual and local church autonomy. This has led to what is called the 'moderate' Baptist church; a church that has defined itself over and against its more theologically rigid relatives. Of this moderate branch, there are many variations some professing the 'Calminianism' so aptly detailed by James Leo Garrett or a more Arminian Baptist position as exemplified by Roger Olson, to name a few.

The propensity to elevate individual autonomy has had further consequences though and led to an even more 'liberal' expression of Baptist life. This expression finds its expression in the rejection of fundamentalism in the 1920s as exemplified by Harry Emerson Fosdick in the north and Carlyle Marney in the south. Both of these distinguished thinkers explored the boundaries of faith and ethos, and were drawn to faith as psychological reflection and ethical action. This expression of Baptist life is highly influenced by the Social Gospel movement inaugurated by August Rauschenbusch earlier in the 20th century.

Yet another element of the Baptist church rejects both of its aforementioned cousins in favor of its own modernist theological leanings by elevating scripture, usually the King James Version, to a place of inerrant epistemological authority. This element is usually designated as 'fundamentalist' or 'primitive' Baptist. Yet others find unity in ethnicity, such as German, Swedish, African-American or Korean Baptists, for example, and their ethnic inclinations and commitments.

A recent expression of the Baptist family, coming out of the struggles of the late 20th century and related to the moderate branch of the Baptist family, is the Bapto-Catholic movement. Recovering liturgical and spiritual practices from the post-Niceaen church and seeking to create a healthy ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholic, Orthodox and other ancient expressions of the church, the Bapto-Catholic movement seeks to create a renewed future for Baptists. Bypassing or ameliorating the current fixation on the Reformation as the source for Baptist life and thought, the Bapto-Catholic movement is gaining traction within a younger generation of Baptists.

A more recent Baptist expression is the "emerging, postmodern Baptist." This expression of Baptist life draws from a veritable potpourri of theological and liturgical strains, but intentionally refuses to be dominated by any one strain. Roman Catholic and Orthodox influences are readily evidenced in the worship of these churches while at the same time one can find influences of Jewish and Buddhist spiritualities layered over a distinctly Reformed theological understanding. Since the movement itself allows for infinite variations, there are really no variations.

I realize that all of these vignettes are merely reductionist caricatures and ultimately reflect my own perception, good or bad. Yet even my opinions have popular roots, and to some degree have merit.

What then is our direction? Are the Reformed, Fundamentalist, Moderate, Liberal, Bapto-Catholic and Emerging expressions our only options as Baptists? Is there another way? Prior to Vatican II (1962-1965), the World Council of Churches (b.1948), a primarily Protestant grouping of churches was the voice of ecumenism. Post-Vatican II, ecumenism became a priority of the Roman Catholic Church. Not all Roman Catholic theologians were behind this ecumenical quest; some, such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, were concerned that such a quest would be injurious to Catholicism. Ironically, it is von Balthasar's theological outlook that holds the greatest potential for creating ecumenical bridges between the various Christian expressions from the Roman Catholic side. On the Baptist side of the divide, James McClendon and Stanley Grenz stood as ecumenical standard bearers; and McClendon more so than Grenz. Yet Grenz's theology may have more promise for ecumenical engagement from the Baptist side!

The question comes back to how we understand the challenge of ecumenism. According to canon law, only the pope can call ecumenical councils. Does this mean that non-Roman expressions of the Christian faith must adhere to that dictum? Is it legitimate for denominations to engage in ecumenical discourse with other Christian expressions if itself is experiencing disunity and division? Shouldn't the ecumenical ideal begin in our own house? Some theologians have already answered these questions for themselves. Many of us either have not asked the questions, or we aren't concerned about them.

This is the challenge of ecumenism… from my perspective.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Is It Time for a "another" Third Way?

The last month has been illuminating. Acquainted, but not familiar with the Baptist-Catholic ecumenical dialogue or the nuances of the Bapto-Catholic believer, I have been given a crash course in that phylum's details. 

In the midst of the conversation, it has become obvious that the late 20th century was not kind to Baptists as a whole, regardless of sectarian orientation. Whether you were Southern, American, General Association, General Conference, Cooperative, Fundamental, Free-Will, Six-Principle, Conservative, Mainstream or "fill-in-the-blank" type of Baptist, in all probability, you experienced prolonged conflict and possible schism. I have served in two Baptist denominations: American Baptist and Southern Baptist. My experience of both groups contains angry conflict and painful separation. 

As these different sub-groups search for a way through their issues some have turned to an increasingly Reformed theology, while others have sought solace in the Bapto-Catholic trajectory. For my Reformed friends, conservative Baptist life had too many loopholes. Adherence to Chicago-statement inerrancy demanded a tighter theological web to support it. Calvinism was the answer. For my Bapto-Catholic friends, moderate Baptist life and its adherence to Mullins inspired individual autonomy left a serious want for holistic community and liturgical continuity. Thus,  the Reformed trajectory seeks to build a tighter, more rigid theological wall in regards to who's in and who's out of the kingdom, while my Bapto-Catholic friends seek refuge in a tradition that goes back 1200 years before the Reformation, yet has similar exclusivity issues as it gets deeper into ecumenical dialogue (see "papal authority", "ecclesiastical infallibility" and "creedal assent").  

Is this it? Is this the fork in the road to which Baptists have arrived? Reformed, Bapto-Catholic, or a soporific middle? Of course these are rhetorical reductions, but it would seem this is where we have landed, in popular terminology.

In our quest for a "third way" two historic theological figures are worth considering: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Stanley J. Grenz. Balthasar died in 1988, a committed Roman Catholic, yet wary of the ecumenical resolutions of Vatican II and a stout defender of the Marian tradition. Nevertheless, Balthasar's dialogue with Protestant theologians, secular philosophers and secular literary figures creates a model for ecumenical engagement. Stanley Grenz, a committed Baptist, was similarly engaged in a vibrant dialogue with a wide variety of theological perspectives, while remaining committed to the unique ecclesiology of Baptist life. Considered together, Balthasar and Grenz provide clues to a third way for Baptists.

Baptists, due to their unique ecclesiology, have an opportunity not only to draw from tradition streams in the past, but to create a multitude of new trajectories. The legacy of the John Smyth-Thomas Helwys experiment is a 'new' way in and of itself. These Anglican-Separatists, influenced heavily by the Waterlander Mennonites and later by the Westminster Divines were a living experiment in cutting edge ecclesiology! The sheer malleability of the Baptist tradition does not demand a search for origins, but an exploration of theological futures. True ecumenical dialogue therefore does not result in the surrender of ecclesiological uniqueness or acquiescence to foreign theological doctrine, but rather the creation of new theo-ethical ontologies. Baptists need not surrender Bible, Soul, Church and Religious freedoms in this quest. Indeed, these freedoms, when viewed from the historic Baptist communal perspective, contribute to the continual creation of community. This is possible when the quest for community is pursued not by retrieving tradition exclusively, but in exploring the theological future. "It is for freedom that Christ set us free" (Galatians 5:1). Baptists are 'simple biblicists' - as was Hans Urs von Balthasar. Scripture is greater than the term inerrancy that has been used to capture its essence. Baptists, in recapturing the essence of scripture as "the Spirit's book" (Grenz), will experience a life-giving theology not known since our 17th century origins. This exploration of the future is not simply a hopeful dialogue, but rather an eschatologically formed understanding of reality, where the future shapes the present. 

You want the rest? See you at the BHHS meeting in June!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Baptist Ecumenism... some initial observations.

I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. (John 17:11 NASB95)

In the 'high priestly prayer' of Jesus in John 17, we find the verse most oft cited by ecumenists - those who strive for universal church unity - to appeal to the mass of Christianity to be 'one' unified body. This movement, born in the modern period - roughly 1948 with the first meeting of the World Council of Churches - had stumbled with the resurgence of Evangelicalism in the 1970s and 1980s, but has found new life in the strangest of places: the Baptist church.

Seeking to find a way through their own divisions, Baptist theologians from across North America began to explore the works of the church fathers (patristics) and the ancient creeds (Nicaea and Chalcedon primarily) in order to move beyond the rigid Reformed positions of the ultra conservative right in Baptist and Evangelical life. Theologians such as the late James Wm. McClendon (Fuller), the inimitable (and living!) Ralph Wood, Barry Harvey, D. H. Williams,(Baylor); Curtis Freeman (Duke); Steven Harmon (Gardner-Webb); Philip Thompson (Sioux Falls Seminary) and Derek Hatch (Howard Payne University) to name but a few, have seriously explored the relationship between Roman Catholic and Baptist faith. Although many interesting correlations and possible connections have been explored, this exploration has not been unanimously embraced by Baptists; indeed, many Baptists have seriously questioned the integrity and viability of such ecumenical dialogue between Christian expressions so ecclesiologically different (e.g. Bruce Gourley, Bill Underwood, Walter Shurden, et al).

In light of this divergence, what then allows an ecumenical dialogue to occur among such differing expressions of Christian faith? Does the unity of the church come by surrendering ecclesiological uniqueness? Does it come by theological accommodation? Does it come by agreement on a shared mission? Does it come through a shared sense of moral obligation and virtue? What is the goal or end of such a dialogue? What does it mean "to be one?" Does that mean "a lack of difference" or homogeneity? Is the John 17 passage enough warrant to allow for a wholesale realignment of ecclesiological expressions? These are important questions for the ecumenist to ask.

One of my favorite theological mentors has been Dr. Ralph Wood of Wake Forest and Baylor Universities. Dr. Wood has laid claim to the designation, "Bapto-Catholic" for himself. In an interview with "" Dr. Wood was asked and answered the following question:

You describe yourself as a “Bapto-Catholic” Could you elaborate?

Wood: We Protestants are woefully weak in our understanding of the sacraments as actually conveying divine grace through the corporate community of the church, rather than merely symbolizing such grace as we ourselves individually appropriate it. Hence our need to learn from Catholics that baptism and Eucharist are two of the acts that objectively make us and sustain us as Christians.

As a Baptist, my other great debt to Catholics lies in the splendid tradition that the Roman Church has built up in its long millennial existence. By engaging its various host cultures, Catholicism has produced a vital legacy of moral, literary, philosophical and theological truth. Having come into existence only in the 17th century, we Baptists have not created such a rich tradition, though in John Bunyan we have engendered at least one world-class writer. By contrast, Catholicism has produced scores, and many of them are my heroes: Dante, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walker Percy J.R.R. Tolkien, and of course Flannery O’Connor herself.

This enormously fecund tradition helps prevent Catholics from espousing a rather pathetic do-it-yourself religion, each believer determining truth for himself. In addition to the magisterium, Catholics have a veritable panoply of saints who serve as exemplars of the Christian life. Moreover, Pope John Paul II issued a series of encyclicals that provide excellent guidance not only to Catholics but also to us Baptists as well, so that we do not have to make injudicious ad hoc responses to such complex matters as euthanasia and abortion and homosexuality.

Yet some of my priest-friends complain about the horde of “Mass” Catholics who receive the sacrament faithfully every Sunday and think that they have thus discharged their Christian duty. We seek to cultivate a vital personal piety: reading Scripture daily, saying prayers regularly, making witness to others, etc. There are many Catholics for whom these things are true, of course, even as there are many Baptists for whom they are not!

A second contribution concerns the centrality of the proclaimed Word. Preaching also lies at the heart of our evangelistic life, our desire to spread the Good News to the whole world. This explains, by the way, why Flannery O’Connor was so deeply drawn to Baptist and other Protestant preachers in her native Georgia, especially the half-literate ones who announce the Word of God in uncouth but brilliantly engaging terms.

Thus have I devoted an entire chapter of my book Flannery O’Connor and the Christ- Haunted South to the excellent preachers who appear in her fiction.


I believe the questions then that I would ask Dr. Wood would be, "In terms of equitable ecumenical dialogue, how can Baptists uniquely contribute to Catholicism?" and "Why is Catholicism any different than Eastern Orthodoxy or Coptic Christianity?" Certainly, the Orthodox and Coptic traditions have as much artistic and sacramental emphasis from which Baptists can borrow as the Roman Catholic tradition. Dr. Wood, a man I continue to admire and respect, has raised more questions than given answers recently. From my initial observation, Bapto-Catholicism is not so much an ecumenical dialogue as it is a one-sided admiration for Catholic liturgical and theological sensitivities. When was the last time a Roman Catholic theologian drew from the work of E. Y. Mullins or W. T. Conner in a theological treatise? Or, for that matter, when did one draw from the work of Barry Harvey or Millard Erickson? Exactly.

The Bapto-Catholic dialogue is not a pure ecumenical conversation, if an ecumenical conversation is a dialogue with an equitable exchange of ideas tempered by a mutual respect for the other's position. It seems to be rather one sided (regardless of Dr. Wood's hopes) with the Baptists drinking stout draughts from the Catholic keg as our Roman friends look on with the stoicism of a 'Cheshire Cat'. My initial assessment is that the Bapto-Catholic dialogue is the attempt of a segment of Baptists - who have been brutally scarred by four decades of theological and political combat with Baptist assassins from the 'right' - to find meaning in faith outside their own tradition. I don't fault them one bit in this attempt. I think Dr. Wood's observations are spot on. This is not a bad idea, it is an engagement with merit - it's just not as ecumenical as my friends believe it to be.

For next time: if this is not a purely ecumenical dialogue, then what is? What would a genuine Bapto-Other dialogue look like?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Celebration of In-Between-ness

As a good Baptomatic-Methodyterian, Catholo-Protestant Christ-Follower, I tend to view the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday as the "half-time" of Holy Week. (The sheer fact that I mention the terms "Good Friday" and "Holy Week" means that I am ecumenically oriented, which places me on the "dubious" list of my purely Southern Baptist friends.) Nevertheless, I find myself on this Saturday morning wanting more from this 'half-time' respite.

A quick check of my favorite though dubious resource, "Wikipedia", draws a picture of this Saturday in dark terms. My Roman Catholic friends call this day 'Holy Saturday' or 'Black Saturday'. The chancel is stripped bear and the administration of sacraments is severely limited. Holy Communion is only given as Viaticum to the dying. Altars are covered with black. It is a grave day, a solemn day. For my Orthodox friends, a sunnier disposition is held. It is called 'Holy Saturday' or 'Great Saturday' even 'The Great Sabbath'. In the Coptic (Egyptian) church it is called 'Joyous Saturday'. It is on this day that Christ 'rests' in the tomb from His work and the day in which He, by the Spirit, performs the "Harrowing of Hades" - the descent to hell where Jesus frees the captives! Woot!

Either way you look at it, as good Postmodern Baptomatic-Methodyterian Catholo-Protestant Christ-Followers, we have some choices to make about this day. Personally, I appreciate the point my Roman Catholic friends want to make, but I choose to celebrate the day as my Orthodox brethren do, as 'Joyous Saturday'. In days of darkness, such as ours tend to be at this time, the 'Joyous Saturday' approach communicates better in a consumerist culture. Having clarified my theological preference, let me make a different statement:

We live in Holy Saturday.

As contemporary Christ-Followers, we live our lives between the cross and resurrection. Jesus gives us the example of the cross and the hope of the resurrection. We share in His sufferings in the hope of His resurrection. In this sense, we live between Black Saturday and Joyous Saturday. We live between the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim. Mount Ebal being the mount of curse and Gerizim being the mount of blessing (Deuteronomy 11:29). Alan Lewis's book, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday does a superb job of exploring this relationship.

How does this serve us as Christ-Followers today?

This day causes us to pause and reflect on our "In-Between-ness." As participants in the whizzy-go-fast Western, Postmodern culture of our times, we become frustrated when life doesn't produce an immediate answer to our questions or fulfill our every desire. Black Saturday reminds us of the profound sacrifice of love that Christ made on our behalf. Joyous Saturday reminds us that He has set the captives free from sin and death; and yet, both remind us that we live in the "almost, but not yet." Christ is the example and hope. We suffer with Him and yet one day will live with Him. We are forgiven and empowered, yet not quite resurrected.

If we understand this "in-between-ness" as the nature of our existence, then each and every day becomes a choice between Gerizim and Ebal. Each and every day is an opportunity to live joyously and wisely. Each and every day is a celebration of life in the midst of death.

Tomorrow, Christ-Followers around the world will proclaim the resurrection of Jesus as truth. I will be one of them. But Holy Saturday begs the question: Why wait?

Live resurrection.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

April snows bring May mows...

Well, it is Maundy Thursday and it is snowing...again. You think I would get tired of it, but not true. There is a different rhythm to life in the northern Rockies as opposed to the southern plains. I read that there were tornadoes moving through north Texas yesterday, which is typical this time of year for the southern plains. From Colorado, east to Kentucky and from Nebraska, south to the Gulf of Mexico, there is a distinct rhythm of life in the springtime. Powerful thunderstorms form across the plains, bringing life giving rain, but also powerful life stealing winds.
The northern Rockies have a different feel altogether. Spring snow tends to be wet and melts off within a day or two. This is followed by a gradual increase in temperatures over time until it snows again; but the snow becomes less and less, turning to grapple, maybe even light hail (that really doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?) and then just rain again. Although this area has seen snow in July, it usually ceases in early June. Last summer there were almost weekly, short rain showers followed by 5 or 6 days of beautiful sunshine in the 70s-80s. Very different than the rhythm of life in my native Oklahoma-Texas.

The ancient Israelites understood the rhythm of life in a way that we do not today. There were aspects of every religious festival that were connected to the agrarian rhythm of life in Palestine. Festivals coincided with various harvests and equinoxes. They were connected to the rhythm of life. Although we tend to dismiss this fact, it is nevertheless true. Why would we dismiss it? Is it because we perceive this correlation to be 'pagan' in nature or maybe 'ungodly' or 'anti-faith'?

However, if God indeed created the earth for humankind, why can we not see its cycles and rhythms as part of life as God intended? If anything, these cycles remind us of our 'createdness' and our 'stewardship' of this creation. These cycles remind us of our humble position in this creation and the need for us to fulfill our station in the plan of the creator.

This Easter, remember the life God has given to you. Remember that we are a part of this creation and have a special role to perform in it. If we are celebrating resurrection, remember that you saw resurrection first in the rising of the sun each new day. Let God remind you with the setting sun of each day that our life is hidden in Christ. Let each harvest remind you that all that we have comes from the creator and be thankful for it.

Treasure each and every moment as a gift from God.