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?


  1. If Woods, et al think for an instance, that I could learn ANYTHING about baptism; ANYTHING about Communion from Catholicism, he (et al) are full of,er crazy!! This kind of ecumenicalism, to me,is revolting. The term "Bapto-Catholic" is revolting to me. Of course, this is my initial reaction to this post. I need to study it further and after its completion, arrive at perhaps a different conclusion.
    Blessings, as always,

  2. Jay, the Bapto-Catholic label (seemingly coined by Wood) designates a way of understanding Baptist identity--i.e., Baptists are dissenting catholic Christians who share the catholicity of the faith with Catholics and other catholic Christians but whose distinctive journey as a Baptist people of faith has bestowed on the Baptist people certain gifts to be offered to the larger church. Bapto-Catholic in that sense is not ecumenical dialogue between Baptists and Catholics. Once more: Bapto-Catholic is a particular way of describing Baptist identity; Baptist-Catholic ecumenical dialogue is something else (as exemplified by international conversations between the Baptist World Alliance and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, 1984-88 and 2006-2010). I think your confusion of the two terms may be behind elements of your post above--that is, it's not a dialogue or conversation in the sense of an ecumenical dialogue or conversation. Cameron Jorgenson's PhD dissertation on Bapto-Catholic Baptist identity may help clarify that distinction: I hope that helps.

    Thanks for your interest in taking up this conversation!


  3. "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."

    Actually, this happens more than one might imagine. One prominent example is Terry Tilley, chair of the Department of Theology at Fordham University. Tilley is a Catholic theologian who has drunk deeply from the well of the thought of late Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. There's been a good bit of Catholic interaction with Barry Harvey's work--and, I point out modestly, a bit of Catholic notice of some of my work, too.


  4. Hmm.

    I wonder if Jay would edit his blog to make more clear the differences between "unity" and "unified."

    I've never worried too much about ecumenism as a dialog that leads to mutual understanding (I feel the same about genuine inter-religious dialogue; it often leads to intra-religious dialogue [grateful nod to R. Panikkar]).

    I'm not too worried about the new notion of "multi-beloning" to religious groups. Paul Knitter has famously embraced being both Catholic/Christian and Buddhist, for example. But I note that Knitter understands that that means two things, not one thing.

    What concerns me about Ralph Wood and his chums is a kind of mitre-envy that is manifestly arrogant and condescending at the same time. The "we know better" tone and content undermines, I believe, and misunderstands, I believe, the raw spirituality and genuine worship of Baptists.

    My late mother did not know the difference between Chalcedon and chloroform, but you should have heard her and my dad pray for their children, their pastors, and their country. Late in her life she came to embrace Advent-Christmas-Epiphany as a rich way to let the NT guide her commitments to worship and prayer. She would call with questions and I would affirm her questions and offer my perspectives, always with a son's sensitivity.

    I imagine that the Bapto-Catholics in our midst are genuine. I am curious how they *really* maintain the Baptistness they embrace while they mine the nuances of early church history. I, too (as a teaching theologian with a bent toward historical theology) am interested in the development of doctrine in the rich contexts of cultural, political, philosophical, social, and so on. In the end, I know what being a Baptist means to me and my community. In the end, too, I know that being a Bapto-Catholic would be harder than being a Christian-Buddhist. My Baptistness is consistent with the broad sweeps of historical theology, but it also lets me know that in matters of polity and authority, for starters, Baptists and Catholics are different. We can--and should--respect each other. We can--and should--strive to understand each other. We cannot--and should not--co-opt each other for whatever reason.

    I don't participate in the Eucharist in a Catholic setting. My refusal is not a lack of belief on my part of the power of the participation in the symbol (thanks, Tillich, for the clarity). My refusal is a sign of my respect for the Catholic tradition that prefers I not erase our differences as a show of unity.

  5. Jay, I appreciate your reflections here. I would echo Steve's observation about the need to distinguish between ecumenical dialogue and attempting something like a "Bapto-Catholic" theological project. Those two enterprises are not the same thing, even if there is some obvious overlap between them. This is one reason why I am not too worried about whether there is a one-sidedness to the appropriation. As a Baptist theologian, my goal is not to ensure that the "other side" has cited us as often as we've cited them; rather, my goal is to explore God's truth and to seek it out wherever it may be found. Thankfully, we have two-thousand years of brothers and sisters with whom we can converse. We don't need to limit ourselves to the past four hundred years, or to our particular branch of the Christian "family tree." What is more, as you've said, there are plenty of treasures to be found among the Eastern Orthodox tradition as well. As a Baptist I am free to draw upon it all! That is what I take to be the "Bapto-Catholic" impulse. (And, for what it's worth, Ralph Wood is aware of the Eastern contributions...I studied E. Orthodoxy, iconography, and Dostoyevski with him right along with the great Catholic writers of the 20th century).

    You are right, I think, to suggest that earning a hearing from the older traditions is important. And it is good to see that (as Steve mentioned), some of our theologians are being noticed. As one might expect, the work that has received the most attention is that which consciously engages the breadth of the Tradition and Catholic authors/themes. But I don't think it should surprise us that it has been a challenge for us to be heard. Baptists have not always been so open to other traditions (as LeRoy's comments above suggest), so if there are similar hesitations from others about us, it is to be expected. Besides, isn't that part of being a dissenting tradition? Seems to me that resistance is a natural consequence of challenging long established views. In the minds of many, the burden of proof is on us. And that's fine. We're up to the challenge!

  6. Steve, This isn't the first time you've recommended Cameron's dissertation. It is always interesting to read what young scholars are saying. I like Cameron - fine fellow so if he is directed to this comment, hello Cameron. But there are many of us that take issue with the strong attack of the views of Buddy Shurden found in the dissertation. So, while all books on these topics are good reading for understanding, it is good to be reminded that Cameron's dissertation does not reflect the view of those of us who find much value in the fine work that Buddy has done to promote Baptist identity. Doug Weaver (not anonymous; just checking the wrong box to post this I guess) Cheers folks!!!

  7. Jay, another crucial clarification: the "catholic" in "Bapto-catholic" does not reference the Roman church. It rather refers to the lower-case "c" catholicity to which Eastern Orthodoxy and Coptic Christianity as well as Roman Catholicism, and the Protestant traditions besides, are heirs. Therefore the question "Why is Catholicism any different than Eastern Orthodoxy or Coptic Christianity?" is moot. "Bapto-catholicism" is really nothing other than a more robust Baptist consciousness of the indebtedness of the Baptist tradition to this sort of catholicity and the effort to be more intentional about grounding Baptist identity in this catholicity.

  8. One more observation re these questions: "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."

    One can make a good case that the Vatican II Decree on Religious Liberty "Dignitatis Humanae" owes much to perspectives on religious liberty shaped by Baptists in particular (especially since the major shaper of the draft of the decree behind the scenes was the American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray who taught at Yale and undoubtedly absorbed much of the Baptist-influenced American experiment in religious liberty). Thus it can be argued that there's been some Baptist influence on at least one expression of Catholic magisterial teaching!

  9. Hello, Doug! Thanks for your comment--and for calling me a "fine fellow!"

    You mention something that I have thought about lately: my detailed engagement with Buddy Shurden's work and how it could be perceived. For what it's worth, I think you described my argument fairly; it is a strong attack. But, I want to be clear that it is a critique directed at some of his ideas, not at him personally. While I still stand by what I've written, I have worried that in my efforts to state my case with clarity and passion, a few things may have been obscured. For instance, I have tremendous respect for Buddy Shurden. He was the epitome of a Baptist statesman, providing admirable leadership in the difficult transition period after the SBC split. Furthermore, Buddy can preach. He has lectured/preached at Campbell twice in the past couple of years and I have been moved by his pastoral sensibilities and the craftsmanship of his work. Finally, on a more personal level, his autobiographical reflections in _Not an Easy Journey_ about being the son of a hardworking pipefitter/welder touched me deeply; my dad shares the same occupation and it sounds like Buddy and I share a lot in common. Although I have only had the opportunity to shake Buddy's hand after a lecture, I'd enjoy getting to know him better. While I expressed some strong reservations about aspects of his work, I do not want that chapter to be perceived as a "takedown of Buddy Shurden." I have loads of respect for Buddy and his role in Baptist life and that is a point I do not want to get lost in my critique.

  10. While I don't want to belabor the point, Doug, I do have a couple of other comments to regarding the critical material in the dissertation. Perhaps this would provide helpful context for anyone else inclined to read it:

    **What you've said is surely the case: my dissertation "does not reflect the view of those of us who find much value in the fine work that Buddy has done to promote Baptist identity." In fact, I'd take it one step further: it may or may not adequately express the views of everyone who would find themselves sympathetic with the "Bapto-Catholic" approach. While I've attempted to offer a fair description of the perspective, I have no illusions about it being a final or definitive word. This is in part because the latter chapters offer constructive proposals that some may not buy, even if they like the descriptive sections. After all, those who appreciate the Manifesto and its legacy are a varied lot.

    **One motivation for the dissertation is to speak to, and attempt to find a way around, the divide between Baptist historians and theologians. This is one of the reasons I was keen to demonstrate that Bill Leonard's account of Baptist history and identity in _Baptist Ways_ is more helpful than the kind of history offered by Shurden. I wanted to be clear that the problem is not some irredeemable divide between historians and theologians, but an issue of how history is used to craft Baptist identity statements. (And, to be clear, I think there is a catechetical value to Shurden's work, even if I take issue with the some theological points driving it.)

    *A final, and related, point is this: the dissertation grew out of the Baylor context. The conflict between historians and theologians, enmeshed as it was with the campus-wide conflict over "Baylor 2012," was at a fever pitch. In the midst of the strife there were plenty of opportunities to listen in on various perspectives, especially those critical of the Manifesto and "Bapto-Catholics" (a term that I no longer love, though it is in the title of my dissertation, primarily because it is so easily misunderstood). It was then that I noticed something curious: there was a profound mismatch between the characterizations of the Manifesto and the document itself. There was just as must misunderstanding about the theologians themselves. There seemed to be a fundamental breakdown of communication that resulted in inaccuracies and misunderstandings that went far beyond disagreements. So, my goal in writing the dissertation was to explore why there was such a disconnect and to attempt to offer an account that would help to clarify the assumptions and aims of the Manifesto authors and their supporters. My hope was that the positions could be clarified so that we could either agree or disagree on the issues while avoiding the unhelpful pattern of talking past each other.

    Perhaps in the next year or two I'll finally finish a revision/expansion of the dissertation so it is more widely available. If I do, you can bet that I'll attempt to improve the clarity *and charity* of my argument. There are too many fine people and important ideas involved to do anything less.

  11. Doug, thanks for your comment. The point of referencing Cameron's dissertation was to introduce Jay to the nature of "Bapto-catholic" identity in such a way as to clarify for him the distinction between "Bapto-catholic" as a descriptor of a particular approach to construing Baptist identity and "Baptist-Catholic" dialogue as referring to formal bilateral dialogue between delegated representatives of the two traditions. Whether or not one agrees with Cameron's treatment of Buddy Shurden's perspectives, one has to grant that it is useful for precisely the purpose for which I referenced it.

  12. Unknown (Rick? A little birdie suggested you might have posted...), thanks for your comment, which I find thoughtful and considerate (and refreshingly so in light of some other comments I've seen in another forum recently (and not from you). The one qualification I'd make in response is the the "catholic" in "Bapto-catholic" is lower-case "c" catholicity, so it's not a matter Baptist and Roman Catholic multi-belonging. For me, a Bapto-catholic perspective on Baptist identity actually finds expression in my years ago having taken up the Episcopal tradition as something of a "second tradition" in which I frequently participate and from which I frequently borrow in my leadership of Baptist worship. So I suppose that if we're speaking of multi-belonging as a form of religious identity, for me it would actually be "Bapto-Episcopalian" (though after teaching adjunctively in a seminary of the ELCA this semester, I would find the notion of "Bapto-Lutheran" multi-belonging just about as appealing--and in light of the current full communion agreement between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, pretty close to the same thing). Thanks again--with you, I can have constructive and enjoyable dialogue on these matters.

  13. Steve,

    Part of the issue is that we don't agree that this is all the term means or intends: "It rather refers to the lower-case "c" catholicity.." The literature doesn't support your contention, imho. Shurden is not opposed to such. Neither am I; nor others. Many of us teach church history and understand all that goes with that passion. But that is all for now!!! Sic 'em Bears! Doug W

  14. I am looking forward to the BHHS meeting in Raleigh. It will be the first time that Baptist historians and Baptist theologians have actually been "face-to-face" to discuss some of these issues. The discussion might be intense at times, but I have hopes that it will be productive and helpful! And, I can't think of a better place to have the meeting than FBC Raleigh!!