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!