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!


  1. Some quick, bullet-ed responses. (I'd be more detailed, but it is the end of the semester and I need to be grading papers).

    * Mullins as a an individualist? Nope. Too facile.
    * von Balthasar as a "simple biblicist"? Nope. Too facile and not appreciative of his RC bent to engage Scripture AS tradition, which, of course, is always multi-valent.
    * Bapto-Catholics and Reform-minded folks as our crossroad? I doubt it.
    * Grenz as a model for moving forward--"a third way." Maybe.

    And now more bullets:

    * What if we consider an intra-Baptist ecumenism that helps us mine our history and tradition with a focus upon the freedoms (sketched out most clearly by Shurden)?
    * What if we note--even concede--that von Balthasar and Grenz were involved in such an intra-ecumenism?
    * What if we broaden our horizon of Baptist life to include world Baptists? I note, for example, that Mullins and Grenz were involved in the Baptist World Alliance (as am I) and in those contexts discovered some practical theological concerns that could not be confined to mere doctrine.
    * What if we noted that von Balthasar was, at least, engaged in an "intra-" project of the Church, even with his wariness about Vat2 ecumenism.

    Finally: I am no sectarian! I'm in favor of wide-ranging dialogue that sharpens both the edges of our expressions and the centers.


  2. Rick, I appreciate your commentary. The problem with blogging, is that by nature it is a fragmentary, reductionist endeavor as opposed to the annotated research document with which we traffic in as scholars. That said, a few quick responses: Mullins was not an individualist per se, yet I would reference Doug Weaver's piece on this point: ""The Baptist Ecclesiology of E. Y. Mullins: Individualism and the New Testament Church." - Whether he was a thoroughgoing individualist of not, he is perceived to have contributed to that stream of thought in baptist life - and I appreciate Mullins. On Balthasar and scripture: don't baptists treat scripture as tradition in some, though different sense? I would reference Barth's influence on Balthasar at this point - also Christoph Schonborn's review of Balthasar's ecumenism in "Hans Urs Von Balthasar: His Life and Work" David Schindler, ed, where he argues that it is Balthasar's understanding of scripture that contains the best bridge towards ecumenicity. The BC'ers and the Reformed voices seem to be the 'loudest' voices at the table at this point. Again, 'seem' to be. As an educator yourself, and as a former undergraduate prof myself (Howard Payne), we know that our students are influenced tremendously by the hippest, media trendy, MP3 uploaded pastoral-entrepeneurs and if anything, Calvin sells to this generation.

    Glad to hear you are not sectarian, as neither am I. I was Grenz's teaching and research assistant the last 6 years of his life and wrote my dissertation on him. I want a broad dialogue while holding to our ecclesial uniqueness. As Grenz was, Balthasar - I contend - was a renegade of sorts - operating outside of, or better, pushing the boundaries.Yet both appeal to a wider audience.
    It is worth the engagement!

    The "what ifs? are worth it!

  3. Actually the notion of a "third way" beyond old polarities has been used in another connection with reference to one of the "ways" treated above:

  4. Steve - good point. Curtis's move to a more holistic expression of the Baptist faith, between conservative and the more 'liberal' critical polarities drawing from earlier resources. The "third way" then seems to be an expression of 'any' attempt to move beyond polarities. I'm glad my paper is titled, "Baptist Theology: Is There Another Way?" Again, according to Bill Leonard, it seems there are "many ways!"

  5. There are convergences between the "third way" represented by Freeman et al. and that represented by Grenz--e.g., both are non-foundational constructive engagements of the postmodern milieu, and Grenz is one of the few Baptist systematic theologians who explicitly grants tradition authoritative status in a pattern of authority.

  6. Absolutely! I would venture to say - naively at this point I might add because I don't know of any of Curtis's monographs on the subject! - that granting tradition authoritative status for Grenz takes on a different trajectory and meaning though. (See "Beyond Foundationalism" p. 118f) Rather than being a static referent, it is a dynamic, hermeneutical context with a decisively eschatological orientation. Again, as a newcomer to this conversation, I seek not to 'debunk' the marvelous ecumenical dialogue into which many of you have entered. I want to explore a different route into ecumenism that more fully fleshes out Stan's and John's initial forays coupled with Balthar's particular perspective on "communio" - Joseph Ratzinger even elucidates it well: "As opposed to the centralized approach of Concilium, we thought that the meaning of the word communio required a harmonious coexistence of unity and difference." (See What a fascinating proposition! Again, looking forward to some late nights in Raleigh!