Lately I’ve been working through the joint reports from the international bilateral ecumenical conversations in which the Baptist World Alliance has been involved during the past four decades in connection with a current book project. One surprise thus far has been the manner in which the 1989-1992 dialogue between the Baptist World Alliance and the Mennonite World Conference, co-chaired by William H. Brackney (Baptist) and Ross T. Bender (Mennonite), characterized Baptist and Mennonite perspectives on sources of authority for faith and practice.
Baptists are routinely stereotyped as holding to a radicalized version of the sola scriptura hermeneutic of the Reformation that amounts to nuda scriptura. Yet in the context of international ecumenical dialogue Baptists have consistently affirmed that the Bible functions in a pattern of authority in which Christ as the revelation of the Triune God is the ultimate source of authority, Scripture is the supreme earthly source of authority that discloses the ultimate authority of Christ for Christian faith and faithfulness, and the traditioned teaching of the church in its diachronic continuity along with the mind and experience of the church in its synchronic solidarity are indispensable guides for discerning Christ’s Lordship through the practice of reading Scripture. In other words, as the report of the conversations between the BWA and the Anglican Consultative Council puts it, “it would be more accurate to regard the Baptist view of Scripture as suprema scriptura rather than sola scriptura” (Anglican Consultative Council and Baptist World Alliance, Conversations Around the World: The Report of the International Conversations between the Anglican Communion and the Baptist World Alliance 2000-2005 [London: Anglican Communion Office, 2005], § 26 [p. 36]).
One might expect to encounter less explicit distancing of Baptist theology from an unqualified adherence to sola scriptura in the dialogue with the close free church kindred of Baptists in the Mennonite World Conference. Indeed, the section articulating “Baptist Perspectives on Authority” in the report of those conversations includes this statement: “Baptists therefore have no difficulty in embracing the Reformation dictum of sola scriptura: in contrast to many Reformation churches, Baptists do not accord any official authority to creeds” (Baptist World Alliance and Mennonite World Conference, “Theological Conversations, 1989-1992,” in Growth in Agreement III: International Dialogue Texts and Agreed Statements, 1998-2005, ed. Jeffrey Gros, Thomas F. Best, and Lorelei F. Fuchs [Geneva: WCC Publications; Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007], p. 434).
In light of two related statements in the same section, however, this seeming reiteration of the stereotype in fact points in the direction of a thick ecclesial embodiment of a suprema scriptura pattern of authority. First, immediately prior to the affirmation of sola scriptura is an acknowledgment that “Scripture is also an important source of authority for Baptists” (note the indefinite article). It is important because of its relationship to the ultimate source of authority: “Thoroughly trinitarian, Baptists affirm in all matters of faith and practice the Lordship of Christ,” which is “revealed in Scripture and present in the church” (GA-III, p. 433).
Second, the presence of Christ in the church means that there is an ecclesial embodiment of authority beyond the text of Scripture. Two paragraphs after the affirmation of sola scriptura is the insistence on the part of the Baptist delegation that an “emphasis among Baptists is the church’s role as a vehicle of authority” (GA-III, p. 434). This description of how ecclesial authority functions for Baptists then follows:
"Among Baptists, the mind of Christ is sought through prayerful submission of the individual to the community which seeks the will of the Spirit through scripture. The commanding impulse is personal but never private. Liberty of conscience, a vital plan in Baptist doctrine, is never meant to imply privatized religion....Liberty of conscience is sometimes misconstrued as freedom from the church rather than freedom in the church" (GA-III, p. 434).
That specifically Baptist perspective on authority is subsequently reaffirmed as something Baptists were able to affirm together with Mennonites: a summary of convergences on authority includes “‘the gathered congregation’ as [the] primary locus of discernment and decision-making” (GA-III, p. 435). Not exactly what one might expect to discover in this report—but then, if there’s anything that’s consistently typical of Baptists, it’s the Baptist resistance to conformity to stereotypes of Baptists.