Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Towards a Baptist commemoration of the saints

Icon of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In my 2006 book Towards Baptist Catholicity I proposed a more intentional Baptist practice of commemorating the lives of exemplary Christians who might help us learn what it means to embody the Christian life faithfully:

"If Baptist historians were to propose additional exemplary Christians from the Baptist tradition to add to such calendars [of other communions that commemorate the saints} in producing a sanctoral that is both distinctively Baptist and broadly ecumenical, Baptist congregations might be able to include in their own weekly worship a few moments for telling the stories of men and women who have provided worthy examples of lives lived in the service of God and humanity. When the life of the model Christian being commemorated on [or near] a given Sunday serves to illustrate the living of the stories told in the lectionary texts for the day, the lives of the saints would serve as ideal sermon illustrations--lived biblical stories rather than anecdotes that parallel sermonic ideas" (Towards Baptist Catholicity, p. 170).

Stimulated in part by yesterday's Ecclesial Theology post on the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, Andy Goodliff, pastor of Belle Vue Baptist Church in Southchurch, Southend on Sea, Essex, U.K., and Stephen Holmes, a Baptist minister who serves as Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, have each written thoughtful blog posts contemplating the possibilities for a Baptist sanctoral cycle.  I encourage readers of Ecclesial Theology to follow the links to their posts below and, if so inclined, to comment with their own observations and suggestions:

"A Baptist Sanctoral Cycle?" on Shored Fragments (Stephen Holmes)

"Creating a list of Baptist 'saints'" on andygoodliff: church, world and the christian life (Andy Goodliff)

Related posts:

More on Baptist commemoration of the saints

Towards a Baptist commemoration of the saints

The Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin

A Baptist commemoration of the saints


  1. Hi Dr. Harmon.

    I very much like the idea of presenting our people with post-biblical heroes of the faith so as to remind them that saintliness is a real-world phenomenon. But I wonder how we might avoid the divisiveness of a unified project. After all, this very post includes an icon depicting MLK as a saint. But MLK unabashedly denied the incarnation. Given that, I'm not inclined to see him as even a "regular" Christian, much less some noble example for all Christians to emulate.


  2. In this connection see this previous Ecclesial Theology post about a litany of Baptist saints recited as part of a Baptist World Alliance-sponsored worship service in Amsterdam celebrating the 400th anniversary of the founding of the first Baptist church of historical record there: http://ecclesialtheology.blogspot.com/2009/08/baptist-commemoration-of-saints.html

  3. I appreciate the link. It seems, though, that the service in Amsterdam just re-presents the same problem I mentioned earlier: men and women being dubbed "saints" (in the honorific sense) when their very salvation is highly debatable. Given that Baptists don't generally require subscription to the historic creeds, how can we avoid lionizing men who, like MLK, explicitly rejected the creedal content? What standard would we use to determine who qualifies as a saint worthy of veneration? Simple good works alone? That seems rather thin. But apart from some creedal standard it would seem to be the only option on offer.

    So can the proposed veneration of saints in a Baptist context only safely proceed a pace with the Baptist reengagement with creedalism?

  4. Eugene, thanks for your comments. I think that saints must serve as "thick" exemplars of the Christian life--i.e., it is a thick description of their lives, which includes their failures as well as their successes, that is most instructive to us. When we strip their narratives to their notable spiritual successes, we're left with "thin" narratives that aren't nearly as helpful. The precedent for thinking of exemplary saints in this way is the function of the Gospels as manuals of discipleship, not only in terms of their accounts of the teachings and deeds of Jesus as the primordial saint but also in terms of their stories of the disciples as followers of Christ, which include their failures as well as their successes, from which we learn as we follow their example and place ourselves within their story. The exemplary saints from the Christian tradition will have failures of orthopraxy, orthodoxy, or both--therefore we must hear their stories with a discerning hermeneutic so that we learn from their failures in orthodoxy and orthopraxy as well as from their successes.

  5. That certainly sounds good, but how far can we really press that inclusive principle before the whole project becomes a farce?

    I hate to keep using MLK as the example but he's the man who appears in this article, the other article you wrote about the Amsterdam service, and Andy Goodliff's article you link to. (He's also one of the few names mentioned in these posts I recognize.) If it were only a matter of King's adultery, plagiarism, and soft-support of Communist revolutions that would be one thing. As you say, no one is perfect. But that's not the primary issue: King rejected the divine incarnation, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and second coming of Christ!

    If such a man can be held forth as an exemplary saint, why not Marcion, Mani, Arius, Mohammed, Joseph Smith or any of the other grand heresiarchs of history? I simply cannot imagine that you would ever dream of including such men in a Baptist "sanctoral cycle". And yet many of these men were dramatically more orthodox than King.

    It thus seems that an official project of veneration—divorced, that is, from any sort of creedal sine qua non--would allow for all sorts of confusion and nonsense. Indeed, I tend to think it would cash out as merely one more opportunity for Baptists to “venerate” their own previously held political and social views under the figure of specific (and, apparently, even non-Christian) individuals.

  6. To illustrate the above, over at Shored Fragments Andy Goodliff has yet again asserted in a comment that MLK is obviously in, but Stephen Holmes has written that "Certainly I suspect that those whose claim to sanctity relies on having deployed violence or oppression in the name of Christ would be excluded from our lists."

    So MLK, with all the above mentioned problems goes on the official list, but Augustine of Hippo is excluded. This simply isn't a path I'm interested in walking.

  7. Eugene, I appreciate the concerns you've raised. I'm afraid, though, that if they're pressed very far we might end up with a very short list of exemplary saints. I might want to disqualify Augustine of Hippo or John Calvin, for example, unquestionably orthodox though they may be, because of their ethically problematic associations with the church's complicity in the state's employment of violence. Yet there are other good reasons for retaining them in a sanctoral, as I think there are in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. Though this or that individual may quibble with the choice, vast segments of the Christian community have already chosen him as an exemplary saint. Though an imprecise parallel, it's worth noting that the Christian community's role in the formation of the New Testament canon worked very much in this way; once the community formed a canonical consensus, someone might not particularly like the fact that, say, the epistle of James is included, but the canon can't be re-invented--it's already there as a given. There is an important qualitative difference, of course, between the normativity of Scripture for the community and the normativity of the life of a particular saint for the community, and that difference makes it possible for us to look to the examples of Christians with all sorts of flaws. I still want to say that the flaws of the saints are important for us to contemplate, too.

  8. Okay, let me put the issue somewhat differently.

    MLK rejected the incarnation, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, and the second coming of Jesus. And he did so since the age of 13.

    In your opinion, was MLK a Christian?

  9. Eugene, I note that your last comment came in before I posted my comment immediately above this one but also before I read and moderated your comment, so the above was not in response to it. But in light of the coincidence of our comments and that of Steve Holmes regarding violence and sainthood, it should be noted that the claims of Augustine and Calvin (my two examples) to sanctity do not rely on their deployment of violence or oppression in the name of Christ. Fortunately deciding who's in and who's out as an exemplary saint isn't a path we have to walk as individuals--it's a path we walk together, and I'm not interested in walking the path of telling my African-American sisters and brothers--and a good part of the rest of the church--that their recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. as an exemplary saint is invalid.

  10. Eugene, two responses to your last comment: (1) fortunately that judgment's not mine to make; (2) though I think sound theology is important and unsound theology a threat to the life of the church, fortunately we're not justified by our theology; (3) can you offer some concrete citations from MLK?

  11. I don't mean to be argumentative, but it seems like you are refusing to answer my question.

  12. That is in fact my answer, though another might be to say that sometimes the task of theology is to say that the wrong question is being asked, and that might need to be said in this case. It's a question that places the one who answers it with either possible response in a position that only God should occupy.

  13. Two things, and then I'll pipe down.

    (1) You said my question as to whether MLK was a Christian is "a question that places the one who answers it ... in a position that only God should occupy." That's hardly the sort of response I'd expect from a man advocating for the veneration of Christian saints.

    If you really do desire "a more intentional Baptist practice of commemorating the lives of exemplary Christians who might help us learn what it means to embody the Christian life faithfully," then obviously that requires that we first identify such Christians.

    I'm all the more surprised by your response given your past enthusiasm for the historic Creeds and the Ecumenical Councils that produced them. After all, it's one of the glories of those institutions that they were totally unafraid to pronounce on the question of who was and who was not a Christian.

    Indeed, I'm having a little trouble regarding your demur as anything other than disingenuous. If I asked you if Mani was a Christian I think you'd answer my question straight-away. If I asked you if Valentinus was a Christian I suspect I'd receive a similarly straight-forward answer: "No." But then again, those men don't have large bodies of poorly-informed fans who might take offense at the revelation.

  14. (2) You asked for quotations from MLK himself and that's only fair. Here are a few. (Please pardon whatever formatting errors I make in the citations.)

    RE: Incarnation

    “The more orthodox Christians have seen his divinity as an inherent quality metaphysically bestowed. Jesus, they have told us, is the Pre-existent Logos. He is the word made flesh. He is the second person of the trinity. He is very God of very God, of one substance with the Father, who for our salvation came down from Heaven and was incarnate be the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. … The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems to me quite inadequate. To say that the Christ, whose example of living we are bid to follow, is divine in an ontological sense is actually harmful and detrimental. To invest this Christ with such supernatural qualities makes the rejoinder: ‘Oh, well, he had a better chance for that kind of life than we can possible have.’ In other words, one could easily use this as a means to hide behind his failures. So that the orthodox view of the divinity of Christ is in my mind quite readily denied. The true significance of the divinity of Christ lies in the fact that his achievement is prophetic and promissory for every other true son of man who is willing to submit his will to the will and spirit of God. Christ was to be only the prototype of one among many brothers.”

    Martin Luther King Jr., "The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus" [1950], in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Vol. 1, Clayborne Carson, Ralph Luker & Penny A. Russell eds., (University of California Press: 1992) pg. 261-262

  15. RE: Virgin Birth

    “The second doctrine in our discussion posits the virgin birth. … First we must admit that the evidence for the tenability of this doctrine is too shallow to convince any objective thinker. To begin with, the earliest written documents in the New Testament make no mention of the virgin birth. Moreover, the Gospel of Mark, the most primitive and authentic of the four, gives not the slightest suggestion of the virgin birth. The effort to justify this doctrine on the grounds that it was predicted by the prophet Isaiah is immediately eliminated, for all New Testament scholars agree that the word virgin is not found in the Hebrew original, but only in the Greek text which is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for ‘young woman.’ How then did this doctrine arise? … A more adequate explanation for the rise of this doctrine is found in the experience which the early Christians had with Jesus. The people saw within Jesus such a uniqueness of quality and spirit that to explain him in terms of ordinary background was to them quite inadequate. For his early followers this spiritual uniqueness could only by accounted for in terms of biological uniqueness. They were not unscientific in their approach because they had no knowledge of the scientific. They could only express themselves in terms of the pre-scientific thought patterns of their day. No laws were broken because they had no knowledge of the existence of law. They only knew that they had been with the Jesus of history and that his spiritual life was so far beyond theirs that to explain his biological origin as identical with theirs was quite inadequate. We of this scientific age will not explain the birth of Jesus in such unscientific terms, but we will have to admit with the early Christians that the spiritual uniqueness of Jesus stands as a mystery to man.”

    Martin Luther King Jr., "What Experiences of Christians Living in the Early Christian Century Led to the Christian Doctrines of the Divine Sonship of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Bodily Resurrection" [1949], in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Vol. 1, Clayborne Carson, Ralph Luker & Penny A. Russell eds., (University of California Press: 1992) pg. 228-229

  16. RE: Resurrection

    “This doctrine, upon which the Easter Faith rests, symbolizes the ultimate Christian conviction: that Christ conquered death. From a literary, historical, and philosophical point of view this doctrine raises many questions. In fact the external evidence for the authenticity of this doctrine is found wanting. But here again the external evidence is not the most important thing, for it in itself fails to tell us precisely the thing we most want to know: What experiences of early Christians lead to the formulation of the doctrine? The root of our inquiry is found in the fact that the early Christians had lived with Jesus. They had been captivated by the magnetic power of his personality. This basic experience led to the faith that he could never die. And so in the pre-scientific thought pattern of the first century, this inner faith took outward form. But it must be remembered that before the doctrine was formulated or the event recorded, the early Christians had had a lasting experience with the Christ. They had come to see that the essential note in the Fourth Gospel is the ultimate force in Christianity: The living, deathless person of Christ. They expressed this in terms of the outward, but it was an inner experience that lead to its expression.”
    Martin Luther King Jr., "What Experiences of Christians Living in the Early Christian Century Led to the Christian Doctrines of the Divine Sonship of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Bodily Resurrection" [1949], in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Vol. 1, Clayborne Carson, Ralph Luker & Penny A. Russell eds., (University of California Press: 1992) pg. 229

  17. RE: Second Coming

    “It is obvious that most twentieth century Christians must frankly and flatly reject any view of a physical return of Christ. To hold such a view would mean denying a Copernican universe, for there can be no physical return unless there is a physical place from which to return. In its literal form this belief belongs to a pre-scientific world view which we cannot accept. Where then do we find the Christian pertinence of this belief? We may find it in the words of one of the greatest Christians the world has ever known--St. Paul. ‘Nevertheless I live: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’ Also we may turn to the words of the Fourth Gospel, ‘I will not leave you comfortless; I come to you. Because I live, ye shall live also.’ The most precious thought in Christianity is that Jesus is our daily friend, that he never did leave us comfortless or alone, and that we may know his transforming communion every day of our lives. As Dr. Hedley succinctly states, ‘The second coming of the Christ is not an event in space-time, but an experience which transcends all physical categories. It belongs not to the sky, but to the human heart; not to the future, but to whatever present we are willing to assign to it.’

    “Actually we are celebrating the Second Advent every time we open our hearts to Jesus, every time we turn our backs to the low road and accept the high road, every time we say no to self that we may say yes to Jesus Christ, every time a man or women turns from ugliness to beauty and is able to forgive even their enemies. Jesus stands at the door of our hearts if we are willing to admit him. He is far away if with ugliness and evil we crowd him out. The final doctrine of the second coming is that whenever we turn our lives to the highest and best there for us is the Christ.”

    Martin Luther King Jr., "The Christian Pertinence of Eschatological Hope" [1950], in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Vol. 1, Clayborne Carson, Ralph Luker & Penny A. Russell eds., (University of California Press: 1992) pg. 269

  18. Again, I’ve no desire to pick on MLK particularly. I only use him as my example because his name has appeared in all four of the articles presented above in connection with your post. And, again, it’s not my intention to be a troll. I simply desire to illustrate a glaring problem with your proposal if it isn’t executed in connection with a serious creedal litmus test: non-Christians could be (and, it seems, would be) held up for veneration as examples of truly exemplary Christians.

    That’s not something I’d like to see happen.

  19. Eugene, thanks for supplying these clarifications and quotations. I do think that the question "Is _____ a Christian?" is to be distinguished from the question "Is _____ an orthodox Christian?" No doubt there are many Christians in saving relationship with God who neverthless are doctrinally heterodox. I'm much more comfortable, however, with answering the latter question than the former. I'm willing to grant that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not doctrinally orthodox on many points, but I'm unwilling to say that he was therefore not Christian in the sense of not being in saving relationship with God.

  20. Steve, fabulous work! I am excited at the prospect of Baptist sanctoral calendar. As a Roman Catholic, I find this a highly commendable effort and of incredible ecumenical importance and power.

    I am rather disappointed at the severe reaction vis-a-vis Martin Luther King. I would urge readers to re-visit the quotations supplied by the commentator in their full context. King was not 'unorthodox' and could very easily be placed in the genealogy of 20th c. anti-metaphysical theology stretching, (in King's case) via Niebuhr to Barth and Bultmann. In these quotations, when seen within their larger context, King is contesting classical metaphysical formulations that, in the American context of the 1950s and 1960s, were redeployed in ways to reify the structures of power and class. To suggest that King is unorthodox, one would have to say the same about Barth, Bultmann, Pannenberg, Jungel and many others. Of course, there are those who would say that, but that is very difficult to demonstrate with scholarly integrity. (I know Bultmann, of all these names, is the most controversial vis-a-vis orthodoxy, but the work of David Congdon, I think, will make a compelling case to the contrary).

  21. Well said, Michael. Regarding King's questions regarding ontological approaches to Christology, it should be noted that the Baptist/baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. had somewhat similar reservations that led to his advocacy of a "two-narratives" Christology as a corrective to certain directions one could go on the basis of a reductionistic version of Chalcedonian Christology.

  22. Thanks, Steve! That's very interesting. I definitely need to put McClendon in my to-read queue. A 'two-narratives' approach sounds quite intriguing.

  23. You've got to be kidding me. I know I said I'd pipe down but I feel I have to pipe up again.

    Michael, are you seriously suggesting that one can deny the literal reality of the incarnation, virgin birth, resurrection, and the second coming and still legitimately avoid the label "unorthodox"?

    I think King warrants the descriptor "apostate," Steve (it seems) perfers the less harsh option of "heterodox" (a polite euphemism for "heretical"), but this is just too much.

    Keep in mind that I'm not the only one who see's King's views as a rejection of Christian orthodoxy. Even the extremely sympathetic editors of his papers concluded that King "rejected literal interpretations of Christian beliefs that contradicted 'the laws of modern science,' insisting instead that such beliefs -- the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth, the second coming, and the bodily resurrection -- should be understood metaphorically."

    Be reasonable. I realize that King, for a variety of reasons, has become a sacred cow for many. But try to evaluate King's theology apart from his status as a civil rights icon. Would you be so quick to offer comparative defenses of the man's supposed orthodoxy if he wrote the exact same things but was a white segregationist? I rather doubt it.

  24. Thanks to Nick Liao, one of my former students, for passing along this link to this extended reflection by Philip Yancey on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life in all its complexities and its relevance for Christians today: http://www.adventistreview.org/2001-1541/story5.html

  25. I notice that Yancey doesn't once give his readers any indication of King's deeply deficient theology. Not one word. Nope, for Yancey King is a "prophet" comparable to the prophets of the Old Testament.

    Steven, you've mentioned that saints must be "thick" exemplars of the Christian life; but such rhetoric notwithstanding, it seems like your approach really just flattens sainthood down to a recognition of mere do-goodery.

    Consider just what's leading you to want to saint King.

    Is it his great faith? No, the content of King's faith was a train-wreck.

    Is it his great personal sanctity? No, King's personal life was an absolute scandal.

    It's his great political and social accomplishments; the things he's achieved in the world. But if that really is the case then your project would seem to be underwritten by a Pelagianism so rank that even Pelagius would balk.

    Sainthood = great worldly achievements.

  26. Eugene, the mere rejection of 'literalism' vis-a-vis doctrinal formulations does not equate with apostasy and it would be questionable, even, to argue that it warrants the label 'heterodoxy.' One would have to dismiss entire strands of the Christian tradition if 'literalism' were the litmus test. The Eastern Orthodox Church would be bereft of some of their greatest teachers. Even some of the most orthodox thinkers of the early centuries rejected literalistic formularies, while yet believing in the *reality* of the doctrine. There's a significant difference between realism and literalism. But more to the point, King's theology fits squarely within a theological genealogy of the 20th century that overlaps with "neo-Orthodoxy" (I dislike the term, but it's useful here). The quotations you've provided demonstrate nothing other than King's rejection of literalist metaphysics, as many other notable theologians have -- none of whom were apostates or heterodox. If you wish to call them heterodox, that's a strong charge that would require careful demonstration -- far more than a few quotations lifted out of their context. Apostasy is an incredibly loaded term and is best used with extreme caution. To label someone an apostate is to level provisional judgment upon them that they are damned and I'm not sure that that is the type of thing to bandy about carelessly. It is certainly not something to be done outside of the ecclesial body either because it is a judgment of the church and it formalizes a broken relationship.

  27. I would add a few more remarks to clarify. My admiration for King is not reducible simply to politics. Certainly, King's political acts were courageous and commendable. However, from what I observe, King's political actions were always theological actions; that is to say, the political is *not* separable from the theological. Given King's theological training, which, as I've indicated, traces from Niebuhr to German dialectical theology, I would argue that King put into action his theological commitments. His was an active, political outworking of the theological ethics that one finds in someone like Barth. (I would say, in fact, that King's theological ethics are closer to Barth than Niebuhr). King's politics, then, demonstrate a theological perception of the radical, disruptive grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the sheer, gratuitous liberation that is grounded in and thrusts outward from the historical life, proclamation, death and resurrection of Christ. King *did* believe in the resurrection of Christ -- his unwavering commitment to non-violence makes little sense without this -- even though he queries the formulation of that doctrine. (The quotation you provided should be read *very* carefully and definitely needs much more than just the excerpt. What he says there is not fundamentally different from that which can be found in Bultmann and Pannenberg.)

    Moreover, the application of the word 'saint,' in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, does not automatically indicate official approbation of the entirety of a thinker's work or theology. One only has to look at some of the thinkers 'sainted' by the tradition whose thought contains 'anomalies' or even disputed opinions. There are figures, for instance, revered by the Eastern Orthodox who held to the doctrine of apokatastasis (i.e., universal salvation), who were, to put it anachronistically, semi-Pelagian, or had less than clear opinions on the Trinity. King, it should be acknowledged, was not a systematic theologian, though he did train in theology; but, despite his less than systematic approach, his theology is a part of theological genealogy within modern/contemporary theology that is orthodox.

  28. Michael,

    I found your response to Eugene interesting.

    "Literalist metaphysics" is an intriguing term.

    Let me try to flesh this out a bit in the admittedly-less-obfuscational parlance of common folk:

    In your opinion, if a man believes that Jesus was crucified and that his body was eaten by dogs afterwards, is that man a Christian?

    A pretty simple question tied to a raw physical reality (either He bodily rose or He did not).


    Wyman Richardson

  29. Wyman, thank you for your question. First, let me say that it was not my intention to be obfuscatory. My objective was to be careful and precise, perhaps unsuccessfully. Second, I would say your question is not as simple or straightforward as you might think. For instance, you seem to presume that ‘consumption by dogs’ precludes resurrection ipso facto. Why is that? Does that mean, as well, that the martyrs rent by beasts in the Colosseum are beyond resurrection? Is that not a denial of the power of God? I don’t assume, on the face of it, that a statement that Christ’s body was consumed by dogs means automatically no resurrection. Certainly, someone who argues that position would need to provide quite a lot of explanation and nuance, but I don’t think it has to be antithetical to resurrection. I would also question what I perceive to be a conflation of 'orthodox' with 'Christian.' While the terms bear a relationship, they are not necessarily interchangeable.

  30. Eugene Curry claims that current interest in designating MLK Jr as a saint is based entirely upon his "great worldly achievements." Michael Gibson's reply that "King's political actions were always theological actions; that is to say, the political is *not* separable from the theological" is exactly on target. Theology is always a human construct -- an attempt by limited beings to comprehend the one Being who is unlimited.
    In the popular film "Forest Gump," actor Tom Hanks has a memorable line: "Stupid is as stupid does." I would like to turn that phrase somewhat on its head: Saintly is as saintly does. Any honest evaluation of the life of MLK Jr MUST take into account the indisputable fact that his non-violence and his passionate call for national righteousness and social justice stem from his recognition of the power of God to transform human beings into persons they could never become on their own. To imply that the reformations MLK Jr worked for -- reformations which have transformed our own lives for the better -- did not have an solid basis in his personal relationship with God -- a relationship that was imperfect, both in its verbal articulation and its social and even sexual dimensions -- is to do the man a grave injustice.
    Who among us does not recognize God at work in the reformations that MLK Jr helped to bring about?
    Because Curry questions King's articulation of theology and disapproves of his sexual ethics, will he deny the indisputable work of God in him?

  31. Well expressed, Harvey--among other things communicated in your comment, you've pointed to what keeps the recognition of anything achieved King, or any other exemplar of what it means to follow Jesus,from being "Pelagian." Our striving to participate in God's reign and its extension in the world, however imperfect that striving may be, is ultimately the work of God. If one has to choose ancient theological categories for that way of putting it, the right category would be Augustinian rather than Pelagian.

  32. Michael,

    I'm speaking of the events of Easter.

    I never spoke of orthodoxy.

    Let me try again: In your opinion, is a man who denies that Jesus bodily arose from the dead on the third day a Christian.

    Hope that clarifies things.


  33. Wyman, as I said, maybe. A denial of the bodily resurrection can take many forms and mean different things. But, more particularly, *in my opinion,* belief in a doctrine or a proposition is not determinative of one's status as a Christian. It can determine one's standing in relationship to the received body of tradition and it may have an affect upon one's standing with the church. However, there's a frank difference between union with God and belief in doctrinal statements. So, I will not say that one *cannot* be a Christian on the basis of a denial of that statement, particularly without knowing how or why the denial is deployed.

  34. "Who among us does not recognize God at work in the reformations that MLK Jr helped to bring about?"

    That's hardly the point. God was "at work" in Pilate's decision to crucify Christ (John 19:10-11, Acts 4:27-28). But no right-thinking person would say on that basis that Pilate ought to be held up before the Christian people as some great saint.

    And if that’s all it takes to get on the official list, then why not put Gandhi on the rolls. Gandhi’s personal life was similarly disreputable and his theology similarly atrocious, but I think most kind-hearted people would admit that he achieved meaningful, positive changes in his society, that God may even have been “at work” in his efforts. But, again, if the list of “saints” is that inclusive it’s just a farce.

  35. Michael, you say "belief in a doctrine or a proposition is not determinative of one's status as a Christian". It's nice that you identify this as merely your personal opinion. I wonder though, do you think it's an opinion that the Apostle Paul shared? (cp. Romans 10:9)

    "King *did* believe in the resurrection of Christ... What he says there is not fundamentally different from that which can be found in Bultmann and Pannenberg."

    I can't speak for Bultmann, but unlike King Pannenberg clearly did affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus--complete with empty tomb. As a "theology and history editor at IVP Academic" I can't imagine you're unaware of this. I hesitate to accuse you of willful distortion but I'm not sure what other explanation for your false statement is on offer.

  36. "Maybe."

    Thank you Michael.

    Steve, sorry for the momentary distraction.


  37. Eugene,
    What I've said vis-a-vis the relationship of propositional doctrinal statements and personal salvation is fully in line with Protestant (Barth, Torrance), Roman Catholic (De Lubac, von Balthasar, Ratzinger) and Eastern Orthodox (Lossky, Zizioulas) 'orthodox' theology. If a single bible verse condemns me, then all of these figures are equally condemned.

  38. Eugene,
    I challenge your charge of deliberate distortion or false statement. I have offered here an interpretation of King's theology within the wider narrative of 20th century theological history. So, now let's talk historiography, since you want to call my professional integrity into question as well. You've provided some quotations from King's work, the vast majority of which are culled from a 1949 paper King wrote in seminary. You allow that stand as the full evidence upon which to convict King of not only being unorthodox, but, presumably, not Christian. (If this is not your contention, but only that of Wyman, then apologies). Historical theology, as an academic discipline, in recent decades very often focuses on development within a thinker's body of work. A good example of this can be seen in Patout Burns's study of the development of the doctrine of operative grace in Saint Augustine. As a historian, then, I would like to see a fuller range of evidence. Should I condemn someone on the basis of remarks made in a seminary paper? Given that King trained at Crozier, a seminary in the American liberal tradition, it would not surprise me that King would write something that adheres quite fully to a basic Harnackian thesis vis-a-vis the historical development of doctrine, a spiritualized interpretation of the resurrection and an ethically focused articulation of the essence of Christianity. If all we had were Barth's seminary papers we would assume that he was a Schleiermacherian of the highest order. Now, is it possible that King never deviated from the positions he articulated as a seminary student in a seminar paper on early Christianity? Sure. That's entirely possible. Since I am not a King scholar, I have no specialized knowledge of his doctrinal development as a thinker. At the same time, I also see no evidence offered from writings, speeches or sermons from his mature years; your evidence is all from 1949-1950, a period in which King was a student. I would not want my theological 'legacy' (sorry, I had to laugh as I typed that) to be judged from my writings as a seminary student. Again, it is entirely possible, even plausible, that King never developed beyond the basic positions he held as a seminary student. I find that unlikely but quite possible. And, I'm entirely open to being wrong in my presentation of him. But, the interpretation I've put forward is based upon a genetic reading of modern theology, in which, as I see it, King fits into a certain pattern exemplified by the left-wing of neo-Orthodoxy (with some modifications). And, yes, I fully admit that a direct and exact comparison of King and Pannenberg doesn't yield a one-to-one correspondence. But, if you read Pannenberg's Jesus - God and Man - you know it takes a hell of a lot of work for Pannenberg to get to the position you say he has. In fact, Pannenberg's method in that book is to work out Christology 'from below', from the starting point of the early Christian experience and kerygma -- the material that King, in one of those quotations, upholds as precisely important. (Here again, the comparison is difficult because you are dealing with, on the one hand, an exhaustive German academic text and, on the other hand, a student seminary paper). Nevertheless, King's theological training at Boston University, where he studied Tillich, and the influence of Niebuhr, an important figure who attempted to reconcile the thought of Barth and Troeltsch, certainly places him within a particular orbit.

  39. Perhaps my particular reading of King is incorrect; I'm aware of secondary socio-historical readings of King that would place him in the 'liberal' tradition as opposed to the neo-orthodox camp. (I would argue, based on particular points I've rehearsed in my comments, that he belongs to the left-wing of neo-orthodoxy). As an academic theologian, I'm open to discussing that and I'm willing to revise my understanding. Accusations of willful distortion or false statement fail to persuade me. That, in fact, turns this from a discussion about King, theological method and practice into a personal attack, which is made all the more apparent when you set my job in scare quotes. My objective in this entire discussion has been, simply, to push against a seemingly easy dismissal of a thinker who represents a broader tradition within modern theology that does sit within borders of orthodoxy, even if on the margins. To label someone unorthodox is a significant charge that requires careful analysis, discussion and consideration. (It is an open question, as well, at least to me, whether liberal and unorthodox are the same thing; in other words, does it follow that simply because one is liberal, one is also unorthodox?). Even more, to describe someone as a heretic or deny that they are Christian are quite serious and are not activities I entertain casually. If that makes me liberal, unorthodox or a heretic, then I suppose that's something my bishop ought to handle.

  40. Michael, all of your spin-doctoring aside, King himself admits that he rejected the bodily resurrection of Jesus in those very terms.

    "At the age of 13 I shocked my Sunday School class by denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus."

    Martin Luther King Jr., "An Autobiography of Religious Development" [1950], in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Vol. 1, Clayborne Carson, Ralph Luker & Penny A. Russell eds., (University of California Press: 1992) pg. 361

  41. Michael, a few points. I wasn't trying to put your job in scare quotes; they were regular quotes. I was trying to indicate to the others here that that is how you describe yourself on your profile. I'm perfectly happy to grant that you are a full-blown editor with IVP, no subtle grammatical pot-shots involved.

    Instead of implying the unavoidability of seeing this as willful distortion I suppose I should have said, "I hesitate to accuse you of willful distortion but, at the very least, you should know better."

    As for "the relationship of propositional doctrinal statements and personal salvation", I grant that a person can have get certain theological bits wrong while still being "saved." But in King's case we're not talking about some second or third tier bit of theological trivia. We're talking about the incarnation and the resurrection. These would seem to be sin qua non elements of legitimate Christian identity. As for the theologians you mention being wrong along with you, as a non-Catholic/non-Orthodox/non-Barthian I'm very open to that possibility. Still, I note that neither the Roman Catholic magesterium nor its more diffuse Orthodox counterparts have sainted King after more than forty years, so I don't think they're really on your side in this dispute.

    It's certainly possible that King changed his mind in his latter years. I very much hope he did. (My hearts not made of stone, you know. It not as if I like being the jerk that outting a beloved social reformer.) But while it's possible that King changed his theology in the absence of any actual documentary evidence to that effect you're just speculating. And as far as historiography go speculation is a pretty crummy foundation to build on.

  42. So, I guess King never developed beyond the theology he held at age 13, as he suggests in this paper written during seminary. Case closed.

  43. (And as for my relationship with Wyman, on this issue at least he and I are in the throes of a passionate bromance.)

  44. Michael,

    I'm going to try my darndest to bow out of this. I simply want to point out, though, that, in fact, I made no "contention" at all. Nor did I mention MLK. I asked a question, you answered and I thanked you.

    My interest is rather more general and involves how we use words, how those words relate to reality, and how, particularly, they relate to historicity.

    I do have a contention, btw, and it would be very similar to the central thesis of Evelyn Waugh's novel Helena or John Updike's resurrection poem from "Seven Stanzas at Easter," at least insofar as they address language and epistemology in theological discourse.

    But it's Steve's blog, after all, and there seems to be more than enough grist for the mill here without my exasperating things. The whole tone of this thing is getting a bit beyond where I prefer to go on blogs anyway, so I'll leave you to it.


  45. Yet even so....

    "Because the present is continually changing, the theologian cannot be content with establishing and communicating the results obtained by some classical period; his reflection must be renewed constantly.... Serious theological work is forced, again and again, to begin from the beginning. As this is done, the theology of past periods, classical and less classical, also plays a part and demands a hearing. It demands a hearing as surely as it occupies a place with us in the church. The church does not exist in a vacuum. We have to remember the communion of saints, bearing and being borne by each other, asking and being asked, having to take mutual responsibility for and among the sinners gathered together in Christ.... Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher and all the rest are not dead, but living. They still speak and demand a hearing as living voices, as surely as we know that they and we belong together in the church. As we make our contribution, they join in with theirs, and we cannot play our part today without allowing them to play theirs.... There is no past in the church, so there is no past in theology. 'In him they all live.' Only the heretic, indeed only the arch-heretic, the one who is totally lost even for God's invisible church, could really belong to the past and have nothing more to say to us. And we are in no position to identify such arch-heresy.... All heretics are relatively heretical, so even those who have been branded heretics at one time or another and condemned for their avowed folly and wickedness must be allowed their say in theology."

    Karl Barth, Die Protestantische Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert (Zürich, TVZ, 1952) [ET, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History, trans. Colin Gunton (London: SCM, 2001), 2-3.

  46. Eugene,

    You better define "bromance"! Ha! I don't think it's in the lexicon of Baptist catholicity!

    My main beef with you is your refusal to see the power of the film version of Cormac Mcarthy's "The Road."

    Steve, your blog has never hosted such a dustup before! What will the neighbors think.

    Pax Vobiscum,

  47. @ Eugene, since this entire thing is a question about the inclusion of King on a *Baptist* sanctoral calendar, whether Catholics or Orthodox 'recognize' him is quite beside the point. And, as a Roman Catholic myself, I haven't said anything here that contradicts Catholic theology. (In fact, you will be hard pressed to find more than one or two statements that have anything to do with my own theological position).

    @Wyman, if you're interested in how we use words and how they relate to reality, etc., read the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

  48. Michael,

    I think you are almost completely misunderstanding me. I'll shoot you an email next week if I get time and, if you have the time and the inclination, we'll talk. If not, no harm no foul and I wish you all the best!

    Btw, I'm thrilled to see the Reormation Commentary on Scripture coming out from IVP Academic. I think the world of Timothy George and have really benefited from the ACCS. Kudos to you guys for that!


  49. Thanks, Wyman. I'm very proud of the RCS and it has been a privilege to work with Timothy George, Scott Manetsch and a host of brilliant scholars, including our venerable blog master, Steve Harmon.

    Yes, by all means, drop me a line.

  50. Eugene,
    In regard to historiography, it has nothing to do with 'my speculation.' You accused me of distortion and false statement (it's still an accusation even if you hang an 'I hate to say...' in front of it). I explained in fuller detail my interpretation of King in demonstration that I did not engage in false statements. My riposte to you was for you to provide evidence from something other than papers from King's seminary period. Where is the speculation? I'm asking you to provide fuller documentary evidence for a conviction of a thinker on the charge of apostasy, as you wanted to charge in an earlier comment. I've offered an interpretation of a thinker that is open to dispute -- and interpretation is quite different from speculation. You've condemned and repudiated a thinker but refuse to substantiate the charge on the basis of a wide range of evidence. It seems to me that the speculation is yours, not mine.

  51. Here's an example:

    "At the center of the faith of Christian is the fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ -- our reminder that though evil may triumph on Good Friday, it must ultimately give way to the triumph of Easter. Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into AD and BC, so that even Caesar must be dated by his name."

    Martin Luther King, "Revolution and Redemption," An Address to the National Council of Church, 17 January 1963, in Matthew Ahmann, ed., Race: Challenge to Religion (Chicago: Regnery, 1963), 168-69.

  52. I'm swiftly losing interest in continuing this discussion with you, Michael. It seems that your defense of King's theology runs like this:

    Despite appearances, King's stated views in his seminary papers are totally orthodox.

    ...but even if they aren't then King was probably just pandering to his professors.

    ...but even if he wasn't then we can just assume that he changed his views later in life.

    ...but even if we can't, who cares! It doesn't matter! A person can believe or disbelieve anything they want and still be a Christian... or at least part of our "orbit"... or at least still have something to say. So putting him on a short list of exemplary saints would still be super-appropriate.

    This kind defense just seems like arm-waving. The presence of so many fallback positions, self-consciously speculative leaps, and counter-factual assertions just makes it all look like an irrational desire to "get the man in" no matter what the conceptual difficulties.

    Again, I bear King no particular animus. I recognize the greatness of his political and social achievements and I'm glad that he's honored with secular commemorations in our shared nation. I strongly object, though, to the sort of theological downgrade that would be required to hold the man forth as an exemplary Christian specifically… especially within a movement that claims to take the creeds seriously and seeks to avoid reducing Christianity to Smith and Denton’s “moralistic therapeutic Deism”.

    I don't want King to become the Baptists' version of Barlaam and Josaphat--a blunder rendered all the more absurd given that we would be entering into this foolishness with our eyes wide open.

    Further, on a more personal level, I don't want to see the "Baptist catholicity" program become just a wholly-owned subsidiary of moderate/liberal Baptist partisan identity. And yet, if King were placed on some official list of saints venerated by catholic Baptists, I can just imagine the insuperable difficulty the movement would face in trying to get even a hearing among the more conservative of our brothers. I can hear their incredulous, twangy Foghorn Leghorn voices now: "Catholicity? Ain’t that something pushed by guys who think some of the best Christians in history denied the resurrection and the incarnation? Go, I say go away, boy, ya bother me.”

  53. Yes, I consider this argument done too, Eugene. You're responses amount to personal accusations and projections. Your characterization of my "defense" of King is nothing short of caricature and is not based on the substance of what I've said. I did not argue, for instance, that I assume he changed his position -- I asked for evidence of either continuity with his seminary position or maturity of theological development. (I did say I thought it unlikely he did not mature in his thought -- but I nowhere stated that it was a given). I also did not argue that his seminary papers were examples of pandering; seminary papers are, as they should be, exercises in reflecting on what one is taught. I would not presume to know what his interior motivation was, just as I would not argue that Barth's papers for Harnack's seminars were examples of pandering to the master. I also never said that someone can believe or disbelieve *anything* and be a Christian. I have argued all along, however, that it requires serious analysis and determination to judge someone to be an apostate, a heretic, a non-Christian, unorthodox. But, yes, like Barth, I would say that even the deviant have *something* to say, even if, at the end of the day, we have to part and disagree strongly. All in all, however, it is entirely inconsequential to me whether King is accepted as a saint amongst Baptists -- liberal or conservative. The registry of saints in your community is your affair. I do hope, however, that Prof. Harmon's Baptist catholicity is a success because it is a good thing for the ecumenical body of Christ and would provide even more shared space for a Catholic like me and a Baptist like Steve. That can only be as a token of the grace of the proleptic kingdom of Christ.

  54. I'll let someone else handle the issue of racial insensitivity at using the term 'boy' in a discussion of Martin Luther King. I'm out...

  55. Michael, "boy" was directed at me by some caricatured conservative Southern Baptist in my imagined scenario, not at some black person. That you felt the need to end your contribution to this discussion with a bit of glib race-baiting just shows the bankruptcy of your argumentative position.

    When Steven asked for sources I said that was fair. Now that you've asked for additional sources I suppose that I should oblige you as well.

    First, you said that "the vast majority" of King quotations I've provided are drawn from a single paper. That's incorrect. By the time you made that statement I had provided three distinct primary sources and no more than two specific quotes were drawn from any one source. In the intervening period I've provided another source as well. Granted, all the sources were produced while King was in seminary, but at least one referred to his beliefs prior to enrolling and indicates that he didn't just pick up his various denials from his seminary professors; he had been denying cornerstones of Christianity for years by that point.

    Now you've supplied us with a different quotation, one drawn from a speech delivered in 1963, as possible evidence that King may have gotten his theology in order later in life, quietly setting aside his former skepticism regarding various miracles and embracing orthodoxy. That's great; no more pedantic obscurantist jargon about theological trajectories and what not--actual quotations.

    Unfortunately the quote you've offered doesn't really amount to much. Yes, King spoke those words in 1963 which sound like he’s saying what I think we’d all like to hear--but he was just rehashing a sermon he originally preached in 1956. 1956 was a mere 6 years after King wrote his various seminary papers denying the basically every Christian doctrine apart from the existence and goodness of God. So did King really abandon his wider skepticism between 1950 and 1956?

  56. No. He didn’t.

    “King Jr. never accepted the traditional Christian view of the virgin birth, and he would later declare that ‘the traditional issues of theology—sin and salvation, the divinity of Christ, His virgin birth, His bodily resurrection are peripheral’ and not ‘central’ to the Christian faith.’ One of his interviewers reported in 1963: ‘But Dr. King rejects the virgin birth of Christ as literal fact. The early Christians, he says, had noticed the moral uniqueness of Jesus; to make this uniqueness appear plausible, they devised a mythological story of Jesus’ biological uniqueness.’”

    Lewis V. Baldwin, The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr (Oxford University Press: 2010) pg. 274.

    King’s views concerning the virgin birth in 1963 sound absolutely identical to his views back in 1950 as put forward in the sources I’ve already provided. Given this identity it would seem that King had not undergone a major theological reorientation in the interim. As such, the best explanation of King’s words in his 1956 sermon / 1963 speech is the obvious one: King was using the language of Christianity in a deeply metaphorical fashion with no intention of affirming its literal truth.

    And that is precisely how the editors of King’s paper’s understood his seminary era beliefs: King "rejected literal interpretations of Christian beliefs that contradicted 'the laws of modern science,' insisting instead that such beliefs -- the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth, the second coming, and the bodily resurrection -- should be understood metaphorically."

    “Introduction”, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Vol. 1, Clayborne Carson, Ralph Luker & Penny A. Russell eds., (University of California Press: 1992) pg. 50

    Or, to quote the man himself, “if we delve into the deeper meaning of these doctrines, and somehow strip them of their literal interpretation, we will find that they are based on a profound foundation.”

    Martin Luther King Jr., "What Experiences of Christians Living in the Early Christian Century Led to the Christian Doctrines of the Divine Sonship of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Bodily Resurrection" [1949], in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Vol. 1, Clayborne Carson, Ralph Luker & Penny A. Russell eds., (University of California Press: 1992) pg. 228-229


    Okay, now I’m done. Michael, if you’d like at this point to try to poison the well by implying I’m a racist, an anti-Semite, a pedophile, or an eater of cute baby kittens, feel free. But I won’t respond.

  57. Yes, I'm aware that the quotation from 1963 was repurposed from his sermon of 1956. Even in the latter, six years post-seminary is certainly sufficient time for difference, nuance or maturation. Your argument continues, however, to suppose that his views were fully formed prior to his matriculation in seminary and that they remained entirely static from seminary onward. That might very well be the case. However, it seems to me that it would be very difficult to deny -- even if his language is metaphorical -- that the thought expressed in his remarks from 1956 and 1963 do not indicate a belief in a radically disruptive and transformative event that we call resurrection. But, even playing on your terms, taking up your quotation from 1949, the words following your bolded text are incredibly important and undermine an assertion of a strict denial of the resurrection. Has he expressed something here fundamentally different from Bultmann's demythologization? I would press this a little further and ask -- is he denying the *bodily* resurrection of Christ or his denying the historical suppositions? Is he denying the reality of a risen Christ or the formulations of a doctrine?

  58. *sorry, that should "do indicate a belief in a radically..." (the 'not' should be excised).

    For the record, I did not accuse of racism. Insensitivity is not the same thing as racism tout court. The former is a lack of awareness of the racially charged implications in the use of words, term and phrases. That you used those words in the mouth of a 'conservative Southerner' is indicative of the real problem -- the repression of an African American thinker through dismissal and castigation. Your desire to placate that group, per your remarks in your last comment to Steve vis-a-vis his Baptist catholicity -- is a capitulation to something that is discriminatory. I do not think that makes you a racist but the question of our continued participation in such structures has to be raised and critically examined.

  59. Let me put this in a less personal way. Within American religious history, African Americans have been and are a sizeable community within the Baptist ecclesial body. Martin Luther King is one of the most prominent and important African American figures of the 20th century, both as an American religious persona and as a social activist. His achievements had a profound impact upon American society, larger than virtually anything other figure in the previous century. His actions, however, were not groundless or without foundation; they were, rather, bold, prophetic embodiments of theological convictions, as he himself testified to in numerous speeches, letters and writings. (I would refer readers to the primary sources contained in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, 41-63, 75-81, 227-230, 289-302, 313-330). These convictions were radically centered in the person of Jesus Christ and a belief that Christ's entire life, death and resurrection was a divine 'No!' to injustice, evil, violence and oppression. (That the resurrection *was* a key to this is seen in the quotation from 1956/1963 that I provided). Even more, King was spurred into action by an epiphanic vision of Christ himself (h/t to Nick Liao for this), which is something that is most often the preserve of saints, prophets, mystics and holy fools. [Jesus seems to have a pesky insistence on hanging the oddballs, cast outs and liminal]. Understanding that, it is hard to deny that King was graced by God to be a prophet in a radically segregated and racist society; he was graced *despite* his flaws and failings, as is always the way of God with sinners (and saints!). Now, King's theology itself, formed as it was in the American liberal tradition of the mid-20th c., was very likely of the liberal variety, though I've presented a possible alternate description (open to contest, of course). Yet, it is a liberal theology that, from all appearances, has a 'profound foundation' (to quote King) in the transformative experience of the liberative death and resurrection of Christ -- however that is defined or described. (And, even if metaphorical, metaphor has to be grounded in reality, otherwise how is it an effective metaphor?). King's theology is representative of, and has been accepted by, a considerable portion of the Baptist ecclesial body, especially in the African American church. So, then, the question must be raised whether that community counts and has a say in the wider pan-Baptist body or do only white conservatives get to arbitrate for Baptists as a whole? If a Baptist sanctoral calendar is representative of Baptists as a broad body, does the African American Baptist tradition count for inclusion or should they be relegated to just having *their* own? In discussion like these, why is it that only the concerns and reactions of conservatives are important and catered to? Is there not a larger body and a larger tradition? Whose voices count in that tradition and who decides? Further, what is the ground for the presumption that liberal *equals* unorthodox, or more pointedly, unchristian? Is it the denial of the *literal* nature of particular doctrinal statements? Is the denial of literalism ipso facto a denial of thing itself? Historicity? But more to the point, even if we conclude, perhaps rightly, that his theology was flawed -- even seriously flawed -- is it ours to determine his ultimate fate? Perhaps, if the ecclesial body as a whole determines it to be so, but definitely not as individuals exercising private regency over another's eternal fate. And that is what is stake when a claim is made that someone has apostasized.

    That's really all I want to say.

  60. hanging *with* the oddballs, cast outs.... that 'with' is important and I'm horrified that I left it out...

  61. I would also highly recommend the following:

    Mervyn A. Warren, "King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Dr. Martin Luther King," (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).