Monday, February 27, 2012

E. Glenn Hinson on Baptists, creeds, and Christian unity

E. Glenn Hinson
As a Baptist theologian who did much of my early research and writing in patristic studies, I've long had a sense of indebtedness to E. Glenn Hinson, who taught church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for over three decades, retired from the faculty of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, and currently serves as a visiting professor at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I was then one of only a few Baptists who had chosen to specialize in patristics (their number is growing), but I was conscious that Dr. Hinson had blazed that trail well ahead of me in our ecclesial circles. (In honor of that indebtedness I edited a Festschrift issue of the Baptist theological journal Review and Expositor on the theme Patristic Retrieval and Baptist Renewal: In Honor of E. Glenn Hinson [Fall 2004].) That consciousness only continued when my work in the ancient catholic tradition to which Baptists and all other Christians are heirs led me increasingly to devote my attention to ecumenical theology.

While doing research for my chapter on the Baptist tradition in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies, I discovered to my delight Dr. Hinson's article "Creeds and Christian Unity: A Southern Baptist Perspective" in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (vol. 23, no. 1 [Winter 1986], pp. 25-36). Once again, I realized that Dr. Hinson had already made many of the same recommendations I've been making more recently to my fellow Baptists. Below is the précis from this article published at the height of the controversy that roiled the Southern Baptist Convention from the late 1970s through the 1990s:

Historically, Southern Baptists have maintained a firm commitment to the principle of "Scriptures alone" espoused by the Protestant Reformation. The current controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention and the evolution of the denomination toward the "catholic" phase of its history, however, are forcing a reassessment of this position. A fundamentalist faction within the Convention is pressing for a narrowly defined set of "fundamentals" centered on "inerrancy" of the Scriptures. This article argues instead in favor of a reaffirmation of traditionally and universally acknowledged symbols such as that framed at Constantinople in 381, often called "the Nicene Creed," on the grounds that this accords more closely with the traditional Baptist perspective. [emphasis added]

A few additional excerpts from the article follow:

Where it is wrong [i.e., use of the Baptist Faith and Message as a creedal test of fellowship or employment in a denominational agency], if one undertakes more careful historical scrutiny, is in what it points to as essentials and in the use to which Southern Baptists would put them. Better to refer to the great historic creeds such as that adopted at Constantinople in 381, as early Baptists occasionally did, than to posit new fundamentals, recognizing at the same time that no statement can express fully the mystery of God's self-disclosure in history and, therefore, that Christians must trust the Spirit to guide them to true faith and obedience (p. 26).

The view espoused in this article would be very close to the "one-source theory" of Vatican II. It is God's self-disclosure, God's Word, which is authoritative, that is, determinative for faith and practice....Inasmuch as the self-disclosure of God reached its definitive form in Jesus of Nazareth, the writings collected in the New Testament canon hold a superior place in the life of the church, for they contain the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses and participants by faith in the greatest of God's mighty acts on behalf of humankind....Confessions of faith or creeds of whatever kind, therefore, may bear the same testimony, but they must repeatedly revive the memory of the apostolic witness from the Scriptures (pp. 26-27).

Given the normative position of Scriptures, their unique position, the question arises again: Why not Scriptures alone? Why a creed or creeds? The most compelling answer to that question would focus chiefly on the guidance needed in interpretation. As the "Second London Confession" (1677) admitted, "All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all;..." (p. 27).

Over against those who would reject all creeds, therefore, it seems right to acknowledge the legitimate role of confessions of faith or creeds alongside Scripture (p. 29).

...Southern Baptists would do well to adjust their forebears' radical individualism and voluntarism by recognizing that the Spirit can also work through the corporate as well as through the individual will....With reference to the question of creeds or confessions of faith, this would mean that Southern Baptists could acknowledge formal statements and symbols but always with care that they not be used in such a way as to preclude the Spirit's working through the individual will to effect obedience, which has always been at the center of Baptist concern. Here it would be far better to acknowledge and use early ecumenical confessions like the Nicene Creed than those proposed by individuals who are ill-qualified to understand and interpret theology. No one who studies the Nicene Creed can fail to notice how this great confession differs from recent fundamentalist statements as an expression of Christian faith and, at the same time, how much better it accords with historic Baptist perceptions of faith than do the latter (pp. 32-33).

This story is critical for the faith pilgrimage of the People of God. Recited over and over, it molds and shapes their perceptions. The creeds are, as it were, the covenant story in nucleo. Delivered in instruction and baptism or through worship, they make sure the faithful have at least grasped the essence of the covenant relationship....The main purpose of the early creeds or their precursors was not orthodoxy but covenant faithfulness (pp. 34-35).

To all of the above I can only say--and indeed have already said--"yes."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ecumenism after Vatican II

This week in the Ecumenical Theology course I'm teaching at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, we continued our survey of the historical development of the modern ecumenical movement by discussing the ecumenical revolution wrought by the commitment of the Catholic Church to participation in the ecumenical movement as expressed in the decisions and documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Our discussion was rooted in a close reading of two key Catholic ecumenical texts: the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio ("The Repair of Unity") issued in 1965 and John Paul II's 1995 papal encyclical on ecumenism Ut Unum Sint ("That They May Be One"). These documents are must reading for an accurate understanding of Catholic perspectives on non-Catholic Christian communions, Catholic perspectives on the ecumenical movement, and more recent Catholic attempts to clarify these matters for the Catholic faithful.

Our attention to the "repair of unity" and the correction of false stereotypes of other Christians and their churches could be considered as a form of penitential discipline for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, a connection underscored by a block schedule in which half the class precedes the weekly Eucharistic service and half the class follows chapel--which this week featured the imposition of ashes, prefaced by a litany of confession that included this prayer: "For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us, / Accept our repentance, O Lord, for your mercy is great." Amen.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why some Christians are anti-ecumenical

In this week's class session of the Ecumenical Theology course I'm teaching at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, we prefaced our examination of the biblical basis, theological framework, and historical development of ecumenism by discussing the reasons some Christians are stridently anti-ecumenical. Among the factors we identified were the influence of dispensational premillennial eschatology, anti-Catholicism, fear that ecumenical alliances will water down doctrinal distinctives or involve compromise with theological liberalism, fear that the journey toward visible unity will require us to give up some of the things that are most dear to us about our denominational traditions, and ecclesial memories of persecution by other Christian communions. (In connection with the influence of dispensational premillennial eschatology, I once joked to my wife while preparing to travel to participate in an ecumenical dialogue that I was off to prepare the way for the coming of the Antichrist.) This morning I came across something that exemplifies many of the factors we discussed: the online tract "Ecumenical Baptists?" linked from the web site We Are Baptist Because... (associated with Morning Star Baptist Church, an Independent Baptist congregation in West Chester, Ohio).

Monday, February 6, 2012

"Congregational hermeneutics" and the Christian scholar

Paul Fiddes
Late last month I made a presentation on the program of a conference on Christian Life and Witness: From the Academy to the Church sponsored by the Center for Christian Discernment and Academic Leadership at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky (January 23-24, 2012). As member of a three-person panel that addressed the theme "Academic Witness to the Church," I spoke on "Academic Witness Within the Church: 'Excluding No Light from Any Source.'" In the course of that presentation I suggested that the “gathering church” ecclesiology of my own Baptist tradition has a helpful way of making ecclesiological sense of how the academy has a place in the church’s contestation of the Christian tradition--in particular, the contribution that the Christian scholar has to make as a voice that the community of the church ought to hear and weigh and not silence in the community's effort to discern the mind of Christ and bring its life together under the rule of Christ.

As part of the proceedings of the conference, Paul Fiddes, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford and former Principal of Regent's Park College there (the portrait above left hangs in Helwys Hall, the dining hall of Regent's Park College), delivered a Georgetown College Founders' Day Address titled "A Citizen of Athens and Jerusalem: The Place of the Christian Scholar in the Life of the Church." In a subsection on "The Congregation as a Place for Interpretation" in his address, Professor Fiddes articulated a similar Baptist ecclesiological rationale for the contribution of Christian academics of all disciplines to the church's efforts to discern the mind of Christ. The following excerpt is from the prepared text of Professor Fiddes' address:

In Baptist thinking the church meeting searches for the purpose of Christ; Christ alone rules in the congregation, and the task of the local church gathered in covenant community together is to find his mind for their life and mission. Finding the mind of Christ relies on a corporate interpretation of scripture, or exegesis by the community of the church. Baptists prize the individual reading of scripture, and look for the leading of God’s spirit to understand it, but it would be wrong to say that private interpretation of scripture or ‘private judgement’ is the primary mode of reading scripture in the Baptist tradition. The interpretation of individuals is always subject to ‘congregational hermeneutics’, to the mind of the whole community, gathered in the presence of Christ....Here is one place for the Christian scholar. Professional theologians from the academy will have helped the pastor in his or her initial formation to gain this vision. And such scholars, and scholars in other disciplines of the academy too, have an ongoing contribution to make to the ‘congregational hermeneutics’ of the church.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ecumenical Theology at LTSS

Christ Chapel, LTSS
In addition to my teaching responsibilities in the Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry programs at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity this semester, I'm teaching a course in Ecumenical Theology at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. Besides the standard courses in systematic theology that are staples of the curricula of most seminaries and divinity schools in North America, the seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America require all M.Div. students to complete a course in ecumenical theology. While Baptist institutions of theological education do not typically have a comparable requirement, I did teach an earlier version of this course as an advanced theology elective at Campbell University Divinity School when I served as a member of the faculty there under the title Theology and the Quest for Christian Unity. I'm grateful for the opportunity to teach a new (and, I trust, improved) version of the course to a class that includes eighteen Lutherans, three Episcopalians, three Baptists, and two Methodists. Since several people beyond the class have expressed interest in having a copy of the course syllabus, I've posted a PDF of the syllabus on