Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Word about the Proposed CBFNC Foundational Statement

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina is the state fellowship of the (national) Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which is the expression of the Baptist denominational tradition with which I identify. Public discussion of a proposed new CBFNC foundational statement has stimulated a vigorous debate among Cooperative Baptists in North Carolina and beyond as to whether the proposed foundational statement is consistent with this or that way of construing Baptist identity vis-à-vis the identity that belongs to all Christians as members of the body of Christ (see the September 19 Associated Baptist Press story "State CBF Proposal Sparks Debate about Baptist Identity"). Unfortunately some expressions of the debate, especially online, have generated more heat than light. Therefore apart from a couple of early comments responding to blog posts by others I have sought to avoid weighing in publicly on the discussion in ways that might fan the already-hot rhetorical flames. As I communicated privately to a number of colleagues and friends, my intention has been to share my perspectives more fully only when doing so might help clarify some of the matters under discussion.

I believe that time has now come. I do not speak for the Coordinating Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina or the task force appointed by the Coordinating Council in 2007 to propose revisions of the foundational statement, nor do my perspectives necessarily represent those of any of the CBFNC partner institutions of graduate/professional theological education with which I have been affiliated as a faculty member, visiting professor, or adjunct professor. I can, however, explain my intentions as the author of what in technical biblical scholarship would be called the Urtext (German for "original source document") of the proposed foundational statement.

Early in 2006, I received a call from CBFNC Coordinator Larry Hovis asking me if I would be willing to draft a responsive declaration that would express the faith Baptists share with all other Christians as well as the convictions and practices that have distinguished Baptists as a particular Christian tradition that has unique gifts to offer the rest of the body of Christ. The declaration would be recited as a corporate act of worship at the upcoming annual General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina at Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in March 2006.

Dr. Hovis had received reports from the 2005 Centenary Congress of the Baptist World Alliance in Birmingham, UK the previous summer. During the opening worship service on July 27, over 12,000 Baptists from 112 countries in all their diversity stood and recited the Apostles’ Creed in commemoration of the manner in which the Baptist World Alliance had first declared its faith to the word a hundred years earlier. On July 5, 1905 Alexander Maclaren of Scotland, first president of the BWA, addressed the assembly of approximately 3,000 Baptists from 36 nations and proposed that as their very first act they rise to their feet and confess the Apostles’ Creed. At the Centenary Congress in Birmingham an actor playing the role of Alexander Maclaren declared to the Congress, “I should like there to be no misunderstanding on the part of the public as to where we stand in the continuity of the historic church, not as a piece of coercion or discipline, but as a simple acknowledgment of where we stand and what we believe. As it was a century ago, this speaking of the Creed will be an impressive, unifying, and glorious thing for us to do together as Baptists as we proclaim our common beliefs to the world.” Led also by a woman from Africa and a young man representing persons with disabilities who demonstrated gestures acting out the statements of the Creed, the participants stood and confessed the Apostles’ Creed with their voices and bodies. The BWA also issued a "Message from the Centenary Congress" that declared the convictions Baptists share with other Christians along with those convictions Baptists have held distinctively.

Dr. Hovis hoped that CBFNC Baptists might find a way to do something similar, and so I began working on a "Litany of Cooperative Baptist Convictions" that in the context of a General Assembly worship service might positively declare our solidarity with the global Baptist community and the larger body of Christ to which we belong. Dr. Hovis reflected on the significance of this act of worship and the intentions behind it in a column titled "Professing Our Faith" on page 7 of the linked May 2006 issue of the CBFNC newsletter. This "Litany of Cooperative Baptist Convictions" in turn has been adapted by the CBFNC task force as the nucleus of the text of the proposed new CBFNC Foundational Statement.

Several years ago the contemporary Christian musician Rich Mullins recorded an adaptation of the Apostles' Creed that included the lyric "I did not make it--no, it is making me." That lyric is applicable to my work on the "Litany of Cooperative Baptist Convictions" in that I did not make this. I received the content of the litany, indeed its very language, from my Baptist sisters and brothers in the global Baptist community who have preceeded me in the faith and today are alongside me in the faith. While it is true that the Apostles' Creed is ultimately the historic summary of the overarching message of the Bible that declares our allegiance to the living God to which the Creed and the biblical story it summarizes refer, the Litany and the proposed CBFNC statement into which the Litany was incorporated received the Creed as an expression of our own faith from our Baptist sisters and brothers at the 1905 Baptist World Congress and at the 2005 Centenary Congress. I, and the members of the task force, did not make it.

Likewise, when the Litany and the proposed CBFNC foundational statement declare the Baptist convictions that "We believe the Christian faith is best understood and experienced within the community of God’s people who are called to be priests to one another, as the Scriptures are read and studied together," that "We declare that through the Holy Spirit we experience interdependence with those who share this dynamic discipleship of the church as the people of God," and that "[spiritual] gifts are discerned and confirmed by the believing community together," for example, this language did not originate either with me or with any of the members of the CBFNC task force. We did not make it--we received it from our global Baptist sisters and brothers who are before us and beside us in the faith.

Therefore I respectfully point out that while some critics of the proposed statement seem to have assumed that some members of the task force crafted the document on the basis of personal theological agendas that are "Bapto-Catholic" or that reject individualistic readings of the Baptist tradition in favor of communitarian ones, this assumption is clearly incorrect. If critics of the proposed statement take issue with its wording at these or other points, their disagreement is not with me or with members of the task force--it is with the global Baptist community as represented by over 12,000 Baptists from 112 countries who at the 2005 BWA Centenary Congress publicly declared the apostolic faith and issued the "Message from the Centenary Congress." We did not make it; we received it from others.

It is my prayer that the community of CBFNC Baptists with whom I have served before and with whom I am again privileged to serve may be able to have a constructive discussion of the proposed statement in which every voice is heard and no voice is silenced. I hope that such conversations may help us learn to receive from others a faith we did not make, and I hope that in turn such reception will make us--that it will help us become more faithful followers of Jesus Christ in our journey together as a pilgrim people.


  1. Thank you Dr. Harmon for your uniting voice. My hope is that all CBFNC Baptists understand the significance of aligning with Baptists around the world. For too long Baptists have been a divided people and because of this divisiveness we have not been able to wholeheartedly serve our world. The integration of this foundational statement will be one step towards bringing Baptists together. May we all be willing to sacrifice some so that our one, indivisible voice might be heard throughout the world.

  2. Since I've been having difficulty posting a comment in response to some factual errors in a comment on another blog written in reponse to this blog post at Ecclesial Theology (see comment posted at 12:48 this morning here: http://baptistperspective.brucegourley.com/2010/09/bapto-catholics-move-into-spotlight-in.html), in the meantime I'm going to post my response in this forum:

    Bruce, I tried to post a response earlier, but the comment apparently didn't go through. I'll try again with the essence of what I planned to say in the comment, though the wording will vary.

    I must correct the facts on two matters you've referenced erroneously. First, any advocacy by me or others relative to the BWA Centenary Congress was for recitation of the Apostles' Creed and not the "Message of the Centenary Congress" mentioned in your comment. As others involved in the planning of the Centenary Congress have pointed out publicly, this advocacy had no bearing on plans that were already underway to repeat the recitation of the creed at the Congress. The "Message of the Centenary Congress" was an entirely separate matter, and neither I nor any of the other persons who have been previously referenced had any involvement in or influence on the crafting of the "Message of the Centenary Congress," which is the source of the wording in the proposed statement that some have found objectionable. I've simply shown to whom the objection should be directed.

    Second, the interview you reference was neither published nor given last weekend. I offered it in 2007 and it was published that year. It's been available online for three years. As to the September 2010 date that comes up in a Google search, that's apparently attributable to the search engine latching onto a current date on the blog on which the interview appears.

    As to other matters you mention in your comment, they are tangential both to my blog post and to the debate over the proposed statement. People may or may not be interested in discussing my theological proposals in Towards Baptist Catholicity and elsewhere, but these proposals and perspectives made no contribution to the language of the proposed statement, which, as I pointed out in my blog post, originated with others in the global Baptist community a full year before I published Towards Baptist Catholicity.

  3. For sake of ease of reference in this connection, here's the text of the blog comment to which I responded above:


    I am well aware, and have already shared documentation, that you guys pushed BWA toward the Centenary particular message you reference. I am also well aware that you guys have been pushing the NC document for several years, without fully revealing your agenda to NC Baptists. That is, you are not as innocent as you pretend.

    And if you know your history, you know that the orginal 1905 recitation of the Apostles Creed by the BWA was itself quite controversial.

    As to the substance of your qualitative catholicity built upon the foundation of Ignatius of Antioch, he used orthodoxy - and the Eucharist - as a tool to root out heresy. I gather that you are following his model?

    I am quite aware that you (and your colleagues) have tried to confine this conversation to the theological realm. Here's what you said in an interview published this past weekend:

    Steve: "This [the teaching of Bapto-Catholicity] has to happen first in the context of theological education. The future ministers of the church must be formed in such a manner that they see the need to recover our catholic roots in the worship and Christian education of local congregations. A few of us are trying to teach with these things in mind; we’ll have to let a future generation be the judge as to whether we’ve succeeded in having some impact." [See the entire interview here.]

    For one who publicly advocates a "mutual reading of scripture," the Bapto-Catholic model is certainly top-down (i.e., we certain theologians know best, and we will tell the rest of you what to believe). This does hearken to Ignatius, who had a top-down approach to faith, teaching that ecclesiastical order was a tool for ensuring doctrinal purity (orthodoxy).

    In the interview referenced above, you go so far as to suggest that since "soul competency" and "individualism" are inappropriate, Baptists - in seeking to discern doctrinal truth - should turn to magisterial authority, in the shape of "Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communions for liturgical guidance" and to "the habit of reading papal encyclicals and bishops’ letters as models of communal moral discernment."

    It seems to me that you MUST have this conversation in theological circles exclusively, as the actual community of Baptists would have little interest in the liturgy of Rome or the authority of the Pope's pronouncements.

    Bottom line: this conversation is now in the open, in public. I suspect that most Baptists have no interest in abandoning their freedom heritage and pitching their theological and ecclesial tent in Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican camps.

    You will have plenty of opportunity to try and explain yourself to the Baptist community in North Carolina in the coming weeks. To which I say, best of luck. :-)