Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top post of 2011--"On universalism, heresy, and the 'Rob Bell controversy'"

According to the stats provided by Blogger, the most frequently viewed post at Ecclesial Theology in 2011 was "On universalism, heresy, and the 'Rob Bell Controversy'" posted on March 9 (1,207 pageviews as of December 29). For those who mised the original post, here it is again:

On universalism, heresy, and the "Rob Bell controversy"

A confession: before an intra-evangelical controversy erupted late last month after promotional materials for Rob Bell's forthcoming book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived made some suspect that Bell would endorse a doctrine of universal salvation, I'd never heard of Rob Bell. I now know that many, many other people have heard of Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a popular speaker and author whose previous books include Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (the title of which I do recall registering in my mind sometime since its 2005 publication).

A disclaimer: I am not a universalist. Exegetically, a settled doctrine of the ultimate salvation of all persons seems difficult to reconcile with the clear teaching of many passages of Scripture. Theologically, a necessarily universal salvation seems to contravene both the freedom of God and the freedom of humanity. I will not be surprised if I discover in heaven that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has indeed in the end reconciled all people to God, but I cannot presume that.

While I am not a universalist (and won't be able to determine whether Bell is a universalist until Love Wins is published on March 15), I have written a few things about early Christian expressions of universalism, some (but possibly not all) versions of which have historically been deemed heretical by the church. I've also written a bit about what actually qualifies as heresy, a charge made by many contemporary Christians against other Christians without proper nuance or care. In this post I'll restrict myself to calling attention to some of what I've already written along these lines that may be of relevance for determining (1) what sort of concept of universalism Bell may prove to be at least entertaining, and (2) whether it actually constitutes heresy.

My first book Every Knee Should Bow: Biblical Rationales for Universal Salvation in Early Christian Thought (2003) explored the manner in which Clement of Alexandria (ca. AD 160-215), Origen (ca. 185-ca. 251), and Gregory of Nyssa (331/340-ca. 395) appealed to Scripture in developing rationales for their concepts of apokatastasis, the hope that all rational creatures will ultimately be reconciled to God. I revisted my work on Gregory of Nyssa--whose March 9 feast day happens to be today--in the chapter on Gregory I contributed to the recently published volume "All Shall Be Well": Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origen to Moltmann (2011) edited by "Gregory MacDonald." The paragraphs below excerpted from the final couple of pages of that chapter (pp. 61-63) offer my theological evaluation of the hope of universal salvation as maintained by Gregory of Nyssa and others:

In its efforts to clarify this not insignificant ambiguity in the plot of the biblical story of God’s salvation, early Christian theology offered three major readings of the manner in which the story concludes for those who have not responded positively to the divine work of salvation during their earthly lives. The majority reading, represented by Tertullian and Augustine, understands the eschatological punishment of such persons as eternal in duration—the everlasting torment of separation from God. Some of the second- and third-century apologists, represented by Justin Martyr and Arnobius, offered what was ultimately a minority reading in which punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration—following the resurrection, the wicked are destroyed, evil therefore ceases to exist, and God is “all in all.” The other minority reading is represented by Clement, Origen, and Gregory—punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration, but its effect is not destruction but transformation. It is possible that these three early Christian readings of the biblical portrayal of the destiny of the impenitent might not be mutually exclusive. If we may theorize that it is possible for God in the eschaton to save, say, Adolf Hitler (or any other fallen human being)—and “for God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26)—such a salvation would require the destruction of the evil person he had become in his earthly life (cf. Justin Martyr and Arnobius), the painful transformation of who he had willingly become into what God intended him to be (cf. Clement, Origen, and Gregory), and the torment of knowing for eternity the tragedy of what was irrevocably lost in his refusal to participate in God’s salvation during his earthly life (cf. Tertullian and Augustine).

Is belief in an ultimately universal salvation heresy from the perspective of the tradition of the community of faith across the ages? One certainly cannot claim with J. W. Hanson, a nineteenth-century Universalist (of the American denominational variety), that universal salvation was the consensus position of the patristic church. While it remained a minority viewpoint throughout the patristic period, one may argue that in its basic outlines universalism contradicted neither creed nor council. It affirmed belief in the coming of Christ “to judge the living and the dead,” “the resurrection of the body” (the speculations of Origen excepted), and “the life everlasting.” Even in the anathemas against Origen associated with the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the objection seems not to have been with a universal
apokatastasis per se but rather with the protology presupposed by the Origenist version of the apokatastasis, as Anathema I suggests: “If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration (apokatastasis) which follows from it: let him be anathema.” It is significant that Gregory of Nyssa, who developed a concept of apokatastasis virtually identical to that of Origen sans Origen’s protology, was never condemned by council or synod, was revered by the later church as a staunch defender of Nicene orthodoxy, and was canonized as a saint with a feast day on March 9 (although doubts of later copyists of Gregory’s works about the orthodoxy of his eschatology are reflected in their emendations of a number of passages in which these ideas are expressed).

Implicit in this traditional criterion of a proper protology for assessing the orthodoxy of eschatological proposals is a healthy aversion to deterministic theologies that negate divine and human freedom, for “the monstrous restoration which follows from” a doctrine of the pre-existence of souls is deterministic in its requirement of a cyclical return to the beginning. This concern is the rationale behind Karl Barth’s denial of dogmatic universalism, even though the logic of his doctrine of election points in that direction: if God must save humanity and humanity must be saved, then neither God nor humanity would be free.

Those who find themselves attracted to Gregory’s hopeful eschatology must also consider Origen’s own reservations about making it the customary public teaching of the church (c
. Cels. 6.26). In this connection there is much wisdom in the words of the nineteenth-century German pietist Christian Gottlieb Barth: “Anyone who does not believe in the universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass.”

The church is right to guard against a dogmatic universalism in light of its experience. Universal salvation as a foregone conclusion can lead, and has led, to indifference toward evangelistic endeavors and easy cultural accommodation rather than transformative engagement with culture. On the other hand, a hypothetical outcome of universal salvation ought not to detract necessarily from the urgency of the mission of the church. In such a case, failure to experience God’s salvation in one’s earthly existence would be an eternal tragedy both for that person and for all those to whom that person relates, a tragedy that the church should be urgently concerned about preventing. As I sometimes tell my students, “I will not be surprised if I discover in the resurrection that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has saved all people, but in the meantime we should not count on that.”

In the meantime, God does wish to save all people (1 Tim 2:4). Whether all will be saved must remain a mystery of divine and human freedom—as it seems to have remained for Gregory of Nyssa.

In my most recent book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity (2010), I address the question of precisely what qualifies as heresy in the course of discussing the relation between early Christian debates over heresy, the loss of the church's unity, and efforts to repair it:

A heretic is not merely someone who holds ideas that the powers that be in the church consider wrongheaded. It’s not quite that easy to be a heretic. In 1 Corinthians 11:18-19 the Apostle Paul addresses the “divisions” that have occurred in the church at Corinith. In verse 19 he uses the Greek word haireseis, which in transliteration supplies our English word “heresies,” as a near synonym for the “divisions” mentioned in verse 18 (Greek schismata, the source of the English word “schisms”). The nearly identical meaning of the two words is reflected in the translation of schismata in verse 18 as “divisions” and haireseis in verse 19 as “factions” in several English versions, but there is also a shade of difference in meaning so that heresies qualifies the nature of the schismata. The Corinthian divisions resulted in part from heresies, which are self-chosen opinions that divide the church when they are introduced into the teaching that takes place within it.

In light of the Paul’s use of the Greek word for “heresies” in this passage and in light of the nature of early heresies in the first few centuries of the church, it seems that one has to fulfill three criteria in order to be a heretic in the fullest classical sense of the word.

First, a heretic is someone whose account of the Christian story is so dangerously inadequate that it’s really an altogether different story than the biblical story of the Triune God. One such radically different telling of the Christian story was Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis, “knowledge”), which by the second century claimed a secret insight into the true nature of Christianity that was really rooted in a Platonic dualism between the good realm of spirit and idea and the evil realm of matter and flesh. Gnosticism met this criterion of heresy because according to its version of the divine story, God could not have anything to do with an essentially evil material order and humanity could be saved only by escaping it. Arianism was a fourth-century heresy that maintained that the Son’s divinity was of a different and lesser order than the Father’s divinity. The teachings of Arius (d. AD 336) and his followers also met this criterion because they too distanced the fullness of God from the work of redeeming humanity through the incarnation, delegating the work of salvation to that which is less than the fullness of God.

Second, one must also teach this alternative version of the Christian story as an authoritative teacher in the church—or at least as someone who wants to be recognized as a teacher. Many people entertain ideas that would be heretical if they were taught, but not everyone teaches them.

Third, to be a heretic one must insist that this dangerously inadequate telling of the Christian story be regarded by the church as acceptable teaching and through this insistence threaten to divide the church. Heresy is therefore not only about problematic theological ideas. It also involves divisive behavior toward the church. Heresy is therefore as much a matter of ethics as it is of doctrine
(pp. 19-21).

I hope everyone with an interest in the "Rob Bell controversy" keeps these things in mind. And that's all I have to say about that (apologies to Forrest Gump).

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"A New Creed," apostolicity, and ecumenicity

The current issue of Touchstone, a journal related to (but not officially published by) the United Church of Canada, includes an article by William Haughton, one of my former M.Div. students at Campbell University Divinity School who went on to earn a Th.M. from the University of Toronto and is currently a minister in the United Church of Canada serving the Port Rowan Pastoral Charge on the north shore of Lake Erie. Haughton's article "'A New Creed': Its Origins and Significance" (vol. 29, no. 3 [September 2011], pp. 20-29) engages the story of the origins and reception-history of "A New Creed," a statement of faith adopted by the United Church of Canada in 1968, in light of contemporary questions about the relation of the United Church of Canada to the apostolic faith and to the church in its ecumenicity. The full text of the article is available online along with the entirety of the issue in which it appears in Flipbook format (click on hyperlink and see pp. 20-29). An excerpt from the article's conclusion appears below:

...[h]as "A New Creed" discouraged corporate confession of faith in the United Church and, in a sense, actually preserved the widespread sense of individual isolation which occasioned its writing?

More troublesome is the way "A New Creed" is being used, by all accounts, within the United Church as a fully adequate replacement for the Apostles' Creed. As Paul Scott Wilson has warned, a willful rejection of the latter means "we would cease to be ecumenical." Publication in The United Methodist Hymnal and occasional use by congregations outside Canada notwithstanding, "A New Creed" is not a catholic statement. Its pervasive use by our denomination may signal, ironically, that within the wider church, we are alone. The future legacy of "A New Creed," and its impact on the United Church, will be determined in large part by our ability to confess and to celebrate both our distinctiveness and our catholicity. (p. 29)

It occurs to me that, mutatis mutandis, the same questions Haughton addresses to the United Church of Canada may be asked of my own Baptist tradition and its contemporary efforts to confess the faith.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Advent, peace, and the temptation of realism

With a few days remaining in Advent, here's a brief devotion I contributed to the Advent devotional book published this year by Ross Grove Baptist Church in Shelby, North Carolina (see entry for December 5). For what it's worth, it reflects my growing awareness that the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr (often referred to as "Niebuhrian realism") has served as the default philosophical/theological framework that has provided moral justification for American foreign policy since the 1950s, regardless of which party occupies the White House, and the resonance with me of Stanley Hauerwas' reflection in his recent memoir on his mid-career change in perspective on Niebuhr: "I began to think that Niebuhr had seduced me--and "seduction" is exactly the right word--to assume that the way things are is the way things have to be" (Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir [Eerdmans, 2010], p. 85).

Advent, peace, and the temptation of realism

A beloved children’s book we’ve been reading with our son since his very first Christmas is Can You Say Peace? by Karen Katz. Besides demonstrating the wonderfully varied ways children around the world say “peace” in their own languages, the book declares that “all around the world today, children will wish for peace, hope for peace, and ask for peace.” The children—and adults—of the world share in common a hope for peace because all people are created in the image of the God whose hope for the world is peace. The children and adults of the world also share in common a hope for peace because the world currently lacks the peace for which God created the world and toward which God is moving the world.

It’s appropriate that in the season of Advent the first week’s focus on hope is followed by the second week’s focus on peace, for the biblical word “peace,” Shalom in Hebrew, sums up the biblical vision of the world for which God and people hope. It’s a vision of the actively harmonious co-existence of all of God’s creatures: lions lying down with lambs, enemies embracing, implements of warfare that destroy life re-fashioned into tools of agriculture that sustain life.

The already-but-not-yet nature of the Christian hope for the world means that our hope for peace is not directed only toward the age to come when Christ returns and God’s reign is fully realized. While it is true that our hope for peace is fully realized in the age to come, we must not succumb to the temptation of realism, the temptation of resignation to the regretful necessity of war and other forms of violence in the present age. The future peace for which we hope is also a present reality and real possibility, for Christ the Prince of Peace has already made possible a different way of life for those who follow him. Following Jesus means taking Jesus’ teachings about non-violence seriously, beating our own swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks even while the powers that be refuse to do so, and working for reconciliation in all our relationships.

As we join God in wishing, hoping, and asking for peace this Advent, let us also join God in working for the peace for which we hope. We won’t have to look very hard to find where God is working for peace: wherever there is war, violence, division, and interpersonal conflict—in short, wherever there is broken relationship—God is already at work to realize the divine hope of peaceful community. Let’s seek to be open to opportunities to join in during this Advent season.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Baptists and Pentecostals Plan Dialogue

The Baptist World Alliance has issued the following press release regarding last week's exploratory conversations between representatives of the Baptist World Alliance and international Pentecostals:
December 19, 2011

Baptists and Pentecostals plan dialogue

Lagos (BWA)-- Representatives of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and the Pentecostal World Fellowship (PWF) met from December 13-15 to set guidelines for an upcoming international dialogue between Baptists and Pentecostals.

BWA General Secretary Neville Callam, who led the BWA delegation, said he "was pleased that the time had arrived in which Baptists and Pentecostals could meet to consider how they might work together in the spirit of Jesus' prayer for the unity of the church." Callam encouraged participants to think creatively about how, in future years, Baptists and Pentecostals might cooperate more fully in a number of areas, including mission and evangelism.

Cecil Robeck, Jr., representing the PWF and professor of Church History and Ecumenics at Fuller Theological Seminary in the state of California in the United States, co-chaired the planning session with Callam.

The meeting, held at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, in the US, issued a statement with proposals on how a future dialogue may proceed. "The purpose of the dialogue is to examine what it may mean for Baptists and Pentecostals to walk together in step with the Holy Spirit," the statement read. "Our intention is for the dialogue to be holistic in its evaluation of faith and practice."

A series of questions are to be explored in any future talks. "Are there areas on which we already agree? What can we offer to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ? Who are we (BWA - PWF) as we walk together? What does it mean for us to walk together? How do we walk together in the Holy Spirit?"

It is anticipated that teams will meet annually from 2012 through 2014, beginning in Quito, Ecuador, next August. Findings and recommendations for consideration by the two bodies are expected to be presented in 2015.

Members of the BWA delegation were Callam; Fausto Vasconcelos, BWA director of the Division on Mission, Evangelism, and Theological Reflection; Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, senior editor for Christianity Today, and host of the meeting; Bill Brackney, Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor for Christian Thought and Ethics at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada; and Curtis Freeman, research professor of Theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, in the state of North Carolina, in the US.

© Baptist World Alliance 2011

Update: Associated Baptist Press has published an expanded story on the Baptist-Pentecostal conversations: "Baptists, Pentecostals seek common ground"

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Baptist-Pentecostal conversations underway

It's a busy week for ecumenical encounters in the form of bilateral ecumenical dialogue (ecumenical conversations between representatives of two Christian communions at the national or international level). Earlier this week a blog post at Ecclesial Theology called attention to Jane Stranz's blogging from the national bilateral dialogue in France between the Catholic Church and the French union of Lutheran and Reformed churches in which she is involved this week. Yesterday exploratory conversations between representatives of the Baptist World Alliance and international Pentecostals began at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama and will continue through December 15.

The Baptist-Pentecostal preliminary conversations will explore the feasibility of holding a multi-year series of formal conversations between representatives of the two traditions. Representing the Baptist World Alliance are Timothy George, chair of the BWA Commission on Doctrine and Christian Unity and dean of Beeson Divinity School; William Brackney, director of the Acadia Centre for Baptist and Anabaptist Studies in Nova Scotia, Canada; Curtis Freeman, professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University Divinity School; Fausto Vasconcelos, director of the BWA Division of Mission, Evangelism and Theological Reflection; and Neville Callam, BWA General Secretary. (I do not have access to a complete list of Pentecostal representatives as of this post.)

I invite readers of Ecclesial Theology to pray for the participants in the Baptist-Pentecostal and French Catholic-Lutheran/Reformed conversations this week, that their efforts might further the quest for the unity of Christ's followers for which our Lord prayed.

Update: Pentecostal representative (and Facebook friend) Jean Daniel Plüss has supplied information about the Pentecostal delegation: Dr. Celcil M. Robeck, Professor of Church History and Ecumenism, Fuller Theological Seminary; Dr. Leonard Lovett, Ecumenical Officer of the Church of God in Christ; Dr. Miguel Alvarez, President of SEMISUD Theological Seminary, Quito, Ecuador, Church of God, Cleveland; Bishop Daivd Ramirez, Latin American Field Director of Church of God, Cleveland; and Dr. Jean Daniel Plüss, Chair of European Pentecostal Charismatic Research Association. Absent due to illness: Dr. Byron Klaus, President of Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, MO.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New publication: encyclopedia articles from Clement to Universalism

My contributor's copies of The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (4 vols.), ed. George Thomas Kurian (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) arrived in the mail yesterday. I contributed to the encyclopedia seven articles on various patristic and theological topics, as follows:
  • Clement of Alexandria
  • Desert Fathers
  • Dogmatic Theology
  • Gregory of Nyssa
  • Liturgical Theology
  • Patristics
  • Universalism
The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization may be ordered from directly from Wiley-Blackwell or via Amazon.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Blogging a bilateral

In what might well be a first in the history of ecumenical dialogue, Reformed ecumenist Jane Stranz, a minister in the United Reformed Church in the U.K. and the Eglise Réformée de France who until recently headed the language service of the World Council of Churches and now works with the  Fédération Protestante de France in Paris, began blogging (but not live-blogging, it should be noted) today from Day 1 of a national bilateral dialogue in France between the Catholic Church and the French union of Lutheran and Reformed churches (the cover of the report from the previous ten-year series of conversations between the two communions in France appears at left). Check her blog Of life, laughter and liturgy... throughout the week for other posts that may follow.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Ecumenical dialogue clarifies Baptist distinctives

The Religious Herald, the newsjournal of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, has published the feature story "Ecumenical Dialogue Clarifies Baptist Distinctives, Says Gardner-Webb Prof" by managing editor Robert Dilday. The story is based on the Gardner-Webb University press release "GWU Instructor Participates in Expoloratory Conversations between Baptists and Orthodox" but incorporates additional quotations and draws from other stories by Dilday about Baptist World Alliance ecumenical dialogue. Here's the opening of the Religious Herald story:

Ecumenical dialogue clarifies Baptist distinctives, says Gardner-Webb prof
By Robert Dilday, Managing Editor
Thursday, December 08, 2011

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. -- Ecumenical dialogue between Baptists and other Christian traditions clarifies Baptist distinctives rather than dilutes them, says a Gardner-Webb University professor who participated in recent preliminary conversations between Baptists and Orthodox Christians.

“The purpose of ecumenical discussions is not to water down core Baptist doctrines, or to sacrifice congregational autonomy,” said Steven Harmon, adjunct instructor of Christian theology at the Baptist-affiliated school in Boiling Springs, N.C., in a university press statement. “Rather, ecumenists strive to clearly understand what other traditions believe on their own terms, rather than relying our own caricatured images of them. That also involves more clearly understanding those doctrines and practices that make us different, even as we search for the convergences that will help us establish unity. (read more)

The Gardner-Webb press release includes a link to additional quotations from me regarding the nature and purpose of ecumenical dialogue excerpted from two interviews I gave during this year.

UPDATE: Associated Baptist Press has issued the Religious Herald story as an ABP release:

Monday, December 5, 2011

Neville Callam on "Baptists and Church Unity"

My last blog post called attention to a summary of an address on "God's Gift of Unity" by Neville Callam, General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance. The October 2009 issue of The Ecumenical Review, a peer-reviewed journal published by the World Council of Churches, includes an article by Callam on "Baptists and Church Unity" that offers a detailed historical treatment and theological analysis of Baptist perspectives on the modern ecumenical movement and positive Baptist practices of ecumenical engagement. (I am currently working on a chapter on Baptists and ecumenism for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies, and thus far it seems to me that Callam's overview is the best such treatment to date.) Readers of Ecclesial Theology affiliated with institutions whose libraries subscribe to The Ecumenical Review and/or have electronic subscriptions to databases that include Wiley-Blackwell journals will be able to read the full text with accurate pagination (full reference: Neville Callam, "Baptists and Church Unity," The Ecumenical Review 61, no. 3 [October 2009]: 3-4-14). Others can read the text of the article on

This issue of The Ecumenical Review also includes other informative articles about particular Christian traditions and their relation to the ecumenical movement:

by Odair Pedroso Mateus

Baptists and church unity
by Neville Callam

Anglicans and ecumenism
by Sarah Rowland Jones

Friday, December 2, 2011

Baptist World Alliance General Secretary on "God's Gift of Unity"

Neville Callam
The current issue of the Baptist World Alliance magazine Baptist World includes an article summarizing an address on "God's Gift of Unity" delivered by BWA General Secretary Neville Callam at a Christian Unity Dinner during the American Baptist Churches USA biennial meeting in Puerto Rico this summer (vol. 58, no. 4 [October/December 2011], p. 27). Below is an excerpt from the first portion of that article:

Christian Unity is both a gifts given by God and a demand placed upon the church, declared Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Neville Callam.

Callam made these claims while delivering the keynote address at a Christian Unity Dinner during the American Baptist Churches (ABC) USA Biennial meetings in Puerto Rico in June. "It is Christ who unites us and sets us free," he said. But "the church has an abligation to manifest the unity that is given in Christ 'so that the world may believe.'"

It is important, the BWA leader stated, that this unity is visible within the church. "The church's vocation to unity [must] faithfully be pursued" through "honest and deep work to discover convergences in understanding of the Christian faith, life and witness." The church, Callam claimed, should be clear on the points on which there are agreements, where there are differences, "and the perspectives that could serve as a bridge over differences...not regarded as church dividing."

Callam indicated that there are several rubrics through which Christian unity can be viewed--spiritual unity, a unity that all Christians and churches share; conciliar fellowship, where churches are "reunited" to their historical base; koinonia, which is "given and expressed in a common confession of the apostolic faith;" and reconciled diversity, where "churches strive to recognize in themselves and in others the one holy catholic and apostolic church in its fullness," penetrating "behind their differences to discover the space where they co-exist in Christ." (continue reading the full article on p. 27 of the linked PDF copy of the magazine)

Monday, November 28, 2011

"Seeing Epiphany Whole" (full text)

The new issue of Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics published by The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, a thematic issue on the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, includes my article "Seeing Epiphany Whole" (vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 61-68). The full text of the article is now available online (click on hyperlinked title), along with the full text of other articles in the issue and a set of study guides and lesson plans. Here's a snippet from the opening of the article:

epiph∙a∙ny noun 1 capitalizedJanuary 6 observed as a church festival in commemoration of the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles or in the Eastern Church in commemoration of the baptism of Christ; 2  : an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being 3  a (1)a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; (2)an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking; (3): an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure; b: a revealing scene or moment.

As the dictionary definition of “epiphany” suggests, there is a tension between the non-religious use of the word and the meaning of the Christian observance of Epiphany: the origins, associations, and essential theological meaning of the feast and ensuing season of the Christian year are not easily perceived or intuitively grasped in a “simple and striking” manner. Epiphany is a season of variable length (depending on the date of Easter) that begins on January 6 and extends to the beginning of Lent. It was celebrated as a commemoration of the baptism of Christ beginning in the third century, but by the fourth century in the West it also became associated with the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi. Subsequent associations with events in the life of Jesus have included Christ’s miraculous provision of wine for the wedding at Cana. Rather than a feast and season with an “essential nature or meaning,” Epiphany can seem like a cacophonous party marking disjointed events.

What ties together this wealth of images? The Greek word epiphaneia, of which “Epiphany” is a transliteration, means “manifestation”—thus the non-religious usage of the word in the sense of “a revealing scene or moment.” Understanding Epiphany as a feast and season that celebrates divine revelation can help the Church see Epiphany whole. (continue reading the full text)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2012 resources

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2012 (January 18-25, 2012) is less than two months away, and many local churches and ecumenical associations are planning events in connection with that observance. I've had the privilege of working with the Ecumenical Ministries Committee of Eastern Area Community Ministries in Louisville, Kentucky on their plans for observing the Week of Prayer, which will include a seminar rooted in my book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity and an ecumenical community Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service at which I will preach the homily. For the benefit of readers of Ecclesial Theology who are involved in planning similar events or who might be inspired to plan a service or other observance of this significant annual practice of "spiritual ecumenism," here are links to resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2012 made available by the World Council of Churches and the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ecclesial theology at the AAR

With the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion beginning in San Francisco tomorrow, it's worth noting that the sort of "ecclesial theology" highlighted by this blog--"theology done in, with, and for the church--in the midst of its divisions, and toward its visible unity in one Eucharistic fellowship"--still has a presence within the AAR, as exemplified by the Ecclesiological Investigations program unit. The program for the three Ecclesiological Investigations sections at this year's meeting follows below.

A19-213 Ecclesiological Investigations Group
Michael Attridge, University of Saint Michael’s College, Presiding
Theme: Ecclesiology and Church Law: Ecumenical Investigations

Sandra Mazzolini, Pontificia Universita Urbaniana, The Code of Canon Law: The Dark Side of Ecclesiology?

Joshua Davis, Vanderbilt University, On Law and Reception: Ladislas Orsy in Dialogue with Richard Hooker

Scott MacDougall, Fordham University, Questioning “Communion”:  Eschatological Ecclesiology and the Angelican Covenant Debate

Andrew Pierce, Trinity College, Dublin, Policing Koinonia: Anglicanism’s Managerial Turn

Business Meeting: Gerard Mannion, University of San Diego, Presiding

A20-284 Ecclesiological Investigations Group
Julie Clague, University of Glasgow, Presiding
Theme: Ecclesiology and Islam: Comparative Explorations in Religion and Community

Joshua Ralston, Emory University, The Comeback of Christendom?: Political Ecclesiology and the Challenge of Muslim Immigration

Jakob Wiren, Lund University, The Consummation of the Community: Eschatological Perspectives on the Umma and the Church with Regard to the Religious Other

John O’Brien, University of San Diego, MuslimChristian Interfaith Encounter in Pakistan

Miroslav Volf, Yale University, Allah: A Christian Response

Responding: Mona Siddiqui, University of Glasgow

A21-114 Ecclesiological Investigations Group and Wesleyan Studies Group
Peter De Mey, Catholic University, Leuven, Presiding
Theme: What is Distinctive about Methodist Ecclesiology?

Robert Martin, Saint Paul School of Theology, Toward a Wesleyan Sacramental Ecclesiology

Miriam Haar, Yale University and Trinity College, Dublin, Ecumenical Dialogue on Apostolicity with Churches of the Wesleyan Traditions: A Promising Chaos?

Justus Hunter, University of Dayton, Toward a Methodist Communion Ecclesiology

Kenneth B. Wilson, Canterbury Christ Church University and Chichester University
Russell E. Richey, Emory University

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"One Baptism": A Study Text for Baptists (full text)

In connection with the recent release of the WCC study text "One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition," here is the full text of my Baptist World article "'One Baptism": A Study Text for Baptists" (vol. 58, no. 1 [January/March 2011], pp. 9-10), which offered a Baptist perspective on the final draft of the document in advance of its release:

“One Baptism”: A Study Text for Baptists
By Steven R. Harmon

In December 2008 veteran Methodist ecumenist Geoffrey Wainwright shared his perspectives on the progress and challenges of the modern ecumenical movement with the delegations to the conversations between the BWA and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Members of both delegations were taken aback by his opening observation: “As far as the issue of baptism goes, the Baptists have won.”

Professor Wainwright was referring to the current ecumenical consensus that believer’s baptism by immersion is the normative biblical practice from which the practice of infant baptism derives its significance. The widely acclaimed convergence text Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry issued by the World Council of Churches in 1982 states, “baptism upon personal profession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents.” Many Baptists would be surprised to learn that the Catechism of the Catholic Church now regards immersion as the mode most theologically expressive of the significance of baptism and insists that those baptized as infants must go on to have personal experience of God’s grace. The wildest hopes of the seventeenth-century Baptists could not have imagined the degree to which much of the church today has converged toward important aspects of their historic dissent from the majority of the Christian tradition.

The WCC study text “One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition” stands in continuity with these encouraging ecumenical developments, and Baptists will be able to recognize themselves in its pages. It recognizes the concerns that churches that baptize only believers have about the adequacy of infant baptism as a disciple-making practice, and it asks infant-baptizing churches to consider how their communities might more intentionally help those baptized as infants become committed disciples.

Baptists will also appreciate the rich engagement of Scripture throughout the document. The fathers and mothers of the church from the formative centuries of Christian history after the New Testament era are also the common heritage of the whole church and could have been cited in this connection, but instead “One Baptism” is rigorously biblical in its appeal to authoritative texts. Section II, “Baptism: Symbol and Pattern of the New Life in Christ,” can provide Baptist pastors with more inspiration for preaching and teaching on biblical baptismal themes than they can exhaust in a lifetime of ministry.

“One Baptism” also poses hard questions to Baptists regarding our recognition of the baptisms of other churches. Many Baptist churches have required candidates for church membership who were baptized as infants but now testify to personal faith in Christ to be rebaptized, inasmuch as personal faith precedes baptism in the New Testament pattern. By shifting the emphasis from chronological orderings of faith, baptism, and formation in faith to the whole journey of the Christian experience in the company of the church, “One Baptism” offers a way for Baptists to discern in other patterns of baptismal practice comparable journeys of Christian experience, even while Baptists continue our internal practice of baptizing only believers as a witness and gift to the rest of the church.

On the question of rebaptism, “One Baptism” calls churches that require those previously baptized as infants to be rebaptized as a condition of membership and churches that require the same of those previously baptized as believing adults but in a church of differing faith and order to reflect on the implications of those requirements. The document fails, however, to address a variation of the latter scenario with which many Baptist congregations must deal: members of Baptist churches who were baptized as believers, but at rather young ages, who later in life question whether they really understood the commitment they were making and now wish to be baptized following their more mature embrace of faith. Baptists may nonetheless find help in “One Baptism” for addressing such cases pastorally, for both the steps toward faith taken by young children who are then baptized and the mature faith of adults can be related to the baptism near the beginning of their journeys, which need not be repeated.

“One Baptism” is a study text rather than a proposal for ecumenical convergence. The appropriate Baptist response to it is to study it! Some Baptist churches are struggling with debates over whether church membership policies should be revised so that candidates who were baptized as infants in other churches but now profess personal faith in Christ may be admitted to full membership without rebaptism. Careful study of “One Baptism” will help everyone involved in such deliberations think through the implications of their decisions about this matter for their stances on the legitimacy of non-Baptist churches and their members’ faith. Whether all Baptists find agreement with it or not, the study of “One Baptism” by Baptist ministers, laypersons, and whole congregations will yield a greatly enriched Baptist theology of baptism and potentially a more powerful baptismal practice.

Steven R. Harmon is Adjunct Professor of Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina.

© Baptist World Alliance 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

"One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition" released by WCC

In a post early this year I called attention to my article "'One Baptism": A Study Text for Baptists" (vol. 58, no. 1 [January/March 2011], pp. 9-10) in which I offered a Baptist perspective on what was then the soon-to-be-released final version of the study text "One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition" drafted by the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches. The WCC has now officially released this document as One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition. A Study Text (Faith and Order Paper no. 210; Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2011). I received a copy of the 21-page booklet in the mail last Saturday, and it is now listed as the most recent publication (no. 210) on the list of Faith and Order Official Numbered Publications on the WCC web site. Copies may be ordered directly from WCC Publications, Rte de Ferney 150, P.O. BOX 2100, CH-1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland; e-mail:; Tel. +41 22 791 60 18; Fax. +41 22 798 13 46.

Note: the PDF document currently available on the WCC web site under the title "One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition" is a 2006 draft version of the text; the official 2011 publication has been substantially revised. If the WCC makes the official 2011 publication available online, I will call attention to its electronic availability and link the text here at Ecclesial Theology.

Update (January 9, 2012): The final text of "One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition" is now available online in PDF on the WCC web site (click on hyperlinked title).

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tradition-retrieving evangelicals and the problem of magisterium

Today Baker Academic released Evangelicals and Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness (ed. Timothy George), to which I contributed chapter 6, "The Nicene Faith and the Catholicity of the Church: Evangelical Retrieval and the Problem of Magisterium" (pp. 74-92). Here's a snippet from the midst of that chapter:

Even if unacknowledged or denied outright, there is a configuration of functional magisterial authority for Baptists and others who belong to the broader free church or believers’ church tradition—by which I mean those churches that emphasize the authority of the congregation of baptized believers gathered in a covenanted community under the lordship of Christ, which include Mennonites, the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ, Bible churches, a great many nondenominational churches, and numerous Pentecostal and charismatic communities, as well as Baptists. In my opinion this configuration, which for the sake of convenience we will call free church magisterium, embodies aspects of the strengths of both the Roman Catholic and magisterial Protestant paradigms, while in theory avoiding their susceptibilities to overly realized eschatologies of the church.... Perhaps unsurprisingly, I suggest that free church magisterial authority is located in the gathered congregation. Though this is a clumsy English coinage, we might call this the magisterium-hood of all believers—which I think is the implication of reading the Gospels as manuals of discipleship, which therefore means that all who become disciples of Christ are commissioned by him in Matthew 28:18–20 to participate in the church’s teaching office.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Baptists and Orthodox hold exploratory talks

BWA General Secretary Neville Callam with delegation members of the
Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Crete

The Baptist World Alliance has issued the following press release regarding last week's pre-conversations between representatives of the (Eastern Orthodox) Ecumenical Patriarchate and the BWA in Heraklion on the Greek island of Crete:

Baptists and Orthodox hold exploratory talks

Washington, DC (BWA)-- Teams representing the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople held exploratory talks on the island of Crete that could lead to the commencement of formal international dialogue between Baptist and Orthodox Christians.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate enjoys the status of "first among equals" among Eastern Orthodox prelates, and is widely regarded as the representative and spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians.

The two teams, which met from October 30 to November 2, reviewed earlier discussions between the BWA and the Orthodox Church and proposed that any international dialogue should be aimed, among other things, at increasing mutual understanding and knowledge of each other; the exploring of a common witness to the world; and the encouragement of common action on ethical and moral issues.

"The aim of the Baptist-Orthodox dialogue is to respond to the Lord's prayer to his Father for his disciples 'that they may all be one ... that the world may believe' (John 17:21)," said BWA General Secretary Neville Callam, who led the BWA delegation. "Facing this challenge today, we believe that we should continue to explore our common ground in biblical teaching, apostolic faith and tradition as well as practical Christian witness, together with our remaining differences."

Callam expressed the hope that Baptists and Orthodox will be able to commit to as wide a dialogue as possible, in truth, love, mutual respect and transparency.

Participants left the meeting with the understanding that the Ecumenical Patriarch would examine the proposal developed by the Crete meeting and determine whether to remit it to the Orthodox Churches with a view to securing their participation in the proposed Baptist/Orthodox international dialogue.

The delegations shared fellowship with the Orthodox community in Crete as guests of His Eminence Archbishop Irenaos of Crete.

Members of the BWA team were Callam; Steven Harmon, adjunct professor of Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in the state of North Carolina in the United States; and Paul Fiddes, professor of Systematic Theology at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

The Orthodox team comprised Gennadios of Sassima of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and professor of Orthodox theology and canon law; George Tsetsis, a former permanent representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the World Council of Churches; and Konstantinos Kenanidis, general director of the Orthodox Academy of Crete.

It is expected that a decision on whether formal dialogue will take place will be made by March 2012.

© 2011 Baptist World Alliance

Update: Associated Baptist Press has also issued a press release-- "Baptists, Orthodox consider formal dialogue."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Seeing Epiphany Whole

The new issue of Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics published by The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University includes my article "Seeing Epiphany Whole" (vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 61-68). Here's a snippet from the opening of the article:

epiph∙a∙ny noun 1 capitalizedJanuary 6 observed as a church festival in commemoration of the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles or in the Eastern Church in commemoration of the baptism of Christ; 2  : an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being 3  a (1)a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; (2)an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking; (3): an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure; b: a revealing scene or moment.

As the dictionary definition of “epiphany” suggests, there is a tension between the non-religious use of the word and the meaning of the Christian observance of Epiphany: the origins, associations, and essential theological meaning of the feast and ensuing season of the Christian year are not easily perceived or intuitively grasped in a “simple and striking” manner. Epiphany is a season of variable length (depending on the date of Easter) that begins on January 6 and extends to the beginning of Lent. It was celebrated as a commemoration of the baptism of Christ beginning in the third century, but by the fourth century in the West it also became associated with the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi. Subsequent associations with events in the life of Jesus have included Christ’s miraculous provision of wine for the wedding at Cana. Rather than a feast and season with an “essential nature or meaning,” Epiphany can seem like a cacophonous party marking disjointed events.

What ties together this wealth of images? The Greek word epiphaneia, of which “Epiphany” is a transliteration, means “manifestation”—thus the non-religious usage of the word in the sense of “a revealing scene or moment.” Understanding Epiphany as a feast and season that celebrates divine revelation can help the Church see Epiphany whole.

In the near future the entirety of the article and the issue of Christian Reflection in which it appears will be available in PDF on the web site of The Center for Christian Ethics, along with a study guide and other accompanying resources. When posted, I will provide the link in an updated post here.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Three influential works

The November 2011 issue of Baptists Today (vol. 29, no. 11) includes an article on pp. 30-31 by M. Blake Kendrick, Associate Pastor for Students and Spiritual Formation at First Baptist Church of Greenwood, South Carolina, that compiles responses to a question he posed to selected Baptist scholars and writers: "Other than the Bible, what three literary works have had the greatest impact on your life or have been pivotal in the shaping of your identity or sense of vocation?" I was among those surveyed; here are my responses as they appear in the Baptists Today article:

1) Systematic Theology (in three volumes) by James Wm. McClendon, Jr., 2) Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life by Geoffrey Wainwright, and 3) The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age by George A. Lindbeck.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Remembering the Reformation rightly

Thesentür, Wittenburg
On this Reformation Day, four brief notes connected by a common theme: the need of the Protestant communions on this day to eschew ecclesiastical triumphalism and false stereotypes of Catholic doctrine and practice by remembering the Reformation rightly—in light of fresh historiographical readings of the reformers in their sixteenth-century context, and in light of more recent convergences between the divisions of the church in this West that the reformers might well have welcomed as the sort of soteriological clarifications they sought in the teaching of the Church.

This essay on “The Catholic Luther” by Lutheran theologian David Yeago of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina explains clearly the more nuanced picture of Martin Luther’s vision for the reform of the church that emerges when one reads Luther not through the lenses of a reductionistic Protestant dogmatism but rather on his own merits vis-à-vis his context. (I’m looking forward to visiting with Dr. Yeago when I teach a course in Ecumenical Theology as an adjunct professor at LTSS in the coming spring semester.)

The article "What Luther Got Wrong" (originally published in the Christian Century) by David Steinmetz, retired professor of church history at Duke University Divinity School, helps make sense of Luther’s own theological intentions in relationship to various sixteenth-century schools of thought regarding the theological appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy (a major locus of Luther’s objections to developments in late medieval Scholastic theology).

Just ahead of this Reformation Day and yesterday’s Reformation Sunday observances, Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Neville Callam issued this column urging Baptists to shun false stereotypes of Catholic teaching in their commemorations of the Reformation, especially in light of the progress represented by the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church in 1999 and joined by the World Methodist Council in 2006.

Finally, I’m making this blog post from Heraklion on the Greek island of Crete, where I’m participating in “pre-conversations” between representatives of the Baptist World Alliance and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate that are exploring the feasibility of a future formal ecumenical dialogue between the two communions. This setting reminds me that while the sixteenth-century Reformation was a division of the Western church, there is another major Christian communion that was not defined by the Protestant Reformation or Catholic Counter-Reformation, one with which some of the reformers initiated correspondence. Veli-Matti Karkkainen's book One with God: Salvation as Justification and Deification explores the fascinating connections between Luther’s understanding of justification and the Orthodox understanding of salvation as theōsis (“divinization” or “deification”).

Friday, October 28, 2011

Baptist-Orthodox "pre-conversations"

This weekend I travel to Heraklion on the Greek island of Crete, where Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Neville Callam, British Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes of Oxford University, and I will meet with a delegation from the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate for "pre-conversations" October 31-November 1 that will explore the feasibility of holding a series of formal international bilateral ecumenical converstions between the Baptist World Alliance and the Orthodox churches. Similar pre-conversations were held in the 1990s: October 22-24, 1994, January 29, 1996, and May 10-13, 1996 in Istanbul, Turkey, and May 24-28, 1997 at Regents Park College of Oxford University. At that time the Ecumenical Patriarchate did not elect to proceed with formal conversations. At the Baptist World Alliance annual gathering in Kuala Lumpur in July 2011, however, the BWA General Council authorized General Secretary Callam to appoint a small planning team that would respond to a renewed invitation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate to meet for pre-conversations in Crete this fall.

In connection with this prospect of Baptist-Orthodox ecumenical dialogue, I'm posting below some excerpts from the address of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to the plenary meeting of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches at which I represented the Baptist World Alliance in Chania, Crete in October 2009. These reflections on the quest for the church's unity are worth reading in their entirety (click on hyperlink); here are some highlights:

1.Unity as Calling

....the unity of the Church, like the unity of God, is also a never-ending search, an ever-unfolding journey. As St. Gregory of Nyssa would affirm, even in the age to come, growth in the divine life is without end and with endless perfection; it is, indeed, constant progress through continually refining stages. This mindset demands from us a sense of forbearance rather than of impatience. We should not be frustrated by our human limitations, which unfortunately determine our disagreements and divisions. Our ongoing and persistent pursuit of unity is a testimony to the fact that what we seek will occur in God’s time and not our own; it is, by the same token, the fruit of heavenly grace and divine kairos.

2.Unity as Conversion

If unity – as our own ongoing and persistent goal – is indeed a gift of God, then it demands a profound sense of humility and not any prideful insistence. This means that we are called to learn from others as well as to learn from time-tested formulations. It also implies that imposing our ways on others – whether “conservative” or “liberal” – is arrogant and hypocritical. Instead, genuine humility demands from all of us a sense of openness to the past and the future; in other words, much like the ancient god Janus, we are called to manifest respect for the time-tested ways of the past and regard for the heavenly city that we seek (cf. Heb. 13.14). This “turning” toward the past and the future is surely part and parcel of conversion.

3. Unity in Mission

....For the Prophets, just as for the Apostolic community, justice and peace are closely linked to the preservation and balance of the land as God’s creation. This means that our Churches are called to a common ministry and mission, proclaiming and promoting a worldview in which God’s authority – the authority of the kingdom – guides our ways and determines our actions. We must never forget that this world is inherited; it is a gift from above, offered as a means of communion with God.

If, then, we are to submit to the authority of God, the authority of the kingdom, then we must be authentic and prophetic in our criticism of the world’s consumerism. We must remember and remind our faithful that the land – and all the fullness thereof – belongs to the Lord (cf. Psalm 24.1), that the world’s resources must be oriented toward others. We must recall the Lord’s beatitude, according to which “the meek shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5.5). For the meek person is the one who reverses the world’s attitudes to power and possessions; otherwise, the land becomes a place of division and violence. Meekness is ultimately a way of caring, a way of sharing. And it stands as a contrast and correction to the desecration that we have brought into God’s creation.