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.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Baptist representation at Assisi Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World

Today (October 27) Neville Callam, General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, and John Upton, President of the BWA, are in Assisi, Italy for a Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World along with about 300 other global religious leaders including Pope Benedict XVI; Archbishop Rowan Williams, leader of the worldwide Anglican communion; Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, leader of the Orthodox churches; and Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches. The Associated Baptist Press has posted a story about this event.

Following the event in Assisi, BWA General Secretary Neville Callam will travel to Heraklion, Crete, where he will join Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes of Oxford University and me for a meeting with representatives of the (Eastern Orthodox) Ecumenical Patriarchate for "pre-conversations" October 31 and November 1 to explore the possibility of a formal series of bilateral ecumenical conversations between the BWA and the Orthodox Churches. I invite readers of Ecclesial Theology to pray for our meetings, that they might further the quest for the visible unity of the church for which Jesus prayed in John 17.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On Jesus, bullying, and Christian imagination

The Associated Baptist Press has published my opinion column "Was Jesus an Object of Childhood Bullying?" Here's the lead:

(ABP) – Reflecting on Scripture, the fourth-century church father Gregory of Nyssa insists that in the Incarnation the Son of God embraced fully the human condition, including “the advance from infancy to adulthood,” and experienced from others the alienation and violence that mark humanity’s sinful condition.

Given recent media attention to the problem of childhood bullying and engaging in a little speculative theology, can we imagine that during his “advance from infancy to adulthood” Jesus may have encountered a bully? (Read the rest of the column on

Here's a fuller expression of the four less-speculative theological assertions in which I rooted this exercise in speculative theology, beyond the limits of a brief op-ed column: (1) Humanity, though God’s good creation in the divine image, is fallen. (2) In every time, place, and culture, the sinful condition of humanity is manifest in alienation and violence in all its forms. (3) In the Incarnation the Son of God embraced fully the human condition--including “the advance from infancy to adulthood,” in the words of the fourth-century church father Gregory of Nyssa--and experienced from others the alienation and violence that mark humanity’s sinful condition. (4) The cross, in which Jesus is both the victim of the alienation and violence sinful humans inflict on one another and the one who exposes this alienation and violence as sinful, is paradigmatic for Jesus’ other experiences of the human condition.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The (proper) relation of Baptist and catholic identity

Fisher Humphreys
“Although I am a loyal and happy Baptist and plan to remain thus all my life, I have a deeper commitment to the universal Christian heritage, to that which is catholic, than I do even to our beloved Baptist distinctives.” --Fisher Humphreys

In a chapter titled "From Triadic Narrative to Narrating the Triune God: Towards a Baptist Appreciation of Trinitarian Catholicity" in my book Towards Baptist Catholicity, I illustrated the correlation of Baptist tendencies to neglect the doctrine of the Trinity and the lingering influences of a Baptist history of anti-Catholicism by quoting an anecdote related by Fisher Humphreys, now retired from serving as Professor of Divinity at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School (where I succeeded him in teaching theology prior to my relocation):

Many years ago when I was lecturing on the doctrine of the Trinity in one of my classes at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, a student told the class about an experience he had while serving as pastor of one of the small Baptist churches in south Louisiana. One Sunday he preached a sermon about the Trinity. Afterwards one of his deacons asked him privately and with great sincerity, "Preacher, why are you talking to us about that Roman Catholic stuff?" (Fisher Humphreys, review of Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., The Catholicity of the Reformation, Avery Dulles, The Catholicity of the Church, and George Weigel, Soul of the World: Notes on the Future of Public Catholicism, in Perspectives in Religious Studies 26, no. 1 [Spring 1999], p. 95).

This morning I read something that also referenced this review article and was reminded that Humphreys had written this later in the review:

Although I am a loyal and happy Baptist and plan to remain thus all my life, I have a deeper commitment to the universal Christian heritage, to that which is catholic, than I do even to our beloved Baptist distinctives (ibid.).

Since in the latter quote Humphreys communicated so eloquently and concisely what I've tried to write at length in a number of publications, I thought I'd pass the quote along to readers of Ecclesial Theology.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Douglas Harink on Baptists, individualism, and 1 Peter 2:5

On Monday evening I was introducing my Introduction to Christian Theology I students to the concept of the theological interpretation of Scripture and mentioned the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series as an example of this approach to exegesis. Then today I had I look at the commentary in that series by Baptist theologian Douglas Harink on 1 and 2 Peter, which includes some observations related to another matter I discussed with my Christian Theology students on Monday evening--what it means to read the Bible in ecclesial community, which in turn relates to a point I made in my public lecture the previous Monday evening on "Baptists and Catholics on Scripture and Tradition": that a point of differentiated consensus between Baptists and Catholics on the function of the Scripture in the life of the church is that both Baptists and Catholics (though in differing ways) locate the primary responsibility for the interpretation of Scripture in the community of the church rather than the mind of the individual (n.b. the key words "differentiated," "differing," and "primary" in the clause that follows the colon). Here's a snippet from Harink's commentary:

The Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all (individual) believers has traditionally sought warrant in 1 Pet. 2:5. But neither here nor in 2:9 is Peter thinking in terms of individual believers. His focus is consistently corporate and oriented toward the world. The emphasis is not on the believer's individual immediacy to God, or on priestly mediation among individual believers, or, of course, on the establishment of a priestly order in the church, but on the church itself as the mediation of the gospel to the world (cf. 2:9) [read context in Google Books].

Harink then notes this:

In my own Baptist tradition the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has often and tragically been taken as the justification of extreme individualism in the Christian life. Consider one classic statement by Baptist theologian Francis Wayland (1976-1865): "Another truth which has always been inscribed on our [Baptist] banner is, the absolute right of private judgement in all matters of Religion. We have always believed that the New Testament was not given by God to a priesthood, to be by them diluted, compounded, and adulterated, and then retailed by the pennyworth to the people; but, on the contrary, that the whole revelation in its totality, in all its abundance of blessing, with all its solemn warnings, and its exceeding great and precious promises, is a communication from God to every individual of the human race...With such a revelation, and such a spiritual aid [i.e., the Holy Spirit guiding the individual reading scripture], every man is required to determine for himself what is the will of God" (quoted from Curtis W. Freeman, James W. McClednon Jr. and C. Rosalee Velloso da Silva, eds., Baptist Roots: A Reader in the Theology of a Christian People [Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1999], 222). In recent years strong protests against and correctives to such radical individualism are being issued by Baptist theologians; see Steven R. Harmon, Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2006); and Barry Harvey, Can These Bones Live? A Catholic Baptist Engagement with Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, and Social Theory (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008) [read context in Google Books].

I'm grateful for Harink's reference to my book Towards Baptist Catholicity in this connection, for I concur.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Desmond Tutu, ecumenist

This Friday (October 7) marks the 80th birthday of Desmond Tutu, former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. While Tutu's role as a prophetic Christian voice against the apartheid regime in South Africa and for human rights globally is well known, comparatively few know of his ecumenical work as a former member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, in connection with which he once declared, “Apartheid is too strong for the divided churches."

One of the most visible focal points of the current divided state of the churches is the Eucharist. The Eucharist, Archbishop Tutu, and the unity/disunity of the church have been associated in my mind since my first experience of the Anglican practice of "open communion" (open to all baptized Christians) in October 1994. I was doing a year of graduate studies in patristics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and I noticed in the Washington Post that in connection with Nelson Mandela's visit with President Clinton in the White House, Desmond Tutu was going to preach in the (Episcopal) National Cathedral on Sunday--which was, of course, where I decided to worship that Sunday.

After preaching a homily that called our attention to the practices of ecclesial reconciliation the emerged from the (then much more recent) end of apartheid, Tutu served as the guest celebrant for the Eucharist.  The congregation that day was beyond capacity, and vergers steered us into lines for multiple receiving stations at various places in the sanctuary. As the line to which I was directed neared the chancel rail, I discovered that Archbishop Tutu himself was serving us the Eucharist. (Being on the receiving end of Desmond Tutu's contagious bright-eyed smile is something of a sacramental experience in and of itself!) That particular Eucharist remains for me a reminder of the visible unity that is possible for the church as well as of its current lack.

Happy birthday, Archbishop Tutu!