Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Too catholic to be Catholic" (Peter Leithart)

Peter J. Leithart
A few folks who know that I've authored a book titled Towards Baptist Catholicity assume that what I have in mind is exemplified most fully by the upper-case "C" Catholic Church. Despite an epilogue chapter titled "What Keeps You from Becoming Catholic?" and explanations in that book and in other publications of the lower-case "c" catholicity that belongs to and ought to be claimed by the whole church, the assumption endures. Last week I was gratified to discover via a Facebook post by my former Campbell University Divinity School student Andrew Tatum that Presbyterian theologian Peter Leithart has written a blog post that expresses well many of the qualifications I've sought to make.

I became aware of Leithart a couple of years ago when Robbie Crouse, my former student and graduate assistant at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School, introduced me to some of Leithart's emphases. I have to confess that I've read very little of Leithart's literary output (he's produced a good number more books than he has children, and he has ten of the latter), but I'm familiar enough with it to know that I'm too Baptist--and too influenced by people like John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and James Wm. McClendon, Jr.--to join him in Defending Constantine. (Leithart is in fact deeply appreciative of Hauerwas even in disagreeing with his take on Constantinianism.)

I found myself nodding in hearty agreement, however, with much of Leithart's blog post "Too catholic to be Catholic." He begins:

My friends tell me that my name has been invoked in various web skirmishes concerning Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, sometimes by people, including friends, who claim that I nurtured them along in their departure from the Protestant world. My friends also hinted that it would be good for me to say again why I’m not heading to Rome or Constantinople or Moscow (Russia!), nor encouraging anyone to do so. Everything I say below I’ve said before in various venues – on this blog, in First Things, in conference presentations. But it might be useful to put down my reasons fairly concisely in one place, so here it is.

The whole post is worth reading, but this paragraph communicates its essence:

Catholicism and Orthodoxy are impressive for their heritage, the seriousness of much of their theology, the seriousness with which they take Christian cultural engagement. Both, especially the Catholic church, are impressive for their sheer size. But when I attend Mass and am denied access to the table of my Lord Jesus together with my Catholic brothers, I can’t help wondering what really is the difference between Catholics and the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans or the Continental Reformed who practice closed communion. My Catholic friends take offense at this, but I can’t escape it: Size and history apart, how is Catholicism different from a gigantic sect? Doesn’t Orthodoxy come under the same Pauline condemnation as the fundamentalist Baptist churches who close their table to everyone outside? To become Catholic I would have to contract my ecclesial world. I would have to become less catholic – less catholic than Jesus is. Which is why I will continue to say: I’m too catholic to become Catholic.

The final paragraph struck a chord with me in connection with my current book project:

One final reason has to do with time. I cut my theological teeth, and still cut them, on James Jordan’s biblical theology. At the end of Through New Eyes, Jordan argues just as the temple was unimaginable to Israelites living through the collapse of the tabernacle system, so the future of the church is unimaginable to us.  We can’t see the future; we can’t know how God is going to put back the fragmented pieces of His church. We can trust and hope that He is and will, but all we have access to are the configurations of the past and present. It’s tempting to imagine that the future of the church will be an extension of some present tradition – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist, whatever. But the future never is a simple extension of the past and present (how can it be, with the massive surge in Christianity in the global South?). So I remain contentedly and firmly in my reformed catholicity, but I remain also eager and impatient for the church to come. Of that church we know nothing except that it will be like nothing we know. We worship a living God, which means (Jenson tells us) a God of constant surprises.

I'm in the midst of editing the manuscript for a forthcoming book under contract with Baylor University Press, tentatively titled The Baptist Vision and the Ecumenical Future: Radically Biblical, Radically Catholic, Relentlessly Pilgrim. Leithart's concluding paragraph expresses well the eschatological ecclesiology embedded in the "Relentlessly Pilgrim" portion of the book's subtitle. One dimension of the thesis that drives the book is that part of what is essential to the Baptist vision (and thus to the distinctive ecclesial gifts Baptists have to share with the whole church) is an aversion to overly-realized eschatologies of the church: i.e., a refusal to identify any past or present instantiation of the church as the full realization of what it means for the church to be under the rule of Christ. It seeks that sort of church in the future--as Leithart says, "Of that church we know nothing except that it will be like nothing we know."

Two follow-up posts by Leithart are worth reading as well: Israel, Idolatry, and Separated Brothers and We're All Protestants Now.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Baptist delegation named for international Baptist-Pentecostal conversations

Earlier today I posted a link to Curtis Freeman's reflections on Pentecost, Baptists, Pentecostals, Trinitarian faith, and the unity of the church in the Religious Herald. Later today the Baptist World Alliance issued a press release announcing the appointment of the BWA delegation to international conversations with representative Pentecostals that begin in Quito, Ecuador later this year:

Callam names BWA team for dialogue with Pentecostals

Created on Thursday, 24 May 2012

Baptist World Alliance (BWA)--General Secretary Neville Callam has named the team that is to represent the BWA in the international Baptist-Pentecostal dialogue that begins in Quito, Ecuador, in August.

In March of this year, the Executive Committee of the BWA gave authorization to Callam to "gather a small team of competent theologians and church leaders reflecting the cultural diversity of the world Baptist family to undertake an international theological dialogue with Pentecostals."

Team members have been drawn from the six regions of the BWA:  Henry Mugabe from Zimbabwe (Africa); Miyon Chung from South Korea (Asia); Burchell Taylor from Jamaica (Caribbean); Nigel Wright from the United Kingdom (Europe); Richard Serrano of Venezuela (Latin America); and William Brackney from Canada and David Goatley from the United States (North America).

Mugabe is a visiting professor of theology at the Richmond Theological Seminary  in the United States and is former president of the Baptist Theological Seminary of Harare; Chung is professor at the Torch Trinity Graduate School of Theology, is vice chair of the BWA Mission, Evangelism and Theological Reflection (METR) Advisory Committee, and a member of the BWA Commission on Doctrine and Christian Unity; Taylor is pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in St. Andrew, teaches several courses at the United Theological College of the West Indies, and is a vice president of the BWA, among other BWA appointments.

Wright is principal of Spurgeon's College; Serrano is president of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Venezuela; Brackney is director of the Acadia Center for Baptist and Anabaptist Studies at Acadia Divinity College, a member of the BWA Commission on Christian Ethics and the Commission on Doctrine and Christian Unity, among other BWA appointments; and Goatley is executive secretary-treasurer of the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention and, among other BWA appointments, sits on the General Council and is chair of the METR Advisory Committee.

Callam said that the "BWA is highly respectful of the leaders of all Christian World Communions and the families of churches they serve."   The BWA, he explained, "expects that the dialogue with the Pentecostals will offer an opportunity both to formulate clear statements on doctrinal agreements that Baptists share with Pentecostals," and to "engage constructively around the issues on which we are not yet agreed."

This is the seventh theological dialogue in which the BWA will be engaged. The first was with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches from 1973-1977 followed by talks with the Roman Catholic Church from 1984-1988; the Lutheran World Federation from 1986-1990; the Mennonite World Conference from 1989-1992; the Anglican Communion between 2000 and 2005; and the Roman Catholic Church (Second Round) from 2006-2010.

This first round of the Baptist-Pentecostal Dialogue continues through to 2015.

© Baptist World Alliance
May 24, 2012

Curtis Freeman on Pentecost and Baptist-Pentecostal dialogue

Curtis Freeman
Earlier this month the Religious Herald, a Baptist-related news journal that originated as the newspaper published by and for Baptists in Virginia but now provides news, analysis, and resources for Baptists in the broader mid-Atlantic region, published an opinion column by Curtis Freeman on Baptist-Pentecostal relations in connection with the liturgical feast of Pentecost and in anticipation of the beginning of formal ecumenical conversations between the Baptist World Alliance and representative international Pentecostals later this year. Freeman, Research Professor of Theology at Duke University Divinity School and director of the Baptist House of Studies there, was a member of a BWA delegation to exploratory conversations with Pentecostals last December that recommended the initiation of a formal dialogue. An excerpt from the article follows:

I can’t speak for Pentecostals, but some of us Baptists are so Jesus-centered in our theology and worship that we hardly know what to make of the Holy Spirit. If the Pentecostals can help us to get more Spirit-focused and, as a consequence, more Trinitarian, then it is would be well worth the time and effort. And given the growing number of Pentecostal, Charismatic and Renewalist Christians worldwide, these conversations are crucial for the unity of the Church (John 17:21) and greater participation in the mission of God (Matthew 28:19-20). (read full article)

Update: see also Baptist delegation named for international Baptist-Pentecostal conversations.

Update #2: Associated Baptist Press also published Freeman's opinion commentary on May 25: http://www.abpnews.com/opinion/commentaries/item/7452-pentecostal-power

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ecumenical news miscellany

Dr Pantelis Kalaitzidis presenting
WCC advance copies of the new WCC
book series to the Ecumenical Patriarch.
© Nikos Magginas/ Volos Academy
for Theological Studies
Two useful sources for keeping up with developments of significance for the quest for Christian unity are the news service of the World Council of Churches and Ecumenical News International. The latter news service is supported by the World Council of Churches, Lutheran World Federation, World Communion of Reformed Churches, Conference of European Churches, World Association for Christian Communication, and World Student Christian Federation. Links to a stories from these sources on a couple of recent notable ecumenical developments follow.

The World Council of Churches has issued a press release announcing the launch of the new WCC-sponsored book series Doxa and Praxis: Exploring Orthodox Theology in partnership with Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Greece. Editorial consultants for the series include Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, best known outside the Orthodox world for his influential book Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997).

Ecumenical News International reports the formation of a new Protestant united church in France. The Reformed Church of France and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of France have merged to form the United Protestant Church of France, effective following the meetings of the respective churches' synods May 17-20. the first national synod of the new united church will meet in 2013 in Lyons.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Charles Spurgeon, Baptist peacemaker

Charles Haddon Spurgeon
British Baptist minister Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) is revered by many Baptists of conservative inclinations because of Spurgeon's staunch opposition to what he perceived to be liberal trends in the Baptist Union of Great Britain in the late nineteenth century. Fewer are aware of Spurgeon's equally staunch opposition to what he called "Periodical War Madness" in an essay of that title published in The Sword and Trowel in April 1878. Michael G. Long's anthology Christian Peace and Nonviolence: A Documentary History (Orbis Books, 2011), the subject of a previous blog post, introduced its inclusion of Spurgeon's essay: "Spurgeon was not a theological liberal, nor would anyone ever have mistaken him for a progressive biblical exegete. His biblical ethics, however, led him to denounce war, imperialism, and racial discrimination in no uncertain terms" (p. 130).

As the following excerpt from the essay as published in the Christian Peace and Nonviolence anthology shows, for Spurgeon Christian peacemaking must address not only the policies of nation-states but also the way individuals relate to one another in word and deed:

We should persuade all lovers of peace to labor perseveringly to spread the spirit of love and gentleness, which is indeed the spirit of Christ, and to give a practical bearing to what else may become mere theory. The fighting spirit must be battled with in all its forms, and the genius of gentleness must be cultivated. Cruelty to animals, the lust for destroying living things, the desire for revenge, the indulgence of anger--all these we must war against by manifesting and inculcating pity, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, and goodness in the fear of the Lord. Children must be trained with meekness and not with passion, and our dealings with our fellowmen must manifest our readiness to suffer wrong rather than to inflict it upon others. Nor is this all: the truth as to war must be more and more insisted on: the loss of time, labor, treasure, and life must be shown, and the satanic crimes to which it leads must be laid bare. It is the sum of all villainies, and ought to be stripped of its flaunting colors, and to have its bloody horrors revealed; its music should be hushed, that men may hear the moans and groans, the cries and shrieks of dying men and ravished women. War brings out the devil in man, wakes up the hellish legion within his fallen nature, and binds his better faculties hand and foot. Its natural tendency is to hurl nations back into barbarism, and retard the growth of everything holy and good....It ought not to be smiled upon as a brilliant spectacle, nor talked of with a light heart; it is a fitter theme for tears and intercessions. To see a soldier a Christian is a joy; to see a Christian a soldier is another matter (p. 132).

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The nonviolent way of Jesus documented

As Book Review Editor for the journal Perspectives in Religious Studies, I receive books in religious and theological studies submitted to the journal by publishers and then secure reviewers for them with appropriate expertise from among the membership of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion, the professional organization that sponsors the journal. Frequently I receive books that I believe ought to be commended to a broader readership beyond scholars of religion and theology, and occasionally I receive a book that I feel compelled to purchase myself after passing the review copy along to a reviewer. Christian Peace and Nonviolence: A Documentary History (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2011), edited by Michael G. Long, is one of those books on both counts. I ordered it from Amazon after finding a reviewer for it, and I urge followers of Ecclesial Theology to read it and recommend it to others.

Long, Associate Professor of Religion and Peace and Conflict Studies at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, has anthologized 116 sources from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures through the twenty-first century that document nonviolence and peacemaking as convictions and practices that belong to historical continuity with the formative Christian tradition rather than constituting occasional exceptions to a Christian "just war" tradition.This Baptist theologian took note of the significant number of voices from the larger Free Church tradition selected for this anthology, including not only Mennonites but several Baptists proper--among them a declaration issued by Pennsylvania Mennonites and German Baptists in 1775 and a 2004 statement on "Confessing Christ in a World of Violence" co-issued by Baptists Glen Stassen and Richard Pierard with others, along with selections from the writings of Charles Spurgeon, Howard Thurman, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Muriel Lester, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The opening paragraph of a selection from Miroslav Volf, who received his Christian formation in the larger Free Church tradition, summarizes well the overarching case made by this volume:

In this essay I want to contest the claim that the Christian faith, as one of the major world religions, predominantly fosters violence, and to argue, instead, that it should be seen as a contributor to more peaceful social environments. I will not argue that the Christian faith was not and is not often employed to foster violence. Obviously, such an argument cannot be plausibly made; not only have Christians committed atrocities and other lesser forms of violence but they have also drawn on religious beliefs to justify them. Neither will I argue that the Christian faith has been historically less associated with violence than other major religions; I am not at all sure that this is the case. Rather, I will argue that at least when it comes to Christianity, the cure against religiously induced or legitimated violence is not less religion, but, in a carefully qualified sense, more religion. Put differently, the more we reduce Christian faith to vague religiosity or conceive of it as exclusively a private affair of individuals, the worse off we will be; and inversely, the more we nurture it as an ongoing tradition that by its intrinsic content shapes behavior and by the domain of its regulative reach touches the public sphere, the better off we will be. "Thick" practice of the Christian faith will help reduce violence and shape a culture of peace (pp. 298-99).

No one should reject nonviolence as a Christian commitment without first reading, marking, and inwardly digesting these documents--which are also must reading for anyone who dares to follow Jesus' nonviolent way.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Jonas Vestlund reviews Ecumenism Means You, Too (in Swedish)

Jonas Vestlund of Sweden has posted a review of my book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity (Cascade Books, 2010) on a blog maintained by the Avrika Baptistgrupp, a group of Baptists affiliated with the Baptist Union of Sweden (click on hyperlink for the review). While some pages on the site of the Avrika Baptistgrupp are available in English, the review is in Swedish--a language I don't read. Using Google Chrome's auto-translator yielded some mildly amusing constructions, but the essence of the review was discernible.

Interested in Ecumenism Means You, Too? Order the book directly from Cascade Books or via Amazon.