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Towards Baptist Catholicity
by steven r. harmon
wipf and stock, 275 pages, $30

Given the bitterness of the Baptist Battles of the past decades, it is amazing that liberals and conservatives still agree about much of anything. But through it all they have managed to retain their mutual suspicion of Catholics. So when a book called Towards Baptist Catholicity comes out, there is a good chance it is not a ploy from either side. After all, one of the few absolute truths that seemed certain to survive the assault of postmodernity was that Baptists do not recognize the pope as the head of the Church. Some even regard him to be the Antichrist.

This stereotypical Baptist anti-Catholicism was reinforced when R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, opined that the pope holds a false office, leads a false church, and teaches a false gospel. But Mohler is far from alone in his view. His pre-Vatican II predecessor, E. Y. Mullins, identified Catholicism as an example of a deficient proxy religion, declaiming that “Romanism asserts at every point the soul’s incompetency.” B. H. Carroll, founding president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, promoted a view held by many of the earliest Baptists, from John Smyth to Roger Williams, that identified the Catholic Church with the Whore of Babylon described in the Book of Revelation.

In view of this history, some of the Baptist reactions to Steven R. Harmon’s Towards Baptist Catholicity are not surprising. Wary conservatives warn that such evangelical ecumenism leads adherents to “compromise the sufficiency of Scripture, become enamored with the Church Fathers, and finally to cross the Tiber into Rome.” Suspicious liberals expect that a Catholic-friendly approach eventually results in weakening historic Baptist marks such as church-state separation.

Baptists are not the only ones who may have a hard time reading this book. Catholics may fail to recognize it as a serious theological proposal, thinking that being a Baptist is a de facto surrender of catholicity. That would be a serious mistake. The contributions Baptists have to offer are not simply for their importance to the Baptist heritage but a gift to all God’s people. Christianity surely stands in need of faithful witnesses to call into question the assumptions that inhibit the churches from being the Church.

Still, there is no getting around the fact that Baptists’ proclivity toward anti-Catholic beliefs and practices masks a deeper problem—the weddedness to a waning modernity. Harmon’s thesis is, simply stated, that any hope Baptists have of moving forward in the wake of the dissolution of modernity “requires a retrieval of the ancient ecumenical tradition that forms Christian identity through liturgical rehearsal, catechetical instruction, and ecclesial practice.” His ten chapters and two appendices provide a clear and bold display of that way. With believers in the Baptist and free-church traditions, Harmon envisions a pilgrim community of dissent, but with Catholics he envisions this community of dissent within the Church.

But precisely how would such a community of dissent situate itself? Because there are so few existing ecclesial models, Harmon invites readers to engage in a bit of theological imagination. He begins with a basic description of what Baptist catholicity might look like. Its identifying marks include (1) a recognition of tradition as a source of theological authority, (2) a use of creeds in liturgy and catechesis, (3) an attention to liturgy as the context for formation by tradition, (4) a communal locus for the authority of tradition, (5) a sacramental understanding of God’s presence, (6) a constructive retrieval of tradition, and (7) a thick ecumenism. Readers with catholic sensibilities will no doubt be impressed by this account, but they may wonder where and under what circumstances such a vision might be realized.

Several chapters take up biblical themes that have been impoverished, Harmon believes, by a lack of catholicity in Baptist faith and practice. Harmon shows with great care why both liberal and conservative Baptists, who often think in terms of the Bible alone as sufficient grounds for their faith, have a stake in recovering the tradition. He suggests that a deliberate attempt to retrieve the patristic tradition, in the form of the broad contours of the early Christian rule of faith, might have prevented the polarization between proponents of inerrancy and the practitioners of historical criticism.

Harmon recounts a story of a student who preached a sermon on the Trinity—only to have one of the church deacons ask, “Preacher, why are you talking to us about that Roman Catholic stuff?” Rather than answering the objection directly, Harmon shows the continuity and complementarity of Scripture and tradition. The chapter devoted to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity wonderfully displays how Christian theologians moved from the triadic narrative of the Bible to narrating the story of the triune God.

Along the way, Harmon directly challenges the Baptist antipathy toward tradition by considering what communities actually do when they interpret Scripture and think theologically. His description of the hermeneutics of tradition attends to convictions and practices that are distinctive to Baptist communities while also encouraging openness to voices and resources of the wider Christian community.

Yet the question remains of how to account for dissonant voices. Harmon insightfully proposes that, if Baptists have a place in the history of the Church as dissenters, there ought also to be room for dissent within the tradition. Such dissent, he notes, is not “a good in itself.” It may be construed, however, as “a step toward unity.”

“No creed but the Bible” is asserted by Baptists and ascribed to them by others. But is it a fair description? Harmon’s study of seventeenth-­century Baptist confessions of faith reveals that they drew extensively from the patristic tradition of the ancient ecumenical creeds. It indicates that, for Baptists, their own confessional documents are an important resource for retrieving the tradition, and in so doing they may recover a sense of catholicity alive in an earlier period of Baptist life.

A final reflective chapter answers the question “What keeps you from becoming a Catholic?” Harmon confesses that there have been times he considered what it might mean to embark on the road “to Rome, or perhaps Constantinople, or at least Canterbury.” But in the end he has decided not to leave the Baptists, who nurtured him toward faith, baptism, and discipleship. Staying among the Baptists means helping them recover deeper and fuller expressions of Christian faith and practice. Only in the final pages does Harmon indicate that this fuller catholicity is more than a quantitative sense of connection with all Christians. It is a qualitative fullness of faith and practice that includes, among other matters, Trinitarian orthodoxy and sacramental realism. Here he admits that some aspects of Baptist faith and practice are insufficiently catholic. Negotiating the way on the road to this fullness is both the goal and the task of ressourcement for radical catholics.

I recently participated in a seminar of Baptist doctoral students that discussed Towards Baptist Catholicity with the author. After expressing appreciation for the tone and the content of the book, one of the members suggested that the message might be better received if the word catholic had been omitted. It reminded me of another time when an evangelical press approached my colleague Stanley Hauerwas about reprinting his book The Peaceable Kingdom. After praising the book, the publisher said they would need to “take out all the stuff about peace.” The book was never republished. I sense that there is at least as much challenge getting Baptists to think about catholicity as getting evangelicals to think about peace. Harmon thinks it is worth it. I hope he is right.

Curtis W. Freeman is research professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University Divinity School.

Image by Library of Congress on Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.