Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists
by curtis w. freeman
baylor, 478 pages, $49.95

When I’m in a gloomy mood, sometimes I’d like to be a Baptist. Instead of all the venal bishops, political synods, and ignorant commissions, I’d have some controllable integrity to my church life: a good congregational polity with the folks in the pews in charge, Bible reading and preaching at the center, no-apologies evangelism and church planting, a limit on the intrusion of self-important experts and their crazy ideas, no liturgy to mess up, and (unlike their Pentecostal brethren with their shamanistic temptations) good old-fashioned fundamentalist biblical rationalism that makes it easy for most people to smell a pastoral rat in their midst when they have one.

There would still be problems, of course, which is where Curtis ­Freeman’s vision comes in. Freeman’s book is a manifesto, detailed and learned, but also engagingly vigorous, for a special way of being “Baptist.” Not the narrow and culturally colonized Baptists of most of America, but a Baptist life that is more attuned to the realities of the “larger Church.” Freeman’s Baptists, following the ecclesial moniker of the late theologian James McClendon, are “Other Baptists.” McClendon looms over ­Freeman’s vision, and his influential work embodies ­Freeman’s own melding of intra-Baptist dissidence with a radical ecumenical embrace. Freeman wants Baptists to see themselves aright as gifts to the larger Church catholic, and he wants other Christians to respect them as such.

The Christian Church, according to McClendon and Freeman, is essentially characterized by “otherness.” The Church is always being subverted in its self-complacencies and human certainties; she is always driven by the intrusive calls and demands of the Word. This happens when individual Christians interact in their varying and sometimes colliding discernment of the Word’s leading. Baptists themselves, perhaps more than others, were historically sensitive to this reality of Christian “alterity.” Thus Other Baptists, re-embracing their founding identity, are quintessentially normative Christians. Freeman tells us that the Church is “other” because life is about the engagement with “alterity” in an almost celestial hierarchy: God, Word, churches, persons, world, all flowing down and encountering each of us and requiring engagement in the search for the truth. But because engagement with the truth as “other” is one of constant disruption and adjustment, catholicity is fundamentally “contested.” “Other Baptists are contesting Catholics,” Freeman tells us. They should stay that way, because in their faithful contesting they help all Christians grasp their identity.

Being gloomy often goes with being tired. While Freeman is an energizing author, just thinking about the Church as an arena for “contestation” can be fatiguing. But the times call for struggle. In the era after Christendom, Christians must reconceive their ecclesial lives. Freeman wants to show us how Other Baptists have something precious to contribute to this struggle. After laying out his general ecclesiological vision, ­Freeman takes on several key elements of the Other Baptist character from which he thinks both Protestant free-church and Catholic Christians could learn. In doing so, he provides his readers with a wonderful guide along the major roads and local byways of Baptist history: complex, enlivening, and far more profound in its struggles than ignorant non-Baptists like me might have imagined. Furthermore, the contesting history of Baptist life uncovers both deep continuities with, and sometimes healthy questioning of, the catholic tradition.

When he talks about ministry, Freeman celebrates the peculiar Baptist commitment to the priesthood of all believers. Following another mentor, Carlyle Marney, Freeman shows how this commitment need not embrace the values of individual autonomy, but rather provide the framework for a traditionally understood notion of theosis, humanity redeemed in Christ and turned toward communion. He doesn’t reject specific orders of ministry, but he thinks that the Baptist calling of shared ministry is a gift Baptists can offer other Christians.

The same goes for the Baptist notion of the Church “subsisting” in the local congregation, where “two or three are gathered.” While Baptists in general may have allowed this vision to lapse into parochial self-­regard, Other Baptists can embrace it along with a basic understanding that we are always “part of something larger.” Freeman claims that Baptist contestation and diversity have something to teach Catholics, who often teeter on the edge of authoritarian uniformity. The Church Catholic is like a square-dance, he says, where couples move in and out of an ordered rhythm of diverse persons and steps: “This is the life of community. Alterity remains, yet no one stands alone, and each depends on all.”

This Other Baptist vision, bound to Freeman’s invigorating sense that the Christian faith is serious enough to engage profoundly in all of its details, is exciting. Maybe too exciting. Freeman inveighs against those normal Baptists who have given in to the “pressures of evangelical decisionism, atomistic individualism, and theological minimalism.” Fair enough. But what he offers instead is another kind of activism, corporate and responsible, to be sure, but still always trying to adjudicate this and that: the demands of the present, the gifts of the past, the otherness of other churches. Freeman constantly tries to reconfigure this or that sacrament, practice, creedal affirmation, or way of reading Scripture in order to adjust to all the demands of vital alterity. Herein lies the “contesting” character of his “contesting catholic” vision. If the Christian tradition is the story of a cohesive debate among companions, historical “dissenters” can find a place within the Church Catholic as one part of an ongoing argument. Although an essential aspect of Christian existence, however, such arguments are never seamless in their resolution. Thus the underlying restlessness of the book.

Other Baptists, Freeman insists, have no intention of joining other churches: “Rather than swimming the Tiber they choose to maintain their catholicity as Baptists.” Catholicity is contestation. I have my doubts about this, precisely because we no longer live in Christendom. The fact that we now live in a ­multi-denominational Christian world of replaceable ecclesial parts means that debate no longer demands control, let alone self-control—people are always free to leave and there is always some other church awaiting them. Ecclesial or theological reconstruction is now cheap. This easy movement from one church to another is the antithesis of debate among companions, something which might mark a common tradition; it is simply the portability of personal opinion. As a kind of Deus ex machina, ­Freeman hopes that the “Spirit” comes in, after struggling with difference, and leads the community forward. Where, though, isn’t clear.

Ivan Illich once famously described modernity as tearing down the bridge between today and a past that was governed by established norms. What I like about Other Baptists is their recognition that Christians must engage the hodge-podge of norms we have set loose from their moorings. Furthermore, the individual-centered, or at least identifiably person-centered, character of Baptist life makes it possible to engage all this with a lively congregational consciousness. Other Baptists, in this way, meld some of the responsible energies of modern individualism with a sensitivity to divine pushback as well as divine leading.

While this is a good, it is a vulnerable good. Other Baptists have a certain social freedom to respond to the larger world’s assaults, as well as that world’s mirrored minions within the seats of power within the churches. Contestation is in their theological DNA, as Freeman shows so well. But, almost by definition, this freedom is exercised by constantly breaking down the social spaces and social bodies that are so easily corrupted. It is hard to see how Baptist ­ecclesiologies, “other” or “the same,” could ever move us closer to something better—something more apostolic and thus more worthy of our loyalty. It’s not clear how the proximate good of contestation will ever move beyond itself. In the end, this contesting character still looks like liberal democracy, which isn’t so bad but isn’t really yet the Church.

Freeman tells us that, at the end of Christendom, all the ­churches exist as “little islands” in the midst of the threatening world, but is that so? There is only the vast field that is the Body of Christ: the open space of God’s grace, as the Psalmist puts it. To be the Church is to live with, submit to, die among, and be raised beside the followers of Christ and the children of Israel. That must mean an end to contestation, and at the least a grasping of those tools that bring about that end. Why be Other Baptists at all? Why not be “dissolving Baptists” or “Baptists-about-to-be-just-one-church”? And why can’t “contesting Catholics” just be “peaceful catholics”? Perhaps this is what Freeman is aiming at; and I suppose it will take quite a lot of contesting just to move today’s churches in that direction.

But it’s possible to give some things up in this process, too, instead of arguing over them. That can include important aspects of Baptist belief itself. Freeman spends a good deal of time, for instance, on the argument between credobaptists (those who affirm only adult believers’ baptism) and paedobaptists (those affirming infant baptism). In the end, he can grudgingly accept infant baptism, so long as everyone acknowledges the physical rite of baptism as only a part of a much broader “initiation process” that includes personal confession and growth in discipleship: “Baptism in whatever mode must be connected to and accompanied by discipleship in which grace and faith are mingled.” While this is a noble attempt to bridge a significant opposition among Christians, it still centers the baptismal reality on the present and on today’s judgments. Adult-­centric Christianity, with its discerning rational focus, is a way of being now-centered. The Holy Innocents, those first martyrs of Bethlehem, unsettle this kind of claim, just as do today’s martyred Iraqi and Syrian infant Christians: Children are born to be given over to Christ, and they sometimes die just because they are thus taken up by the Lord. Furthermore, they have done so for centuries: Let them speak in their own way, and the credo- and paedobaptists both might learn something.

Part of the problem with contemporary notions of disagreement is that they are so very “modern,” that is, “now-centered.” The contesting church is, by definition, the church of the moment. The Communion of Saints does not really appear in Freeman’s book, except in the form of the “visible” church that marks the ecclesiology of proto- and early Baptists. The dead have disappeared, in favor of a church filled with actively discerning and contesting ­individuals. But the church of today is only the tip of an iceberg, and therefore cannot turn here and there, deciding this and that. The “nimble” church—a favorite phrase today for people scrambling among the ruins of modernity and Christendom—is a fundamental myth. The Church cannot “turn” on a dime, or chart new paths at a moment’s notice. She is joined to and made up of myriads and millennia. Ecumenism should talk about the dead, not the living. For the dead in Christ are not dead at all, in any case: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob! They are whispering, speaking, perhaps even clamoring at us now.

Protestants can’t deal with this properly. For them, the dead represent a legacy, an ideal, an ensign: Luther, Calvin, our “Puritan forebears,” whoever. It’s like being respectful of your deceased parents. But your deceased parents are decidedly dead, and we go to therapists to sort them out. Catholics, to be sure, have their own problem with the communion of saints. They have a hard time acknowledging the myriads of their Protestant brethren whose prayers from among the dead are dragging them forward. But at least they understand the proper pull and power of the past that rightly trumps most of the decisions we argue over.

We will all end up looking like the saints of the past, I pray. That’s not a formula; it’s not even clear what it will mean. But the promise betokens a little breathing, a slow settling into God’s formative press as Christians, letting go of their contests, move more peaceably beside one another. I’m not really that gloomy most of the time, anyway, because time is on God’s side.   

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.