Several years ago Mark Noll wrote an article titled “So You’re A Baptist—,” in which he asked: “What is the best way to take account of the world’s self-described Baptists? Do they constitute a movement with any real cohesion? Or is the term ‘Baptist’ so flexible that it designates only a loosely defined collection of heterogeneous fragments clustered haphazardly in one vaguely outlined section of the world Christian landscape?”
That last question refers to the fact that more Baptists reside in North America than anywhere else—this despite the fact that Baptists are a considerable presence in some non-Western regions, such as Nigeria, and Nagaland in India. In his recent article “The Baptist Exception,” Philip Jenkins observes that this fact makes Baptists an outlier among world Christian communions. In most Christian communions, global south Christians have strongly outpaced their northern world counterparts. Jenkins also cautions: “Mere numbers say nothing about the nature of faith or the quality of practice.”
The nature of faith and the quality of practice are the major concerns for the newly formed Center for Baptist Renewal, organized earlier this year by two professors, Matthew Emerson of Oklahoma Baptist University and Lucas Stamps of California Baptist University. The Center is a bold initiative calling for “Baptist catholicity”—an open engagement with the Great Tradition of Christian believing and thinking across the centuries. The Center’s leaders want everyone to know that they are not “just Baptists playing Anglican or Roman Catholic. That's not what we mean by Baptist catholicity. Instead, what we are trying to do is to help Baptists better situate ourselves within the broader body of Christ and the historic Christian tradition.”
What does this form of evangelical Baptist catholicity look like? The Center has issued an inaugural manifesto, which lists eleven principles, beginning with the Trinity, the Gospel, and the Scriptures—defined as inspired, inerrant, and infallible. The famous solae of the Reformation are mentioned, along with historic Baptist distinctives including regenerate church membership, believers’ baptism, congregational polity, and religious freedom.
A cautious but open approach to ecumenism is at the heart of the manifesto: “We encourage a critical but charitable engagement with the whole church of the Lord Jesus Christ, both past and present. … We believe that we are ‘traditioned’ creatures and that we should move beyond the false polarities of an individualistic modernity and a relativistic postmodernity.”
On the basis of these principles, the Center has made specific proposals related to Baptist church life. These include the use of the classic creeds of the early church and the confessions of the Reformation (including Baptist confessions). They include the enrichment of common worship by lectionary readings, the liturgical calendar, the biblical and historical prayers of the church (especially the Lord’s Prayer), corporate confession of sin, and the assurance of pardon. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are described as “signs and seals of God’s grace, expressions of individual faith and bonds of the church’s covenantal unity in Christ.” Brandon D. Smith, another leader of the Center, has called the Lord’s Supper “more than a memory” and set forth a careful biblical justification for its weekly celebration in worship.
Seen in a broader context, this new call for Baptist catholicity is part of a deeper Protestant impulse to reclaim the foundations of historic Christian orthodoxy. The Oxford Movement is only one of several efforts to do this within the Anglican tradition. The “Catholic Luther” is a theme rehearsed among Augsburg Christians ever since the Reformation. The work of Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg in the nineteenth century is another part of this trajectory. More recently, the late Thomas C. Oden, with his work on patristic exegesis and his call for paleo-orthodoxy, has inspired many in this direction, both within and beyond his own Methodist tradition. Scott Swain and Michael Allen have done something similar for their fellow Presbyterians, while noted Baptist scholars such as Paul Fiddes, Curtis Freeman, Steve Harmon, and Elizabeth Newman have set forth their own diverse appeals to Baptist catholicity.
What is distinctive about the Center for Baptist Renewal is its context: It is a movement for renewal within the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC is America’s largest Protestant denomination, a group shaped more by revivalism and individualism than by anything liturgical, creedal, or ecumenical. During the 1980s and 1990s, the SBC endured a wrenching denominational civil war. There are still places where survivors of that struggle gather, like old soldiers at a retreat for veterans, to nurse their wounds and tell war stories. But a new generation of younger Southern Baptists has grown up with a different sense of urgency. They are moved by new concerns related to the integrity of the church and its mission in the world. The Center for Baptist Renewal is an important expression of this concern among the rising generation of Southern Baptists.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture, and a fellow for the Center of Baptist Renewal.