By Bob Allen
Four centuries after originating as a protest movement within the church, Baptists today have evolved into a distinct sect committed to preserving its place in a hierarchy of denominations, Baptist theologian Curtis Freeman argues in a new book.
As a result, they now are in danger of becoming either a religious affinity group of individuals sharing similar beliefs or a counter-cultural sect looking to propositions of the past for consolation, Freeman suggests in Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists, due out Sept. 15 from Baylor University Press.
“Theologies that depend on modern notions of rationality for their intelligibility will find them unhelpful for negotiating the transition beyond modernity,” he says. “Neither fundamentalism nor liberalism possesses sufficient resources for the constructive theological work that lies ahead.”
Freeman, director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, writes from the perspective of “other” Baptists, those left out of the struggle to be a Baptist between “lukewarm liberalism” and “hyper-fundamentalism” in the latter part of the 20th century.
“In the mid-20th century, there were really only two theological options — orthodoxy and liberalism,” writes Freeman, who earned a master of divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. at Baylor.
“When it finally came down to the matter of how Christians could live faithfully in the modern world, there were two basic strategies: to reaffirm the faith once delivered to the saints or to reinterpret the faith anew and adapt it to the demands of modernity.”
Freeman, who teaches historical theology and serves on the Commission on Doctrine and Christian Unity of the Baptist World Alliance, proposes a “third way,” viewing Baptists as one spiritual movement within a lower-case “c” catholic church.
Though today known primarily for what distinguishes them from other Christians, Freeman says the earliest Baptists did not set out to be “fanatical sectarians who rejected the wider Christian community and withdrew from the world.”
Rather, he says, they were “churchly minded Christians seeking radical reform of the church catholic by reinstating apostolic practices that serve as identifying marks of a new creation on its way.”
Freeman says the Baptists broke ranks with the universal church at the point of infant baptism, which founder John Smyth identified as the “mark of the beast” prophesied in the Book of Revelation.
Smyth’s co-founder of the first known Baptist church in the 1600s, Thomas Helwys, advocated for religious liberty, Freeman says, because he believed it necessary for establishment of a “believer’s church.” Later Baptists, he says, misunderstood Helwys as simply an advocate for liberty of conscience and a hero of modern individualism grounded in the sanctity of human nature.
Similarly, Freeman claims, Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church in America, derived liberty of conscience not from Enlightenment theories of natural rights but rather the conviction that no magistrate has power over the Christian’s conscience except for the King of Kings.
Freeman says it was John Leland, a pivotal figure among colonial Baptists, who defended Baptist convictions of liberty of conscience and disestablishment of church from state by adopting language of philosopher John Locke and statesman James Madison about “inalienable rights.”
Baptists became more thoroughly individualistic, Freeman says, with the rise of denominationalism.
“Baptists in 19th-century America increasingly came to see the church as merely a gathering of like-minded individuals joined to observe the duties of religion rather than a vital part of the saving process,” he writes.
Freeman says the mindset laid the groundwork for the rise of Reformed theology and assumptions of propositional truth. Fundamentalism seized on the trajectory to reduce the facts of inerrant Scripture to five essential points.
In the 20th century, Freeman says, liberal Baptists like Harry Emerson Fosdick of Riverside Church in New York City became convinced that Christianity could not accommodate modern knowledge. Influenced by the likes of German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, Fosdick said “the one vital thing about religion is the firsthand, personal experience,” in his case, of God in Jesus Christ.
E.Y. Mullins, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and primary author of the first Baptist Faith and Message statement in 1925, moderated the leftward branch of modernity with “axioms” of religion, including “soul competency,” which Freeman says became the interpretive key to the Christian experience.
Freeman and other scholars laid out similar observations in 1997 in a Baptist “manifesto” pointing out that both sides in the fundamentalist/moderate debate in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s had drunk from the same well.
Though it seems counterintuitive, Freeman writes, both conservative and liberal trajectories of modern Baptist theology share a common ancestry in “foundationalism,” a theory that beliefs are justified by more basic, or foundational, beliefs.
“Whether convictions and practices are viewed to be warranted by natural rights, common-sense reason, axiomatic truths or empirically verifiable facts, both streams of modern Baptist theology remain committed to foundational principles,” he writes. “Thus liberals (and moderates) and fundamentalists (and evangelicals) are siblings under the skin.”
Freeman says the intense rivalry between the two views is symptomatic of a bigger problem, the “crisis of modernity” and the attempt by Baptists to “articulate their identity as a free people of God.”
Freeman says neither “stuck window” of fundamentalism or liberalism will do. “Other” Baptists “must seek another way,” he says, of reform and retrieving the tradition of the apostolic church.
Freeman proposes a new “contesting catholicity,” where Baptists affirm beliefs and practices that have shaped their identity and mission over the centuries but “also desire to be in community with the historical Christian tradition.”
Freeman says that will require a “generous orthodoxy” that welcomes ecumenical dialogue, a movement that Baptists largely avoided during the 20th century.
A theology that is “deliberately baptistic and intentionally catholic,” he says, will move beyond fragmentation and sectarianism that has characterized so much of Baptist life toward a vision “in which Baptists are connected with all Christians in a quantitative sense of ecumenical relations and in a qualitative sense of a common faith enacted in Word and sacrament.”