Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future
Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community
Steven R. Harmon’s Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community is perhaps the most constructive proposal of ecumenical reflection for Baptists to date.
Anyone acquainted with Harmon’s work will know that this is not a recent interest. In particular, his work, Towards Baptist Catholicity (Pasternoster, 2006), can be regarded as this book’s prequel. In Toward Baptist Catholicity, Harmon proposed a recovery of the authority of tradition and its content (i.e., the use of creeds, church fathers, sacramental theology, liturgy, etc.) in wider theological discussion and shows how Baptists are already indebted to this. Thus, a more conscious retrieval of tradition in Baptist theology will be beneficial. Now ten years later, Harmon presents a more refined proposal. The book’s central claim is that Baptists can receive the gifts of the wider church while the wider church can profit from certain Baptist convictions: “I imagine an ecumenical future that would include a mutual sharing of the gifts of catholicity and Baptistness, facilitated by recognition by Baptists and Catholics alike that being Baptist is a distinctive way of being Catholic, in community with the bishop of Rome, comparable to the manner in which being a Benedictine is currently a distinctive way of living together as an ecclesial community that is in communion with Rome” (16).
For Harmon, being Baptist is an identity in tension. While he asserts that Baptist communities do possess full catholicity as legitimate churches, this does not mean they are perfect (17). While he employs a formidable knowledge of Baptist history and ecumenical discussion, he offers an appropriation of the tradition moving forward. He notes that Baptists often possess deficient views of the Trinity, tradition, baptism, the Eucharist, and church order (29-46).
The core of Harmon’s argument is in chapters 3-5 where he sketches out a common understanding of the function and authority of Scripture in the church, the role of tradition, and an understanding of catholicity based on the New Testament and the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. His definition of catholicity is especially important: incarnational Christology, sacramental realism, visible unity, and ministry of oversight (120).
The next two chapters offer a constructive ecclesiology for Baptist ecumenism. In chapter 6, Harmon looks at the nature and goals of Baptist denominations, arguing that denominations, as presently separate entities, must have a visible unity as their goal in retaining their catholicity. In chapter 7, Harmon looks at a free church notion of magisterium where the congregation can be the site of ecumenical consideration and renewed consensus, rather than the fragmented individualism that has plagued Baptist thought.
The final section of the book looks at possible Baptist contributions to ecumenism. Chapter 8 discusses the role of systematic theology and theologians in encouraging ecumenical movement. Rather than disregarding or compromising theology, Harmon calls for comprehensive, coherent, and constructive theology in the service of the church (207). Chapter 9 argues for a narrative ecclesiology applying James McClendon’s narrative christology: the church’s identity is Christ’s identity, a story that encompasses his entire body, all Christians, and therefore binds today’s fragmented churches to the hope of future oneness, calling churches forward as pilgrims seeking to live that hope out practically (241-2). Chapter 10 looks at past challenges and achievements in Baptist ecumenical work and how this eschatological vision of unity suggests practices today that will bring the ecumenical movement forward, specifically the practice of ecumenical reception and prayer.
Admittedly, this is a difficult book for a Baptist to read and review. Harmon’s arguments and discussions on the nature of Baptists are within the context of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship [CBF]—an American group of churches that separated from the Southern Baptist Convention [SBC] in the 1990s. This has been a bitter struggle that evidences the fragmentation of the Baptist identity, such that the identity “Baptist” is a fundamentally contested concept, as Harmon is aware. A book on Baptist ecumenical strategy for reconciling with other Christian bodies is somewhat overshadowed by the inability of Baptists to reconcile with each other, or even to come to a consensus about what that identity even is. While some will be quick to offer a robust defense of biblical authority, congregational polity, immersion baptism, etc., Harmon has been honest in offering the differences between Baptists on these matters and the challenges these pose to ecumenical unity. These cherished Baptist convictions could form a tempting basis for ecumenical engagement (i.e. how the wider church needs to change), but would only serve as another divisive claim to superiority.
Any Baptist reader then should recognize that the changes Harmon raises as necessary for Baptist churches to become responsible ecumenical partners is far riskier than a mere mutual exchange of convictions between Baptists and the wider church. His recommendation of a pilgrim community seeking the rule of Christ in scripture (18) is not only a gift to the wider church from Baptists—and certainly is a challenge to any church that refuses to change out of a sense of superior catholicity—but also a sobering commission to Baptists to be willing to call into question core assumptions about their historic identity in order to be faithful to the rule of Christ. Thus, he writes,
“Baptists and members of other communions who take up this book’s challenge to journey together towards the ecumenical future will likely not enjoy such warm relationships with many from their own tradition, for some of the greatest obstacles in this journey are located within particular communions rather than between them” (18).
The non-realized eschatology that is implicit in this notion of a pilgrim community is, obviously, not unique to Baptists, but has been most directly applied by Baptists to their ecclesial practices. How do Baptists continue to apply this? It is not merely clinging to a cherished past or merely becoming like other churches. Perhaps the greatest example Baptists can offer to ecumenical discussion—implicit in Harmon’s call to ecumenical prayer (267)—is the posture of repentance regarding arrogance, humility to refuse claims to superiority, and the openness to change and go on a new pilgrimage seeking the rule of Christ wherever that might lead.
Harmon’s book offers the research and wisdom of a Baptist thinker at the forefront of ecumenical work. His methodical analysis of Baptist history and ecumenical documents, coupled with practical constructive proposals for congregations to change, has made this book original, essential, and necessary to the future of Baptist life.
Reverend Spencer Miles Boersma is the paster of First Baptist Church of Sudbury and part-time faculty at Thorneloe University.
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