Inhabiting the World

Identity, Politics, and Theology in Radical Baptist Perspective

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Ryan Andrew Newson
  • Macon, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , May
     277 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Baptists are a fissiparous theological tradition—a mosaic of pieces that resemble each other, sharing some common faces—yet are uniquely formed, driven by the energy of spiritual freedom and voluntarism. In North America, hundreds of these pieces are seen as one entity by dictionary and encyclopedia articles, and the high-altitude perspective of historians.

Ryan Andrew Newsom’s Inhabiting the World: Identity Politics and Theology in Radical Baptist Perspective, is the latest iteration of the Baptist Manifesto movement which began with the issuance of a progressive Baptist vision for communities in North America in 1997. Over the years it has been driven by a younger (now mostly older) breed of theologians and ethicists that broke from the increasingly fragile consensus of the old Southern Baptist family. From former southern Baptist universities, a new group of theological schools and religious studies departments formed the new coalition. By examining this perspective, Newsom’s work is a contribution to the North American theological conversation.

Newsom relies heavily on the work of James Wm. McClendon (1924-2000), a former Southern Baptist-become-progressive thinker who, while searching for a decapitalized, generic “baptist vision,” re-discovered his Anabaptist heritage—a gift of his mentor, W.T. Connor, at Southwestern Seminary—through John Howard Yoder. McClendon’s three volume theology (Abingdon: 1986-2000) was an introduction to redefining what it means to be “baptist” by joining fissured pieces to the ethics of contemporary thinkers like Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, Clarence Jordan, and several post-liberal and narrative theologians. McClendon was also an original signer of the Baptist Manifesto, who redefined everything according to his scheme—an ethical rather than systematic approach to theology. McClendon was especially fond of a dialectical device he called the “this is that” metaphor that allowed him to work across historical periods and the crevasses of biblical hermeneutics to achieve a unified, new approach to doing and being a “baptist.” After several decades, McClendon was weary and battle-scarred from his own experience as a Baptist. Since his passing, his devoted following has placed him among the greater lights of contemporary Baptist thought and canonized him with a re-publication of his essential works.

Among others, Newsom interacts with Barry Harvey at Baylor and Paul Fiddes at Oxford, both of whom push the boundaries of Baptist identity to new margins and in different ways. Newsom has issues with Harvey’s attempt to understand McClendon through a Catholic Eucharistic lens, yet appreciates what Harvey tries to do with revisioning eschatology. He views Fiddes as somewhat at counterpoint to McClendon with a set of universals that are, at times, “instantiated” (local expressions). Fiddes found this to be protective of local congregational identity, while Nancey Murphy, a major postmodernist theologian and McClendon’s widow, believes this is not a flaw in McClendon’s vision, but a recognition of the “messy particulars” of practicing Baptist communities.

This reviewer’s major interest in the book was to possibly find something new respecting the so-called radicalism of Baptists. In a chapter titled “Radicalism, This, and That,” Newsom attempts to solve the riddle McClendon tackled, namely how can Baptists be people devoted to New Testament discipleship and simultaneously be engaged in contemporary faith and life. A search of the text for a clear definition of “radical” is fruitless and would have been helpful. Similar to McClendon, Newsom appears overly influenced by Clarence Jordan’s idea of radical discipleship—namely that activism is demanded of a faithful community, rather than a simple replication of a primitive community as with the Amish or Hutterites. McClendon knew that Anabaptists, such as Michael Sattler and Balthasar Hubmaier, yearned to return to the primitive community, as they lived faithfully in discrete communities. Following Harvey—but seemingly neglectful of Rudolf Bultmann—Newson tries to bridge the apocalypticism of the early New Testament community with the reality discovered from 2nd century Christianity forward. Namely, that ecclesia and koinonia provide an “epistemological crisis made flesh” that continually in Christ (the “very Ground of Adventure and Source of Transformation”), witnesses the “sudden, surprising unveiling” of the Reign of God. Newsom would be rewarded in engaging Walter Rauschenbusch on the matter of “basilic theology” who would concur with McClendon’s “wild and unpredictable” surprises in the Christian life and what Newsom calls “Apocalypse Now.” 

Ultimately, what Newsom seeks is what McClendon wanted: “it is crucial for Baptists to find a way to recognize both the apocalyptic newness inherent to the Reign of God and the import of formative practices for seeing and incorporating these moments into the ongoing life of a visible community” (193). He reminds us that McClendon saw his baptist vision as a kind of “haunting, wild possibility rather than a tamable steady tradition” (156). Newsom keeps the work of McClendon alive for further discussions and new disciples, but he has not yet conclusively defined either “baptists” or Baptists. Like the rest of us, he’s on a quest.

This book makes a contribution to Baptist identity discussions centered on a self-defined piece of the tradition. Frequent references to the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Beloved Community, Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia Farm, and Flannery O’Connor help to locate Ryan Newsom’s dialogue partners in the soils of the American South, where the remains of McClendon were peacefully laid to rest. 

There are three critiques of the volume. First, the author provides a rich buffet of contemporary theologian and ethicist references but mentions few Baptist writers outside his own region. Second is his ascription of the principle of “soul competency” to the Southern Baptists of the 1840s, which is manifestly incorrect. Finally, a suggestion to the publisher: in any subsequent edition, an adequate index is required to be user friendly.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William H. Brackney is Pioneer MacDonald Professor of Theology and Ethics at Carey Theological College in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Date of Review: 
February 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ryan Andrew Newson teaches theology and ethics at Campbell University. He holds degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary (PhD), Wake Forest University (MDiv), and Elon University (BA). Newson is the author of RADICAL FRIENDSHIP (Fortress Press, 2017) and several scholarly articles. Additionally, he is the coeditor of The Collected Works of James Wm. McClendon and Practicing To Aim At Truth.


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