Baptist historian reflects on North Carolina CBF Identity Crisis
Today, we have a guest post written by my dad. Doug Weaver is an Associate Professor of Religion and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. Here it is:
I just spent a week in Scotland and have tried to catch up on reading blogs concerning the proposed foundational statement for North Carolina CBFers. Of course, as an autonomous body, the CBFNC can do what it pleases, but without question, CBFers in other places will be watching. Happenings in local/regional bodies affect the larger church – and vice versa – that is true.
With sad amazement, but not real surprise, I find the document deficient in many ways. I appreciate the concerns that Glenn Jonas, Tony Cartledge, Bruce Gourley, and Aaron Weaver have raised regarding the statement’s lack of emphasis on religious liberty, the total absence of a statement on the separation of church and state, and the focus on the community to the exclusion of individual dimension in our Christian experience etc….
Hopefully revisions to the document will address these historic Baptist identity markers.
And, hopefully they will add a needed clear and strong statement about the individual conscience – a staple of the Baptist story from its inception.
For my academic presentation in Scotland last week, I have been reading extensively (yes, extensively) throughout 2010 the writings of early English Baptists. I’ve read confessions and multiple books/pamphlets from over twenty different 17th century English Baptist writers, including both General and Particular Baptists and even a Seventh Day Baptist. What I found (and obviously hope/plan to publish) is a love for the church – what I have called the constant search for the primitivist New Testament church. And, I found an unabashed emphasis on the individual and his/her experience of faith.
Seemingly an embarrassment to some contemporary Baptists, the focus on conversion and a direct relationship between God and the “soul” abounds in the literature. Focus on freedom to believe, in contrast to compelled faith, is there. Early Baptists (in colonial America as well) did not sacrifice church or individual. It was both/and, not either/or as it appears some contemporary Baptists want us to do with their insistence that the Bible can be read and interpreted only in community.
Early Baptists were not afraid to have each person read the scriptures, and they actually believed that was their God-given/Spirit-led freedom and obligation. Samuel Richardson said, “Why let us have Bibles if we cannot read them ourselves.” Quotations are plentiful; the point is that Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic never sacrificed one for the other (church/individual).
If there was conflict between the church and the individual believer, and of course there can be when there is freedom, the local church employed church discipline to maintain what they believed was a New Testament congregation. BUT, early Baptists preserved individual conscience (this was radically for all people, though as you might expect amid diversity some Baptists got queasy and didn’t want to extend freedom to perceived threats to the state).
Why did early Baptists never simply say, “Whatever the church decides?” They knew the church could (and had been) wrong. They knew that groups could oppress freedom. And they knew that individuals could err as well (thus they didn’t want an “incompetent” civil magistrate involved in spiritual affairs nor would they blindly follow clergy – they had to be tested by the Word).
But why did early Baptists, who were concerned for the New Testament church, insist upon an unfettered conscience (the inviolability of conscience to use Timothy George’s description)? Why did they repeatedly say that Christ alone was “lawgiver to the soul” and the “only Lord of the conscience.” The reason was eschatological.
Early Baptists believed a centuries old idea – a personal accounting of deeds before Christ at the Last Judgment – and they understood this to mean that each person met Christ face to face. No one – not the state and not the church – were there to help you at the Last Judgment. You alone met Christ.
So, early Baptists recognized that each person must be free to follow conscience in preparation for the end-time. There must be voluntary faith, an unfettered conscience, because of the serious responsibility of meeting Christ face to face – that is freedom and responsibility – not relativism or autonomous enlightenment.
Individual conscience has always been in the Baptist DNA and CBFers in NC will do us all a grave disservice if they de-emphasize one of our “reasons for being.” I do wonder what people who are seemingly afraid of freedom of conscience really find compelling in the Baptist witness?
Buddy Shurden has gifted us with his understanding of freedom for the Bible/church/individual but he is being trashed; Bill Leonard is outspoken in his defense of conscience, but in his own state the CBF has ignored conscience; and James Dunn, another contributor to theological education in NC in recent years, has been heroic in his efforts to battle fundamentalists on behalf of voluntary faith and a free conscience before Christ and based on Christ alone (and that is the real meaning of “ain’t nobody going to tell me what to believe but Jesus” rather than the distortions that unfairly accuse him of individual relativism ‘that anything goes.’ As Dunn would say – poppycock to that).
Frankly, I’m tired of the legacies of these Baptist mentors – Dunn explicitly – being distorted and degraded. I can only hope that CBFers in North Carolina realize that if their proposed statement is adopted without amendments, the Baptist soul represented by these colleagues has been defaced.
If you are still reading, please consider a few words about the Orthodox Creed, referenced at the end of the proposed statement. Interestingly, Edward Underhill, prominent English Baptist of the 19th century who was a leading advocate for religious liberty and freedom of conscience, didn’t like the document. But, I guess we pick and choose from our sources. The Orthodox Creed does speak of the “one holy catholic church” but harshly denounces the superstitions and “the idolatry of Rome,” not exactly an ecumenical statement for today. The document also declares that no popes or councils are of equal authority with the sacred scriptures. There is a warning against schism but also a separate article on liberty of conscience.
The Orthodox Creed is obviously cited because it includes the Apostles Creed – it is the only Baptist confessional statement to include ancient creeds. To say that another way, it is an anomaly. Baptists have surely produced confessions (groups and individuals have done so) but they have usually been reflections upon Scripture. Not a bad way to proceed, even now. Or maybe the Orthodox Creed was cited because it is a document that tends to centralize authority?
The Orthodox Creed was written in an era when some Baptists (and in the larger Christian world in England) were questioning the Trinity. Is there any evidence of that in the CBF? Does the desire to stay away from giving the Apostles Creed itself creedal force mean we are anti-Trinitarian? If that were the case, Baptists for 400 years should be accused of anti-Trinitarianism since they have never deemed it necessary to include the Apostles Creed in their confessional statements.
Indeed, if we read and affirm the Apostles Creed, it should mean we are not docetists. But, we could still be Arian (and thus anti-Trinitarian). Hmm, the writing of the Orthodox Creed didn’t stop the Unitarianism among the General Baptists – its influence has been debated. So what’s next? The insistence that we adopt the Nicene Creed as well as we give tradition a special place of authority? That has been suggested by some who favor this CBFNC statement. Even Thomas Grantham, the 17th century author usually cited as most friendly to tradition said tradition can be useful, but just follow the Bible. Why cite tradition when you can cite the Bible?, he concluded.
I expect I like church history and historical theology a lot more than Grantham. It is important and formative for our identity – the whole set of Christian traditions – the good and the bad. But the point here is obvious – Baptists aren’t hiding heresies when they resist giving tradition a normative authority like Scripture. They are following their understanding of the Protestant story.
LONG story short: Baptist DNA finds room for the church and the individual. Conscience can’t be ignored. Well, it can be – but when you do – exactly what about the Baptist witness do you like? I hope that CBFNC folks will declare their appreciation to and identification with the best of the Baptist tradition – it is worth preserving and can serve as a sound basis for reaching out to and cooperating with the larger Christian church.