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Posted by on Sep 14, 2010 in Uncategorized

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.

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  1. That’s it. The gloves are off. If Daddy Weave’s daddy is upset about his mentors being “distorted and degraded,” well, the pot would like to call the kettle black. Dr. Weaver does nothing more than continue the distortions and (willful?) mischaracterizations of his brothers and sisters in Christ. His program is to insinuate them as theocratic authoritarians ready to snatch away a soul liberty they despise and fear. Sounds like Bush’s “they hate us for our freedoms” line!

    Of course, there is NO actual effort here to deny or downplay the Baptist conviction concerning religious liberty uncoerced by the instruments of the state. If anything, that commitment sounds a bit strengthened rhetorically in the proposed statement. The current statement just reads “we affirm” religious freedom. The new statement says “faith in Jesus Christ calls us to a passionate commitment to religious liberty.” I rather like throwing some passion in there! So much for embarrassment about voluntary faith! Oh, and if Dr. Weaver want to tie this “embarrassment” to the Baptist servants who were involved in the both the proposed statement and in the drafting of the 1997 Baptist Manifesto, may I remind him that a whole article of the Manifesto is dedicated to the affirmation of faith free from coercion? Yes, Dr. Weaver, I read through this whole post. Did you read through the Manifesto?

    Moreover, it is disheartening that Dr. Weaver would incautiously spread the insinuation that the authors of the proposed statement (indirectly identified as “some contemporary Baptists”) would claim that the Bible can only be read and interpreted in the community of faith. The current foundational statement says that Scripture “is central in the life of the individual and the church.” The proposed statement affirms that “we study and practice the Scriptures communally and personally.” Where’s the beef, my friend? The statements are conceptually identical.

    Again, if you trace this back to the Manifesto, that particular document decries both “authoritarian interpretation” and, not individual reading of Scripture in toto, but individual reading that remains “insulated from the community of believers.” Amen, right? Didn’t Thomas Helwys decry private authoritarian interpretation of the bishops and propose instead the model of reading Scripture together in the church?

    Dr. Weaver also insinuates that the Orthodox Creed is inserted as a gesture towards centralized authoritarianism. Yet in the same paragraph he says that an advocate of liberty of conscience didn’t like the confession – but that also the confession has an article on liberty of conscience. So…care to elaborate on that one?

    What about the Baptist witness do I like? A lot of things, including liberty of conscience but certainly much more. I also like how we get to call each other on the mat.

  2. Chris,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    And thanks for agreeing, at least, that some of those you admire have engaged in distortions and mischaracterizations. We’ll have to agree to disagree on most everything else, the whole pot and kettle thing, etc.

    I see that you conveniently failed to note in your passionate emphasis on the word passion that the affirmation of separation of church and state was removed. What exactly does religious liberty look like without church-state separation? Separation of church and state tainted by the bad bad Enlightenment or something?

  3. Do take a moment if you haven’t and click the links in this article. Check out Tony Cartledge’s blog. See Bruce Gourley’s too. Sample some comments. Then maybe you can chime in on the wild claim made that “This odd resistance to creeds is why a lot of Baptists are simply Unitarians that haven’t gotten around to denying the Trinity yet.” That there is some inflammatory stuff.

    Insinuating that Fellowship Baptists deny the Trinity…that’s strong. And we need creeds in order to “stop our rapid decent into relativism.” That’s the talk of a Heresy Hunter. If there are heresies in our midst that need to be extinguished, someone should at least have the decency to name names.

    Please. Name names.

  4. Great post, Dr. Weaver.

    Thank you for speaking out!

  5. Aaron,

    And thanks for agreeing, at least, that some of those you admire have engaged in distortions and mischaracterizations.

    I did no such thing. I merely indicated that your father was doing unto others what he thought had been done unto his mentors. And what you continue to do as well.

    I see that you conveniently failed to note in your passionate emphasis on the word passion that the affirmation of separation of church and state was removed.

    Oh, but of course…it’s all part of a secret plot to get Baptists established as a state church! Oh, and Freemasons run the country!

    What exactly does religious liberty look like without church-state separation?

    We can both agree that it looks like a shell game…or the Church of England. Neither of which is a result I would wish to bring about…

    I can assume that the exact phrase “separation of church and state” is not present in the proposed statement because, as far as all of us Baptists are concerned, to say “religious liberty” and then to say “separation of church and state” is to be redundant. That is to say, you’re repeating yourself. Moreover, it is to say the same thing twice…or even thrice!

    So the new statement says “religious liberty” and “freedom” and doesn’t say “separation of church and state.” Nevertheless, if CBFNC Baptists want to make extra, extra sure we are crystal clear about that, then we can certainly insert that redundant phrase back in. That’s our prerogative – not yours.

    Again, I say, being redundant myself, any charges of Constantinianism implicitly made against the individuals involved with both the Manifesto and the proposed statement are laughably ridiculous and require a willful disregard of what the Manifesto clearly states. But I see that you have conveniently failed to acknowledge that…

    Do take a moment if you haven’t and click the links in this article. Check out Tony Cartledge’s blog. See Bruce Gourley’s too.

    Been there, done that, had a pleasant conversation with Bruce.

    Then maybe you can chime in on the wild claim…

    First I’ll ask you if you’ve read the article that serves as the substance behind the rhetoric?

    Insinuating that Fellowship Baptists deny the Trinity…that’s strong.

    Ha…again, read the article. The point is not that Baptists are making stated claims against the doctrine of the Trinity but that it is effectively downplayed, or even ignored, in much of current Baptist theology and worship.

    And we need creeds in order to “stop our rapid decent into relativism.”

    Mixing your citations, I see. To be fair to Dr. Harmon, he doesn’t claim that we need creeds, specifically, without remainder, to stop the descent into relativism. Rather, he strongly urges Baptists to consider them as helps for passing on a faithful witness to the historic Christian message. I agree and I continue to be puzzled by the fierce resistance from some.

    Please. Name names.

    Sorry…I don’t need to bring some of my church members into this. 😉

  6. If you think the phrase “separation of church and state” here in this context is “redundant,” then I really don’t know what to say. I’ve got a M.A. and almost a PhD in the church-state field. Your claim of redundancy flies in the face of much scholarship. I also think the good folks at the BJC would disagree – as they always intentionally emphasize both religious liberty and separation of church and state. Religious liberty is not authentic without church-state separation as the argument has always gone.

    Glad to see you had a pleasant conversation with Bruce.

  7. A bit randomly off the subject, but I’ve been wanting to get this in somewhere since Daddy Weave began his own blog.

    Aaron, I think it is completely asymmetrical that Daddy Weave’s photo is not included among the greats on the top margin of your blog.

    I hear that soon there will be a Daddy Weave bobble head that will join the other greats such as Luther, Calvin, et al on his desk.

    Just for fun, of course.

    Keep opining,


  8. What is the plumb line here? Seems like it is Baptist tradition. The question is whether this group hews sufficiently to Baptist tradition.

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