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To Be or Not to Be Baptist/baptist?

Petr Macek
Professor of Systematic Theology, Protestant Theological Faculty,
Charles University, Prague

The title arises partly from my personal situation: I was baptized as an
infant and became Baptist only in my twenties. Technically an
"Anabaptist" and soon a student of theology I, rather naturally, occupied
myself with the question of the actual identity of my adopted
"tradition," as well as of my original "tradition" - that of the Czech
Brethren Evangelical Church within the larger context of the churches of
the Reformation. It didn't take too long for me to learn and understand
that as a Baptist in this country (or region) I find myself,
paradoxically, in a rather conservative or even "conformist" milieu, to
which the mainline Protestant counterpart may appear as "radical" and
"nonconformist" - especially as it concerns theology and societal issues
and questions.
The issue of my confessional identity continued to occupy my theological
attention throughout my studies and my years of ministry, which happened
to take place in a kind of "dissenting" Baptist congregation. It was
leaning in this way before I became part of it (so it should not be seen
as my merit), but I certainly welcomed it and tried to keep and even
deepen it as a condition of my personal and professional "survival." I
even attempted to put my theological and ecclesiological knowledge and
concern in service of modifying the image of the denomination itself, but,
unfortunately, to no avail. The process naturally culminated in my
professional involvement with Protestant theology at the University in the
last decade, which forced me to ask the question of being/not-being
Baptist/baptist independently of my personal situation.
I view the question as occasioned and advanced by several complementing
impulses: The situation of the Baptist denomination in my country; the
situation of the Baptist movement in general; the ecumenical
imperative; the theological (ecclesiological) imperative. I will leave the
first two contextual impulses aside as "historically" coincidental and
therefore less significant. It is not to suggest, though, that they are
not important or even decisive. If what should be the synonym of
spiritually liberating unconventionality in thought and lifestyle becomes
(or has for decades been) the synonym of rigidity or convention in both,
one may wonder whether appealing to the original legacy has any sense and

In the past decades we have witnessed numerous clashes between the
"fundamentalists" and the "moderates" both in North America and in Europe
concerning the "true Baptist" image. Fundamentalists like to think of
themselves as defenders of orthodoxy fighting the Bible-disregarding
"liberals." The moderates do not necessarily differ from them in their
basic beliefs or in understanding and interpreting the Bible. Like the
former they usually put a strong emphasis on missions. They differ from
them, however, substantially in the strategy of defending or proclaiming
their beliefs, both within the denomination and subsequently in the
various mission fields.
The "battle cry" of the moderates is freedom. In a recent publication on
"Baptist Identity" this concern was spelled out with its subtitle: "Four
Fragile Freedoms." In the introduction the author asks the question of
specific Baptist "distinctives" and then offers the answer: "The Baptist
style of faith, a spirit that pervades all of the Baptist principles or
so-called Baptist distinctives ... is the spirit of "Freedom."1 In the
following studies the "four freedoms" are identified as Bible freedom,
soul freedom, church freedom, and religious freedom.
The booklet also includes - as appendices - some relevant sources and
one of these is a statement issued in 1987 by the Alliance of Baptists, an
organization that was formed in response to the fundamentalist takeover of
the Southern Baptist Convention in the USA. In its attempt to provide a
new hearing to the "historic Baptist principles, freedoms and
traditions," the Alliance put together a declaration of principles (called
a "Covenant") including seven "commitments" which the editor characterizes
as "surely one of the best brief summaries of the Baptist profile in the
twentieth century." The first of the seven "commitments" is "to the
freedom of the individual, led by God's Spirit within the family of faith,
to read and interpret the Scriptures, relying on the historical
understanding by the church and on the best methods of modern biblical
It was apparently in response to (or provoked by) statements like this
one, that a few years ago a group of Baptist scholars and pastors drafted
a declaration "Re-Envisioning Baptist Identity: A Manifesto for Baptist
Communities in North America."3 The Manifesto claimed that both sides of
the conflict were alike mistaken - being the victims of "modernism" with
its individualism and "foundationalism" - and it summoned both to
recognize and renounce the "idolatry" that has triggered their theological
war. While the fundamentalists were reprimanded for taking the mistaken
path of narrow biblical interpretation and of coercive hierarchy of
authority, their opponents were warned against taking the path of
"confusing the gift of God with notions of autonomy or libertarian
theories." Both sides were invited "into the fellowship of kindred
minds" united in resistance to "destructive ideologies that subvert the
gospel." References were made both to the New Testament and to the early
Baptists, whose understanding of human freedom and of human nature and
whose practice were supposedly "re-envisioned" in the positive
affirmations of the Manifesto. The readers were reminded of the true
theological grounds for the notion of "freedom" and instructed that it is
theologically necessary that the Bible be studied "in reading
communities," for Christian believers are "engrafted anew into God's
freedom whenever (they) gather around the open Bible." It is only the
truth of God's Word that "sets us free." Freedom is thus "a consequence,
not a condition, of reading scriptures." Bible study must be "an open and
orderly process whereby faithful communities deliberate together over the
scriptures, with sisters and brothers of faith." This means that any
private interpretation which is "carried out according to the dictates of
individual conscience" is rejected. The theory of individual "soul
competency" should not prevail over a "call to shared discipleship." God's
call is to the freedom of faithful discipleship "participating in the way
of Jesus." Such discipleship "requires a shared life of mutual
accountability." True disciples thus may not remain "aloof from the church
and its life." We, says the Manifesto, may not do and believe what we want
"regardless of the counsel and confession of the church." God's people are
free and their freedom has many aspects. But primarily they are "free in
their participation in the new humanity that God is calling out from among
the nations."
If the Manifesto was really meant, as it has been suggested,4 to refute
statements like the "Convention" or the "Four Fragile Freedoms," then it
was not, from my point of view, entirely fair, for these defenses of
freedom or of the liberty of conscience certainly do not take a
"libertarian" view. For them freedom is not a mere "expression of
will."5 On the whole, however, the effort for overcoming individualism on
the Baptist scene is surely laudable. Unfortunately, it is probably very
unrealistic. It may be instructive for some confused but essentially open
minds, but it cannot convince the ideologists of either fundamentalism or
of true theological liberalism in hope of some theological unity of all
Baptists, both in this large denomination or elsewhere. Besides, the unity
of all Baptists can hardly be an ideal and seeking it hardly a virtue. For
if the church of Christ is truly one, it is its unity which must be
ultimately sought and "envisioned."
Many Baptists know this ecumenical imperative and it issues in their
search for a larger genuine bond. Some find it in "evangelicalism." But
this umbrella label is clearly unacceptable for many others, for it
actually only externalizes the theological divide. Evangelicalism is not
an ecclesiological tradition but a cluster of theological convictions and
practices, often combined, with a strong tendency to self-esteem and to
caricaturing all other ways and options. Even the occasional indications
of plurality and diversity within this camp cannot be viewed as a promise
of overcoming the impasse as long as fundamentalists and
"inerranists" will also want to hold to this label.
The umbrella of Believers' Church or Free Church tradition looks more
promising. But it is theologically too much on the defensive, and the
rather "self-congratulating" descriptions of its identity might appear
offensive. Besides, the will and willingness to be very inclusive, in
order to claim a really diverse and impressive tradition could be
backfiring. It is clear that some of the potential participants - like
some charismatic groups or even some Quakers - hardly belong here at all,
while some very old and conservative "peace" brotherhoods feel less and
less at home in such a broad ecumenical camp.

In what follows I want to introduce the proposal of the Baptist
theologian James W. McClendon. Instead of creating a new formation of
denominations or traditions he speaks of an ecclesiastic "way" - an
alternative to the catholic and Protestant ways, one that McClendon calls
"baptist" (with a little "b"). The labeling itself may not be very helpful
but the approach is theologically legitimate and exciting. In a sense the
alternative is still "catholic" and thus ecumenically promising, because
it finds its "family" not around some clearly or vaguely defined
principles but around something more essential, namely the promise of
Christ's presence to those "gathered in his name." The fact that this
promise is something commonly (universally, ecumenically) acknowledged is
not the proposal's weakness but its strength. Such a theologically
"catholic" foundation was also clearly behind the positive statements or
suggestions of the Manifesto6 and what may not have been entirely
persuading as a refutation of the allegedly "mistaken paths" in the
"Baptist battles" could have fared better as an ecumenical alternative
because of its theological imperative.
McClendon's proposal is discussed extensively in his Systematic
Theology, which started with Ethics7 and continued with Doctrine8. Its
backbone is McClendon's version of narrative theology. "Narrative
theology" is theology that not only recognizes that the Christian gospel
(and the truth which is proclaimed in it) is a story, rather than a series
of claims about God, humans, and the world. It also takes its cue from the
fact that human life is essentially a journey - moving in a certain
direction, leaving something behind and approaching something else and
that each human being actually "follows" some "story" of his/ her
choice. So the "follow me" of the Christian story only invites the hearers
of the command to accept a new perspective for their life, a new
understanding of its "whence" and "where" and to view the rest of reality
from this perspective. McClendon talks about a "vision," namely a "baptist
vision" because in the ecclesiological impact of this perspective the
nature of the church is viewed as discipleship. The ecclesiology of
discipleship - of following the way of the Master under his present
command - was one of the fundamental insights of the radicals of the
Reformation. McClendon could thus speak, perhaps with more justification,
of an "anabaptist vision" but that might hardly make the initial attempt
to involve others in the debate less difficult.
In his Ethics McClendon identified several basic "elements" of the
vision. Among these were biblicism, characterized as "humble acceptance of
the authority of Scripture for both faith and practice," mission or
evangelism, characterized as "the responsibility to witness to Christ -
and accept the suffering that witness entails," liberty or (more
traditionally) soul competency9, characterized as "the God-given freedom
to respond to God without the intervention of the state or other
powers," discipleship, characterized as "life transformed into service by
the Lordship of Jesus Christ," and community, characterized as "sharing
together in a storied life of obedient service to and with Christ." The
guiding "vision" itself can be defined as "a shared awareness of the
present Christian community as primitive community and the eschatological
community." In other words, "the church now is the primitive church and
the church of the day of judgment is the church now; the obedience and
liberty of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth is our liberty and our
obedience."10 Such awareness, says McClendon, is characteristic of the
baptist vision wherever we find it. And we find it wherever the "reading
strategy" of the given Christian community is "narrative" and where the
meaning of all events is transformed "by their being placed in a biblical
Properly understood, the "baptist vision" is thus not a particular
distinctive of a historically profiled and conditioned Christian
tradition, but rather a "hermeneutical key" for connecting church and
Bible. "All Christians," says McClendon in his Doctrine, "believe that God
the Spirit who spoke to the prophets, that is, inspired the Scriptures,
continues to constitute the inner life of the church through the ages, so
that Bible and church compose one story, one reality." This figural or
typological interpretation is understood to be the "Bible's own device of
holding the great story together." It is the way the Bible is read by
those who accept the "plain sense" of Scripture as the dominant one and
recognize their continuity with the story it tells. While the "baptist
vision" allows for a variety of Bible readings, its own "reading
strategy" is held to be sufficient for defining "an authentic style of
communal Christian life," so that participants in such a community can
know "what the church must teach to be the church." This is McClendon's
definition of the Christian doctrine. It is believed not to be a sectarian
reading but rather an ecumenical one, a way of "confessing the fullness of
... Christian existence and offering it to all in the hope that in the
conversation that ensues it will be adopted by all." The gospel "centers
in Christ, is for all, and opens into the world of freedom." In Christ,
past, present and future are linked. While the insistence that "this is
that" declares the present relevance of what God has previously done, the
insistence that "then is now" declares the present relevance of God's
eschatological activity.11 It is assumed that through this vision
Christians may "live by the faithfulness of Christ, who was and is and is
to come."12
The consequences of this approach for understanding the nature of the
authority of the Bible are obvious. Scripture is no "free-standing"
authority; it is authoritative just as it "represents the
present Christ in a reading practice that accepts Scripture's story as its
own." No authority is final save that of God. Therefore each human
authority, including that of the solitary believer's conscience, must find
its place on a "moving circle of discernment, interpretation, obedience,
and action." Discernment is not a special revelation but one of the
charisma or gifts of the Spirit. The strength of congregational polity
lies in the mutual trust of assembled sisters and brothers, in the
diversity of gifts, and in listening to all "concerned outsiders."13
According to the New Testament, the communities of discernment have
always entertained a variety of guiding concepts, doctrines and
understandings of worship. However, such diversity did not and cannot
exist concerning the lifestyle of true Christian congregation. In the
event of resurrection "God identified his own immortal life, once and for
all, with the life, the life story, of Jesus of Nazareth. In ... this
historic sign, Christians 'hear' the vindication of the story of Jesus, of
his way." In this event, Jesus's way is designated as God's own way for
his people."14 The Christian conversion as it is described in The New
Testament is not "a mere change of religious or doctrinal allegiance but
the transformation of the human self in all its spheres and
strands... (T)he resurrection of Jesus Christ lays its power upon the life
of the believer."15 The identification with Jesus is thus a "narrative"
identification. "The constitutive story has the objectivity,
the given quality of God's prior action: Jesus acts to change human life,
and he does change it."16 This has particular consequences for the
doctrine of salvation. In the "baptist" approach God's gift of salvation
begins in intentional entry upon Jesus's way and continues in obedient and
costly discipleship. The gospel liberates men and women from "sin and
hindrance" and the liberation leads them into a new order, that of the
"rule of God," where "its citizens are accordingly bold or confident when
confronting the old order with that very gospel."17

McClendon's intention to enter baptist theological perspective into the
historical and contemporary ecumenical dialogue and to present it as a
valid catholic approach was deeply influenced and actually inspired by the
work of the late Mennonite historian and theologian John Howard
Yoder. Regarding Scripture as the "Word of God" in the context of the
living and discerning church, a recognition that the church stands in a
continuity with Christ, an emphasis on commitment and obedience as the
basis of the Christian faith, and an openness to the future in the
confidence of "Christ's resurrected presence"18 - all this is to be found
in Yoder's numerous books and articles. Yoder studied the structure of the
witness of the first Swiss Anabaptists and became convinced that "the
posture of radical reformation is a recurrent paradigm of value for all
ages and communions."19 According to Yoder, the radicals of the
Reformation were not ahistorical idealists. For them the norm for valuing
and judging the present age was not a speculative utopia, but "the very
particular story of the New Testament." They realized that "Jesus, the
prophets before him, and the apostles after him, as a base for evaluating
what has been done since in their name, are to be found fully within the
researchable, debatable particularity which according to the New Testament
witness is the meaning of Incarnation." From this the historian concluded
that "the knowledge of the meaning for today of participation in the work
of Christ" was "mediated ecclesiastically." The promise of the presence of
Christ to actualize his will in a given future circumstance was given to
"the community, which would be gathered in his name."20
The "free church" alternative locates the fulfillment of the promise of
the guidance of the Spirit throughout the ages in the assembly of those
who gather around Scripture in the face of given real moral
challenges.21 Yoder suggests that this "communal hermeneutic" is an
essential prerequisite to the realization of the incarnation in
history. Hermeneutic reflection on Christ's solidarity with humanity both
presupposes and provides a continuous occasion for the creation of
community of faith. Apart from the constituting of a community that
confesses Christ as Lord, "Scripture and history cannot be deciphered, and
God's purposes cannot be understood." The "point of incarnation" is that
God broke through the borders of our definition of what is human and gave
a "new formative definition in Jesus."22 Jesus was the bearer of a new
possibility of human social and political relationships. His baptism was
the "inauguration" and his cross and resurrection the "culmination" of a
`new regime in which his disciples are now called to share." And so we
may, says Yoder, recognizably a student of his Basel teacher Karl Barth,
"choose to consider that kingdom as not real, or not relevant, or not
possible, or not inviting; but no longer may we come to this choice in the
name of systematic theology or honest hermeneutics. No theological
invention can avoid this call to an ethic marked by the cross
... identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by
creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of
life."23 In the life and work of the church as she encounters the other
power and value structures of her history, the "historicity of
Jesus" retains "the same kind of relevance that the man Jesus had for
those whom he served until they killed him."24

Let us now admit that in spite of all the similarities there is a
difference between Baptists and the 16th century radicals, even when we
look at the original "visions," and that McClendon's "baptist vision" is
not something to which we automatically arrive by studying the peculiar
Baptist ecclesiological heritage. What such a study can assuredly retrieve
is the instinct for freedom in its broadest sense, primarily the freedom
of conscience, an instinct that secured Baptists the fame of defenders of
religious freedom and of political dissent.25 It is a good tradition and
the Baptists should recall it and stick to it whenever they can. It is,
however, not so much an "ecclesiastical" or ecclesiological heritage, but
rather a political or moral virtue and device in the broadest
sense. Baptists who have an opportunity to speak and act in favor of this
liberty should do it in company of all similarly minded groups and
individuals all over the world. The same can also be said about another
"good Baptist tradition" - the emphasis on mission, on bringing the good
news and all the goods of the gospel to the others. This heritage is more
"ecclesiastical," but again it is something that should be done in close
ranks with Christians of all confessional and cultural traditions.
Now, it is certainly true that mission is actually the area where
interests and ideologies clashed and where Baptists' good name of
defenders of freedom, including the freedom to "dissent," suffered a
serious blow. And it could, indeed, be a fatal blow. "Baptist" has now
become - at least in some areas and certainly in a global jargon and
perspective - a name for ideological exclusivism and chauvinism. Those who
bear it and in their hearts and minds are indebted to the "good old
tradition" must ask whether they want to or can for the rest of their
lives go on explaining that they do not identify with and, in fact, are
opposed to what their denomination is nowadays known for.
Nevertheless, when we think of "mission" as witness and ask the question
of the theological ground and integrity of this indispensable Christian
calling, we are back in the very heart of the ecclesiological point. And
here we sooner or later encounter the challenge of the "baptist vision" as
put forward by McClendon and Yoder. Though this vision is truly
"ecumenical" and can surely be encountered under different "names" or
without a name in practically all traditions, Baptists and other "free
church" strands come across it rather naturally. It is certainly a more
coherent vision and definitely better defensible on biblical grounds then
other ecclesiastical options - at least in the traditions of the
Reformation. It is, however, a "dangerous" vision, because it consistently
and mercilessly unsettles all efforts for cultural adaptation of
Christianity to other structures of power.
Here, however, one misunderstanding should be avoided at all costs: The
insistence on discipleship as the ecclesiological alternative which can
most genuinely witness to (and serve) the Lordship of Jesus Christ and on
the normativeness of the humanity found in the man Jesus, should never
become a burden or a yoke that is not "light" nor liberating. Even as they
are called to follow Jesus, Christians must not forget that their witness
is to Him who once and for all delivered us from the "valley of
shadows." Perhaps here Baptists should learn to be more appreciative of
the message of "justification by faith alone." We are invited to a life of
responsibility but not a life of worries and agony. Witness to the Cross
should be uplifting, not disheartening, and the communal "reading
strategy" recognizing our continuity with Jesus and his mission should not
devalue or impoverish the larger richness of the Christ-centered Christian
story. It should rather serve as an inner drive and compass of the honored
stewards and ambassadors of the Lord's more inclusive banquets.
With the above qualification in mind, are there any real alternatives to
this way and this vision? Baptism without vision, or, at least, without a
coherent and consistent vision, Baptism that is "ecumenical" in the sense
of not taking its own legacy very seriously and borrowing ideals and
practices randomly or eclectically from here and there is definitely less
plausible. If adopting "baptist vision" is dangerous, Baptism without
integral vision, Baptism claiming with the other freedoms also a freedom
from any integral vision is in danger. It is in danger - perhaps more than
other ecclesiastical traditions or denominations - of becoming a mere
cultural relic of the past, a religiously flavored society (or a network
of local social clubs) with certain poorly reflected convictions, ideals
and practices.

1 W. B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms, Smyth and
Helwys, Macon, GA, 1993, p. 2.
2 Ibid., Appendix IV, "The Covenant of the Alliance of Baptists," p. 85.
3 It appeared also in Baptists Today, June 26, 1997, p. 8.
4 See James W. McClendon, "The Believers Church in Theological
Perspective," in: S. Hauerwas, Ch. K. Huebner, H. J. Huebner, and
M. T. Nation (eds.), The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John
Howard Yoder, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1999, p 319f, where the author
summarized the "positive" affirmations of the Manifesto.
5 There are, besides, many questions we could ask the authors of the
Manifesto. Is "reading community" necessarily a traditional
(established) church? What is really meant by "the counsel and confession
of the church"? Which confession and which church? Can it also be the
universal church which is then "consulted" simply by critical study of its
relevant documents?
6 McClendon was one of the signatories of this declaration and apparently
had a very strong share in its drawing.
7 James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology: Ethics, Abandon Press,
Nashville, 1986.
8 James Wm. Mc Clendon, Jr., Systematic Theology: Doctrine, Abandon Press,
Nashville, 1994.
9 Inclusion of this "element" qualifies the position of the Manifesto.
10 Ethics, p. 31.
11 Doctrine, p. 67.
12 Ibid., p. 92.
13 Ibid., p. 479.
14 Ethics, 249.
15 Ibid., p. 255. Cf. T. Lorenzen, "Resurrection and Discipleship," in:
Festschrift Gnter Wagner, Peter Lag, Bern, 1994.
16 Doctrine, p. 237.
17 Ibid., pp. 118-120.
18 Cf. C. Norman Kraus's Review of McClendon's Systematic
Theology: Doctrine, in: The Conrad Grebel Review, 14/1996, p. 310f.
19 John H. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics As Gospel,
University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN. 1984, p. 5
20 Ibid., p. 117.
21 Ibid.
22 Yoder, Politics of Jesus, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1972, p. 101.
23 Yoder, Ibid., p. 62f.
24 Yoder, Ibid., p. 162.
25 The document of the Baptist Heritage Commission of the BWA in Zagreb
of 1989 rightly reminds us that Baptists are "those who have claimed
religious liberty for themselves and all people." (The Baptist Identity,
p. 66) This, of course, is already the heritage of the Radical Reformation
in general, as we were recently reminded at the concluding session of the
conference on Religious Liberty and the Ideology of the State held by The
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Prague in August 9-11, 2000.