Baptists and Ecumenism: A Discussion with Timothy George

Interview by Everett Berry and Winston Hottman

In this interview, which will be published in the forthcoming issue of the Criswell Theological Review (14/2), CBR fellow Timothy George discusses Baptist distinctives, ecumenism, and liturgy.


What would you say are the theological priorities that undergird any significant efforts at ecumenical engagement?

I am an evangelical Baptist believer, committed without reservation to the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early church and to both the formal and material principles of the Reformation, namely, the divine inspiration and normative authority of Holy Scripture and the historic doctrine of justification by faith alone. I am also an inerrantist, a Calvinist, and a premillennialist, though these three commitments are derivative from the former ones, and I do not make them tests of fellowship with other Christians.

For conservative Baptists in the United States who are interested in cooperative dialogue with other confessional Protestant denominations, what would you say are the most significant challenges they will face in upcoming years?

In a culture of relativism based more and more on secularist and even atheistic premises, the greatest challenge for all Christians is to declare and to live out what Paul called “the truth of the Gospel.” During my adult lifetime, theological controversy has shifted from the Bible (its inspiration and authority), to salvation (is Jesus the only way?) to God (process/openness theology), to anthropology (what does it mean to be a human being?). Surrounding all of these is the doctrine of the church, which has a God-given mandate to bear a faithful witness to a culture in disarray.

There is much talk today about segments of western Christianity morphing into some sort of post-denominational matrix. Do you think this is true and if so, how could this dynamic hinder or enhance ecumenical endeavors?

I lead a seminary, Beeson Divinity School, that is both evangelical and interdenominational. My vision for interdenominational cooperation among Bible-believing Christians has been shaped by leaders such as Harold John Ockenga, John Stott, Billy Graham, J. I. Packer, and Carl F. H. Henry, several of whom have been my personal mentors. But, as I frequently say at Beeson, interdenominational does not equal anti-denominational. In the past, God has used denominations to advance the cause of the gospel, and he still does so today. Put otherwise, denominations are a means to an end, but they are not the only means, nor are they a necessary means. When a denomination becomes an end unto itself, its demise is very nigh.

What are some theological features of the wider Christian tradition that you believe can be helpful in developing a more robust vision of Baptist life?

There is a strand in Baptist life that celebrates fences while neglecting foundations. Now, I am all in favor of Baptist distinctives such as believers’ baptism, congregational church governance, separation of church and state, and so on, but I would like to see a stronger emphasis on the basics—the Bible, the Trinity, salvation by grace. It is possible (I know because I have seen it done!) to believe strongly in the separation of church and state while denying biblical miracles such as virgin birth of Jesus, and even putting a question mark around the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Fences have their place, but without a solid foundation the fences will not long endure.

How do you think the upcoming younger generation of Baptist leaders can spearhead ecumenical engagements while still maintaining fidelity to Baptist distinctives?

I believe in an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation. We do not advance the cause of Christian unity by abandoning our biblical understanding of the church. But how do we hold these together? Three things: First, recognize the centrality of Jesus Christ. The closer we come to Jesus Christ, the closer we come to one another as brothers and sisters in him. Second, study the Bible together. The Bible belongs to the whole people of God, not just to one denomination or church tradition. We can clarify differences and find a deeper unity by going deeper into the Scriptures. Third, prayer. Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father (John 17:21) that his disciples would be one so that the world might believe. We can join our prayer to the prayer of Jesus and in so doing become a part of its fulfillment.

Do you think there is any true compatibility between a nuanced version of sacramentalism and Baptist theology?

Yes. The key word in your question is “nuanced.” Baptists, along with many other Protestants, are wary of any view of sacramentalism that verges toward idolatry. We are saved by Jesus Christ alone, not by Jesus Christ and water or by Jesus Christ and the earthly elements of communion or Jesus Christ and anything. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit can save us from leaping into such a heresy. But I would like for Baptists to get away from the unbiblical language of “merely a symbol.”

With reference to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, I believe, with John Calvin, in “the real spiritual presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Likewise, baptism is not only our confession of faith. It is also the occasion through which God confirms and strengthens our faith in the waters of baptism. Paul teaches this in Romans 6:1–4, among other passages. Calvin learned many good things from Zwingli, but his own understanding of the sacraments offers a deeper and richer theology, and Baptists would do well to follow Calvin more than Zwingli at this point.

What potential do you think there is for a historically-informed liturgy in Baptist churches?

Liturgy is not a bad word in my vocabulary, and every Baptist church has a liturgy whether it is acknowledged as such or not. Each Baptist congregation is free to incorporate as much of the historic liturgy of the church as it finds compatible with biblical faith. There are certain places where we have to say, “No!” or, “Not that but this!” But being a part of the free church tradition means that there is no extra-congregational judicatory that can stifle our liberty in this regard.

Do you think it is wrongheaded for Baptists to persuade believers in other denominations to renounce their traditions and affirm Baptist convictions? In other words, what are your thoughts on whether proselytizing is contrary to the ecumenical vision? 

In my vocabulary, “proselytism” is a bad word, connoting an underhanded means of persuasion, unethical and highhanded tactics, the use of worldly means to achieve spiritual ends. But it is never wrong to affirm our deeply held Baptist convictions and to share these in a respectful way with our brothers and sisters in Christ who belong to other nominations.

When we all get to heaven, we will know beyond any doubt or debate who is right and who is wrong on all matters of denominational distinction. There will be no debates there over infant baptism or believers’ baptism. The Calvinist-Arminian dispute will be clarified once and for all, and those interested in reviewing the old arguments will need to visit the special collections section of heaven’s library! But I suspect there will be more important things to do there. There we shall know even as we also are known. But here in this world we walk by faith and not by sight. This means that we keep pressing onward toward the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, pressing on until we all come into the unity and clarity of the faith, to the fullness of truth in all these matters.