by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps
The Priority of God and His Word
We affirm the ontological priority of the Triune God and the epistemological priority of his inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word. Christian faith begins, is carried forth, and ends in God—in his being and works—and is made known to us in Holy Scripture.
Baptist catholicity begins, in many ways, by acknowledging that the church did not begin with us. Indeed, the seventeenth-century Baptists were eager to demonstrate that their faith stood in continuity with the great Reformation and pre-Reformation truths of Christian orthodoxy. And nowhere is this indebtedness to the Great Tradition more clearly evident than in the doctrines of the Trinity and Scripture. These two doctrines, one ultimate (the Triune God) and one penultimate (his inspired self-revelation), constitute the bedrock of the faith once for all delivered to the saints, as it has been faithfully handed down to us by our patristic, medieval, and Reformation forebearers. It is important, therefore, to recognize that our identity as Christians, as Protestant evangelicals, and as Baptists begins with our hearty affirmation of the doctrines of the Triune God and his Word revealed to us in Holy Scripture.
To speak of the ontological priority of God is to say something about his being. Indeed, it is to speak of him as being itself—the absolute, infinite, self-existing One (Ex. 3:14) in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). He is the maker and sustainer of heaven and earth, and all things are “from him and through him and to him” (Rom. 11:36). The priority of his being extends not only to creation and providence but also to reconciliation and redemption. Separated from God by sin, as all humans are, only God can bring us back to himself. Only he can shine his revelatory light into our noetic darkness. Only he can create a salvific something out of the sinful nothing that currently rules our hearts. God the Father accomplishes this work through the saving missions of his Son and Spirit. To those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ, the Spirit applies the work of the Son and thereby places them once again in the Father’s gracious presence. Our existence as Christians is therefore utterly dependent upon the mercy of the Triune God, in terms of its procurement in Christ, its application by the Spirit, and its continuation as our lives are hidden with Christ in God.
Therefore, as we live this Christian life, we live it before the face of God (coram Deo), and as those seeking to know, to “press on to know,” the God who has birthed this faith within us (fides quaerens intellectum; faith seeking understanding). Because sin affects not only our ontological relationship to God but also our ability to know and understand him, God’s redemptive plan includes the means by which he reveals himself to us. Graciously, God covenants with us not only to save us but also in saving us to make himself known to us. In the context of that covenant, he reveals himself in a variety of ways. In former days (i.e. before Christ), he revealed himself to Israel in his mighty acts – like the Exodus – and in his prophets, who spoke God’s word to his people. But in these latter days he has spoken to his people fully and finally in his Son (Heb. 1:1–4). If we want to know God the Father, we look, therefore, to the Son by his Spirit. But, unlike the disciples, we do not walk and talk with the human person of Jesus every day. Therefore, God has also given us his inspired written Word, which testifies to his Son (2 Pet. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Epistemologically, therefore, God’s Word takes priority in our knowledge of him and, indeed, in our knowledge of all things in relation to him. When we ask who God is, what he is like, and who we are in relation to him, we are to seek answers in his incarnate Word as revealed to us in his written Word. The Bible is not a fourth person of the Trinity, but it is the God-given means by which the Trinity reveals himself to his people. The Spirit inspired the Scriptures so that we might know the Son through them and thereby know the Father. Further, because the Spirit inspired the Bible, it is the inerrant and infallible revelation of who God is. While we acknowledge the irreducibly human nature of the Bible and the unique personalities and social contexts of its authors, this human aspect of Scripture makes it no more fallible or errant than Christ’s own human nature made him fallible or errant. Rather, the Spirit superintended the entire process, not always by dictation but more often by working concursively in and with the inspired human authors such that the end product is nothing less than the very Word of God written. Nor do we believe that this understanding of Scripture is a modern evangelical invention but rather that it stands in substantial continuity with the confession of the whole church, as it submits to the Spirit “who spake by the prophets.”
With respect to Baptist catholicity, these priorities are important because they offer a common foundation, demarcation, and goal (telos). Regarding foundations, these ontological and epistemological priorities give us shared ground from which to work toward catholicity with other Christians. So, catholicity operates within the context of common worship: a whole-person devotion to the Triune God and an acknowledgment of the necessity of his saving mercy. Likewise, catholicity is only effective to the degree that it functions with the same ultimate, authoritative source of Christian faith and practice.
These priorities also demarcate catholicity’s boundaries. Those who reject God’s triunity and the definitive revelation of himself in Holy Scripture should not be considered conversation partners in catholicity. Rather than working toward unity with these friends, we should instead work toward evangelizing them in the love of Christ. Conversations with Christian traditions that do not share our Protestant convictions regarding sola scriptura are more difficult to categorize. We can certainly celebrate our shared heritage from Scripture and the early church regarding the cardinal doctrines of the faith, such as the Trinity, the person of Christ, and the necessity of grace. But issues related to the place and authority of tradition and to soteriology and ecclesiology remain significant barriers to unity. Still, as we will argue in a later post, conservative evangelical Baptists should not shy away from principled ecumenical conversations with Christian traditions outside of evangelical Protestantism.
Finally, these priorities provide catholicity its goal, or telos: We seek to worship the Triune God rightly by rightly understanding his Word, and to do so in unity with all those who know and love the one true God. We do not wish for a “thin” catholicity, where differences are papered over for the sake of a surface-level unity. Rather, we seek a “thick” catholicity that embraces our common purposes with all who call on the name of the Lord, even as we continue pressing toward greater unity on those matters about which we still disagree. This purpose, in turn, gives way to the ultimate hope expressed in Jesus’ high priestly prayer: that the Church may be one even as the Son and the Father are one. To that end, we pray that the Center for Baptist Renewal would contribute in some small way to bringing this great hope to fruition on earth as it will be in the New Heavens and the New Earth.