Introducing "Evangelical Baptist Catholicity: A Manifesto"

by R. Lucas Stamps and Matthew Y. Emerson

Over the next several weeks we plan to blog through each of the eleven articles in the manifesto that we’ve been using as a kind of guiding document here at the Center for Baptist Renewal. In this introductory post, we wish to make a few preparatory comments to set up the series.

So let’s start with a few disclaimers. First, the manifesto represents our own views as two individuals seeking to call Baptists to a greater awareness of our place in the Great Tradition. The manifesto is not a confession of faith. It is not intended to be comprehensive. It does not speak for anyone else, including our fellows (who may or may not wish to parse these matters in exactly the ways we have). But the manifesto does represent an agenda, a syllabus of sorts, for what we would wish for our evangelical Baptist future.

Second, we should acknowledge our partial indebtedness to the 1997 document crafted by a group of moderate Baptists titled “Re-Envisioning Baptist Identity: A Manifesto for Baptist Communities in North America.” This statement seeks to mark out a path for Baptist faithfulness in our postmodern moment and highlights many priorities that we share as well: the role of the community in shaping disciples of Jesus Christ, the centrality of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in our common worship, and the prophetic independence of the church from worldly powers. But we are also staking a claim for Baptist catholicity from a somewhat different perspective, namely, a conservative evangelical perspective committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and to more traditional positions on theological and ecclesial matters. One of the authors and signatories of the Re-Envisioning manifesto, Curtis Freeman, has suggested that the project of Baptist catholicity, while being carried along by many under the “post-liberal” banner, could just as easily have a more “post-conservative” expression. In other words, those on the conservative end of the Baptist spectrum have also seen the limitations and liabilities of modernity and are seeking an expression of the Baptist vision that is at once more ancient and more relevant for our present cultural moment. It is precisely this “post-conservative” evangelical Baptist catholicity that we seek to foster.

With these caveats in place, let us give an overview, a kind of bird’s eye view of what the manifesto contains. As we have drafted it, the manifesto speaks to a number of priorities that we believe should characterize the 21st century Baptist movement as we seek to live faithfully as a renewal movement within the holy catholic church:

·      God and his Word

·      The gospel

·      Reformational theology

·      Baptist distinctives

·      The universal church

·      Racial justice and reconciliation

·      Creedal and Conciliar Christianity

·      Worship and liturgy

·      Sacramental theology

·      Creation and redemption

·      Principled ecumenism

We begin with the absolute primacy of God and the priority of his inspired Word in Holy Scripture. Before we are Baptists, we are Christians. Our ultimate allegiance isn’t to a denomination or a movement or an institution but to the Triune God and the revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and in his Spirit-inspired Word. We come to know this God not intuitively or introspectively, but from the verbum externum (the exernal word) of his gospel—the glorious good news of the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God for the salvation of the world. So we are unashamedly evangelical Christians in the older and richer sense of the term: Christians formed and reformed by the gracious gospel of Jesus Christ. As such, we are also Reformational Christians, taking our primary theological bearings from the great solae of the Reformation: we confess that sinners are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone on the authority of the Scripture alone all to the glory of God alone. So then, we are Christians, evangelicals, and Protestants. But we are also unashamed Baptists. We believe that the Baptist vision of the church is the most consistent with the implications of the gospel: though irreducibly embedded in communities of faith and culture, human beings are also individually responsible before God. So we believe the distinctives of the Baptist vision—a regenerate church, believers’ baptism, religious liberty, etc.—have a crucial role to play in calling the entire church to greater faithfulness to God and his gospel. 

So it is as Christians, evangelicals, Protestants, and Baptists that we seek to engage the broader body of Christ. We believe in the priority of the local church, but we also recognize the reality, diversity, and beauty of the universal church. Because we believe all things are ours in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:22), we embrace our liberty to engage the whole church of Jesus Christ—past and present, Baptist and non-Baptist. A huge part of this openness to the whole church of Jesus Christ is a willingness to listen and learn from other races, ethnicities, and cultures in the body of Christ. Crushing the idol of racism (including racial insensitivities that fly under the radar for many who would adamantly reject “racism” as an abstract concept) remains one of the most pressing needs in the American church today and constitutes a massive burden for our vision of Baptist catholicity.  

We believe that Baptists have much to contribute and much to receive in the great collection of traditions in the body of Christ. So we seek to situate ourselves more self-consciously within the church’s creedal, liturgical, and sacramental life. This endeavor will, no doubt, be shaped by the peculiarities of our own tradition, but we believe that a humble submission to “small-c” catholic Christianity is a pressing need in our age and every age. The ecumenical creeds and councils represent the non-negotiables of Christian orthodoxy, on the basis of which we seek out greater faithfulness in our worship and spirituality. We will offer some specific perspectives and suggestions as we go along, but we invite all Baptists to retrieve the theological and liturgical “best practices” of the Christian tradition.

Baptist catholicity also has much to say concerning our lives as creatures living in God’s good world. As philosopher James K. A. Smith has argued, we are not “brains on a stick,” but are instead embodied and desiring creatures. So our vocations matter. Our worship spaces matter. Our art matters. Our habits and rituals matter. A retrieval of the church’s catholicity opens up to us new treasures, long hidden in the attics of our Christian experience. And this retrieval is not just oriented toward the past, but also acknowledges the treasures right in front of us in the broader body of Christ. Thus, evangelical Baptists have nothing to lose and much to gain from principled ecumenical dialogue with other Christian traditions. “Ecumenism” can be a swear word in some Baptist circles, and not without good reason. We believe an ecumenism of conviction can replace an unhealthy ecumenism of compromise.  But we will learn nothing and will convince no one if we don’t even show up to the table.

So there you have our vision in nuce. Stay tuned for more exploration of these themes, starting next Monday, when we take up the first article: the priority of God and his Word.