Catholicity Requires Dogmatic Humility

by Matthew Y. Emerson, R. Lucas Stamps, and Brandon D. Smith

At CBR, we’re committed to catholicity – the visible unity of Christ’s church. We believe that Baptist churches should strive for this unity in a variety of ways, from liturgical practices to praying for other churches to doctrinal commonality. All of these means of catholicity require, at bottom, Christian humility. Catholicity says, “You swim in a different stream of Christianity than me, but instead of cutting you off, I want to learn from you where I can.”

Dogmatics – the articulation of Christian dogma, or doctrine – is important. Being right in our theological conclusions is important, since we are claiming to reflect accurately the inspired, inscripturated, inerrant Word of God in our doctrinal commitments. Our theological method is important, since the steps we take to arrive at those doctrinal commitments can lead us astray if we are sloppy or misguided. But dogmatics also requires virtue. Talking about God is discourse of the highest order, and thus it requires not only right steps, right questions, and right conclusions, but also the fruits of the Spirit. It requires Christian virtue.

It is in this sense that we talk about humility, and especially as it relates to catholicity. In order for catholicity to be realized more fully, we must assume a posture of openness and teachability, rather that always rushing to correct others. It is putting one kind of theological foot forward rather the other. This is not to say that rightly dividing the word of truth is unimportant, or that we should ignore error, or that there is never a place for brotherly correction. Of course not. But it is to say that, even when we disagree with fellow Christians over certain doctrinal issues, we can also still learn from them in other areas.

This attitude of humility is rooted in the simple fact that we are all human – that is, we are all finite, fallen creatures who only know in part. Properly done, then, dogmatic humility causes us to listen to others from a posture of charity rather than suspicion. It keeps us from assuming the worst and helps us to benefit from the best. If we are committed to genuine humility and generosity with both hands open, we will take needed steps toward a catholicity that remains distinctly Baptist while simultaneously pursuing unity among fellow brothers and sisters of other traditions.

Perhaps a few examples would be helpful to consider. Baptists, in our view, rightly reject the Wesleyan model of sanctification. But is there anything we can learn from Wesley’s zeal for holiness and his conviction that God’s grace is sufficient to deliver sinners not only from the penalty of sin but also from its power? In a climate of moral laxity, we very much believe there is. Baptists may not follow our Pentecostal and Charismatic brothers and sisters on every point, but is there anything we can learn from their openness to the Spirit’s sometimes surprising work? Given the frequent neglect of the “forgotten person” of the Trinity, we believe there is.

Furthermore, Baptists have much to learn from the beauty and transcendence of Anglican worship, the primacy of God’s glory in Reformed theology, and the objectivity of grace in the Lutheran doctrine of justification. And the list could go on, as Baptists open themselves up to listen to theological voices both ancient and modern.

So in sum, we seek God’s grace for dogmatic virtue: to believe all things that are true, to hope for all things that are good, and to love all things that are beautiful in the rich panoply of Christian traditions. Richard Mouw has compared church denominations to distinct holy orders in the body Christ, each with its unique gifts to bear. So, fellow Baptists, let us present what we believe to be true about the nature of the church and its ordinances, but let us also open up our minds and hearts to receive the best from other Christian communions.