Curtis Freeman: 'Other Baptists' and contesting catholicity

Contesting Catholicity

With their history of dissent and focus on the individual, Baptists can sometimes forget they are part of the broader church, says a Duke Divinity School professor. His recent book outlines an alternative "Other Baptist" identity, a community of contestation within the church catholic.

With its history of dissent and often hyperindividualized focus, the Baptist movement has sometimes made it difficult for followers to see themselves as a part of the broader church, says Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology and the director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School.

In his recent book, “Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists,” Freeman outlines an alternative Baptist identity, an “Other” kind of Baptist, at once within the broader church tradition and contesting it.

“What I try to say in the book is how Baptists can understand themselves in continuity through history,” Freeman said. “Not to say that we agree with everything -- because some of these matters are contested -- but that we see ourselves as a community of dissent or contestation within the one holy catholic apostolic church.”

What’s at stake -- for Baptists and non-Baptists alike -- is about much more than theology, Freeman said.

“Unless we see ourselves as a part of one church, the mission of the church in America is going to be deeply compromised,” Freeman said. “That’s why catholicity is about more than just your views on the Trinity or your views on the sacraments. It’s about seeing yourself as a whole church.”

Curtis FreemanAn ordained Baptist minister, Freeman has been at Duke Divinity School since 2001. He is a member of the Commission on Doctrine and Christian Unity of the Baptist World Alliance.

“Contesting Catholicity” was published in September 2014 by Baylor University Press. Freeman spoke about the book recently with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: To start, tell us about your pilgrimage to being an “Other Baptist,” and tell us what that phrase means.

Shortly after I came to Duke, I was reading a report from the Association of Theological Schools, and it listed all the various church groups represented in U.S. seminaries -- Presbyterian (U.S.A.), Episcopal Church USA and so on.

I got to the Baptists, and there were the Southern Baptists, the American Baptists and various other kinds. Then at the bottom, it just said “Other Baptists,” and I wondered, “Who are they?”

I thought I knew all the kinds of Baptists. I’d never seen this one in any book or study, and I found out it was the churches that had left the Southern Baptist Convention.

So I realized that “Other Baptists” referred to folks like me, and that led me to understand that there was something deeper to “Other Baptist” than just being thrown out of or leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. There really was something more substantive to it.

I realized that part of what led these Other Baptists like me was a deeper desire to understand God working in the mystery of life, which has not been the hallmark of what the Baptist movement has been about.

Instead, it has been more about a sense that everything is clearly understood, and it’s presented in a straightforward, intellectual way. There’s no sense of the sacramental, the mystery of life. It’s all very clear.

But some of us recognize that the Spirit of God is working in the world in ways that we don’t quite understand, that there’s a sense of sacramentality in the world. Then I began to realize that these two options have been not just in Baptist life but in Protestant life, generally between liberals and conservatives or liberals and fundamentalists or however you parse that. And I realized that none of those really fit me and the people like me who were on this journey.

In my own pilgrimage, I moved from growing up in a very conservative, evangelical -- I wouldn’t say fundamentalist, but very close to that -- traditional Baptist church life and then going off to college and studying Greek and historical-critical methodology and becoming a liberal of sorts, and then I began to realize that there were parts of this that just didn’t fit, and it became really clear.

One of the stories that I tell in the book was that the turning point, the conversion, for me was when I was a pastor and I was preaching from the book of Isaiah, chapter 53. As I was working on that sermon, it dawned on me that if I did what my teachers had taught me to do, using a historical-critical approach, I couldn’t say anything about Jesus, because this wasn’t about Jesus. It wasn’t a prophecy about him. It was about a prophet during the time of the exile.

Yet when I read the New Testament, Philip is reading with the Ethiopian in the chariot, and the man asks him, “Who is this man talking about? Is it himself or is it someone else?” And Philip shows him that this is a prophecy about Jesus.

I realized that I had to be able to say somehow that the Old Testament, both the prophetic writings in particular and the Old Testament as a whole, pointed to the revelation of God in Christ. I saw that liberal theology didn’t help me do that in any way, but I wasn’t happy with the easy answers of fundamentalism either.

So I just got stuck.

And ironically, the way that I came to recover some sense of how faith could be alive for me was to go back to the beginnings and the sources. My dissertation was on Augustine of Hippo, and that was a strange place to go as a Baptist, to think I could recover something there.

That was the beginning of this sort of rich sense of grace and sacrament, a sense that there is more going on than what meets the eye.

Q: In the first part of the book, you diagnose a “sickness” in Baptist life, a kind of hyperindividualism rooted in modernity. Tell us about that.

Well, you can’t blame everything on modernity. I think there’s been an overreaction in academic circles to blame everything on the Enlightenment or that sort of thing.

But there is some sense of truth from early classical or even medieval forms of Christian faith. There were certain things that were just given. And the one thing that was a given was the reality of God in the world.

That is not something shared by people today. In fact, the only thing that modern or late-modern or postmodern folks probably hold in common, the one thing that is a given, is that we all ought to make our own choices.

For me, that’s a lens, a certain assumption, going back to the very beginnings of my evangelical life. The way I understood being a Christian was to take a text, for example, that I heard over and over again, 2 Corinthians 5:17 -- “If anyone is in Christ, he is the new creation. The old has passed away. The new has come.”

The way I was taught to read that was that Jesus came to die for my sins and that I should accept him and that if I did, he would take my sin and he would give me his life and I would be saved and I would go to heaven.

Well, as I began to study and look at this differently, I saw that it’s not just about Jesus saving me. Because the whole world, as Paul writes, “the whole creation is groaning.” So I began to read that text differently. It’s not just that I become a new being but that the whole world has been transformed, that there is a new creation on its way and that the church is a kind of foretaste of this.

I began to sense that what God was about was not about just choosing individuals to be saved or be damned but about renewing the whole of creation, the whole of the universe, moving into this redemption that is in Christ. So the Bible was not a story about individual people but a story of a people, a whole people, of God’s people.

Q: Isn’t that sense of making up one’s own mind, whether about Scripture or anything else, at the heart of much of Baptist life?

Yeah. The hyperindividualism. The only thing that’s unquestioned is that you have the right to be wrong. Everybody has the right to be wrong.

We can laugh at that, but one of the great contributions that Baptists have brought to the world and to the church is a sense of being able to say “no” -- to dissent and disagree and have a place for the integrity of that. It’s the idea that even if you are wrong and everybody believes you to be wrong, we shouldn’t violently take you and force you to do what we think you should do.

I agree with that wholeheartedly, and I want to maintain still a sense of the liberty of conscience. But that doesn’t mean that just because you’re free to be a dissenter that makes you right.

That’s part of why I call the book “Contesting Catholicity.” Baptists have this history of contestation in which individual churches say, “Well, we don’t like this group, so we’re going to break away.” The Baptist theory of church growth is divide and multiply -- you just break away and break away and break away. It has grown, but it’s grown in fragmentation.

What I try to do in this book is to hold together two things. One is this constant contestation. There are certain basic notions about what the faith is and what constitutes the good life of the church and the future of the kingdom of God, and some of the basic points are contested, and they should be. Yet part of what I want to say to the Baptists is that just because you have broken and disagreed on some things, how do we still lay claim to be in that one church?

Q: What does theology for “Other Baptists” look like?

The first important thing -- and this is really crucial -- is that the very center of the faith is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, in particular Jesus Christ as the second member of the Trinity. Often, when Baptists and other free-church people have broken away from the church, they would identify the Trinity or certain other orthodox, traditional views of Christ as being Catholic.

There’s been a very strong kind of non-Trinitarianism and sometimes even anti-Trinitarianism at the center of Baptist theological life and doctrinal life. And one of the real dangers of breaking away and not maintaining a connection to the one holy catholic apostolic church is that we lose our connection to God. It would simply be us.

I don’t think that Baptists are necessarily anti-Trinitarian, but sometimes we focus on Jesus so much that it’s like, “We follow Jesus, and the Catholics believe in the Trinity,” and that’s very strange.

Q: Those are two very different approaches that make a very big difference in how you do church, aren’t they?

Yeah. Baptists and other free-church folk often tell the history of the church like this: Jesus came and called the apostles, and then he died and the apostles started this movement that was the early church, and it spread throughout the world and it flourished. Then at some point, about the third century or so, we went through this dark period.

We don’t really say what all that was, but somehow the church went off, and then Martin Luther came along, and he got everything sort of back on track, but he kept baptizing babies. Then there were the Anabaptists that came along, and they got things worked out, but they had some other problems, so then came us, and we straightened it out.

We leapfrogged from almost the New Testament to the Reformation without any sense of how there always has been a church of Jesus Christ.

What I try to say in the book is how Baptists can understand themselves in continuity through history. Not to say that we agree with everything -- because some of these matters are contested -- but that we see ourselves as a community of dissent or contestation within the one holy catholic apostolic church.

Q: Both within the tradition and contesting it at the same time -- which is what the title gets at, right? “Contesting Catholicity.”

Yeah.

Similarly, there’s the way people understand church. The Baptist emphasis on congregational life is a great contribution. The Baptists say that gathered communities matter -- people getting together studying the Bible, listening to sermons, trying to understand how to live their lives in a visible community. That’s our understanding of church, but there’s more to the church than the congregation.

The church is all the people of God throughout time and throughout the world. It’s an understanding of the church that is catholic -- the whole. And then there is the understanding of what we sometimes call the priesthood of all believers -- that every Christian is involved in his or her own responsible living of the faith but also in caring for others and being priests to one another.

Q: What does your book have to say to the broader church, to non-Baptists?

I’ll be real honest -- the future for the church in America is continued decline. We’re going to be weakened. Evangelicals are just now beginning to see what mainline Protestants have seen.

It’s not just our numbers and that sort of thing, but you’ve got this new phenomenon. First you had the “nones,” people who had no religion, but now you’ve got the “dones,” people who had been committed and have dropped out.

The future for the church in America is pretty grim. If Baptists and other free-church folk don’t somehow see Methodists and Presbyterians and Catholics and all the other Christian groups as partners in mission, then it’s going to be worse.

What’s at stake is the future of the mission of the church of Jesus Christ. Not the future for Baptists. Presbyterians and Methodists need the Baptists, but the Baptists also need them.

Unless we see ourselves as a part of one church, the mission of the church in America is going to be deeply compromised. That’s why catholicity is about more than just your views on the Trinity or your views on the sacraments. It’s about seeing yourself as a whole church. That would be the message.