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I appreciate this opportunity to respond to Steven Harmon’s response to my review. Such responses can become meta quite quickly, and I think a response to a response can grow like kudzu. So I will highlight only a few remaining matters of relevance having read Harmon’s very thoughtful reply.

First, I would reiterate that I believe Harmon’s great strength and contribution lies particularly in his eschatological understanding of ecclesial unity and ecumenism and the winsome way in which he argues that this future should guide our present ecumenical efforts. And how can one respond to Harmon citing U2 and the song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” from the Joshua Tree album? (If I remember correctly, I listened to that particular song every day, at least once, for over one year after the album appeared. I digress.) In short, I cannot argue against U2 or the sentiments of that song. Certainly no Baptist (or person from any other communion, I would assume) would disagree that the eschatological revelation of the church and its unity is something for which all Christians are to pray and to seek and that indeed we have not yet “found what we are looking for” (Heb. 11:16). I think Harmon’s points on this score are incontrovertible, and I concur with his conclusion entirely. My remaining questions are perhaps of a different order and pertain to matters that precede this conclusion.

First, I am not certain that Harmon and I are talking about the same thing with regard to Ignatian Catholicity (or catholicity) and its significance. He seems to be focusing on patristic ecclesial realities and their chronological proximity to the New Testament and why they therefore deserve particular merit and attention. I am focused more on what such things became and on the normativity they acquired for some. Of the four marks of such Ignatian catholicity (an incarnational Christology, sacramental realism, visible unity, and a ministry of oversight), let us set aside the first, incarnational Christology, on which there is much agreement between the different communions. I think that Harmon would concur that the contentions more revolve around the latter three, and he highlights the second, sacramental realism, in particular.

If sacramental realism simply means that Christ is present at the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist), then ecumenical challenges would be trivial. Even Zwingli believed Christ was present to the church in some way in its worship of word and sacrament, and Calvin was as committed to a union of the church with Christ in the Lord’s Supper as Aquinas was. Christ’s presence was not the simple issue of contention, of course, but how such presence was precisely enacted, specified, and explained (Zwingli could buttress his positions with citations from John 6 with the same fervor as his Catholic opponents). Nevertheless, the Fourth Lateran Council, the Council of Trent, and the Colloquy of Marburg are far removed from 1 Corinthians 11 and the Gospels. What makes ecumenical discussions so hard is that the complexity of the development of doctrine lies ever in the background but is sometimes left there. Yet it is unclear, as I stated in the earlier review, why the particular Western Catholic developments of the latter three elements of Ignatian catholicity (what became, of course, a particular form of Catholicity) should set the agenda for reclaiming the history of the church by Baptists or any other Christians in manner or content.

I am perhaps personally more inclined to see sacramental metaphysics (Aristotelian or other) as more trouble than they are worth, but this is precisely because of, and not in spite of, ecumenical hopes and aspirations and a strong conception of Scripture as standing over, and not simply within, a line of historical development. Such metaphysical and philosophical conceptions of sacramental realism played a role not only in the original divide of Luther and Rome (sadly solidified at Trent), but also for the breakdown between Luther and Zwingli at Marburg, where a truly significant evangelical vision for the church upon which there was broad consensus between the German and Swiss reform movements was compromised due to the inability to maintain and sustain a sacramental argument within united churches and consider it within a larger context of profound agreement. Akin to Marburg, I remain convinced that the most hopeful areas of ecumenical possibilities for Baptists are beginning with neighbors in closest theological and confessional proximity (that is, the evangelical, or Reformation, traditions) and expanding outward, but Harmon does make a thoughtful case for why he believes beginning with neighbors most removed (that is, Roman Catholics) holds distinctive ecumenical promise.

Harmon states that I may have confused his proposal with a “home to Rome” paradigm, but perhaps more accurately, I see that paradigm as the only currently possible answer of visible union in light of present ecumenical realities when he speaks of communion with the bishop of Rome. This does not mean that I think that Harmon is on such a journey. In full agreement with him, I would like to think that Walter Cardinal Kasper’s paradigm and others like it are viable ones for future communion and that they will win out in the end, but Dominus Iesus continues to carry more weight at the “official” level (even with, or even in spite of, Kasper’s charitable reading of that text). And this reality entails that not only are ecumenical paradigms like those that Harmon and I favor difficult, but he and I do not even belong to “churches” that are recognized as having a requisite standing as to offer them as viable alternatives to the other side (at best, we are in “ecclesial communities”). As the Catholic historian William Shea has said with regret, Catholics are left with an Überkirche, and Baptists now exist in a broken state of non-confessional multiplicity, and as long as we have this state of affairs on both sides, we should continue to pray for the dawn and even seek it but might have to settle in for a long ecumenical winter’s night. Or at least recognize that some of the most fruitful ecumenical exchanges may in the end not be officially sanctioned ones but those that are much more bottom-up than top-down. Which is not to say that both should not be pursued – they should.

And when all of this is taken into account along with the normative forms of Ignatian catholicity as developed in the West – detailed understandings of sacramental metaphysics, visible unity defined by papal primacy and ending in doctrines of papal infallibility, and offices of oversight set forth in a strict historic apostolic succession of persons – the result is that all searches for catholicity will not only be contested but in some cases will be an ecumenical hindrance as much as a help. Baptists have their forms of romantic Landmarkism, others have their own – Baptists have little of which to boast. Nevertheless, this hindrance will especially be the case when some find that certain formal and material elements of this catholicity are not simply coextensive with the Gospel but in their estimation antithetical to it. This was Luther’s discovery, of course, but not only his – he had his predecessors as well as successors. So it is not that the Gospel intrinsically opposes catholicity, as Harmon very rightly attests. But for a significant number of Christians, it may well oppose some forms and developments of it. Again, we are back to specifying what such catholicity entails and what is to be embraced and what elements of it should be, if not set aside, at least relegated to the realm of the ecumenically indifferent.

Ressourcement is a tricky thing. Sometimes a retrieval of the past is a way forward to a richer ecumenical future. But sometimes (like in long-standing family arguments themselves) things from the past are, if not best left in the past, at least recognized as perhaps useful and important for some but less so for others. Thus some “catholic” elements may have their place, but their mature developments in various traditions have to be recognized as parochial and, as I originally argued, placed under, and not simply beside, the Gospel. None of this need set aside the importance of ongoing “faith and order” discussions. I can only celebrate with Harmon those conversations, and I sincerely applaud and thank him for the work that he and others have done in this regard, work that is often herculean, thankless, and requiring true faith and obedience. And thus to clarify – my call for a “hope beyond the ecumenical future … beyond such efforts” referred not to Harmon’s reference to the efforts of “progress toward unity in faith and order,” but to the antecedent I intended to reference, but perhaps did not do so clearly enough – that is, “the re-catholicization of the Protestant traditions,” as the immediate antecedent, and an agreement among all the churches upon what makes for catholicity as the prior antecedent. I can agree with Harmon’s hope for such progress, but I am much less sanguine about the hopes for agreement on the last, and I am more ambivalent about such “re-catholicization” of the Protestant traditions. This is not least because I am not certain what such catholicization actually is (as I think my original review makes apparent) and because I am not even sure many contemporary Protestants by and large know why they are Protestants in the first place and are clear about their own convictions and why they do or should oppose some forms of “catholicization.” John Webster’s words thus continue to haunt me.

Here Harmon and I may have a few differences on ressourcement, but I think in many ways we are very close on reception. For I originally took him to be arguing for a reception in terms of adoption, whereas he seems to have clarified that such reception is more in terms of engagement that may involve “qualification, adaptation, and contestation.” And there is no disagreement there. Certainly the confessions and history of all Christian churches should be read with respect, appreciation, and charity, which might well in the end include contestation, but may also lead to forms of adoption or at least mutual recognition and maybe even (one hopes) self-correction. I also appreciate and agree with Harmon’s insistence that this engagement is necessary such that others cannot simply set the terms of the debate when Free Church persons “concede the argument to the ecclesiologies from which Baptists are historic dissenters.” On that, and again, on his most important conclusion, I fully concur and am thankful again for his gracious response and his remarkable book.

Cite this article
Kimlyn J. Bender, “An Ecumenical Postscript: A Response to Steven R. Harmon”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:3 , 267-270

Kimlyn J. Bender

Baylor University
Kimlyn J. Bender is a professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University.