Skip to main content

Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community

Steven R. Harmon
Published by Baylor University Press in 2016

Kimlyn J. Bender is Professor of Christian Theology, George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University.

In 1905 at the Baptist World Congress, a precursor to the Baptist World Alliance, Alexander MacLaren led the participants in a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. Since that moment, Baptists have wondered and debated exactly what that event signified. For a noteworthy number of Baptists, and particularly those most dedicated to an anti-creedal (that is, anti-subscriptionist) stance, such was an anomalous blip of which not too much should be made, at most a token sign of solidarity with other Christians who might be in doubt of Baptist orthodoxy and goodwill, a sentiment articulated in MacLaren’s appeal itself. For others, however, this act embodied the truth that Baptists have always seen themselves as a part of the larger church catholic, a conviction expressed in the Baptist confessional tradition itself in both its Particular (Calvinist) and General (Arminian) branches, with the Second London Confession and the Orthodox Creed noteworthy seventeenth-century representatives of each, respectively.

The debate between these two stances continues (partly, though by no means solely, due to the fact that “creedalism” can be used both for civil or ecclesially-enforced subscription that Baptists have historically opposed, as well as for the expression of basic creedal orthodoxy which they have supported, even if most often implicitly). For those Baptists who take the second stance, namely, that Baptists at their heart adhere to the orthodoxy of the ancient creeds and stand firmly within the church catholic, and who in turn have fewer reservations about the use of creeds for confessional, catechetical, and perhaps even liturgical purposes, the recitation of the creed at the 1905 gathering was not simply a gesture of goodwill but a genuine act of communal confession of the deepest order and of the most serious consequence. Steven Harmon stands firmly within the camp of these latter Baptists, and his book is a manifesto urging all Baptists to embrace an even more radical catholicity and intentional ecumenicity.

Harmon’s Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future is a work that engages the current status of Baptist life in the wider context of the current ecclesial and ecumenical situation. It is not only the ambition of this book but its execution that establishes Harmon as the most accomplished Baptist ecumenist working in America today, and perhaps one of the most insightful ecumenists of any stripe, and it is thereby worthy of consideration not only by Baptists but also by all interested in the history and current state of ecumenical discussion. The book is best appreciated as an appeal of an author who lives firmly within a tradition whose very identity is contested, and it is in reality simultaneously engaged on two fronts. On the first, Harmon contends for a particular vision of Baptist identity that is open to receive the gifts of the larger church, and he does so in the face of many who might find his Baptist catholicity and commitment to ecumenicity a problematic and unpersuasive proposal for both understanding and living within the Baptist tradition. On the other front, Harmon argues not only why ecumenism is important for Baptists, but also why other traditions of the church should be open to receiving the particular contributions of the free churches for the benefit of their own full catholicity.

If there is a phrase that captures Harmon’s entire project, it is therefore that of “receptive catholicity,” that is, the openness to receive the gifts of the various constitutive traditions of the church into one’s own ecclesial life and to offer the gifts of one’s own tradition to them in return, Catholics receiving from Protestants and Protestants receiving from Catholics, and both receiving from the more unruly and perhaps less buttoned-up free churches for whom Harmon writes. Baptists, Harmon so concludes, “belong to the whole church and the whole church belongs to Baptists,” so that the catholicity of the church in its entire history is not only a resource but a norm that Baptists must appreciate and appropriate (8). The ultimate goal is the reconciliation of all churches, such that Baptist catholicity itself “ultimately has to do with the ecumenical goal of the visible unity of the church” (10). No doubt some in the Baptist tradition will contest Harmon’s catholicity and not give a fig for his ecumenical leanings. Others in the church at large may ask if anything good can come out of the land of the low churches. Harmon’s work is without question cut out for him. It is a mark not only of his professional competence but his personal character that he carries this off not only with careful and meticulous argumentation but also gracious and unassuming persuasion for such a Baptist catholicity.

The difficulties come when such catholicity begins to be specified. Harmon is not so much concerned that Baptists ecumenically interact with other Protestant traditions as with the Catholic one, and he spends particular attention in examining the Western (Roman) church. Thus there are extensive discussions of questions of Scripture and tradition in light of the Second Vatican Council and issues of ministerial oversight and orders, as well as examples of incorporating elements of Catholic practice relating to liturgy, lectionary, and the Christian year into Baptist practice. Harmon seems particularly convinced that Baptists must take up the marks of the Catholic church he derives from Ignatius: an incarnational Christology, sacramental realism, visible unity, and a ministry of oversight (10). Yet here things become a bit fuzzy.

Harmon states that Baptist congregations are “fully church, that the catholic church subsists in them,” and that their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper are “valid Eucharists” (17). If so, it would seem their catholicity is assured, though Harmon states it is nonetheless deficient and is so precisely because of a failure fully to engage in Faith and Order ecumenism, and specifically to embrace a robust Trinitarianism, a rich conception of church tradition, a mutual recognition of baptism, a strong sacramental realism in the Eucharist, and a thicker conception of ministerial oversight. In short, it seems that his understanding of Baptist deficiencies is summed up in the failure to embody Ignatian Catholicity.

Yet it is not clear what exactly is ecclesiologically deficient. Incarnational Christology and a Trinitarian faith? Baptists share these with other traditional Christians, though Harmon’s argument for a more consistent and open admission of Baptist dependence upon and adherence to Nicene Trinitarianism, classical Christology, and creedal orthodoxy is fairly stated. Sacramental realism? It is unclear why Baptists need be more drawn to Aquinas than to Calvin, to the Fourth Lateran Council and transubstantiation than to a more Reformed (or Anabaptist) understanding of the Supper. Harmon’s assurance that the Lord’s Supper practiced in Baptist churches is a valid Eucharist seems to undermine the necessity of a required metaphysics of presence altogether. Moreover, that the baptism of catechumens has become the norm (in doctrine if not always in practice) even for Roman Catholics since Vatican II also complicates baptismal discussions. Is it rather visible unity that is deficient? If (as Harmon hopes) this visibility entails reconciliation with the bishop of Rome, it is worth noting that papal primacy has long been contested by the Eastern Orthodox and a “contesting catholicity” of this sort is not unique to Baptists. Finally, if the three-fold office of oversight is at issue, Harmon admits that mono-episcopacy cannot be claimed in the New Testament, though he argues there is a trajectory there pointing towards its development (129). At the end of the day, for Harmon, Baptists meet the ecclesiality test, but not the catholicity test, due to a failure fully to embody the results of Faith and Order ecumenism and perhaps also the Ignatian four-fold criteria, though they do meet it if it means that Baptists are part of the universal church. As just illustrated, however, even this is not so straightforward, nor is it entirely clear why the stance taken by Baptists toward the specific developments of later Catholic sacramentalism and ministerial order should be the subject only of reception and not contestation.

And so one must discern what the “catholicization of Baptist faith and practice” enjoined by Harmon actually entails (10). Certainly there is a difference between drawing upon the larger tradition in the broad sense on one hand and the adoption of a three-fold office of oversight or a particular understanding of sacramental realism more specifically on the other. Once again, the nature of such “catholicization” is somewhat ambiguous, especially when it is related not to the weighty matters just discussed but to questions of high church liturgy and a more rigorous adherence to the lectionary and the Christian year. Harmon is aware of the dangers of an undisciplined eclecticism, and he is also aware of the question of just how far Baptists can adopt Catholic practices without ceasing to be Baptist (14). Harmon carefully straddles these desires for a hopeful visible unity with a more thorough-going catholicization on one side and the preservation of a distinct Baptist identity on the other:

My admission that my hope for Baptist catholicity includes communion with Rome is qualified by my conviction that Baptists have their own distinctive ecclesial gifts to offer the church catholic without which even the churches currently in communion with the bishop of Rome are something less than fully catholic themselves. (16; also 163)

It is such a sentence, however, that reveals just how elusive confluence can be in such ecumenical encounters. Specifically, if catholicity is something not only the free churches but also the Roman Catholic church has failed to attain, who is able to define it? In fairness, Harmon knows that catholicity is “notoriously difficult to define” (116). Moreover, he rightly balances an eschatological outlook for ecumenicity (over against romantic notions of a lost past) with an imperative to seek the future unity of the kingdom in the present, and his call for a pilgrim church ecclesiology is particularly compelling.

Yet we are nevertheless left with the paradox that the Baptist churches are both catholic and yet “insufficiently catholic” (29). Without question, Harmon’s imperative for ecumenicity is proper and a true challenge to Baptist churches. Yet how might Baptists meet this challenge except by doing what they can do, which is to open themselves to the riches of the universal church and recognize (if not adopt, and thus convert to) the validity of the ministries, orders, and gifts of other communions? This will be what Baptists of all types are challenged to recognize and strive toward in reading Harmon’s work. In the end, however, it is their own orders, ministries, and sacraments that are viewed as less than “fully church” by some in the other Catholic traditions of East and West. Harmon hopes that the ecumenical future will include (Roman) Catholic recognition of Baptist catholicity. Yet one need not be cynical but simply realistic in noting that this may be a very far off future for Baptists when the reality is that this did not happen even for the Anglicans, and that the Roman Catholics and the Anglo-Catholics still today remain divided over questions of apostolic succession and the validity of ministerial orders.

In light of such conditions, perhaps the way to begin toward unity might be better served for all Christians of all traditions to seek together in discussion not the catholicity of the church but the riches of the Gospel of Christ. In such examinations, they might find that they have more in common than they presuppose that they are all in need of more reform than they realize, and that the primary question might be not whether they are catholic but faithful enough. And such a different tack might in turn relativize other differences. This approach might seem naïve. But it is no more naïve, and may be more hopeful, than that the churches will someday all agree on what makes for catholicity. (Indeed, what all Christians from East and West, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant, share in common is an agreement upon the New Testament canon). Harmon writes: “The hope for the ecumenical future is not the Protestantization of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but rather the re-catholicization of the Protestant traditions” (49). But maybe the hope for the ecumenical future for all ecclesial families stands beyond all such efforts altogether and calls instead for all churches to dive deeper into the mystery of the Gospel and to thus find themselves closer to one another as they do so. They may then in turn celebrate their indigenization and traditions but not absolutize them.

For without this deeper meaning, without this deeper search for something beyond the church itself, there is always a danger that a pursuit of catholicity for its own sake will end in mere formalism (or perhaps even worse, aestheticism, not even mentioning a kind of cultural imperialism). Indeed, it is not simply a mark of crankiness but of real seriousness to ask: Is the future of the church or its constituent traditions, whether Baptist or any other, contingent primarily on a particular kind of ressourcement – of more faithfulness to the lectionary, of a stricter observance of the Christian year in its dizzying detail, of more frequent recitation of the creeds, or as Paul Zahl put this most pointedly, of a penchant for “chasubles, smells, and hierarchy”? Or is what ails the church of our time as much due to a loss of a hopeful expectation of God’s act as much as a repristination of the church’s past? And is our proclivity for the latter in some part indebted to our embarrassment that the first lies entirely outside of our hands and can leave us only with prayer? These are difficult questions, none of which detract from Harmon’s excellent book nor the need for difficult conversations carried out in good faith.

Finally a personal note of my own – as I read this truly impressive book, I was repeatedly dogged by the words of the late theologian John Webster, who, in reflecting upon trends by evangelicals (and really many Protestants) to think their ecclesiological ills and indifference could be solved by moving “upmarket,” warned of such panaceas. His words could easily be applied to Baptists. Should we not, Webster warned, worry lest “evangelicals become catholicized Protestants who make the mistake of thinking that the only ecclesiological improvement upon individualism and ‘soul liberty’ is a rather ill-digested theology of the totus Christus?”1 Webster, like Harmon, spoke of the need for Protestants to offer their distinct gifts to the wider church. But for Webster such must begin for evangelicals with taking the time to “reacquaint themselves with the deep exegetical and dogmatic foundations of the traditions to which they belong,” along with the humility of acknowledging that they themselves need to change. Perhaps this is the first step toward knowing what forms of catholicity are to be received, and which might, based upon deep courage and conviction, need be contested, and “the wisdom to know the difference.”

Cite this article
Kimlyn J. Bender, “Baptist Identity, Receptive Catholicity, and Intentional Ecumenicity”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:3 , 255-260


  1. John Webster, Confessing God (London/New York: T & T Clark, 2005), 192.

Kimlyn J. Bender

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