Skip to main content

Steven R. Harmon is Visiting Associate Professor of Historical Theology, School of Divinity, Gardner-Webb University.

I am grateful to Kimlyn Bender for his perceptive review of Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future and to Christian Scholar’s Review for publishing not only such an extensive review of the book, but also my response to it along with Bender’s counter-response. I characterize Bender’s review as “perceptive” not only because he has rightly discerned my agenda for the book in many ways, but also because he has recognized some arguments that call for clarification and has pressed me in some helpful directions through offering additional considerations. I will begin my response by noting how I believe Bender reads me correctly before responding to some of the questions he poses about the book.

Bender calls Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future “a manifesto urging all Baptists to embrace an even more radical catholicity and intentional ecumenicity.” This is a fair characterization in that I regard “radical catholicity” as both the heritage shared by all Christian traditions and a resource to be retrieved for the renewal of the divided traditions in ways that will move them closer to each other, and in that “intentional ecumenicity” names a commitment to doing the work required to move closer to each other, with fully visible full communion as its goal. I am glad that Bender recognizes in this “manifesto” my commitment to the Baptist tradition, to the contestation of its very identity that is necessary if it is to remain a “living tradition” in the sense described by Alasdair MacIntyre, to receptive ecumenism as a needed contribution to this contestation, and to “the reconciliation of all churches” as the ultimate goal of receptive ecumenism.

Regarding receptive ecumenism, which Bender names as “receptive catholicity,” while I did not employ that particular construction in the book, it describes well my intention in my references to receptive ecumenism: a mutual exchange of the ecclesial gifts embedded within the particular traditions and their unique journeys as socially-embodied, historically-extended manifestations of the church that when mutually received can enable the divided manifestations of church to recover the fullness of community-making catholicity. Also in this connection, Bender is right to note that this receptive exchange of the gifts of catholicity as I envision it would involve both Catholics and magisterial Protestants receiving gifts that have been distinctively preserved in what he characterizes as “the more unruly and perhaps less buttoned-up free churches.” Perhaps this would involve a coming of age of James Wm. McClendon, Jr.’s Baptist/baptist challenge to Schleiermacher’s insistence that theology in the West must be either Catholic or Protestant, and a recognition that this trajectory bears some of the ecclesial gifts that the other churches need if they are to be fully Catholic and fully Evangelical (in the historic Protestant sense of that word). Bender has also discerned the thoroughgoing eschatological nature of my ecumenical vision and its relationship to my characterization of the Baptist tradition in terms of a “pilgrim church” ecclesiology—in my judgment, the most important dimension of the book for its readers to grasp.

I want to respond to Bender’s impression that I am “not so much concerned that Baptists ecumenically interact with other Protestant traditions as with the Catholic one.” Bender is not alone in this impression. I understand why the book might be read in that way, for it is undeniable that, as Bender notes, I have spent “particular attention in examining the Western (Roman) church.” This aspect of the book is attributable to three factors. First, as I attempted to convey through the narrative framing that began the first chapter and concluded the final chapter, much of the book took shape during the period of my service as a member of the Baptist World Alliance delegation to its second series of ecumenical conversations with the Catholic church, 2006-2010. But in the chapters that were particularly rooted in my contributions to those conversations, I suggested that “if such seemingly polar opposite communities … as Catholics and Baptists are able to converge toward a consensus … it is a convergence that potentially applies to the whole quantitatively catholic church in all its diversity” (88-89) and that such an opening for convergence is “an opening large enough to include the whole church” (112). This leads to the second reason for such sustained attention to the Catholic dialogue partner: if ecumenical advance depends in part on the constructive contestation of faith and order, the traditions with the greatest ecclesiological distance from the free churches represent the greatest potential for eliciting this sort of contestation. But that does not of course exclude ecumenical engagement with dialogue partners who are ecclesiologically closer to home. And third, I am convinced that much historic Baptist resistance to the modern ecumenical movement is intertwined with an even longer history of anti-Catholicism in the Baptist tradition. If more Baptists are to be convinced to embrace ecumenical engagement, they will have to be persuaded that they have more in common with what they perceive as their ecclesiological polar opposite than they have heretofore imagined. Thus my more sustained attention to doing ecumenical theology with convergence toward the Catholic dialogue partner as a goal. But again, none of this excludes dialogue with and reception of the gifts of other Protestant traditions (and such dialogue received more explicit attention especially in chapter 9, “The Theology of a Pilgrim Church”). Rather, the attention to the Catholic tradition creates the conceptual space in which ecumenical engagement with the other Protestant traditions may more easily take place.

I differ with Bender’s assessment of the place of the marks of catholicity I find in Ignatius of Antioch. These are not “marks of the Catholic church” derived from Ignatius, though the Catholic church does represent one ecclesial embodiment of these marks, and one in which it can be argued there is considerable historical continuity of these marks. Bender believes that my “understanding of Baptist deficiencies [is] summed up in its [that is, the Baptist tradition’s] failure to embody Ignatian Catholicity.” But the ‘c’ in ‘Catholicity’ should be lowercase, for the qualitative catholicity (following Yves Congar’s distinction between quantitative catholicity and qualitative catholicity) that is larger than Catholicism is what I have in mind, and in any case the intention of my appeal to Ignatius is to show biblicistic Baptists that what they may tend to see as later corruptions of New Testament-era Christianity—for example, sacramental realism—have antecedents in the New Testament documents themselves, in light of Ignatius’s chronological and conceptual proximity to them and in light of the presence of these marks in the particular New Testament traditions to which Ignatius seems to have had access.

Bender characterizes my hope for a visible unity that entails communion with the Bishop of Rome in a way that can be taken as suggestive of a “home to Rome” paradigm of ecumenical progress. But communion with the Bishop of Rome does not necessarily entail the conversion of the non-Catholic churches (and those regarded as “ecclesial communities” in the ecclesiology of the Catholic church) to Catholicism, for there are paradigms of visible unity that envision a “communion of communions” in which there is full communion among all churches belonging to all communions without an abandonment of particular ecclesial distinctiveness, and prominent Catholic theologians are among the proponents of such paradigms (such as Walter Cardinal Kasper).

I am not sure that I intended to suggest that “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.” “Reception” does not always mean unqualified assent to what is considered, for the process of reception involves qualification, adaptation, and contestation. I have employed “reception” in a twofold technical sense, with reference both to receptive ecumenism and ecumenical reception (that is, the process by which the churches respond to proposed ecumenical convergences). In neither sense does reception necessitate unqualified agreement. In the case of ecumenical reception, consideration of proposed ecumenical convergences that results in disagreement with them nonetheless belongs to the process of reception, and in my book I mentioned the possibility of a “heavily qualified reception” of Catholic magisterial teaching by Baptists (163 and 183).

Bender correctly notes an asymmetry in the current state of the ecclesial recognition involved in receptive ecumenical engagement—namely, that at least some Baptists may be more inclined to recognize the validity of elements of the ecclesiologies of other churches than “the other Catholic traditions of East and West” may be to reciprocate, for it seems that for them “it is [Baptists’] own orders, ministries, and sacraments that are viewed as less than ‘fully church.’” It is true that if this is a reality even for such a more Catholic-like communion as Anglicanism, it is likely to be even more an obstacle to mutual ecclesial recognition of Baptists and other free churches. But this is why Baptists and other free church communions must become ever more fully engaged in the ecumenical contestation of catholicity that is necessary for progress toward visible unity. Refraining from participation in the argument—an argument that is socially embodied in the instruments of bilateral and multilateral dialogue about matters of faith and order—is to concede the argument to the ecclesiologies from which Baptists are historic dissenters.

I do think Bender’s suggestion of a shift in focus from the catholicity of the church to its evangelium, the Gospel it has to share with the world, is helpful, though I would not contrast it with catholicity. Catholic fullness includes not only certain qualitative marks of faith and order but also missiological fidelity and faithfulness in embodying the good news that the church proclaims. The ongoing series of international bilateral dialogues between the Baptist World Alliance and the Catholic church has been giving attention to the riches of the Gospel of Christ in ways that answer to the question Bender poses. A first series of conversations in 1984-1988 addressed the overarching theme “Christian Witness in Today’s World” and issued an agreed report titled “Summons to Witness to Christ in Today’s World” based on the dialogue commission’s discernment of a shared response to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The joint report from the second series of Baptist-Catholic conversations in 2006-2010 linked the concept of catholicity with faithfulness to the Gospel:

Catholicity – understood as wholeness, universality, and inclusivity – implies an openness to the needs and gifts of the world and the expectation that all people are called to participate in the new creation brought about by Jesus Christ and the Spirit. (§ 52)

A third series of conversations planned for 2017-2021 will have “The Power of the Gospel, the Witness of the Church” as its working theme.

I concur with Bender’s suggestion that “for all churches to dive deeper into the mystery of the Gospel” may enable them to “find themselves closer to one another as they do so,” but I do not regard this as a pursuit “beyond all such efforts [that is, at progress toward unity in faith and order] altogether.” The more recently-formed Global Christian Forum, arguably Gospel-focused along the lines of Bender’s suggestion, and the older instruments of Faith and Order ecumenism are mutually-enriching approaches to ecumenical advance that need each other if the ecumenical movement is to move. Episcopalian missionary bishop Charles Brent recognized after participating in the landmark 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference that the churches could make only limited progress toward unity in mission so long as they remained divided in faith and order, and thus Brent, the Gospel-focused missionary, became instrumental in birthing the Faith and Order movement that had its first world conference in 1927. I remain convinced that Brent was correct, but I think Brent, Bender, and I would all agree that attention to overcoming the remaining obstacles to unity in faith and order cannot be disassociated from the pursuit of unity in the Gospel and unity in sharing the Gospel.

I also agree with Bender that neither catholicity nor the unity of the church should become ends in themselves, but should always be in the service of a “deeper search for something beyond the church itself.” The Faith and Order movement has recognized this. The landmark World Council of Churches convergence text The Church: Towards a Common Vision, issued in 2013, relates the pursuit of ecclesial unity to participation in the mission of God in this way: “Communion, whose source is the very life of the Holy Trinity, is both the gift by which the Church lives and, at the same time, the gift that God calls the Church to offer to a wounded and divided humanity in hope of reconciliation and healing.”

Bender observes about the tensions that the book does not resolve tidily, “we are nonetheless left with the paradox that the Baptist churches are both catholic and yet ‘insufficiently catholic.’” That is by design, for resolving this tension would vitiate the linkage between the eschatological framework for ecumenical engagement and a “pilgrim church” account of Baptist ecclesiology that drives the book’s argument. A song by a band for which Bender and I have mutual appreciation expresses well this tension: Baptist churches are already catholic, yet a Baptist—indeed, any Christian—should also be able to acknowledge, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (U2, The Joshua Tree, 1987), either in a blueprint for the construction of an ideal ecumenical future or in some instantiation of church that embodies the catholic fullness that will mark it, whether among Baptists or their ecumenical dialogue partners. If that paradox leaves the reader restless in the pilgrimage to find the ecclesial rest of the visible unity for which Christ’s followers were made, the book may have accomplished its rhetorical agenda at least in part.

Cite this article
Steven R. Harmon, “The Paradox of Baptists’ Catholic Identity: A Response to Kimlyn J. Bender’s Review of Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:3 , 261-266

Steven R. Harmon

Gardner-Webb University
Steven R. Harmon is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Gardner-Webb University.