Contesting Catholicity

Luke Stamps
Curtis W. Freeman. Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014, 466 pp. $49.95.

Curtis Freeman claims to be an "Other Baptist."  In his new book, Contesting Catholicity, Freeman seeks to fill out the theological content of this identity marker (which he borrowed from a catch-all category in a statistical report).  His claim is that Baptists began as a protest movement within the catholic church but have since devolved into a sect or, even worse, a loose collection of autonomous, mystical selves. Part history, part theology, and part social theory, Contesting Catholicity seeks to point the theological way forward for Other Baptists who wish to retrieve this tradition of Baptist-catholic protest. 

In a sense, the immediate historical backdrop for Freeman's work is the late twentieth-century inerrancy controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention. According to Freeman, Other Baptists find themselves caught between the extremes of "lukewarm liberalism" and "hyperfundamentalism" (p.26). These alienated moderate Baptists are looking for a cure for their "alterity"--their otherness.  Freeman believes that this cure is to be found "by participating in the life of the triune God with the communion of saints in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church" (p.23). Taking his cues from the postliberal theology of George Lindbeck and others--especially as it was refracted through a Baptist lens in the thought of James Wm. McClendon, Jr.--Freeman seeks a "generous orthodoxy," grounded in the Baptist tradition but characterized by an ecumenical openness to the whole church.  Freeman finds inspiration in several twentieth-century Dixieland (post)liberals such as McClendon, Carlyle Marney and Warren Carr. The life and thought of Marney is given special treatment throughout the book, serving as a kind of literary device that carries the narrative forward.

At the heart of Freeman's theological project is a retrieval of trinitarian theology. Freeman traces the doctrine's reception in Baptist history from the movement's seventeenth-century origins to the contemporary context. He suggests that the doctrine has often been treated more as a problem to be solved than a conviction to be lived and experienced. Freeman is skeptical of logical defenses of the Trinity (such as those provided by John Gill and James Boyce) and is critical of contemporary accounts that argue for the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father.  He is sympathetic to McClendon's recasting of the Trinity in narrative categories and is hopeful that the twentieth century "revival" of trinitarian thought can help to recover biblical and patristic themes (though it is ironic that he cites Stephen Holmes in this regard, since Holmes' work has critiqued the "revival thesis").

In terms of ecclesiology, Freeman envisions a church of interdependent disciples knit together as a community of "priests to each other"--or, as he quotes Marney, "a priest at every elbow" participating in the incarnational ministry of Christ (p.199). Freeman critiques the individualism inherent in E. Y. Mullins' notion of "soul competency" and argues instead for a communal rather than an individualistic understanding of the priesthood of believers. Following McClendon, he sees the church as the end-times people of God to whom the commands of Scripture are directly addressed: "this is that" and "then is now." He envisions the church seeking "more light from the Word," in the context of congregational discernment, even if this quest leads away from accepted literal interpretations of Scripture (e.g., regarding women's ordination).  Freeman argues forcefully for both open communion and open membership, but he seeks to do so without diminishing the significance of either Baptism or the Lord's Supper. Historically, when Baptists (such as John Bunyan) have sought to defend open membership, they have done so by effectively relativizing the sacraments, subordinating these church ordinances to individual faith. In order to avoid this mistake, Freeman suggests that Baptists must be willing to accept infant baptism as a valid, even if not biblically normative, expression of baptism.  Only by accepting infant baptism as valid can Baptists recognize paedobaptist churches as true churches and thus move forward in ecumenical dialogue.

In the preface, after owning his own postliberal perspective, Freeman suggests the possibility that "others may imagine what it might look like to hew a postconservative course" of Baptist catholicity, more in line with the methodological approach of Kevin Vanhoozer and others (p.xi). The evaluation that follows takes its starting point from this distinction.  Many evangelical Baptists may sympathize with Freeman's call for retrieving the catholic tradition and for moving beyond modernistic epistemological assumptions, but they may also balk at some of his biblical and theological conclusions. Three points serve to highlight both the similarities and the differences between these two trajectories of Baptist catholicity.

First, in terms of Scripture, evangelical Baptists can appreciate Freeman's desire to move beyond the modernistic alternatives of "uncritical literalism" and "historical criticism" (p.275). Hermeneutical factors such as biblical genres, the Christological shape of the canon, and the history of interpretation are not lost on evangelical Baptist theologians and exegetes. Evangelical Baptists can also appreciate Freeman's emphasis on reading in communion with other believers, and his critique of individualistic interpretations of the Baptist vision. Surely Freeman is correct to note that the priesthood of believers has more to do with communal responsibility than it does with untethered individual expression. Evangelical Baptists will be happy to seek "more light from the Word," provided that such a quest does not lead away from the plain meaning of Scripture. The Reformation emphasis on the perspicuity of Scripture is crucial in this regard. Therefore, evangelical Baptists will be wary of readings that seem to cut against the grain of the biblical witness, such as the imaginative readings Freeman cites in defense of women's ordination (p.299).

Second, in terms of tradition, evangelical Baptists can also appreciate Freeman's call for a retrieval of trinitarian orthodoxy and the appropriation of the ecumenical creeds. Freeman helpfully points out that the ancient creeds are indeed authoritative for Christian belief but only in a derivative sense: only insofar as they faithfully render the biblical narrative. He is also correct to point Baptists to the integral place of the Trinity for Christian faith and spirituality. Still, evangelical Baptists may in fact be better positioned to affirm the authoritative use of these confessional standards than their moderate Baptist counterparts. Freeman is concerned that Baptist commitment to the creeds be non-coercive; creeds should not be "employed to bind the conscience" (p.138). Evangelical Baptists agree, if the question is one of civil religious liberty. But Freeman seems suspicious of any delimiting use of creeds and confessions even at the ecclesiastical level. He warns of the "coercive and authoritarian practices of modern fundamentalism," which seeks to bind consciences "by forced subscription to creeds" (p.103). But evangelical Baptists can more readily affirm the ecclesiastically binding use of creeds and confessions even as they join arms with all Baptists in defense of religious liberty. Coercion is inconsistent with any expression of the Baptist vision, but confessional standards that delimit fellowship and cooperation at the church and associational levels have been common throughout Baptist history.

Finally, in terms of the church, evangelical Baptists can appreciate Freeman's desire to move beyond sectarianism towards an openness to the whole church of Jesus Christ. Evangelicals need not be allergic to ecumenicity, but their principles for cooperation will be decidedly evangelical in orientation, that is, oriented around the gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ. Both moderates and evangelicals can be committed to a contesting catholicity, but the lines of contestation may be drawn a bit differently by each group. Neither must evangelical Baptists resist any notion of sacramentalism. Evangelical Baptists who are more Reformed in their theological bearings should have no problem affirming baptism and the Lord's Supper as more than empty symbols, but instead as signs and seals of the covenant of grace. But Baptists of all stripes should be open to affirming the presence of the Risen Christ with his people and the spiritual nourishment they gain from participating in these sacred rites.  

More controversial from an evangelical point of view is Freeman's plea for both open communion and open membership. While the former is widely practiced among evangelical Baptists, a strong case can be made that the "close communion" position (that is, admitting to the Table all believers who have been baptized by immersion and are members in good standing in gospel-believing churches) better preserves the truly catholic understanding of baptism as a prerequisite to the Lord's Supper. Even more problematic is Freeman's affirmation of open membership and the validity (but non-normativity) of infant baptism. Freeman's position is to be commended for seeking to preserve the necessity of baptism for church membership (another catholic principle) but he does so by surrendering a central Baptist distinctive. Compromising on credobaptism as a requirement for membership will be too high a cost for most evangelical Baptists to bear. In any event, there may be other ways in which evangelical Baptists can show solidarity with Christians from other traditions without surrendering their convictions on baptism (such as joint worship services, pulpit exchanges, ministerial prayer groups, ecumenical dialogue, public prayers for other churches, and so forth).

Whether or not a post-conservative expression of Baptist Catholicity will develop alongside the post-liberal version proposed by Freeman and others remains to be seen. Perhaps a more Vanhoozerian, canonical-linguistic approach will arise to match the more Linbeckian, cultural-lingustic approach that Freeman sketches in Contesting Catholicity. But if such a project is to get off the ground, as it were, it will have to grapple seriously with Freeman's sophisticated proposal in this book.

Luke Stamps is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University

This review was previously published here in Journal of Baptist Studies