September 21, 1996
Dr. Curtis Freeman
Houston Baptist University
Department of Christianity
7502 Fondren Rd.
Houston, Texas 77074-3298
Thank-you for sending me a copy of your statement Re-Envisioning Baptist Identity. I received it Wednesday, and, as you know from our phone conversation Thursday night, I cannot lend my signature to the document in its present form. I appreciate the work that you have done to create the statement. You have done a great service for all Baptists in calling us to re-examine our faith. There is much in the statement with which I concur. I do not, however, believe that your vision provides the broadest horizon from which to view Baptist Identity. Here are some of my objections to the document in its present form:
1. Any statement of Baptist thought and identity that fails to value the contributions made by John Leland is defective. To the extent that your document does so, it is mistitled. It would be better titled “Re-Envisioning Anabaptist Identity” and addressed to a different community.
I realize that much of what Leland had to say was based on the language and thought of John Locke. I know that Lockean thought is no longer tenable. I do not believe that such defect in the philosophical underpinnings of Leland’s thought is cause for discarding the experience of life and thought that Leland expressed in the language of Locke. We are all limited by the language and thought forms of our own time and place. Underlying Leland’s language and form of thought is an experience of life that is common to Christians in every time and place. If McClendon does not recognize this, then I would suggest that his book, Biography as Theology, would be better entitled “Theology as Biography.”
2. Any re-statement of Baptist thought and identity needs to be expressed in a language that resonates with the thought forms of Baptist laity.
Few of the people who sit in the pews of Baptist churches know enough about philosophy or theology to know the meaning of terms like “Enlightenment project” and “modernity.” Fewer still will understand why you are challenging individualism and liberty. To the extent that your statement can only be understood by scholars, it is of little value to the church and the project is doomed from the start. Laity will again be forced to choose between competing authorities -- the authority of the fundamentalist pastor who presumes to tell them what they must believe, or the authority of the moderate scholar who wants to tell them what they should believe. Who can blame the layman for choosing his pastor? At least he talks to them in a language he can understand.
This is also where your challenge to Shurden’s four fragile freedoms errs. I agree that Shurden’s expression of Baptist Identity is inadequate. It is obviously a reactionary document written from the experience of controversy in the SBC and the birth of CBF. It is unbalanced to define Baptists under the supercategory of “freedom” and to subordinate doctrinal expressions to that. The issue, however, is not whether Shurden’s statement is adequate for all time and eternity. The issue is whether it is valid and adequate for Baptists at the time in which it is written. It was not written for post-modernist scholars. It was written to twentieth century Baptist laity. Measured on those terms, Shurden’s statement is one of the most eloquent and forceful presentations of Baptist Identity ever penned. It is a model of communication in language that resonates with the laity. Neither your theology nor mine will ever have much chance of effecting the church until we learn to write with the force and clarity with which Shurden communicates.
There is a deeper reason why Shurden’s statement is more appropriate to this moment than yours. Our situation in life bears greater resemblance to the days of Leland and Madison than it does to the days of Hubmaier and Simons. Baptists have always been activists in securing and preserving religious liberty. In distinction from Anabaptists, Baptist have been willing to become involved in political processes in order to secure it. Inasmuch as your document attempts to undermine the resonances of the language necessary to mobilize Baptist laity in opposition to the Christian Coalition, it is dangerous. Now is not the time to revise the rhetoric of Leland and Madison. If modern Baptists fail to preserve the first amendment, the Christian Coalition will see that we return to the days of the state churches that oppressed Hubmaier and Simons.
3. Your understanding of community leaves no place for the prophet. It seems to me that one characteristic of the prophet is that he has been called to stand alone, if need be, and speak in opposition to the consensus of the community. The prophet follows the dictates of his own conscience. His conscience is shaped and formed in dialogue with the Spirit of God. To situate the prophet in the community of a “school of prophets” does not resolve the issue. Amos denies that he came from such a community (Amos 7:14-15) and the prophets who came from schools still experienced moments when they stood alone against their communities. To situate the prophet in the broader community of faith through time and history is undoubtedly correct, but it still does not remove the outward appearance that the prophet acts with autonomy in his own time nor lessen his inward experience of isolation and loneliness as he speaks and acts.
Your unbalanced attack on individualism and Mullins’ expression of “soul competency” is also a challenge to the role of the prophet. It seems to me that the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer involves more than being “priests to each other,” it also involves being “prophets to each other.” It is a recognition that each person is ultimately accountable to God, that each person in the privacy of his/her own heart must hear and respond to the call of God, and that each person must individually determine whether to follow the inner voice of God’s spirit or the voice of community when there is conflict between the voices. When an individual determines that the voice of God and the voice of community are in conflict, then the most “priestly” or “prophetic” act that can be performed for “others” is to dare to stand alone and call the community to account. Whenever a prophet arises, the community will always be able to deride him for being “his own priest” or “his own prophet.” In such instances it is not the community’s verdict that matters. God renders the verdict that proves the prophet to be true or false.
As I said on the phone, your statement is written in the voice and tone of the prophet. To the extent that you make no room for the prophet in your re-envisioned community, you undermine your own project and would impoverish the Baptist community.
4. You use straight-line rational thinking to challenge rationalism. I do not believe the divisions you draw between the individual and the community are valid. The task for Baptist thought is not to choose between individualism or community, the task is to understand individuality within the community. What is needed is to situate the language of Leland and Locke in a broader dialectic that acknowledges the truths they were trying to express within a more contemporary dialogical understanding of community. I would encourage you to think more dialectically and commend Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another to you once again.
Please do not understand the above comments to suggest hostility to either you or your project. What you are trying to do is worthwhile and worthy. I appreciate your including me in your discussions. The criticisms I offer come from one who shares your passion both for theology and for the Baptist community. The comments also assume that you realize that my thinking shares much more in common with yours than the differences I have enumerated.
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