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Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists.

Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists. By Curtis W. Freeman (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014) 460 pp.

I believe this is the most important book of post-liberal Baptist theology since James Wm. McClendon Jr. completed his three-volume Systematic Theology in 2000. Freeman offers a theological vision for faithful Baptists who are disenchanted with Fundamentalist and liberal theology. That's a big audience.

The title the book lives up to its title: Freeman is equally committed to catholic substance and Protestant principle--to borrow language from Paul Tillich. Freeman hopes that a retrieval of these traditions will contribute to a much-needed renewal of the church.

Freeman calls Baptists to wed their traditional emphasis on personal faith to a non-coercive reception of the ecumenical creeds understood as centered rather than bounded sets: "The historic Baptist insistence on a personal faith may not be as far as some may think from the ancient ecumenical creeds" (p. 99).

He urges Baptists to avoid separationism and sectarianism and to embrace ecumenism enthusiastically, offering the wisdom of their tradition as a gift to the wider church. This, he says, was the spirit of John Bunyan and other early Baptists whose churches were committed to open communion and open membership.

Freeman challenges Baptists to subvert the individualism that characterizes life in the West. He commends the practice of reading the Bible corporately as a means of discerning the mind of Christ for the church. In a book full of splendid stories, the story he tells of a church engaging successfully in this stands out:

Early in 1963 Addie Davis began attending the Watts Street Baptist Church of Durham, North Carolina. In May of that year she asked the church to ordain her. The chair of deacons asked her to follow the tradition of not seeking ordination until a church had invited her to serve as pastor. When a church in Vermont did this, Warren Carr, the pastor of Watts Street, urged the deacons to support Davis' ordination: "I'm here to recommend that we ask her to stand for ordination, and I'm here to say, 'I ain't going to get in God's way'" (p. 302).

Following what was then a standard practice, an examination committee made up of local pastors was formed. The committee considered two candidates. When the first, a male, expressed reservations about the virgin birth of Christ, the committee urged him to take this traditional teaching seriously. The committee then examined Davis, and she answered the committee's questions, including a question about the virgin birth, superbly. Nevertheless some members of the committee were hesitant to recommend that a woman be ordained, and a heated argument ensued. Then a young minister named John Keith spoke up and said: "Brethren, you leave me confused. In the case of our first candidate you were quite insistent that he believe that a virgin bore the word. How is it that you are now so adamant that a virgin should not preach the word?" (p. 303). Everyone laughed, and the committee voted unanimously in support of Davis.

She was ordained on August 9, 1964, the first woman to be ordained by a church in the Southern Baptist Convention. Freeman follows up this story by demonstrating that it was a corporate reading of the Bible that led to the Watts Street Church's decision to ordain Davis. Today, Freeman is a member of that church.

All of this, Freeman points out--appreciation for the creeds, for ecumenism, and for reading the Bible corporately in order to discern the mind of Christ--is a retrieval of practices that have been present in Baptist life from the beginning.

Freeman devotes a chapter to each of the following: the Holy Trinity, the priesthood of believers, the theology of the church, the Bible, the sacraments, and baptism.

Freeman's chapter on the Trinity is masterful. I expect that he has a more comprehensive knowledge of the history of Baptist understandings of Trinitarianism than anyone else in the world today. He describes four ways Baptists have understood the Trinity: as a problem, as proven, as inscrutable, and as a living conviction. It's a brilliant analysis, and I think it would apply to the understandings of all other Christians as well as it does to the understandings of Baptists.

Freeman thinks that excessive individualism is "the sickness of Baptist life" (p. 321), and in his theology of the church he emphasizes that it is God who creates the church, not humans. He is surely right to think that the church is not just a voluntary organization, but I think it would have been well for him to acknowledge that there is a sense in which a believers church is in fact a voluntary organization.

Freeman advocates and urges Baptists to avoid separationism and sectarianism and to embrace ecumenism enthusiastically, offering the wisdom of their tradition as a gift to the wider church. This, he says, was the spirit of John Bunyan's sacramental understanding of baptism and the Lord's Supper. He does so because of the New Testament. It simply is not the case that in Romans 6 the only meaning of baptism is that we are confessing our faith; something more is stirring in the water than our own feet (p. 380): God is at work uniting us to the crucified and risen Christ. And it is not the case that the only meaning of the Lord's Supper is that we obey and remember and show forth the Lord's death; this is his body and blood, not just our bread and wine. By unpacking the more profound, more religious, more theological meaning of these practices, Freeman carries forward a tradition of sacramentalism that has been underway in Baptist life since the early 1950s.

I welcome the publication of this fine theological essay. Many of us who lived through the destructive and frequently mean-spirited theological conflict that convulsed the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s have reacted by abandoning theology altogether. It's an understandable reaction, but not a wise one. Theology is a way of obeying the command to love God with all our mind, and it supports the church's mission, fellowship, and worship of God.

In the past, Baptists seem to have produced a great many more Bible scholars and church historians than theologians. I hope that the "Other Baptists" for whom this book is written will remedy that failing and learn to treasure theology and to esteem their theologians. If they do, Curtis Freeman should be at the top of their list.--Reviewed by Fisher Humphreys, professor of divinity, emeritus, Samford University
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Author:Humphreys, Fisher
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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