THE BAPTIST STUDIES BULLETIN
"A Monthly Emagazine, Bridging Baptists Yesterday and Today"
November 2003 Vol. 2 No. 11
Produced by The Center for Baptist Studies, Mercer University
Walter B. Shurden, Executive Director and Editor, The Baptist Studies Bulletin
Greg Thompson, Associate Director, The Center for Baptist Studies
Wil Platt, Associate Editor, The Baptist Studies Bulletin
Robert Richardson, Coordinator, Mercer Certificate Program in Baptist Studies
|Table of Contents||
Table of Contents:
I Believe . . . : by Walter B. Shurden
“I Second the Motion ”
The Baptist Soapbox: by Wesley M. “Pat” Pattillo
"Moderate Baptists! Come to the Ecumenical Table"
Baptists in America and Church State Issues: by Brent Walker
Books to Ponder: by Bruce Gourley
I Don’t Care What the Bible Says and Carey's Letters
BSB Special: Leonard Talks Back
“Baptist Ways: Responding to the Responses”
“The First Definition of the Landmark Baptist Movement ”
“Fundamentalism and Baptist Women”
Baptist Spirituality in America: by Loyd Allen
“A Familial Spirituality”
Baptist Hymnody and Worship in America: by Harry Eskew
“Baptists and the Gospel Hymn”
BSB Book Review Specials: Olson's The Mosaic of Christian Belief
Reviews by Marshall, Pool, and Wilson
Articles to Ponder: by Phyllis Rodgerson Pleasants
“Alzheimer’s, Czech Authors, and Muslims”
“I Second the Motion ”
by Walter B. Shurden
I believe . . .
that I want to give an enthusiastic second to the motion by Pat Pattillo below that Baptists accept the invitation to come to the ecumenical table of the National Council of Churches. The day is long gone to fear a Super Church that will dominate the churches. The day is long gone when advocates of ecumenism expect denominations to sacrifice their integrity and compromise their distinctives. As a Baptist whose life is rooted primarily in a local body of believers known as The First Baptist Church of Christ at 511 High Street in Macon, Georgia, I am not interested in any kind of dominating or tyrannical connectionalism, Baptist or otherwise.
I like the name of my local church—The First Baptist Church of Christ. We are “of Christ.” We are Baptist. I believe . . . that the Baptist churches of Christ need all the churches “of Christ” to lean on, learn from, and labor with. Local independence for Baptist churches has never meant anything like “Lone Rangerism.” It simply means that no ecclesiastical Jesse James can steal our local church.
One of the hundreds of books that I am going to write one of these days is entitled “What One Baptist Likes About Other Christian Denominations.” Here is a preview. I like Pentecostal joy, Episcopalian reverence, Presbyterian order, Lutheran grace, Salvation Army service, Methodist experience, Catholic mystery, and Disciples of Christ ecumenism. They are my friends, not my foes, brothers and sisters, not enemies of the family.
I believe it was my favorite preacher, Ernest T. Campbell, and my favorite historian, Martin Marty, who once were analyzing one of their mutual friends, one of those people born in the objective mood. Marty said to Campbell, “Oh, he is a good fellow; he simply has a complete grasp on a half truth.” A complete grasp on a half truth! That may well be the story of the various denominations in the long history of Christianity.
Pat Pattillo, I second the motion for my kind of Baptists to come to the ecumenical table.
All those in favor, say, “Yes,” and please extend the right hand of Christian fellowship.
The Baptist Soapbox: Invited guests speak up and out on things Baptist (therefore, the views expressed in this space are not necessarily those of The Baptist Studies Bulletin, though sometimes they are). Climbing upon the Soapbox this month is Wesley M. “Pat” Pattillo, who will be remembered by some from his hard days of work at Southern Seminary and later at Samford University. Pat is now Associate General Secretary and Director of Communication, National Council of Churches USA.
“Moderate Baptists! Come to the Ecumenical Table”
By Wesley M. “Pat” Pattillo
When the National Council of Churches invited me to join their staff, some friends questioned whether a lifelong Southern Baptist could be prepared for such a task. I replied that the SBC has always been its own ecumenical movement. The factions cobbled together into the SBC in 1845 were never very comfortable with each other. But they stayed together through 150 years of war, depression and regional isolation–making room for one another’s peculiarities–because they did Kingdom work better together than apart.
That “ecumenical” commitment became a super glue. Even after fundamentalists sparked more than 20 years of relentless internal strife, thousands of disillusioned, disenfranchised moderate congregations still refuse to leave the SBC. But they have trouble deciding what to do while waiting for “the pendulum to swing back.”
Whether the Baptist pendulum moves at all, I would suggest moderate Baptists of the South look outside the box they’ve been in since the 1980s, toward the wider faith community as a refreshing channel for sharing their insights and energies.
National Council of Churches has five program commissions addressing key areas of Christian endeavor–from doctrine and governance to mass media advocacy, Christian education, leadership development and age-group ministries, from public policy research and social justice to interfaith relations.
Each commission has participants from dozens of denominations. They come from 36 NCC member communions, like Methodist, Presbyterian, American Baptist, Lutheran, Quaker, UCC, Greek Orthodox, Disciples. And they come from 18 other faith groups that are not members of the NCC–such as Seventh-Day Adventists, Church of God-Anderson, Missouri Lutherans, Mennonites, even Roman Catholics.
Three of the NCC’s five program commissions are currently headed by staff directors who are Baptists.
Of the eight major Baptist bodies in America, only the SBC and the CBF continue to be absent from this diverse ecumenical table. Moderate Baptists’ preoccupation with regional and denominational restoration is preventing them from sharing in a feast of ecumenical collaboration, as if they somehow cannot “walk and chew gum” at the same time. Both they and the rest of America’s Christian community are the losers.
Baptists have powerful ideas to contribute on congregational vitality, church-state separation, personal pietism; a genius for organization and goal orientation.
And we have something to gain: a broader context for our culture, history, worship, public advocacy–and perhaps a helpful dose of denominational humility in the face of so many wonderful “others” whose faith is no less passionate, no less Christ-centered than our own, though expressed in so many different ways.
Ecumenism is a much more varied environment than outsiders imagine. For example, 22 of the NCC’s 36 member denominations do not ordain women! And almost all the 54 communions in the NCC orbit struggle with many of the issues that afflict the SBC, such as local autonomy, fundamentalism, and the prophetic role of the church in society. But they reach out beyond their boundaries to confront big issues together–because it enlightens and extends their Kingdom work.
It is unthinkable that the spiritual descendents of ministry pioneers Walter Rauschenbush and Clarence Jordan, ethicists T.B. Maston and Henlee Barnette, educational innovators J. M. Frost and Gaines Dobbins, pastoral care trailblazer Wayne Oates and theological bridge-builder Dale Moody would not be engaged in lively dialogue with Christians of every stripe in a conversation that celebrates the Faith and how it might advance in our generation.
My word to fellow Baptist moderates: Come on in, the water’s fine out here in the deep end, beyond the familiar shore.
|Church State Issues||
Baptists in America and Church State Issues: a column on hot button issues related to religion and government written by J. Brent Walker, Executive Director, The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Washington, D.C.
by J. Brent Walker
Six months ago, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed the Charity, Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment (“CARE”) Act 95-0, and last month the House of Representatives followed suit by passing its companion bill, the Charitable Giving Act (“CGA”) with more than 400 votes. One would now expect that these bipartisan bills, sponsored by Senators Rick Santorum and Joe Lieberman and Representatives Roy Blunt and Harold Ford, respectively, would quickly be brought to a House-Senate conference committee that would resolve their differences and allow a final version to be adopted by both houses of Congress. But this legislation, which would provide much-needed incentives to spur increased charitable giving in the U.S., is now bogged down in Capitol Hill politics.
The CARE Act and CGA contain components of President Bush’s faith-based initiative. Some aspects of the faith-based initiative are controversial. The Baptist Joint Committee has long opposed its “charitable choice” provisions that would allow the use of tax dollars to fund religious ministries and permit employment discrimination in federally-funded programs. But these are good bills. They have been shorn of the objectionable “charitable choice” provisions and contain only those designed to encourage increased private contributions to America’s charities.
Both CARE and CGA will allow the millions of taxpayers who take the standard deduction on their tax returns also to itemize their deductions to charities. It will make it a lot easier and less costly for people to donate IRA funds to charity by removing tax penalties on such transfers. It will encourage farmers and food wholesalers to make in-kind contributions of food to charity as well. Moreover, under the Senate legislation, the CARE Act will boost by $1.3 billion the budget of the Social Service Block Grant fund, the source for most social welfare grants awarded to community-based organizations.
So why is this now non-controversial, bipartisan legislation being stalled in an hour of need? We have been told that a handful of Senate Democrats are refusing to allow a House-Senate conference committee to convene because they seek to voice their objection to the way conference committees on other legislative measures are being conducted. We also understand that Senators from both parties are seeking to add to this legislation tax provisions that are not related to relief for charities. Finally, we hear the charity bills may be suffering from reported disputes between leading GOP tax writers (Sen.) Chuck Grassley and (Rep.) Bill Thomas.
None of these machinations justify obstructing bipartisan legislation that will deliver much needed relief to American charities and those they serve. Senators with grievances and other policy aims must find other venues to voice them and alternate avenues to pursue them.
Now is the time for the Congress to rise above petty politics and pass this much needed legislation.
Books to Ponder: brief book notes written by Bruce Gourley, a former campus minister, author of The Godmakers, the present Online Editor of Baptists Today, and a Ph.D. student in Southern History, Auburn University.
Kenneth Cauthen, I Don’t Care What the Bible Says (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2003), 146 Pp.
Cauthen, Emeritus Professor of Theology at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School / Crozer Theological Seminary, delves into the darker side of Southern history in seeking to more fully understand the human drama of the South. Borrowing from a previous work, The Many Faces of Evil: Reflections on the Sinful, the Tragic, the Demonic and the Ambigious (1997), Cauthen examines the many complexities which characterize the South. Themes of injustice, the tragic, the demonic, and the ambiguous are used as lenses for this “impressionistic study” (114) which peers into racism and class division fomented by Southern culture and religion of the past 150 years. Morality is located beyond the confines of right and wrong and good and evil, and racism is identified as the “worst and most destructive of the demonic forces at work in Southern history” (11). In addition, the endnotes and bibliography provide excellent reference points for anyone seeking to understand the larger literature pertaining to the Southern ethos.
Terry G. Carter, editor, The Journal and Selected Letters of William Carey (Macon, Georgia: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2000), 304 Pp.
One of the best-known figures in Baptist history, William Carey, fondly called “The Father of the Modern Missions Movement,” has long been a fascinating figure in Baptist circles. The mission trails blazed by this pioneer have impacted Protestant missions for over two centuries. Refreshingly, this volume differs from the several dozen biographies and other books written about Carey, in that Carter presents selected portions of Carey’s journal and collected letters located at Regent's Park College. Carey’s journaling was brief, from 1793 to 1795. His letters are more expansive, and addressed various aspects of the mission enterprise. Carter arranges the latter in categories which help the reader grasp the essence of Carey’s mission activities and intimately portray the person, work, and struggles of Carey. “I know not as yet of any Success that has attended our Labours,” Carey wrote on August 13, 1795 (84). Nearly twenty-five years later, on February 7, 1819, he rejoiced in the “considerable” number of churches started and in having printed the Bible “in more than forty languages” (165). In between is the personal account of the struggles, trials, and triumphs of one very human man who devoted his life to God, no matter the cost.
Table Of Contents
BSB Review Special –Bill Leonard Talks Back: In the September issue of BSB, four reviewers examined Dr. Bill Leonard’s new history of Baptists entitled Baptist Ways: A History. In this issues Dr. Leonard responds to the reviews.
“Baptist Ways: Responding to the Responses”
By Bill Leonard
I appreciate Dr. Shurden's invitation to respond to the four reviews that were printed in the last Baptist Studies Bulletin. My response is necessarily and appropriately brief. First, I am grateful that, in the final analysis, all four reviewers found the volume generally well written and generally helpful as a survey of Baptist history. I appreciate their candor and concerns. Second, when it comes to what is omitted, I think that their commentaries have value and reflect what would have been their emphases had they embarked on such an endeavor. One of the first things any of us will and should do is to look for those themes and issues that we believe are important, defining and significant to any history. When I rework the material for the next edition, I will do my best to take their comments seriously. In writing a survey text one always struggles with what to include, and, of necessity, what to exclude. Critics of such endeavors surely find exclusion to be problematic. The author can only learn from their responses and acknowledge again that it was impossible to include every part, even some important parts, of the story. At certain points, however, I wondered if their comments don't reflect the punch line in an old joke that ends: "You fool, you fried the wrong egg."
Other specific responses to the reviews might include the following:
· My intent throughout was to retell the Baptist story with necessary repetition of traditional data, and new data that I felt had been overlooked. I spend a lot of time with the past because I think Baptists know so little of it in the present.
· The book is written at a time when Baptist identity is rapidly disappearing or being redefined in hegemonic ways. My concern was to show its commonalities and diversity as a tool for inculcating that history/identity to new generations.
· I decided to do a chapter exclusively on African American Baptists because I thought that was a clearer, more elaborate way of telling those stories than in previous surveys. I could have done it another way, but continue to find those connections and denominational beginnings quite complex and deserving of more specific attention. Others might have done it differently with better results, but I chose to address it in a single chapter.
· The folks at Judson Press, patient with me to a fault, finally recommended a page limit. We wanted a survey that was less "encyclopedic" than some surveys, and not as lengthy as others. I probably cut 400-500 typed pages at one stage of the process. I have long heard from colleagues that they needed a survey text that was more "manageable" for students and church folk and that was at least one of my goals in this project. Now certain reviewer’s long for larger texts that tell more of the story. We cannot always have it both ways.
· Concerning women in the 20th century, I will promise to address that issue in the next edition. I am currently writing a volume for Columbia University Press entitled Baptists in America that addresses more contemporary issues and will give greater attention to the role of women. Frankly, I hope some of the folks similarly concerned will write more definitive books on women in 20th century Baptist life. They just don't exist.
· Finally, on a personal note, I was a bit disappointed that I spent a weekend with three of the reviewers and not one of them communicated their concerns to me personally. I found that a bit strange since a conversation might have addressed some of their concerns and/or raised others for them. I thought directness was an historic Baptist trait. (Perhaps that's just Baptists from Texas!)
Baptist Firsts: Charles W. Deweese, Executive Director-Treasurer of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, writes this section of BSB. He identifies some of the “firsts” in Baptist life in America.
“The First Definition of the Landmark Baptist Movement”
By Charles W. Deweese
Professor W. Morgan Patterson observed in a Baptist history class at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the late 1960s that one cannot properly understand Southern Baptists without understanding the influences of both the Separate Baptists and the Landmark Baptists. Separate Baptists mastered evangelism and church growth. Landmark Baptists held high a particular view of the church.
The first defining document of the Landmark Movement was the Cotton Grove Resolutions. James R. Graves, the primary leader of the Landmark Movement, presented these resolutions on June 24, 1851, during a Baptist meeting at Cotton Grove in Hardeman County, Tennessee.
Graves affirmed that Baptists must not view congregations of other denominations as churches of Christ because, unlike Baptists, they cannot trace their history all the way back to the Jerusalem Church. Rather, these congregations are "societies." Baptists must not accept the "different governments, different officers, a different class of members, different ordinances, doctrines and practices" of those societies. Baptists must not recognize ministers of "such irregular and unscriptural bodies as gospel ministers." Baptists must not invite ministers of other denominations into their pulpits since that would recognize them as "official ministers." And Baptists must not address as "brethren" Christians who are not Baptists.
Graves commented on pages 15-16 of his Old Landmarkism: What Is It? that "the Baptists of Tennessee generally, and multitudes all over the South, indorsed the decision" to adopt the Cotton Grove Resolutions. Baptist historians agree that Landmarkism exerted a powerful influence on subsequent Baptist developments throughout the United States.
The upside of the Landmark Movement was that it caused Baptists to consider the significance of the local church; on the downside, the movement ruled out the validity of other denominations. That is an irresponsible position for Baptists to take. The universal church consists of Christians of all kinds. Let's speak kindly of our Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic friends.
The Cotton Grove Resolutions appear in their original form in the book by J. R. Graves, Old Landmarkism: What Is It? (originally published in 1880; later republished by the Calvary Baptist Church Book Shop: Ashland, KY, 1968), p. 14.
Baptist Women in America: a column on the specific role of Baptist women in America by Carolyn DeArmond Blevins, Associate Professor of Religion, Carson-Newman College, Jefferson City, TN.
“Fundamentalism and Baptist Women”
By Carolyn DeArmond Blevins
With the flappers of the 1920s wearing shorter skirts, more makeup, and even smoking cigarettes on occasions, fundamentalists felt a strong need to save women from the degradation of such behavior and make clear their proper roles. New studies in the interpretation of the Bible, or modernism, raised additional concerns. Modernism coupled with women who made their own decisions was a scary combination. John R. Straton, preaching in New York City, went so far as to condemn a women’s missionary society for accepting a half-million dollar gift from a modernist like John D. Rockefeller.
How women did mission work was a part of the issue. Fundamentalists saw missions as preaching the gospel, but did not believe women could preach. Some women agreed; others did not. Lucy Waterbury Peabody, a leader in the Woman’s Baptist Foreign Missionary Society of the 1920s, shared the fundamentalist view of mission work. Furthermore, Lucy Peabody was no fan of modernism, especially higher criticism, which she thought undercut the long-held support of women’s role in foreign missions. According to her, letting any part of the Bible go made the world less safe for women and children.
Other women viewed missions differently. Although they believed in traditional evangelism, many Baptist women saw important mission opportunities in education and health care. They believed that people could be reached for Christ best, if first their crucial social needs were met by caring Christians. So throughout the 1930s, in spite of fundamentalist insistence on missions as preaching, mission societies made social needs, including racial equality and world peace, the heart of their work. By the 1940s Alice Brimson, executive secretary of the Women’s American Baptist Home Missionary Society, publicly countered the persistent criticism of fundamentalists that the ladies were not adhering to church doctrine. She concluded that after twenty years of criticism it was clear that the women were more interested in real religion than theology.
(See Fundamentalism and Gender by Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993 for additional information.)
Baptist Spirituality in America: a column on the distinctive spiritual emphases of Baptists in America by W. Loyd Allen, Professor of Church History and Spiritual Formation, McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, Atlanta, Georgia.
“A Familial Spirituality”
By W. Loyd Allen
Equality and fraternity characterized Baptist spirituality in early American churches. Baptist Rules of Decorum usually included the injunction “No member of this meeting shall address another member by any other appellation than that of brother or sister.” Church was family, a non-elitist family where the priesthood of believers through intimate and personal relationships within autonomous congregations provided the context for Baptist spiritual growth.
Sometimes we present-day Baptists tend to romanticize our past as a kind of “Golden Age” when faith in family form was easier to start and keep than it is in our current fragmented society. The evidence argues otherwise.
Consider the brief, hard lives of Baptists in the Maryland colony of the mid-eighteenth century. The English settlers who made up Baptist church membership generally came to the New World to work the land as indentured servants for more wealthy landowners. Immigrants typically gave five years labor in exchange for ship’s passage and a promise of fifty acres of land when and if the contract was completed. Fees and surveying costs often added more time to the original term.
Living in a new climate and eating unfamiliar foods, indentured servants usually worked twelve to fourteen hours a day in tobacco grown under the skeletons of girdled trees. Malaria, the bloody flux (dysentery?), yellow fever, diphtheria and smallpox found these laborers weakened hosts. Their hard life was etched into the workers bones; remains of young Calvert County colonialists show chests deformed by the heavy manual labor common to indentured servants and teeth snaggled by constantly clenching clay tobacco pipes.
Life expectancy for Maryland indentured servants in the early eighteenth century was twenty-three years after arrival, compared to forty-five years for established colonists in New England. Death was not a matter of long range speculation.
This bleak economic and political situation made families hard to establish and maintain. Men and women could not afford to marry during their service years, creating numerous illicit alliances and children born out of wedlock. The first Baptist church in Maryland suffered from such a damaging relationship revealed in the life of its second pastor. Delayed marriages resulted in loss of prime childbearing and working years, with the subsequent consequences of fewer children to work smaller land inheritances, assuming the babies survived.
In straitened circumstances like these, early American Baptists created communities of faith in which some repair of distressed family life was had through spiritual formation nurtured by brothers and sisters in the family of God. Is such a goal out of reach for us Baptists in present times? If not, brother and sister Baptist, perhaps rediscovery of historic forms of Baptist spirituality can steady our trembling hands for the work before us.
Baptist Hymnody and Worship in America: a column on historic worship practices of Baptists in North America and their contemporary relevance for Baptist life written by Harry Eskew, Emeritus Professor of Church Music, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Eskew taught at NOBTS for almost four decades and is a prolific writer on Baptist hymnology.
“Baptists and the Gospel Hymn”
By Harry Eskew
Two dynamic movements emerging in the nineteenth century left strong imprints on Baptist hymnody and worship in America: revivalism and the Sunday school. Revivalism was an effort to reach the masses for Christ, ranging from the frontier camp meetings of the early nineteenth century to the urban revivalism of the latter nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Sunday school was an evangelistic effort focused on reaching children with the message of the Christian faith. The gospel hymn was the product of these two movements, which were often inseparable in practice, each being energized by the other.
Reaching the uneducated masses required simple, personal hymns in popular musical styles that could be easily learned and remembered. These hymns were characterized by frequent repetitions and refrains. When Ira D. Sankey, the associate of Dwight L. Moody, compiled a hymnal in the 1870s containing these simple hymns, he entitled it Gospel Hymns. Thus was born the enduring term for these hymns.
Although the roots of the gospel hymn lie in the frontier revivals of the early decades of the nineteenth century, they are more immediately traceable to the rapidly growing Sunday school movement from about the 1850s, for which numerous small rectangular-shaped collections with both words and music were published. Perhaps the most influential of the composer-compilers of the Sunday school songs was the Baptist William B. Bradbury of New York City He composed the music to “Jesus Loves Me,” the most popular of all children’s hymns. Also in Bradbury’s Sunday school songbooks were his tunes to “He leadeth me,” “Sweet hour of prayer,” “Just as I am,” “My hope is built on nothing less,” and “Savior, like a shepherd lead us.” Others who contributed significantly to Sunday school collections were the Baptist pastor Robert Lowry, writer of both words and music to “Shall we gather at the river,” and the Baptist layman William Howard Doane, particularly known for his musical settings of Fanny Crosby’s hymns, such as “To God be the glory, great things he hath done.”
Beginning in the 1870s the Sunday school hymns were republished in the collection Gospel Hymns and came to be known as gospel hymns or gospel songs. Two Baptists collaborated with Sankey in this famous collection of revival hymns. Philip Paul Bliss, one of the most gifted of the gospel hymn composers, wrote the words and music to “Wonderful Words of Life” and the music to “It Is Well with My Soul.” George C. Stebbins was the composer of the music to “Jesus is tenderly calling thee home” and “Have thine own way, Lord.”
The dominant stream of early gospel hymnody represented by each of these hymnists was in the Northeast. A pioneer Southern Baptist gospel hymnist was the evangelist William E. Penn, a revival preacher and hymnist contemporary with Moody and Sankey whose ministry was in the Southwest. Penn wrote both words and music to “There is a Rock in a weary land,” found in the 1975 Baptist Hymnal.
As these hymns, originally written for use in Sunday schools and revival meetings, came to be used in the regular worship services of Baptist churches, they gained such a dominant position that they threatened to crowd out the standard hymns that had been used for many generations. This concern was well expressed by the Baptist leader and hymnal compiler Basil Manley, Jr. in 1891:
“For some years it has been apparent that the rage for novelties in singing, especially in our Sunday schools, has been driving out of use the old precious, standard hymns. They are not even contained in the undenominational songbooks which in many churches have usurped the place of our old hymn books.”
Manley’s lament can still be heard in Baptist churches of today. Gospel hymnody has continued to be widely used among Southern Baptists throughout the twentieth century and beyond. Revivalism and the Sunday School movements fueled the change in the hymn repertory of the church leading to the inclusion of gospel hymns. The conflict between the old and the new described by Manly continues in the church today. How can our hymnals provide an appropriate selection of hymns representing the rich hymn heritage of the church with an appropriate selection of hymns in contemporary styles?
BSB BOOK REVIEW SPECIAL: A Baptist theologian of significant accomplishments and enormous promise is Roger E. Olson, Professor of Theology at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. BSB is offering three reviews of two of his major writings in its October and November issues. Molly Marshall, Jeff Pool, and Rick Wilson, all theologians, are the three reviewers. This month they review Olson’s The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002. Pp. 367. ISBN 0-8308-2595-5
Reviewer: Molly T. Marshall, Professor of Theology and Spiritual Formation, Central Baptist Theological Seminary.
The goal of this book is noteworthy: to communicate the “Great Tradition” of Christianity in an irenic manner that gets beyond “either/or” polarizations. It attempts to summarize twenty centuries of theological construction in a manner accessible and discerning. It tries to put key issues into perspective and shows what really is at stake in the divergent trajectories. So far, so good. In my judgment, Professor Olson does a commendable job of articulating the classic tradition in fairly non-technical manner for contemporary students of theology. He is quick to define words and concepts; he is nimble in surveying varying interpreters.
One of the strong features of the book is Olson’s delineation between dogma (that which is essential to Christian identity); doctrine (that which demarcates certain traditions within Christianity); and opinions (that which can be considered adiaphora, things indifferent). While these distinctions help map the theological terrain, more clarity about the differences between the first two would have been helpful, especially since the author insistently contends that doctrine still matters (43).
Olson wants to distinguish Christian orthodoxy from “folk religion”—a contemporary amalgam of non-reflective impressions and experiences. Indeed, this is a worthy pursuit given the lack of explicit Christian formation in the lives of many “believers.” While I affirm his “Christological touchstone” as the heart of essential dogma, as well as his firm trinitarian grounding, the lack of pneumatological reflection was dismaying to this reviewer. Mentioned briefly in the chapter on God as Trinity, the Spirit was primarily subsumed under the topic of ecclesiology. Many significant works on the Spirit have emerged in the last decade, but few were noted. Likewise the overview of trinitarian thinking hardly acknowledged the sweeping trinitarian revival that has led to helpful contemporary reformulation, e.g., Catherine M. LaCugna was mentioned only in passing. This critique may not be fair in that he said he was not writing for specialists; however, the privileging of the historic sources leaves little room for contemporary voices.
Olson’s attempt to be balanced in adjudicating those perspectives with which he differs falters in his treatment of panenthism. By juxtaposing this term with deism, he has already compromised its meaning. He defines panentheism as an approach “that overemphasizes God’s immanence to the detriment of God’s transcendence” (121). There are “Great Tradition” theologians who might take umbrage with this one-sided interpretation, e.g., John Macquarrie. Panentheism, in my understanding, manages to hold together transcendence and immanence without collapsing into a radical immanentalism, as he charges.
In a methodology that seeks to move beyond dualistic thinking (a key methodology for feminist theology), I was most surprised by the lack of attention to inclusive language. Exclusively masculine language for God and the neglect of women’s contributions to the “Great Tradition” only continues the marginalization that stains Christian tradition. For example, feminist theology occupies a page and a half in a text of 357 pages. Only one feminist theologian is mentioned, Rosemary Radford Ruther, and in such a cursory fashion as to diminish the significance of her constructive insight. Liberation theologians are similarly treated with dispatch.
These challenges notwithstanding, I commend Professor Olson for his breadth of scholarship, his genuine passion for the Faith, and his prodigious efforts at inviting more to join in meaningful theological conversation. He is surely wise to try to find ways to mark boundaries of Christian identity; his unwillingness to let diversity devolve into disunity is laudable. For that contribution alone (and many others), it is a helpful book.
Reviewer: Jeff B. Pool, Associate Professor of Religion, Director of the Campus Christian Center, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky.
This book represents Roger Olson’s constructive counterpart to his conservative evangelical history of Christian theology. As an overview of Christian doctrine, Olson provides a concise account, touching in introductory ways on all the major areas of Christian beliefs. Employing the metaphor of a mosaic to describe his system of Christian doctrine, Olson identifies and arranges various major foci of Christian teaching into a portrait that reproduces his conservative-evangelical vision of Christian truth. In this way, Olson aims to fulfill several goals, which he summarizes with five terms to characterize his interpretation of Christian beliefs: mediating, evangelical, irenic, non-speculative, and simple (pp. 12, 13, 14, 15, 16).
Olson’s constructive proposal exhibits a variety of substantial historical, theological, and methodological weaknesses. I will identify some of the weaknesses in Olson’s book principally with reference to his goals, illustrating the problems through an examination of one Christian belief that he discusses: “the” Christian belief in God. Similar problems appear in his treatments of other Christian beliefs. My criticisms will explicitly address the first three goals of Olson’s book and only implicitly address his last two goals.
(1) Olson does not succeed in realizing his first goal: mediating between purportedly “false” Christian alternatives, in order to identify “the” Christian consensus on various beliefs (and, therefore, Christian orthodoxy)—and precisely because many of those alternatives do not qualify as “false” alternatives among various Christian traditions. Many of the alternatives that one finds in the diversity of Christian perspectives attest to actual irreconcilable conceptual differences, with significant theological and ethical implications. Under the category of divine transcendence, Olson rightly gathers the notions of divine immutability and impassibility; yet he implies that such notions remain optional commitments within the larger tradition of Christian orthodoxy that he postulates (pp. 117-21, 125-27). Although several problems emerge in this connection, I mention only the most obvious one. Olson wrongly suggests or implies an optional status for the concepts of divine immutability and impassibility in his purported Christian doctrinal consensus: inasmuch as Christian consensus developed about the concept of God, these two notions assumed key roles in defining the nature of deity for Christian theologians and ecclesiastical authorities (both Catholic and Protestant) for many centuries. Those two concepts enjoyed both a widespread official dogmatic status from the Council of Nicea (325 C.E.) until the beginning of modernity and the status of unassailable theological presuppositions among a consensus of theologians for at least two centuries prior to that first ecumenical council. Olson simply has too easily reduced the diversity of Christian traditions into categories that will allow the admittance of his own Evangelical theological community into the larger tradition of Christian orthodoxies. One really must choose between affirming divine immutability/impassibility and divine mutability/passibility. In Olson’s declarations about the Christian consensus, whether intentional or not, he ignores or minimizes the real ontological, axiological, and epistemological differences among various Christian interpretations of beliefs, except when he considers those versions of Christian beliefs that he considers heretical.
(2) Other issues prevent Olson from fully realizing his second goal of expressing an evangelical theology as part of his “Great Tradition”; Olson proposes solutions that the dogmatic Christian tradition has not historically accepted as orthodox. Again, I illustrate this problem with his account of belief in God. As noted previously, many of the well-known ecclesiastical councils defined both immutability and impassibility as ecclesiastical dogmas, although Olson implies that these concepts are optional. Many contemporary theologians in mainstream Christian communities have challenged this facet of Olson’s “Great Tradition” for the last one and one-half centuries. Olson also claims, however, that his “Great Tradition” allowed one exception to the dogma of divine immutability: the uniting of God’s nature “with humanity in the incarnation” (p. 125). Furthermore, as one element of Olson’s unitive proposal for the Christian understanding of God’s nature, he claims that “God is capable of self-limitation” (p. 129). Although I agree that God has the capacity for self-limitation, is mutable at least in this sense, and, therefore, capable of incarnation, this concept does not remain consistent with Olson’s so-called “Great Tradition,” which did not even allow that the divine nature changed in the incarnation of God in Christ. In relation to his second goal, Olson actually presents divine immutability and impassibility as genuine options within Christian diversity. The major orthodox Christian traditions (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed) or Olson’s “Great Tradition,” however, never viewed those two concepts as optional dimensions in the Christian doctrine of God.
(3) In relation to Olson’s third goal of striving “to be irenic in spirit and tone as opposed to polemical in approach” (p. 14), Olson succeeds only as he seeks to gain admittance for contemporary Evangelical theologies into historic Christian orthodoxies. He tends to obscure the genuine differences within the diversity of his “Great Tradition” that permit no “both-and” constructive solutions. Furthermore, Olson remains polemical, not irenic, in his treatment of those Christian persons and concepts that historic ecclesiastical power declared and anathematized as heretical.
Olson’s accounts of the “heretical” versions of Christian teaching most often repeat the standard caricatures of those theologians and concepts that did not succeed in struggles against other perspectives that possessed the support of political and ecclesiastical power. Certain Christian beliefs became orthodox strictly through the raw realities of ecclesiastical-political power, and not necessarily through the strength or intrinsic logic of their claims to truth. He acknowledges the effects of social location on Christian beliefs, but his acknowledgement does not appear to inform substantially his own proposals that supposedly contribute to unity of belief among contemporary Christians (an aim that ultimately entails not only doctrinal, but political dimensions as well).
To illustrate, in his treatment of “alternatives to the Christian consensus about God” (heresies), Olson includes “panentheism,” barely distinguishing it from pantheism, and almost completely identifying it with process philosophies. Olson does not acknowledge that panentheism comes in a variety of genuine Christian forms as well. (As a matter of fact, the notion of divine self-limitation constitutes one of the central concepts in many forms of panentheism.)
Like the mosaic of Christ on the cover of Olson’s book, when one looks closely at the mosaic, one detects spaces between all the pieces and even small imperfections in the materials used to compose the mosaic. Only from a transcendent position can one perceive the whole picture and how each piece contributes to it—and even then only as those imperfections and spaces between the pieces blur through distance from the whole, only when one can transcend the individual pieces or perspectives and grasp the whole—but such a vantage point belongs only to the God about whom Olson has written and not to any single orthodox perspective, whether historic Catholic and Protestant or contemporary Evangelical perspectives. No Christian theologian can achieve the transcendence necessary to perceive the entire mosaic in its unity. Not having a divine vantage point, contemporary Christian theologians can only perceive most clearly the diversity of Christian beliefs, not how God ultimately hopes to integrate that diversity.
Reviewer: Richard F. Wilson, Chair, The Roberts Department of Christianity, Mercer University.
Roger E. Olson’s The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity, develops around a few explicitly stated goals. He writes, “One major goal of this volume is to portray Christian belief in all its glorious harmony and diversity” (12). At the same time Olson is not ashamed to narrow the definition of “Christian belief” to a distinctly “evangelical Christianity” (13) that can be presented with “simplicity without oversimplification” (16).
Any parish minister or informed layperson who reads the Introduction to this clearly written book can have confidence that Olson will not abandon his guiding principles. He does not. Perhaps teaching theologians who primarily engage undergraduates also will find Olson’s introduction to Christian Theology helpful because he writes to an audience with a particular identity (evangelical) without demanding a radical confrontation of traditional Christian confessions, leaving the hard work of engagement up to the teacher in the classroom. Students and teachers at seminary and graduate levels of exploration may find Olson’s work less helpful because he does not demand a radical confrontation of traditional Christian confessions.
The consistent strength of The Mosaic of Christian Belief is Olson’s conviction that the church needs a “both-and rather than an either-or theology” (17). In an increasingly polarized culture where the by-word in politics, economics, and faith is “my way or the highway,” Olson’s approach to the historical and contemporary confessions of faith among Christians is very refreshing. At every turn Olson reminds his readers that the broad history of the development of Christian doctrine has emerged out of dialog between committed followers of Jesus who heard different accents in the confessions of faith in their day, and who carefully developed nuances of confessions that were responsive to the need to have a compassionate and constructive community of faith.
Lay leaders and parish ministers who read this book will find an irenic model to follow. Olson will show them how to respond to potential conflict in their local communities with a “Yes, but . . .” attitude instead of a “You need to understand that” attitude. Olson demonstrates, at least in broad strokes, that the church has been at its best through the centuries when it has found a way to resist demands for uniformity even as it pursues its quest for unity.
What parish minister–or teaching theologian, for that matter–cannot remember the challenge of a potentially contentious congregation or class? Olson explores the flexibility of faith that can bend with integrity toward diverse poles of expression while maintaining a consistent center. The center for Olson always is that God was at work in Christ Jesus to effect reconciliation with the world and humanity. The that of Olson’s confession is unchanging. The how or what is open for expression, interpretation, and challenge. He understands and affirms that in every generation people of faith and goodwill can and will offer different interpretations of the ways that God works reconciliation in the world.
Parish ministers, lay leaders, and classroom teachers can glean good insights from The Mosaic of Christian Belief. Olson does not–and does not attempt to–provide an opportunity for all of the voices of Christian faith to be heard. He does, however, present a clear, traditional case for Christian faith as always willing to hear and respect “an other” in the continuing conversation about the work of God in Christ. If Olson is correct about the church needing a “both-and theology,” then he is obligated to welcome and encourage the “Yes, but . . .” responses that will arise in the reading of The Mosaic of Christian Belief.
Read this book alone, or read it with a group. Either way it can help to sharpen a conversation that is as old as the church itself.
Articles to Ponder: Notes of journal articles: what they say, don’t say, almost say, and mis-say about Baptists. The following periodical notes are written by Phyllis Rodgerson Pleasants, John F. Loftis Professor of Church History, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
“Alzheimer’s, Czech Authors, and Muslims”
By Phyllis Rodgerson Pleasants
Daphne Simpkins relates how to live with Alzheimer’s and have no regrets in her story about caring for her father, “A Journey with Alzheimer’s: No Regrets,” Christian Century, November 1, 2003, pp. 20-26. Her “no holds barred” descriptions of her father, her reactions and the presence of God in the midst of it all make this affirming reading for those living with the disease and necessary reading for those seeking to minister with those living in the Alzheimer’s world.
In the Baptist Quarterly, Vol. 40, October 2003, pp. 230-242 Keith Jones, “The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart,” encourages readers to discover the writings of Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius in Latin) and Petr Chelcicky, Czech authors in the first wave of Reformation centered in the Czech lands in the 15th to early 17th centuries. Jones points out how both authors saw the political issues of their days in theological terms, believing that centering on Christ instead of mastering the political system was the Christian response. Chelcicky wrote about religious liberty in the 15th century, two centuries before Baptists. Komensky had an ecumenical understanding that was an anomaly for his time (17th century). The writings of both of these Czech authors are in English making them readily accessible for preaching, teaching and study groups.
The on-going war in Iraq, as well as terrorism by groups claiming to be Muslim, is prompting many Christians to learn more about Islam and the countries in which it dominates. There is a steady stream of material available in sundry periodicals. Iraq garners the focus of the November 1, 2003 issue of Christian Century (pp. 5, 8, 9). A comment column is devoted to the debate over the President’s request for $87 billion for projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. Opposing points of view are presented between George Hunsinger (“An illegitimate occupation”) and Martin L. Cook (“America’s obligation”) on the Iraq Dilemma. The October 2003 issue of Baptists Today (Vol. 21, No. 10, p. 27) includes an article by Holly Lebowitz Rossi, “ ‘Progressive Muslims’ work toward creating movement,” that informs readers about Muslims interpreting Islam “through the lenses of social and economic justice, environmentalism, feminism and religious pluralism….” There is a book, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism (Oneworld Publications) edited by Omid Safi and a web site, www.progressivemuslims.org. The extent of this movement is debated, but they are an expression of Islam about which non-Muslims should be informed.
For those concerned about Baptist identity and how it is being reinterpreted by those who call themselves Baptist, the October 2003 issue of Baptists Today (p. 9) includes a report by John Pierce on comments about the First Amendment by J. Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. Walker defines the complexity of religious liberty and says “it is important to find the balance evident in the First Amendment that both guarantees all Americans the freedom to express their religion freely and prevents the government from promoting one particular religion over others.” Understanding why the balance in the First Amendment is essential to our government as well as why today government leaders and the American public appear indifferent to it are topics worthy of preaching, teaching and small group discussion.