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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

"Re-Envisioning Baptist Identity" began to circulate roughly a decade ago. It received its greatest attention in the next couple of years among Former Southern Baptists, being published and debated in a news magazine called Baptists Today, and a scholarly journal of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion called Perspectives in Religious Studies. Discussions were held at academic conferences and with student and faculty groups at several universities and divinity schools. I will now make some rambling remarks that may not in all cases be even-handed.

Pastors and leaders among the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship were divided. Some resisted its criticism of individualism, while others thought the criticism was misguided. Some feared it presented a spectre of authoritarian church polity with official interpretations coming from people holding official positions. Some thought it sounded too Anabaptist for the mainstream. Some thought it accommodated itself too much to Roman Catholicism. Some said it undermined separation of church and state, even at times saying its views would lead to the neo-conservative renegotiation of the disestablishment of the church. A good deal of the controversy had to do with interpretations of key persons and historical periods and themes of Baptists.

Most of the original signers of the document were from among Former Southern Baptists. Some Baptists from the North and West, along with Black Baptists, resisted signing it because it seemed to be about concerns that were not the most central in their communities of Baptists. Still, some of them appreciated aspects of the document and agreed to sign in order to help foster a conversation. The issue of requesting signatures itself became controversial. Some thought that it made the document take on a kind of "creedal" status, which they saw as a serious offense against Baptist tradition. Most who signed it did so in the spirit of John Leland's description of the negotiated confession of the Union of Separate Baptists and Regular Baptists in Virginia--not to indicate complete agreement with every detail by every person.

The document had many weaknesses--for example, an overabundance of academic language, occasional bold use of language which left too many possibilities for diverse interpretations or misinterpretations, the cloud of ideas which was an effect of having been written by committee, and references to specific ideas and historical figures which were received as personal attacks by some scholars and pastors. It was too brief to cover all that might be important to say. But it was too long to be read and discussed in many ecclesial settings. It was written by academics who for the most part come from the context and background of Former Southern Baptists, and therefore it lacked a kind of consciousness of race, class, region, and variant traditions that would make it a more comprehensive statement. Few Canadian Baptists or Puerto Rican Baptists took an interest in it.

It's strengths, on the other hand, included its boldness, its willingness to raise criticisms of sacred cows, its reflection of scholarly work that reassessed officially orthodox interpretations of Baptist history, and its attention to certain reforming movements in contemporary theology and culture. In defense of its limitations, every theological statement reflects a certain history and context. This Manifesto did not attempt to speak for everyone nor to address every context. It especially aimed to address the English-speaking North American context. Even so, it was not a document to summarize the Baptist Moment of the turn of the millennium. Even some participants in the process of writing parted ways over the document. It was one statement, I hope an important one, to address a period of crisis among Baptists and across the culture of the U.S. Surprisingly, groups among English Baptists, Australian Baptists, and New Zealand Baptists found the document invigorating for discussions their churches were dealing with.

Some of the more vocal critics have claimed that the Manifesto attempted to address Baptists in language and categories from academic discourse and not in the language of the tradition. Bruce Prescott, who expressed some sympathy with the statement but had too many disagreements with it to sign it, wrote a briefer, more linguistically familiar alternative statement. Some prominent scholars have responded that the interpretations of Baptist history are incorrect. Another scholar has expressed that the revisions to Baptist identity should take a different trajectory than the directions charted by the Manifesto. Others from various circles have insisted that the genius of the Baptist movement IS the idea of religious individualism.

One writer has spent a good deal of time and ink fighting a surrogate battle from the 1980s. His latest essay calls the authors "Dixieland Postliberals," a caricature or straw enemy which becomes a foil to promote a version of Baptists-Come-Of-Age-To-Be-Power-Brokers-In-The-Real-World. The surrogate battle is between two academic camps identified with two sides of a disagreement between James Gustafson and Stanley Hauerwas.

I am a student of Stanley Hauerwas, and I admire his contributions to Christian theology. My work shows the mark of my teacher. I have admired James Gustafson's work as well, and his writing shaped my earliest studies in theology and ethics. I parted ways with his theological work at the point of his denial of the Trinity, of the divinity of Jesus. If Jesus is not God, then there is a whole different vision of theology and of the church in the world. I'm not hiding that by any means, so I don't need to fight a surrogate battle. I do need to serve God in such a way that the church is faithful to following Jesus.

It is the scandal of Jesus that makes Gustafson cringe about Christian theology. It is an old problem, going back to the battle between the Arians and the Trinitarians. It is at the heart of the Constantinian highjacking of the church. His god who bears up and bears down is available to us more in nature, reason, and culture than in the narrative of God in Israel, Jesus, and the church. Gustafson concludes that the European-style established church described by Troeltsch is the church we've got and the church we are stuck with, so we had better get on board with that kind of Culture Church if we want to have any influence. I don't believe that is our only option for influence. I don't think that is anything like the tradition of Baptist thought.

The disagreements of teacher and student between James Gustafson and Stanley Hauerwas grew over the years after they were both at Yale, and Gustafson sought to explain those differences by clarifying the charge that Hauerwas can be positionized through the label "sectarian." (James Gustafson, "The Sectarian Temptation: Reflections on Theology, the Church, and the University," Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 40 (1985): 83-94.) Many articles and books have been written to debate this question ever since. This writer, as a self-appointed surrogate for Gustafson, has treated the Manifesto and its authors as surrogates for Stanley Hauerwas in an effort to convince Baptists that they need to adopt the methodologies and perspectives of James Gustafson. I hope Baptists do not ever choose one theologian from whom they will learn. I also hope we never accept the pejorative label "sectarian" as an accurate description of disestablished, post-european-style churches, calling them dangerous, and ultimately unfaithful to God. If that is what it means to be a come-of-age, responsible Baptist, we had better pack our bags and get evangelized by African indigenous churches. That is probably a good idea anyway.

Fundamentalist Baptists, or Baptists of the Conservative Resurgence, as some prefer to be called, have mostly been uninterested in the Manifesto. Usually it gets classified as another sign of liberalism. Some have seen it as an inadequate critique of liberalism. Recently, I found it on blog that calls it an interesting example of internal critique among moderate Baptists, yet still bearing the taint of moderate theology.

I sometimes thought that the Baptifesto, as it has sometimes been called, would fade away and be forgotten. But periodically it seems to resurface. That is still happening. So to the extent that it can further conversation about what Baptists have been, are, and should be, I say long may it live. That would be enough. The point of writing this is to make note of the ongoing small conversations about this document. Below are a few links. If you know of others, important or trivial, I would appreciate your adding them to the comments.

A Recent Southern Baptist posting

Another recent Southern Baptist posting disinviting the authors of the Manifesto to be Southern Baptists

A recent compliment from Timothy George

Another recent posting

An essay by Walter Shurden

Bruce Prescott's links, first and second

A Southern Baptist essay on Baptist Identity which says the Manifesto departs from recognizable Baptist thought

A recent statement responding to charges that the Manifesto is "unbaptistic"

A recent comment related to the previous post on the Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank site

"The Unintended Consequences of Dixieland Postliberalism"

Confessions of a Dixieland Postliberal

A Baptist World Alliance discussion that footnotes the statement

A comment and question from a Presbyterian at a Catholic University

An odd argument that says the Manifesto's criticism of soul competency is unbaptistic and thereby should not be used to undermine the author's contention that Baptists should not teach abstinence toward alcohol

An essay from SBTS assessing E. Y. Mullins and the Manifesto's interpretation of him


Anonymous said...


How ironic. I just discovered your blog.

I've also just finished writing an MA thesis on the "Baptifesto" as part of Baylor's church-state studies program.

I very much appreciate your post and your analysis of the statement's strengths and weaknesses. My project was an attempt to provide a thick description of the Baptifesto within the context of (Southern) Baptist history and, more specifically, to show the deep congruence between its emphases and the work of JH Yoder. (The idea is that while some might dismiss the statement as "Hauerwasian" and therefore too crypto-Catholic for any serious baptist to consider, if it can be demonstrated to reflect Yoder's key claims, then the real issue is: what's the relationship between "Baptist identity" and an (ana)baptist-informed vision of "radical catholicity"?

If you send me your email, I'd be happy to send you a copy. I'd very much like your thoughts. I corresponded with Beth Newman quite a bit during the process.


Andy Black


DLW said...

I personally think Baptists as centered on the free-church heritage and bearing the marks of the theological and cultural grounds that they take root in. A lot of the conflicts stem from how Baptists have been theological dissenters from the status quo state-imposed ideology, but been unable to deal with the differences that emerged from our learning from different traditions, ie (specific reformed), (general anabaptist).

I've written on Swedish Baptist Pietism. In it, I covered a good deal of the early history of the Anglo-American Baptist tradition and then the European tradition and portrayed the Swedish Baptists as a hybrid between the two.

I think Baptist theology needs to be historical and contextual and centered on the notion that the Bible is the key source of ecclesial and social renewal and that Christianity was never meant to be the basis for nat'l unity.

As for individualism, what is fundamentally individual is our decision on whose shoulders we stand on in how we understand our world and ourselves and whether we want to be a part of remnant humanity or lost humanity.


Mike Broadway said...

I think the examination of distinct baptist traditions is the key research needed in this era of trying to reshape identity in relation to the larger community of churches. Your insight into the in-between place of Swedish Baptists is another prop holding open the door to saying there aren't just two ways of being baptist--the mainstream and the wanderer.

As for the paragraph on individualism, I don't know quite what to say. I try to walk a fairly confusing line between Arminian and Calvinist views, and therefore worry about even claiming to make a fundamental individual decision. It sounds a bit too much like the existential philosophers who were in awe of their own freedom in very tedious ways. But that may not be what you are saying. And in walking that line, I still recognize that some men got up from their nets when asked to follow.

I'd be interested in knowing more of what you mean by remnant humanity. I have been more inclined to use Augustinian language of two cities, with one city on pilgrimage. Raymond Rivera in the Bronx calls it "doing ministry in the situation of captivity." So I'd like to hear why you use the term remnant in this way.

Thanks for taking a look at my ramblings.

Coleman said...

Thanks for the summary, Dr. Broadway - it's alerted me to some info and commentary I was unaware of!

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