Book Review: Towards Baptist Catholicity

Steven R. Harmon. Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision (Studies in Baptist History and Thought Volume 27). Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2006.

There are objectively good books (well researched, beautifully written, well structured, etc), and there are books that truly resonate with you personally- which address the exact thing you need addressed, and sometimes you may even find books that are both. This one is both for me. Steven Harmon has written the exact book I needed to read at this point. And I don’t just say that because we’re “friends” on Facebook and I am pretty sure he’s going to read this. This truly is the book I needed in my current context, and it is truly superbly written. My hope is to write a follow up piece to this review which unpacks some of the more personal context surrounding why this book resonated the way it did, but that would not fit into a review of the book itself.

Towards Baptist Catholicity is a collection of various essays, most of which come out of prior papers and lectures Harmon presented, now collected together and reworked to be coherent around a single topic: the inherent value in Baptists recovering tradition (particularly from patristic sources) as a source of authority and direction to bring revitalization to the Baptist vision and movement. Harmon demonstrates how early Baptists sought to maintain a connection to antiquity and included resonances of the ancient creeds in their confessions of faith (using specifically Nicene rather than biblical vocabulary) consciously placing themselves within the historic, catholic, apostolic tradition, albeit as voices of dissent against the then present state of the Church. Later Baptist confessions began removing these explicit resonances, or in some cases, ditching confessions and creeds altogether in favour of a “no creed but the bible” approach to theology. In doing so, the Baptist movement developed under an increasing influence of modernity, and the triadic narrative Gospel (the work of God in history through the three persons of the Trinity) was displaced by a Gospel of intellectual assent to a collection of more abstracted doctrines extrapolated from newly developed methods of exegesis (this influence manifested in two separate directions within protestantism; fundamentalism and “liberal” theologies equally drinking from the same well). Harmon’s suggestion is that as modernity continues to shift away from the Enlightenment ideals, the narrative forms of traditional orthodoxy and catholicity, and the means of communicating that theology liturgically, can and should be recovered as a guide for the Baptist movement, shifting from its position as dissenters from outside of tradition, to dissenters within the catholic tradition. We need not become Catholic in the sense of Roman Catholic, but develop a sense of Baptists as part of catholicity- a “thick ecumenism” which draws heavily from the broader church rather than reduced to the results of individualistic modern exegesis.

Throughout, Harmon shows his skill as a historical theologian, digging deep into early English Baptist confessions and the changes which come in later Baptist confessions (the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, and the various revisions of the SBC’s Faith and Message). He also digs into his speciality: patristic sources, as well as several modern theologians who sought similar recovery of patrisitic sources for the 20th and 21st century church (Oden, Barth, etc.). The primary source research is stunning, as is the frequent engagement with secondary sources from a variety of perspectives (though at times perhaps a bit heavy on folks with whom he agrees).

Harmon also includes considerable personal reflection from his own experience within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) which went through tremendous conflict while Harmon was in the theological education process. That conflict ultimately saw a more conservative demographic take over leadership and reshape the identity of the denomination leading to a large group breaking with the convention to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), with whom Harmon is currently affiliated. The concluding chapter addresses the question “what keeps you from becoming Catholic”; a reflection on why Harmon remains part of the Baptist tradition while still pushing for a development of catholicity within that tradition rather than change affiliations. My own thinking and experience has been similar to Harmon’s, and I hope to share some of my own thoughts in the follow up piece. Harmon’s conclusion is that Baptist identity is not something to be shed easily. He identifies some reservations around Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox practice and doctrine, which he argues are important, but would not ultimately be insurmountable for him to make a shift. For Harmon it is the ecclesial identity which keeps him where he is; he was formed and shaped within a particular tradition, and moving from one body to another would require breaking of fellowship; to become Catholic is to sever a relationship with Baptists, to break communion, and in essence assert the body which discipled him to be a false body. He concludes that a far better way forward is not to break with one and join another. Instead he suggests; “before the separated churches can move towards visible unity, they must first go deep within their own traditions in order to recover elements of catholicity that once characterized their own churches but have been subsequently neglected.”(202) In other words, the unity of the Church as a whole cannot be achieved through individuals severing ties with their formative traditions, but through a consistent reflection on the way in which one’s community has moved and developed, and a push to recover an identity as part of the catholic church. By revisiting the sources of Christian tradition, and looking at the means by which the Church communicated its faith in early catholic expression (liturgy, calendar, eucharist, etc.) Baptists can recover an identity within a tradition flowing out of and in communion with the Church through history, rather than a voice of dissent distancing itself from everything which came in between the Apostles and the present.

Harmon’s challenge is an important one, not just for Baptists but for all protestants- to think deeply, creatively, and critically about what the ramifications of our break with tradition and catholicity really means for us. The refusal to accept tradition as a source of authority in favour of a “no creed but the bible” approach has consequences, some of which are quite harmful. It fails to recognize the role and impact of individual interpretation. Harmon includes a “case study” of sorts highlighting the patristic exegesis of the Epistle to the Hebrews and how many modern conflicts, especially when Calvinists and Arminians examine Hebrews 6:1-8, could potentially be rerouted, because the text in patristic exegesis never produced the same conflicts, because they approached the text differently. The “no creed but the bible” approach has proven to have fracturing effect among evangelicals rather than a unifying one. Harmon suggests that the tradition of the Church can possibly assist in finding unity not in uniform interpretation of Scripture, but in the core narrative expressed in the early creeds. By recovering this catholicity by going back to the creeds, the church year which walks through the narrative each year, increased frequency of the Lord’s Supper, and other aspects which were part of early Baptist identity, but later cut out, we can potentially bring a renewed sense of unity to a fractured group.

I would certainly place this into the “required reading” category for Baptist leaders. Harmon’s voice is one which, if heeded, I believe can make a difference in drawing people back together. The individualism, dissension, anti-traditionalism, “chronological snobbery”, and in some cases anti-intellectualism/fundamentalism often evident in recent (mid 18th century – present) Baptist thought is confronted with gracious, constructive, and highly intelligent reminders of our identity and a vision of what can be recovered and built on. The work begun in this book (and by other Baptist theologians who have worked closely with Harmon on some join statements included as appendices) can help us chart a course towards a renewed, constructive, unified identity which will be of great benefit as we seek to respond to the challenges of the shift in our cultural context.

Posted in Baptist, books, church, history, leadership, liturgy, practical theology, Stuff I Like, theology, worship | Leave a comment

Reach Out Your Hand

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017. Reach Out Your Hand (John 20:19-29)



Raymond E. Brown. The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI. (AB). Garden City: Doubleday, 1970.

F.F. Bruce. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.

Steven R. Harmon. Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2006.

Craig S. Keener. The Gospel of John Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Marianne Meye Thompson. John (NTL). Louisville: WJK, 2015.

Posted in church, culture, discipleship, gospel, history, Jesus, John's Gospel, Kingdom of God, New Testament, practical theology, resurrection, Sermon Podcast, theology, worship | Leave a comment

He Saw and Believed

Sunday, April 16th, 2017 (Easter Sunday).

SonRise Service reading: Paschal Homily of John Chrysostom


He Saw and Believed (John 20:1-18)



Raymond E. Brown. The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI. (AB). Garden City: Doubleday, 1970.

F.F. Bruce. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.

Craig S. Keener. The Gospel of John Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Marianne Meye Thompson. John (NTL). Louisville: WJK, 2015.

Posted in Easter, Jesus, John's Gospel, Kingdom of God, New Testament, resurrection, Sermon Podcast, theology | Leave a comment


Friday, April 14th, 2017 (Good Friday). Scandalous. Preached during a joint service at New Sarum Baptist Church.



Raymond E. Brown. The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI. (AB). Garden City: Doubleday, 1970.

F.F. Bruce. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.

Gordon D. Fee. The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Revised Edition) (NICNT). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014.

David E. Garland. 1 Corinthians (BECNT). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Richard B. Hays. First Corinthians (Int.). Louisville: WJK, 1997.

Craig S. Keener. The Gospel of John Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Anthony C. Thiselton. The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Marianne Meye Thompson. John (NTL). Louisville: WJK, 2015.

Thomas F. Torrance. Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.

— Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2008.

NT Wright. The Day the Revolution Began. New York: Harper One, 2016.

Posted in Easter, gospel, Jesus, John's Gospel, Kingdom of God, New Testament, Paul, Sermon Podcast, theology | Leave a comment

Hosanna in the Highest!

Sunday, April 9th, 2017 (Palm Sunday). Hosanna in the Highest! (Matthew 21:1-11)

Norman Mosaic, Palermo, Sicily



Craig L. Blomberg Matthew (NAC). Nashville: Broadman, 1992.

Raymond E. Brown. The Gospel According to John I-XII. (AB). Garden City: Doubleday, 1966.

RT France. The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

John Goldingay & Pamela J. Scalise. Minor Prophets II (UBCS). Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.


Craig S. Keener. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

— The Gospel of John Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Ralph L. Smith. Micah-Malachi (WBC). Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984.

Marianne Meye Thompson. John (NTL). Louisville: WJK, 2015.

NT Wright. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.

Posted in gospel, Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus, Kingdom of God, Lent, New Testament, NT Wright, Old Testament, Palm Sunday, Sermon Podcast, theology | Leave a comment

Book Review: Paul and Gender

Cynthia Long Westfall. Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.

“Of making many books there is no end” (Eccl. 12:12). Sometimes this is how it feels with the debates surrounding gender and the Bible. The back and forth between complementarians and egalitarians goes on and on, with seemingly little or no new ground being broken, and the same basic arguments being reproduced. It gets a little wearisome at times. This was my fear when I got wind that my former professor at McMaster Divinity College, Dr. Cynthia Long Westfall was publishing a book on Paul and gender. Would this be a rehashing of the content of Keener and Payne’s work on the same topic? Could anything be added to those lengthy studies? However, I was also cautiously optimistic, since Dr. Westfall’s expertise in discourse analysis, Greco-Roman rhetoric and culture, and prowess with the subject matter, could bring some nuance and clarity. She exceeded any expectations I had. I knew it would probably be good, but this was outstanding (and, yes, I have a bias because she was my professor, and because we agree on this subject, but bias aside, this is still objectively a great book).

The Bible in general, and Paul more specifically, is often a source of tension with regards to gender. Paul has been accused of being sexist, or at the very least, that he put significant limitations on women’s roles within the home and the Church with strict prohibitions against their participation in leading, teaching, or having authority (cf. 1 Cor. 14:34-35, 1 Tim. 2:11-15). But, as studies have continued to show, things are not as simple as they may seem. Dr. Westfall reads the Pauline letters as complete wholes (rather than in snippets used as proof-texts) and does so within the context of Greco-Roman and Jewish culture, and social structures (with special attention given to patron-client relationships). By doing so, she reads the “clobber passages” within the complete discussion of gender, and places that discussion within Paul’s discussions of authority more generally (the vocabulary and imagery used in depicting leadership and authority), the body, creation, eschatology, etc. and demonstrates that much of the imagery and language runs counter the common understanding of male leadership and female submission.

A good example of how Westfall brings a fresh reading comes as she interprets Paul’s images of leadership, which often invoke imagery which in the first century would be understood to be feminine, and how that applies to relations between men and women. One the key examples is one of complementarianism’s key passages; Ephesians 5:22ff. There, Christ’s “headship” (and Westfall does do an awful lot of fleshing out of the meaning of the Greek word kephale, showing it rarely means authority over, and carries a sense of origin or source or preceeding) which is mirrored in the husband’s headship in relation to his wife, is couched in images of washing and stain removal. The man’s “headship” looks like doing laundry. Given the call of all Christians to submit to each other (Eph. 5:21) and the discussion of husbands and wives flowing from that, which uses different terms than we see in parent-child and master-slave discussion, we see Paul shifting out of patriarchal understandings rather than upholding them. Thus, the husband’s call to love as Christ loved, is followed by an explanatory image of submission and service, not a typical image of authority. This opens up a whole new way of reading texts like Romans 16 in which Paul commends multiple females leaders, who he identifies as deacons, patrons, apostles, co-workers and people who “toil” with him. The Greek verbs “co-work” (synergeo) and “toil” (kopiao) are indicators of leadership, as Westfall indicates through Paul’s use of these terms in 1 Cor. 16:15-16, which instructs the Corinthians to submit (Greek hypotasso) to anyone who co-works or toils.

Payne’s work on manuscript data, and grammatical study was solid, but what Westfall adds to the discussion through her discourse analysis and investigation into Greco-Roman rhetoric on gender, builds on the work which precedes, and cuts new ground. By reading not just the clobber-texts, and the counter-clobber-texts, but reading the whole sweep of Paul’s work, and examining how the piece of gender roles fit together with the other pieces of creation, fall, eschatology, authority and leadership, and cultural norms of the first century, we see a newer, more robust picture emerge.

While many of the conclusions are the same as other egalitarians’ works, the arguments are strengthened considerably by this new, deeper, contextual, more sensitive reading. These new questions are vital. How does Paul’s hellenism and his Judaism inform his choices of imagery and rhetorical style, and where does he seem to deviate, and how would that be heard by his original audience? How does Paul’s understanding of creation, fall, and redemption relate to gender? How does Paul’s reading of the body and sexuality (e.g. 1 Cor. 6-7) inform relationships in the family and church? How do the household structures of the ancient world, and social relationships outside it, when employed to describe gender affect how we read Paul’s discussions of gender? What about eschatology and soteriology, especially in texts like Galatians 3:28? Does this not affect how we understand gender roles rather than just equal soteriological standing? (Hint: yes, it absolutely does) If the person and work of Christ and the ongoing presence of the Spirit form leadership and authority, and redeem humanity, male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, from the effects of the fall, what does that look like, and what does Paul’s choice of the imagery of service and domestic roles mean?

As a result of the tearing down of these destructive systems, many women in Paul’s circle come into key leadership positions, and the women in Corinth are encouraged to exercise freedom to prophecy and pray in the gatherings (1 Cor. 11), with heads covered, which was a cultural symbol not of subjugation of honourable status for women. This reinterpretation of the head-coverings is a remarkable distinction between the work of Westfall among other egalitarian scholars (e.g. Philip Payne). She argues that Paul is encouraging all women, not just those of married free-woman status to wear the symbol of honour. Young, unmarried women, and female slaves were typically not to wear head-coverings, and the wearing of head-coverings symbolized a woman coming under the cover of a man. Thus, Paul is arguing a woman has an honour of her own, not through marital or social status, but from her creation in the image of God as a woman, and that woman as “the glory of man” is not an indicator of subordination, but that she shares in the image of God and of man, and was created to complete man, and carries an additional glory. Thus women are neither ontologically lower than men, or restricted in role, with the provision that she cover her head to demonstrate her honour, rather than remain uncovered suggesting a lower position. Since 1 Cor. 11 states that women in Corinth were praying and prophesying, and 11:11-12 speak of the mutual dependence and origin (Eve came from Adam, and all subsequent men being from a woman), any assumptions of women prohibited from leadership in the gathering of the church or in the family doesn’t the overall picture Paul is creating from the home and the church.

One final argument worth noting is the emphasis Westfall places on the location of the gathered church- in the home. In Greco-Roman thinking, a woman’s sphere was the home. Paul even calls young widows to remarry and to oikodespotein (“rule the house”; often softened to “manage their homes”, but this is misleading). The church gathering was not a public gathering, but a domestic one. In the domestic world, women were used to leading and managing. Thus, in the early church, women naturally stepped into leadership roles.

Westfall’s conclusion is that Paul supports a movement away from patriarchy towards an egalitarian view of gender, in which men and women partner together and support each other in fully expressing their giftedness, and all leadership roles, whether in the home, church, or society, are open to both genders. This does not in any way remove the distinction between the genders, or reduce gender to anatomy. But it does allow for women to fully engage in leadership, and use their gifts from preaching, teaching, leading, or whatever, recognizing that these tasks may legitimately be done by people of either gender, even though the expression of those roles may look different coming from one gender than it does form the other.

She does this not, as some suggest of egalitarians, by setting aside clear directives from the New Testament, but by showing how those passages read in light of a larger theology, and the flow of Paul’s argument, and through close examination of Paul’s overall argument and choice of vocabulary, do not support the complementarian reading. The proof-text approach does not hold up to the scrutiny Westfall brings. The picture which emerges from Westfall’s research is a coherent theological vision of power structures like patriarchy being counter to the vision of God at creation, and the vision which Christ’s work in the world is bringing into being as Paul taught.

Westfall puts the most often cited complementarian arguments (Carson, Schreiner, Moo, Grudem, Piper, etc.) under close scrutiny and reveals their shortcomings. She has put together a masterpiece of a study, which should (and I think probably will) become standard reading for seminarians as we attempt to shape a theology of gender within a broader biblical (or more specifically Pauline) theology, as opposed to the cherry picking bible verses to define gender roles approach. What Wesfall has presented is thorough, compelling, honest, and overall a “game changer” of a book. I didn’t think there was new ground to break, but was happily proven wrong by this one. This brings fresh perspective, and sets a new course of investigation. She doesn’t just present a new piece, but broadens the possibilities for future discussion in her breaking of new ground. By taking a different road than egalitarian scholars, the same data (the letters of Paul) yields new and important conclusions and raises new challenges.

Posted in books, culture, egalitarianism, leadership, New Testament, Paul, practical theology, Stuff I Like, theology | 2 Comments

How Then Were Your Eyes Opened?

Sunday, March 26th, 2017. “How Then Were Your Eyes Opened?” (John 9)



Raymond E. Brown. The Gospel According to John I-XII. (AB). Garden City: Doubleday, 1966.

F.F. Bruce. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.

Eugene R. Fairweather. The Meaning and Message of Lent. New York: Harper, 1962.

Craig S. Keener. The Gospel of John Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Marianne Meye Thompson. John (NTL). Louisville: WJK, 2015.

Posted in discipleship, gospel, Jesus, John's Gospel, Kingdom of God, Lent, New Testament, Sermon Podcast, theology | Leave a comment