We believe… in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. (The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, 381 AD)
In my undergrad I took a course on the intellectual history of Europe in the Post French Revolution era. Our major assignment was a biographical paper on an influential thinker from that period which we drew from a hat. I drew John Henry Newman, a key leader of the Oxford Movement. Despite his vocal denunciations of the papacy, he was eventually received into the Roman Catholic Church, even becoming a Cardinal. A key turning point in his journey was a study of the heresies of the early church, and the Creeds of the early church councils. In particular, the the confession of belief in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church”. Many of us who identify as protestant get squeamish around the word catholic. But of course, the Vatican doesn’t own that word- it simply means universal. The early church believed in just one church in all places and times.
I have had various periods of deep sympathy for Newman’s struggle. How can I, as a baptist- a protestant- confess that I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church? There have been attempts to draw lines from the early baptists back to the apostles, but these are terribly strained, and to claim that the baptists are the universal church is problematic at best (completely absurd at worst). So do I drop the Creed and sever ties to the historical confession of the Church? Well that’s problematic. Do I “swim the Tiber” and become Roman Catholic? Or become Eastern Orthodox (since there claim to Apostolicity is arguably stronger than the Vatican’s)? Do I go for the via media of the Anglican communion which connects their bishops to the historical line back to the Apostles and claims to be a communion which is part of the one catholic church but doesn’t claim to be the sole claimant of the designation one catholic church? Or do I find some way to embrace my Baptist identity with all the tension it requires? The last option is where I’ve landed. It’s awkward, but the alternatives are, for me, just as much so, if not more.
First, I think it’s worth asking is the belief in a single, unified church necessary? The bishops gathered in Constantinople in 381 thought so (and there were important historical factors for the update to the Creed to include this assertion). Jesus prayed for the unity of his people (John 17:20-21), and Paul wrote there is one body, and the unity of that body must be maintained (Ephesians 4:3-6). So this idea of a single church is both biblically, and historically vital, essential even… and yet, here we are, a body deeply divided. Where is this one body? Who is part of it and who is schismatic and false?
These questions began swirling again last year, for the umpteenth time, because of a few interactions with other clergy friends, and really got going when my social media feed was flooded with both pro and con stuff surrounding the T4G conference, the theme of which was “We Are Protestant”; an evangelical conference beginning celebrations of the protestant reformation’s 500th anniversary. And of course, my thoughts were “why is this a cause for boasting and celebration”? Shouldn’t the breaking apart of the already split Body of Christ be cause for lament?
More recently these questions came to a head when I read Steve Harmon’s Towards Baptist Catholicity. Harmon, and other recent baptists have done impeccable work in examining early baptist confessions and their attempts to navigate their connection to the historical church- the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Harmon suggests that early baptists intentionally retained language which reflected/echoed the creeds of the early church, and they were keen to maintain an identity within the apostolic tradition. In the 1700s, a shift began, partly in response to the challenges of the Enlightenment, towards a “no creed but the bible” mentality which became increasingly distinct from the historical trajectory of the church, and from liturgical traditions and historical methods of articulating doctrine and prayer. Harmon and others have called for a baptist recovery of more catholic, historical, liturgical traditions like recitation of the Creeds, reading the Church Fathers as a source of authority (obviously of course not equal to Scripture, but authoritative as a help to interpretation of Scripture and for liturgical tradition), and other parts of the theology and practice of church traditions.
In his concluding chapter, Harmon reflects on the question of why he doesn’t just move over to the Catholic, or perhaps Orthodox or Anglican tradition, all of which embrace these practices and can lay some claim to apostolic tradition? If we profess a belief in a single church, how can we stay in a denomination which is part of a schismatic movement? Is not our communion in opposition to our profession? I’ve been asked the same question myself- and more than one person has said, only half-jokingly, I’d make a better Anglican than I do a Baptist. There is so much I love about the high church traditions of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. For instance, I think their attention to tradition provides them with tools developed over time which evangelicals desperately need; practice of the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, confession, liturgy, lectio divina, the church calendar, art, etc. These practices have created a much deeper, fuller, more robust spiritual theology and appreciation of beauty, wonder, mystery. Evangelicals often dismiss these things as “empty ritualism” but I’ve found them to be anything but empty. The evangelical skepticism of these things is disheartening and robbing us of so much potential. The “no creed but the bible” attitude which developed in evangelical thought generally and baptists particularly has removed our connection to the great cloud of witnesses and contains within it a very dangerous element; the idea that I can read the Scriptures apart from the body of Christ without causing damage to the body, my interpretation of the Scriptures (or the interpretation presented by some which I prefer to make my own), and myself. This isn’t to in any way diminish the authority of the Bible (as is often the accusation) but to recognize that Scripture comes into existence in the context of the Church and that the Church was the vehicle of inspiration of the text. To disconnect the Scriptures from the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” and read it in isolation from our history is to misunderstand what the Bible actually is. No creed but the bible is, in reality, naive at best, and destructive and unbiblical at worst.
Of course, I have interpretation and doctrinal differences with the Catholic/Anglican/Orthodox traditions (more below), but there are times when I think they have it right, and my own tradition is wrong. For example, the Eastern Orthodox understanding of soteriology and the meaning of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus developed by the Eastern Fathers is, I believe, more biblical than the model most often espoused by evangelicals (which understands the cross in terms of forensic imputation and/or satisfaction of God’s holiness and wrath, and fits incredibly awkwardly with the Incarnation). I am consistently amazed by the biblical scholarship and gracious, robust thinking which has been happening in the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox communions over the past several decades. Show me an evangelical who has the exegetical prowess of Luke Timothy Johnson or the late Joseph Fitzmyer SJ. And show me a more concise, beautiful, inspiring introduction to the Christian faith than Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way. Or show me a better author on pastoral practice than Henri Nouwen. And who in the evangelical world is as influential right now as NT Wright?
But I am still Baptist. And I have no plans to move, in spite of a few tensions with that identity.
So why do I stay put?
First, there the doctrinal concerns. Harmon admits that he has valid doctrinal disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion and I, as a Baptist, share these and similar concerns (Baptism, Mariology, Papal authority, transubstantiation, the ordination of women). I admit that the case for many of these doctrines are better than most protestants actually think. But I still can’t embrace them. So can I belong where liturgical practice and doctrinal confessions declare things I believe to be false?
Like Harmon I wonder if these can or should be barriers to fellowship. Can I disagree within the one body? Harmon envisions an opportunity for baptists to be dissenters within the apostolic tradition, rather than outsiders to the tradition. Now, most would probably be quick to say that these doctrinal differences do require separation, but I’d echo Harmon’s caution here. I say that for two reasons; first, most evangelicals have no problem worshipping and praying with folks of other traditions with whom the disagree on certain doctrinal things (e.g. Baptists typically get along well with Presbyterians even though they adamantly disagree on baptism). So, where do we draw the lines between willingness to pray/worship/minister together and actually have denominational fellowship (especially since denominations are the very problem I’m wrestling with here). Second, do I agree with Baptists on all issues of doctrine? Of course there are various Baptist fellowships, and the denomination to which I belong is just one. But do I always agree with the Baptists within my own denomination? No. In fact, one colleague even declared his hatred of my doctrinal positions from the pulpit of the congregation where he serves. And yet those disagreements apparently do not require a separation. Why is that? For myself, within the CBOQ I can appreciate the allowance for a spectrum of belief on many subjects, so I’m not opposing any of our official doctrines. Everything I hold to doctrinally is well attested within the scope of historical orthodoxy- within the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church”, as well as within the baptist tradition more broadly. However, some of my doctrine and liturgical and spiritual practices fit a bit awkwardly among my own tradition, and quite comfortably elsewhere.
I think the strength of my own denomination is the allowance for this diversity. Some disagree on this. That’s fair. I can appreciate the desire for likeness of mind on this. But I’ve also read enough of the Early Church Fathers to know that they allowed for more freedom and diversity than we often assume.
Second, and more importantly: these are my people. Harmon concludes that leaving the tradition where he was discipled in the faith, that is the community which invested in him, would be a breach of a cherished fellowship, leaving one’s own people. And I have similar tensions. I am a Baptist. I was baptized in a baptist church, by a baptist pastor, went to 3 different baptist post-secondary schools. I was called by a baptist church to pastor, and am now ordained by the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. But perhaps more importantly, I was called here to Centre Street Baptist Church specifically, and still feel as strongly (or even stronger) now about my calling to be here, ministering with and to these particular people, this particular congregation.
Not too long ago I was having lunch with the priest at the nearby Catholic Church, and we discussed the idea of boundaries of fellowship between us. His own tradition frames the limits around the Eucharist. He and I can pray together, worship together, eat together, etc. But he cannot serve me the Eucharist because the broken Eucharistic fellowship of our two communions lamentably constrains him. He asked if he came to Centre Street, would he be allowed to participate with us. My answer was that since we practice open communion, (those who profess faith in Jesus Christ are welcomed; the old cliche that this is not our table, not a baptist table, but the Lord’s table) nothing on our side actually prohibits him from participating with us. He was surprised, and said he’d likely not partake.
And there I think is the proverbial rub for me. Why can I not leave the tradition I’m in for another? Because to do so would require me to sever table fellowship with the community which led me to Christ, and bore witness with me as I was baptized, and taught me to pray, and read Scripture; the folks who taught me to belong to the Body of Christ. Belonging elsewhere would also mean not belonging with my people.
These are my people. I am part of this group which is lamentably not visibly part of a single catholic church. Are we irreparably broken? Will the schism only end when Christ returns and sets all things right? There should be really tension and heartbreak among us, which I don’t think has sunk in as it should among protestants. How can we build more and more bridges? How can we develop greater ecumenical sharing and co-operation in serving God’s Kingdom here on earth? I have to echo Harmon, that developing a greater appreciation of the history of the Church, and reclaiming a sense of belonging to the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church is probably the best way to move towards greater unity.