Yesterday I attended the Annual Celebration of American Baptist Churches in Rhode Island. The event was held at The Baptist Church in Warren, RI, a beautiful sanctuary of a historic (1764) church. The diversity of ABCORI is a wonderful thing and provides a cross section of ethnicities that is difficult to duplicate in any one denomination, except perhaps the United Methodists and maybe the Assembly of God.
Rev. Joe Kutter was the keynote speaker. The subject, no matter the announced topic, was an expression of concern about the decline of the American Baptists. It’s a well known story. The ABC isn’t merely declining. It is redefining the meaning of the power of gravity. Like all mainline denominations, after the heyday of the 1950’s under the influence of leaders like Reinhold Niehbuhr, the decline has been so rapid that no one can find the brakes. It is not just a decline. It is a “fall off the cliff” decline. See Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion. Niehbuhr and company provided American Protestantism a way out of the Enlightenment Protestant Liberalism of the early 1900’s without the full robust Christian orthodoxy of the historic Protestant creeds, particularly their insistence on the miraculous and the infallibility of Holy Scripture.
American Baptist churches make up 1.2% of the population. In 2008, the denomination had 1,331,127 members in 5,469 churches. In contrast explicitly evangelical churches with no mainline denominational affiliation make up 26.3% of the population. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest grouping among the Evangelicals, is 6.7% of the population.
Rev. Kutter’s jeremiad provided no way out. His preference is that the Biblical literalists back off (my characterization) and realize that those who are of the supposed Pauline stream of Christianity (not rooted in the literal school of biblical interpreters represented by the Judaizers but in an “encounter” with the risen Christ) have a place at the table, too.
My responses are several:
1. I reject the asserted characterization of Pauline Christianity. Paul’s theology was the theology of the apostolic band. Each author of the New Testament books surely brings a diversity to the many angles of Christian revelation, but Paul submitted his interpretation of Christ to the pillars of the church and had it affirmed as their own. The reality is that the Judaizers, to use Rev. Kutter’s characterization, were considered by all of the church as not Christian at all, for they were found teaching a “gospel” that was no good news, that salvation was first determined by Gentile believers keeping the Jewish holiness codes that had to do with ceremonial laws. There was no room there for the core truth of our faith, grace. This characterization of division in early Christianity is 1950’s scholarship of the mainline. Sure, it hangs on. But it no longer has a major place at the theological table. See J Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism.
2. Rev. Kutter exhorted the Judaizers in the ABC to back off their literalistic hermeneutic and make way for “fresh truth.” We can’t expect, he reiterated, something true 20 years ago to be true today. It depends on what he means by that. He didn’t say. If you are going to make that statement, you had better say what that means and what it doesn’t mean. In light of where the ABC has been and is theologically, my guess is that it doesn’t mean good things for a Protestant Evangelical.
3. There were no exhortations for the supposed Pauline stream of Christianity in the ABC. I wonder why. Have they nothing to learn from the conflict?
4. Rev. Kutter’s reference to the Holy Spirit as “her” came across as cutesy and unworthy of a keynote address. I guess he is not a Judaizer. People around me snickered and laughed in a manner that didn’t indicate any censure or concern. I was deeply saddened, my soul troubled. This is not because I am an uptight conservative Evangelical. I know metaphor when I see it and can appreciate it, such as The Shack’s portrayal of God the Father as a black woman who oversees the family with deep parental love of the strong but affectionate and seriously humorous kind. I love The Shack and recommend it and take a bit of heat for it. We know that God is not male or female. But the Bible does speak of Father and Son in the male gender. The Holy Spirit is in the neuter, without a feminine or masculine ending. Nowhere is the personal pronoun “she” applied to the Holy Spirit, and since the Holy Spirit is given the attributes of personality, the Christian Tradition never gives the appellation “it” to the third person of the Trinity. In keeping with the attribution of personality to the Trinity, the Christian Tradition for 2,000 years addresses the Holy Spirit as “he.”
4. The one thing that everyone knows about the American Baptist decline is that it is a theological decline. It’s not demographic decline, ministry methods decline, an urban as opposed to suburban decline, or an East Coast as opposed to Midwest and West coast decline. The fact is that nobody is buying what ABC seminaries are putting on the theological table. Sure, there are many Evangelicals in the ABC, but it is not a denomination that can be characterized as maintaining historic Protestant orthodoxy as part of its DNA. This is the one thing Rev. Kutter should have said. It is the elephant in the room. Then he could make his case for why things should be as they are with the ABC and why “literalists” should support it. One thing is for sure, the ABC will not emerge as a major force in American Christianity (as they now are not) if the conservatives back off. Actually they are backing off by leaving.
5. While I am an Evangelical, I work very hard to extend charity and generosity to those who are making substantial points and expressing real concerns about wooden interpretations of Holy Scripture. I think that I usually draw a larger circle than most Evangelicals. That would be a whole other post, or several posts. But I also remain convinced that there is an anti-supernaturalism at work that must be tracked and identified when it raises its head and diminishes the Christian Tradition. It will always be seen as “judaizing” when the conflict is engaged. The charge against such as me will always be that I am a literalist. Like Thomas Oden, I prefer the word he coined, Paleo-Orthodox. Essentially I seek merely to express the Christian consensus of the church’s four ecumenical councils in the first five centuries. I am a Baptist (through and through), and while I teach the Bible with my heritage of biblical interpretation in mind, knowing that the Bible alone is final arbiter of all things theological (and otherwise), I know the difference between being denominational and being Paleo-Orthodox.
Here I am going to stop. The pot I am stirring is bubbling and soon there will be mess in the galley of the church.