Baptist Catholicity: Tradition as Authority

Mark 1 of Baptist Catholicity: Tradition as a Source of Authority

The first passage underlined in my intro to theology textbook…

is a sentence where the author declares something a “clear heresy”. I underlined the passage in frustrated anxiety and wrote in the margins “according to who?!” The book presented a variety of views on important issues in the faith, then would narrow down and exclude beliefs considered by that author to be heresy. I didn’t understand how someone could so clearly define “right” from “wrong” when presenting a wide variety of perspectives. In my mind, where the only authority apart from God was the Bible, it seemed that just about any position could be prooftexted from the Scriptures. What we forget so often in the Baptist world is that our theological fights have been fought before, with the Scriptures, and in the Spirit. Instead of prooftexting every position to fit our views, or to confirm what our pastor tells us, we can look at centuries of arguments and receive generations of teaching on issue. Through these vast halls of history, our church community has deemed certain views to be out of line with the faith as a whole. You see, looking back toward the Great Tradition of Christianity, I could see that it wasn’t the ego of my textbook author declaring things heresy, it was (at least most of the time) the voices of centuries of Christians discerning issues carefully.

To be honest, I’m still not particularly comfortable with the term “heresy”, but I use this example to demonstrate why the Tradition of Christianity can still speak to us today. To use the more academic language of Steven Harmon: “Baptists might more easily embrace tradition if they move beyond an understanding of tradition as a continuity of static doctrinal propositions to more dynamic ‘retrospective’ understanding of tradition as a critical, open-ended ‘looking back’ to the Christian past in configuring continuity for present contexts”. The past isn’t just a bunch of Catholic nonsense, as many Baptists believe. The past has shaped absolutely everything about the present. The living memories of our great cloud of witnessess carry us forward into the future on that same narrow, winding path of the Christ.

So if Tradition is Important…

…how will we implement this Great Tradition into our lives? Does it mean becoming a church history scholar? Does it mean going forward from this MDiv experience into a PhD in the Tradition of the church? Well. Maybe. But for a starting place, I’d say simply approaching theological issues with which we struggle or don’t fully grasp with a faithful study of the history behind it and the conversations our ancestors have already initiated. May we look into things deeply, from the Scriptures through the discerning of the Holy Spirit. But let’s look deeply into the conversations people have already had about these things. Let’s look at how they practically lived in light (or in opposition) of these views. Let’s try to read into the words behind our text.

The next six marks of Baptist Catholicity suggest ways to lean into this living witness. I’m under no misconception that viewing the faith through this lens is perfect, and I’m committed to God being the ultimate authority in this life. But if you’re interested in this approach to Baptist life, follow along with me. It could be quite interesting.