On November 4th I attended an ecumenical conference between Catholics and Lutherans which focused on commonalities and differences in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (October 31, 2017). I then spoke as the Baptist voice on an ecumenical panel. This is the text of my address.
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I was raised in a conservative Pentecostal home where the ethical dilemma I faced every October could be summarized with a simple question: Is it okay to celebrate Halloween? Eventually that question was resolved and we now commemorate All Hallows Eve with a lit jack-o-lantern, faux cobwebs and a bowl of candy for the neighborhood ghosts and ghouls.
But now as a seminary professor, I realize that I have traded one October ethical dilemma for another. The question these days has become this: is it okay to celebrate Reformation Day?
Many of my Christian, and even Protestant friends think not. For example, one friend quipped recently that saying “Happy Reformation Day” is akin to saying “Happy Ash Wednesday.” The Reformation provides an occasion for lament, he says, not celebration.
I understand what my friend is saying. The origin and ongoing nature of the schism created by the Reformation is a matter for lament and a cause for ongoing ecclesial self-examination. Bruce Marshall put the point provocatively in a 2001 First Things article. He said,
“Only in the deliberate departure of the Spirit from the Church can we find an adequate explanation for the hardened durability of Christian division and the striking contentment of Christians with their shattered communal life.”
Strong words. Suffice it to say, this leaves me much more careful about greeting passerby with an effusive “Happy Reformation Day!”
At the same time, I can’t simply treat Reformation Day as a source for lament. For me it is also an occasion for a modest celebration, not because I celebrate schism, but because I like being Baptist. On balance, I think the world is better off with us around. And but for the Reformation, we wouldn’t exist.
However, we live in an age where denominational distinctives are rapidly diminishing in importance. I’m a member at Greenfield Community Church in south Edmonton. We used to be Greenfield Baptist Church. The name change was born of a church merger a few years ago. But it also represents a tacit admission that denominational distinctives aren’t what they once were.
While a cursory glance might see the diminishment of denominational emphasis as a sign of ecumenical advance, look closer and you can see that it is often ecumenism on the cheap, one that is sustained by little more than a disinterest in orthodox and orthopraxic particulars
As a case in point, some years ago I visited the Pentecostal Church of my youth on Mother’s Day. Incredibly, in the flurry of focus on celebrating mothers, the pastors forgot to mention that it was also Pentecost Sunday. It may seem shocking that a Pentecostal church would forget Pentecost, but increasingly this kind of generic ecclesial life is becoming the norm, at least in evangelical Protestant churches.
It seems to me that we should resist that kind of milquetoast ecumenism in favor of a more robust awareness and celebration of difference, one that recognizes the unique contributions and emphases (and limitations) that each Christian community brings to the wider body of Christ. As I said, I am now a Baptist. So what do Baptists bring to this community celebration of ecclesial difference?
The predictable answer is: Believer’s baptism. But if we want to understand the logic behind restricting baptism to believers (i.e. those who can make their own cognitive assent to the gospel), we need to turn to a deeper distinctive root of Baptist piety and conviction, that of soul competency.
Soul competency is rooted in Martin Luther’s famous statement of conviction at Worms where he proceeded based on conscience and reason to challenge the decisions even of popes and councils: “I cannot and will not recant,” he famously said, “because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”
In those words Luther expressed the conviction that a man or woman is fit to render his or her own judgment in spiritual matters. Since we are all equipped with reason and conscience, we must heed their deliverances carefully and draw the appropriate conclusions standing responsible before God.
With this idea comes a rejection of compulsion in religion, for the soul must be free to follow its own convictions. It cannot be compelled by an external force.
And so we find the modern plea for religious freedom arising in 1609 when Thomas Helwys wrote a letter to King James of England requesting for Baptists the freedom of worship. Helwys was imprisoned for his efforts but today religious freedom of belief is widely accepted in the West. And it owes much to the noble Baptist vision of soul competency.
This logic extends, in turn, to the rite of initiation itself. The Baptist reasons thusly: no one but me can make my decision for entry to the community of faith. Every individual must stand before God with the life he has lived and the choices she has made.
Consequently, baptism is restricted to those believers who can claim this act as a matter of personal will, intellect, and conscience.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that soul competency is not the same thing as soul omnicompetency. The fact that every person is responsible before God to read scripture, make decisions, be baptized, and come to own their faith for themselves, this does not ensure that the judgments they make will all be good ones.
And all too often, Baptists have followed Luther’s willingness to divide for sake of conscience, sometimes to an absurd degree. Indeed, this Baptist tendency toward schism is immortalized in a famous joke from comedian Emo Philips. It goes like this:
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.”
I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”
“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over. (Source)
The joke is funny precisely because of its resonance with real life. It’s true: sometimes Baptists can be like that, fashioning a faith of conscience so precise and arcane that few are left inside the church walls. I suppose the reasoning is that if Luther could judge a thousand years of popes and councils, surely I can judge the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879.
Well, maybe, but maybe not.
Soul competency is an essential idea, but it is also an unstable one, a point that John Eck made to Luther when Eck exclaimed:
“if it were granted that whoever contradicts the councils and the common understanding of the church must be overcome by Scripture passages, we will have nothing in Christianity that is certain or decided.”
Eck has a point. As much as we need to be responsible to our own reasoning and conscience, we still also need authority and the wisdom of tradition, lest each person merely be a slave to his or her own cognitive blind-spots and provincial attitudes.
So while I believe soul competency brings an important emphasis to the wider church, it is not without significant cost, and it is in need of a chastening counterbalance.
In conclusion, while I will continue to celebrate Reformation Day, it is with the sobering realization of how far there is yet to go, a sentiment perhaps best summarized in that old declaration, the Reformation Church is ever reforming.