Confessions of an Ecumenical, Eclectic, Baptist Christian
Roger E. Olson
I can’t claim the Baptist pedigree of the man who proudly identified himself as “Baptist born, Baptist bred, and when I’m gone I’ll be Baptist dead.” Unlike him, and unlike many of my colleagues past and present, I didn’t grow up Baptist. I’m a convert. There are advantages to being a convert. For one thing, it’s harder to take being Baptist for granted. You see, I chose it. Perhaps a Calvinist Baptist would say it chose me, but as an Arminian Baptist I think I chose it.
When I first became Baptist I was living in a religious ecology, as sociologists call it, that was somewhat hostile to Baptists. I grew up in the Upper Midwest where Baptists are a minority. In Minnesota less than three percent identify as Baptist. But that didn’t bother me; in fact, I felt kind of special. I felt sorry for Catholics and Lutherans who didn’t stand out. After all, according to Dr. Seuss, our job isn’t to fit in but to stand out. That’s especially true, I take it, of authentic Christians. Wherever they are, Christians should stand out.
Then I moved to Texas the first time and noticed that here, as in much of the South, being Baptist can be a kind of default religious identity. That is, many people truly are “Baptist born and Baptist bred” and don’t stand out from the surrounding culture. I was struck by how easy it is to be Baptist in Texas and the South. And I was shocked when I met people who seemed to be Baptist first and Christian second.
If I sound critical, I’m only agreeing with my solidly Baptist professor of theology at Rice University, John Newport, who decried these facts of Baptist life in Texas and the South. Dr. Newport was about as Texas Baptist as you can get. Much to my chagrin he left Rice to be provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. In seminars at Rice, however, he frequently commented on the odd combination of sectarianism and cultural accommodation among Texas Baptists and Southern Baptists in general.
In other words, at least to outsiders and to some insiders like Dr. Newport, Baptist life in the South is marked by a paradox. On the one hand, many Baptists, perhaps the majority, tend to think they are the only “real Christians.” And Southern Baptists tend to think they are the only “real Baptists” of the twenty-six varieties of Baptists in the United States. On the other hand, many Baptists, often the same ones, tend to think they are creators and owners of the culture—except where it’s departed from the tried and true ways of the past when Baptists “really” ran it.
There’s an old story about Saint Peter giving newcomers a tour of heaven. When they came to a particular neighborhood of the heavenly city, the apostle and gatekeeper put his finger to his lips and asked the newcomers to be quiet as they walked by it. One of them asked why. Saint Peter is alleged to have said “This is where the Baptists live. They think they’re the only ones here.”
Of course, that’s a caricature. But often non-Baptists get the impression from some of us that we think the Kingdom of God belongs to us in some special way. They think it’s ironic, of course, because they ask “which Baptists” are so special to God? After all, there are at least twenty-six distinct denominations of Baptists in the U.S. alone. And some of them won’t have anything to do with even other Baptists. Before becoming a Baptist most of the Baptists I knew belonged to a large Baptist denomination in the Upper Midwest called the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Because their church signs had the letters “GARBC” on them, we called them “Garbage Baptists.” Although that wasn’t nice, they kind of brought it on themselves by doing things like picketing Billy Graham evangelistic crusades. Many of them considered Billy Graham and his associate evangelists “liberals.” (Of course, that was then, perhaps not now.)
So, by now you might be wondering why I’m a Baptist! Why did I choose to identify with a Christian tradition so many non-Baptists misunderstand or find good reasons to ridicule and criticize?
Well, first, you need to know, I grew up Pentecostal, so I was used to it. And I was actually proud of it. Before being Pentecostal was popular, we were persecuted. I remember being teased about being a “Holy Roller” when I was a student—sometimes by Baptist schoolmates. We reveled in persecution because it made us feel special. We stood out and that’s what authentic Christians should do. Becoming a Baptist and being misunderstood, then, wasn’t new to me. In fact, one of the reasons I became Baptist when I couldn’t be Pentecostal anymore was because, in that religious ecology, both were widely misunderstood and sometimes persecuted.
But I chose carefully what kind of Baptist I became. I had at least twenty-six choices. Eventually, over the almost forty years I’ve been a Baptist, I’ve belonged to or affiliated with six Baptist groups—American Baptist, Southern Baptist, North American Baptist, Baptist General Conference, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and Baptist General Convention of Texas. And I’ve enjoyed all of them and learned much from each group.
Yes, we Baptists have our faults, but I’d say our strengths outnumber them. I have never apologized for being Baptist. I’ve apologized for the behaviors of some Baptists but never for the Baptist tradition itself. If asked why I am a Baptist, I’d answer with Walter Rauschenbusch who, in his famous essay “Why I Am a Baptist” wrote the following:
“The Christian faith as Baptists hold it, sets spiritual experience boldly to the front as the one great thing in religion. It aims at experimental [experiential] religion. We are an evangelistic body. We summon all men to conscious repentance from sin, to conscious prayer for forgiveness. We ask a man “Have you put your faith in Christ? Have you submitted your will to His will? Have you received the inward assurance that your sins are forgiven and that you are at peace with God? Have you made experience of God?” If anyone desires to enter our churches we ask for evidence of such experience and we ask for nothing else. We do not ask him to recite a creed or catechism. The more simple and heartfelt the testimony is, the better we like it. If it is glib or wordy, we distrust it. Experience is our sole requisite for receiving baptism; it is fundamental to our church life.”
Rauschenbusch goes on in his essay to talk about the importance of correct doctrine, especially for ministers, but his emphasis throughout is on experiential Christianity, including practical discipleship, daily walk with Christ, ethical Christian living, especially in the social sphere, as important to Baptists.
Those are the reasons I became a Baptist. And they remain my reasons for being Baptist.
The focus of my talk this morning, however, isn’t about the glories of being Baptist. We get enough of that here and in many of our home churches and the colleges or universities many of us attended. What I want to tell you is how my Christian life as a Baptist has been enriched by Christians of other traditions.
One thing that concerns me about many Baptists I meet in Texas and the South generally is a tendency to think the Baptist form of life is complete and cannot be enriched by others. Here, however, we have three required courses entitled “Christian Texts and Traditions.” Our curriculum reflects our conviction that every Christian tradition has something to contribute to us even if we still believe being Baptist is best.
I proudly identify myself as an “eclectic” and “ecumenical” Baptist. By that I mean that my Baptist faith soaks in and is enriched by distinctives of other Christian traditions. That shouldn’t shock anyone who knows Baptist history. The earliest Baptists were influenced by Mennonites and Congregationalist Puritans. History tells us that in the eighteenth century many Baptist congregations in Great Britain and America were awakened by the Wesleyan revivals and by the preaching of George Whitefield—a Calvinist Methodist. Over the centuries all Baptist groups and individuals have been influenced by other traditions. However, we Baptists still often live by the myth of Baptist completeness which, unfortunately, often leads to complacency.
When I first came to this seminary in 1999 I was surprised and delighted to see a Catholic priest from a nearby parish “hanging out” among us. Father Timothy earned his doctoral degree at the Angelicum, a university in Rome, where he wrote a dissertation comparing Baptist and Catholic styles of leadership. Father Timothy even spoke in chapel at least once. And he spoke in many classes and still visits my sections of Christian Texts and Traditions 2 to answer questions about Catholic theology.
Over the years, I’ve been enriched personally, theologically and spiritually by many Catholic priests and theologians. When I was still Pentecostal charismatic Catholics taught us much about God’s presence throughout Christian history and about contemplative charismatic worship. We learned from them that true worship and devotional life doesn’t have to be noisy.
One of my earliest ecumenical experiences was when I was in eighth grade. A teacher assigned us to interview a community leader and write a paper about him or her based on it. Much to my parents’ surprise I chose the Catholic bishop. I knew where he lived—across the street from the cathedral not very far from our house. After a few phone calls I got an appointment with him on a Saturday morning and pedaled my bicycle to his mansion. Needless to say, I was nervous. After all, I had been taught (this was before the Catholic charismatic movement reached us in South Dakota) that Catholics were pagans who worshiped food. But I had Catholic friends at school and didn’t really believe that. The bishop was extremely gracious to me and gave me an hour during which he answered all of my questions. From then on I could never think the same about Catholics.
During my seminary years I rubbed shoulders with a few Catholic students who were studying to become deacons in their church. I was surprised to learn that the Catholic Church allowed them to study toward that office in a Baptist seminary. Then, during my doctoral studies I participated in Protestant-Catholic dialogues. I also read Catholic theologians such as Rahner, Küng, von Balthasar, Kasper and Tracy. I met Küng and chauffeured him around Houston for two days.
I have never been attracted to joining the Catholic Church, but I have learned much from my Catholic friends, acquaintances and theologians. To those who try to lure me that direction, I reply that I grew up Pentecostal and Baptist is as “high church” as I’m ever going to be. However, from Catholics I have learned much about the value of tradition. Baptists tend to be allergic to “tradition.” We like to think our form of Christian life is simply the New Testament church restored. Well, Pentecostals and Churches of Christ think the same about their forms of life. However, of course, we all have our own traditions. What Catholics have taught me is the difference between the “Great Tradition” of Christian belief and life and “traditions” that denominations have developed. I have gained from them a greater appreciation of the Great Tradition including the church fathers, monks, medieval theologians, contemplatives and mystics, and, yes, liberation theology which is largely a Catholic phenomenon.
During my doctoral studies at Rice University my historical theology professor was an Eastern Orthodox theologian. From him I learned much about Orthodox church fathers such as Chrysostom, Maximus and John of Damascus and came to reject the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. Throughout my three years in residence at Rice, I served as youth pastor and Christian education director at a Presbyterian church where I often led part of the worship. It often fell to me to lead the congregation in reciting the Apostles Creed and occasionally the Nicene Creed. When we came to the words “and the Son”—referring to the procession of the Holy Spirit—I pretended to have to cough a little and skipped it.
Over the my thirty years of teaching theology at three Christian universities I have taken many classes to Eastern Orthodox churches for divine liturgy and invited many Orthodox priests to my classes. I have read Orthodox theologians such as Florovsky, Lossky and Zizioulas. A few years ago my article on the Orthodox doctrine of theosis, deification, was published in the journal Theology Today. That is perhaps the single main contribution of Orthodoxy to my Baptist faith. Orthodox Christians ask Protestants “Why just be forgiven when you can be transformed?” Indeed, why? From them I learned that God wants to share his own divine life with us, making us partial partakers of God’s own immortal life and divine nature. We all believe that will happen in heaven. The Orthodox believe it can start now. And why not?
I mentioned that I served for three years on staff of a Presbyterian church. Well before that I was already learning from Presbyterians. When I was a kid we often visited my aunt and uncle who owned a farm in northeastern South Dakota. My Aunt Jeannette, my dad’s oldest sister, was a Presbyterian elder and she and my dad, who was a Pentecostal preacher, held long discussions, sometimes debates, about theology. Those were interesting discussions that I listened to with real interest. I’m sure my aunt never heard of Karl Barth, but she was a committed Calvinist who believed God had elected everyone to be saved.
Now everyone knows I’m not a Calvinist, but I’ve learned much from Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians. Every year that I have taught theology I’ve invited them to come to my classes to speak about the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty and especially election. I’ve read Reformed theologians such as Barth, Brunner, Berkouwer, Berkhof, Boettner and Bloesch. (Not all Reformed theologians’ names begin with “B.”) From them and my Reformed speakers I’ve learned to appreciate the sacramental life. We Baptists are often too allergic to sacramentalism, but we fail to understand it and often revel in being anti-sacramental. But etymologically “sacrament” comes from a Latin word that means “act of commitment.” Surely baptism and the Lord’ Supper are that to us! But even more importantly, we need to recover a sense of the real presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. I say the Lord’s Supper is a special means of grace although not a means of special grace. There is a long and rich history of Baptist sacramentalism and Presbyterian and Reformed Christians can help us recover it.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not arguing for transubstantiation or even consubstantiation. I don’t believe we “eat” Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Nevertheless, surely it is more than a “mere symbol” or “just a memorial meal.” It is a symbol and a memorial meal, but we err when we add “mere” and “just” to those terms. Christ can be spiritually present in symbols and memorials and has promised to be with us in special ways in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I have learned to appreciate and embrace a higher view of Christ’s presence in the sacraments from my Reformed and Presbyterian friends and theologians.
Every summer when I was a child my parents took my brother and me, with them, to the West Des Moines Nazarene Camp Meeting which was then one of the the largest annual “Holiness” gatherings in the world. About a thousand people gathered under and around an open sided “tabernacle” with saw dust on the ground beneath our feet—for several nights in a row. Leading Holiness preachers held the congregation spellbound from the pulpit and famous gospel singing groups premiered the latest gospel songs. After the preaching people rushed the altars to get saved and sanctified.
My grandparents were Norwegian and Danish immigrants. In what they called “the old countries” they were Lutheran, but when they reached the prairies of Eastern South Dakota there were no Lutheran churches in walking distance. The closest church to their farms was a Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) mission that had taken over a little white clapboard Danish Lutheran church. There they got “saved” and “sanctified.” Well, remembering my grandfather pretty well, I’m not so sure about the sanctified part. The Church of God is a holiness denomination, like Nazarene. Like Wesley and the older Methodists, they believe in “entire sanctification.”
We Baptists tend to emphasize conversion to the neglect, I fear, of sanctification. While I don’t believe in “sinless perfection,” I do think it’s an impossible ideal worth striving for—with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course. Baptists tend to fall into a kind of Christian moralism after conversion; we’re saved by grace and then we struggle to maintain our relationship with God by “learning and serving.” But too often we miss the joy of Christian living that Holiness and Pentecostal Christians know. We fear emotional spiritual experiences so much that we reduce our spiritual lives and worship to routines and good works.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas talks about the only evidence for the truth of Christianity being that God is “busy” among us. How do we know when God is busy among us? I would say it’s when our worship and spiritual lives are filled with joy and when God is active in answering prayers, saving the lost, healing the sick, feeding the poor and housing the homeless, breaking down our pride in self-sufficiency and giving us reasons to testify that God is alive and near.
I think we Baptists, perhaps especially those of us who call ourselves “moderates,” are so afraid of appearing fanatical, that we eschew emotion and miracles and visible spiritual experiences. From Holiness and Pentecostal Christians we can learn that it’s okay, even beautiful, to express ourselves emotionally in response to God’s grace and tell our stories of God’s miraculous interventions in our lives.
My Baptist faith has been enriched by some Christian traditions and communities you might not expect. I didn’t expect it. I’ve participated in and even led some dialogues between evangelical Christians and liberal Christians. From liberals like Paul Tillich I’ve learned much about the importance of paying attention to culture and philosophy and making the Christian faith intelligible to modern people.
Every year during my fifteen years teaching theology at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota I invited a fundamentalist theologian from a local fundamentalist Baptist seminary to speak to my classes about fundamentalism. While I had trouble appreciating his emphasis on separatism, which included not inviting me to speak to any of his classes, I learned from him and I’ve learned from other fundamentalists to appreciate concern for doctrinal correctness, biblical orthodoxy.
What I have discovered in my interactions with other Christians is that all truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found, and that no Christian group has a monopoly on truth or spiritual life. I’ve observed that too many Baptists define being Baptist by what they are not. We’re not like Catholics; we’re not like Churches of Christ; we’re not like Pentecostals; we’re not like Methodists. I have come to believe every Christian tradition has something of value to add to us—even if only to remind us of some aspect of our own tradition we’ve forgotten or neglected.
From Anabaptists and Mennonites we can learn about making peace and being ambassadors of Christ’s peace to a world saturated with violence. From Episcopalians we can learn about the importance of tolerance in a world of competing tribes secular and religious. From Lutherans we can learn to relax in God’s grace and remember that faith alone saves and keeps us in God’s favor. From the Salvation Army we can learn the importance of ministry among the poor. From Quakers, Friends, we can learn the value of silence in worship. From the so-called “emerging church” movement we can learn about relevance to urban cultures. From the Amish we can learn that true Christianity resists over accommodation to modern culture.
Yes, I am proud to be a Baptist. If I put bumper stickers on my car, which I don’t, the first one would say “Baptist is Beautiful”—to counter the false impressions created by Baptists who picket soldiers’ funerals. And one beautiful thing about being Baptist is the freedom to learn from other Christian traditions and be enriched by them. May you find it so as well.