- Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists by Curtis W. Freeman
What do you do when you discover that the very distinctives that mark your Christian tradition out as different and that you have long prized as strengths, are actually a cancer rotting your faith to the very core? This is Freeman’s plight as he examines the Baptist tradition and finds that it is suffering from “a sickness unto death.” He makes the case that the original Baptist vision, intent on reforming the church back to the perceived purity of the apostolic era, is in danger of morphing into an individualistic assemblage of persons who hold to a set of principles by their own free choice. By seeing themselves as a rebirth of the primitive church, the radical reformers made a fatal error that undermined their relationship with the church catholic “at the root.”
But, there is hope. Freeman observes, along with baptists (with a small “b”) such as John Howard Yoder and James McClendon, that the Baptist tradition might be not only redeemed but also transformed by a rediscovery of catholicity. If Baptists can come to understand themselves not as the reestablishment of a repristinated New Testament church but as a distinctive subcurrent within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, then their entire way of existing and serving in the world will undergo a metamorphosis. In Part II, Freeman outlines a set of practices and convictions that show how the Baptist notion of alterity, or pushing against the prevailing toxic winds of perverse culture and stultified tradition, can actually be incorporated into the ethos [End Page 139] and life of the whole church. Chapters on the Trinity, the priesthood of all believers, the nature of the church, the Word of God, the sacramental life, and the meaning of baptism offer a robust account of the Christian life that is both “contesting,” in the best sense of Baptist otherness, and deeply catholic in the sense of connectedness to the fullness of the church.
Freeman’s vision of the church defies easy attempts to situate it within the conventional theopolitical spectrum. At a time when the American church is being pulled in polarizing, mutually exclusive directions, the “other Baptists” to whom he is speaking cannot be so easily pigeonholed into either a liberal mainline enclave or a conservative evangelical one. This is a theology that is sacramentally minded, deeply rooted in the historic Christian tradition, and exhibiting a high view of the Word of God (both written and personified). It is simultaneously deeply socially conscious, as concerned with addressing the suffering of God’s world as it is the faithfulness of its witness to Christ.
One of the book’s great strengths is the breadth of its sources. From papal encyclicals and Karl Rahner to Roger Williams and Miroslav Volf, these essays engage the full range of ecumenical voices in fruitful dialogue. Positively bristling with references and long discursive footnotes, albeit sometimes to the point of distraction, this erudite study offers a major contribution to the self-understanding of Baptists who are trying to rediscover their place within the global and historic body of Christ. It demonstrates to Baptists the value of their own “contesting” tradition as curmudgeonly leaven, a sign to the other streams of the Christian tradition of the critical importance of being conformed not to the world but to the image of God’s Son. Freeman has thus done Baptists a great service by reminding them that the freedom that is their most characteristic ecclesiological trait is dangerous without rootedness, embodied story, and community. When enmeshed in these critical elements, its transformative power can be a powerful sign of the inbreaking Reign of God. [End Page 140]