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A Baptist by profession, but a Christian above all

A meditation on the 'foundational truths of the Christian faith'

  • Timothy George, First Things
  • International
  • August 13, 2013
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Catholic theologians speak of a “hierarchy of truths,” a phrase found in Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio, 11). This concept does not mean that some truths are truer than others, or that the Catholic faithful are free to pick and choose among the teachings of their church as they please.

It means, rather, that in the economy of divine revelation, more theological weight, as it were, is given to those teachings that relate directly to the foundational truths of the Christian faith.

This point is similar to the distinction Thomas Aquinas makes between some articles of faith which are as such secundum se and others in ordine ad alia (ST 2-2, q.1, a.6). (See the excellent study by the Capuchin scholar William Henn, “The Hierarchy of Truths Twenty Years Later,” Theological Studies 48, [1987].)

In this vein, I would like to propose a “hierarchy of ecclesial realities.” What do I mean by this? While I recognize myself as a Protestant, an Evangelical, and a Baptist, none of those labels defines my spiritual and ecclesial identity at the most basic level.

Being an evangelical Protestant, a Baptist, indeed a Southern Baptist, are all important markers of my place within the community of faith, but there is a more primary confession I must make: I am a trinitarian Christian who by the grace of God belongs to the whole company of the redeemed through the ages, those who are “very members incorporate in the mystical body of Christ” (Book of Common Prayer).

Far from being a new construal, this way of putting things goes to the very heart of what it means to be a genuine Protestant, a true Evangelical, and an authentic Baptist. Central to each of these commitments is a desire to be faithful to the Scripture-based apostolic witness of the early church.

When Polycarp of Smyrna, a disciple of the Apostle John, was brought before the Roman tribunal before being cast into the arena with wild beasts, he confessed publicly the faith which he knew would lead to his certain martyrdom. In that critical moment, Polycarp did not say: “I am a Paulinist. I am a Petrist. I am a Johannian.” Neither did he say, “I am an Ignatian” (after his great contemporary Ignatius of Antioch), nor “I am an Irenaean” (after his famous disciple Irenaeus of Lyon). Rather he confessed: Christianus sum. “I am a Christian.”

Yet the desire for a Christianity shorn of all particularity carries its own risks. The Corinthian church of the New Testament had its own “factious titles”: the Paul-party, the Peter-sect, the Apollos-coterie. Frustrated with such fractiousness, another group in the church at Corinth arose claiming to have no mere human leader at all: “We belong to Christ,” they said.

But, in fact, the Christ-party at Corinth was soon beset by the same spirit of arrogance and divisiveness that marked all the other partisan groups in the congregation. This is a recurring theme throughout the history of the church.

In nineteenth-century America, Alexander Campbell, who began his ministry as a Baptist, wanted to eliminate denominational labels and restore the one true Christian church. Within a single generation, his movement had subdivided into several distinct and often mutually hostile church bodies – déjà vu to anyone familiar with the history of Presbyterians in Scotland, Lutherans in America, Reformed churches in the Netherlands, Anglicans in Africa, and Baptists almost anywhere.

Full story: Is Jesus a baptist?

Source: First Things

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