Matthew Emerson | Baptists and the Christian Tradition
12:58PM Nov 12, 2021
Jonathan J. Armstrong
It is our pleasure today to be speaking with Professor Matthew Emerson, who is the dean of theology, arts and humanities at Oklahoma Baptist University. He's also one of the co authors of the texts that we'll be discussing today, Baptists and the Christian tradition towards an evangelical Baptist catholicity. Professor Emerson, thank you so much for joining us today.
Yeah. Glad to join you. Thanks for having me.
Professor Emerson, last time we talked, but was before COVID. So how did COVID treat you? And what were some of the lessons that you learned out of teaching under lockdown?
Yeah, well, we did my family and I, we contracted COVID in January of 2021. So we made it through all of 2020. And then, in 2021, we finally did contract it. And it was a rough few days, for sure. But glad the Lord sustained us in that. And, you know, in terms of what we learned, and how it it formed us and shaped us, I think, renewing our understanding of the importance of rest. So I think COVID can, you know, the COVID, lockdown made some people restless. And that was certainly true for us at some point, but especially in the beginning, just almost being forced to take a time of rest and be with our family and not be in so many activities was actually a blessing. Even if, eventually we got a bit stir crazy.
Cool, thanks for sharing. Professor Emerson, you are one of the founders of the Center for Baptists renewal. And we'd love it if you just be able to share a little bit of your vision and what is it this center for Baptist renewal is about and aims to do?
Sure, pretty, you know, quite simply, we're trying to help Baptist pastors and churches and lay people have access to the resources of the entire Christian tradition, for the health of their beliefs in the health of their church practice. So we we talk about, and try to help people understand some of the ways that the early church is connected to us in terms of our beliefs in terms of Christian orthodoxy. We try to help people understand how we're connected to the early church. In terms of our worship practices, we also regularly try to connect them specifically to our own Baptist tradition. So what did early Baptist say about what we should believe about what we should do in church, how we should practice, church discipline, those sorts of things. So what we're trying to do is simply retrieve the Christian tradition, and particularly the Baptist tradition, for the sake of Baptist churches today.
In this tagline, this championing of Baptist catholicity, is that a phrase that your community developed for this center? Or is that sourced out of some piece of literature that I've not yet read?
Yeah, so actually, that's not a phrase that we coined. There, there are a group of British Baptists, who often write and speak about these kinds of topics, not exactly in the same approach that we take at CVPR. But a group of especially led by Anthony cross, Philip Thompson. And so there's actually a couple of volumes called or known by a couple of different titles, in a series on studies, bad decision theology that was with pattern auster. One of those volumes, is toward a Baptist catholicity. And that is by a Baptist theologian named Steve Harmon. Steve is now at Gardner Webb University. And I think it would be fair, actually, Steve wrote the appendix to the to the book we're talking about today. Steve does not take the same kind of theological approach as Luke and I do or the other authors in that volume. He did. I don't know if coining a phrase is the right way to put it, but he certainly is one of the pioneers in this area. Even if we don't take the same approach as him. We've gone back and forth online a bit in a friendly way. And I think it'd be fair to say, I think Steve agrees with this, that he takes more of a post liberal approach to addressing issues of a community and and doctrine. Whereas Luke and I would identify with more of the Kevin Vanhoozer kind of strain of, of 21st century theological method where truth His objective can be found in the text sort of thing. And I, you know, that may not be the way Steve exactly would put it, but that's the way we've tried to explain it. And so it does originate elsewhere. We're trying to articulate what Baptist catholicity is, in a 21st century. America, American theologically conservative environment.
Really cool. Um, you? I don't think, you know, I don't think we had this conversation. But some of our viewers may know that I went to Fordham University study, okay. So it's there, I'm I'm very into resource, my theology, I think, is the most important movements of the 20th century for the global church. So I'm really excited about what your project is and what you're developing there. Let's see if I can just read a quick line. This is from page 351. This is from the conclusion that you and also your co author are Lucas stamps put together a little bit of a manifesto, if I may say that, for this center. And you start by saying retrieval for the sake of renewal is the watchword of this volume. I noticed that it was also that phrase retrieval for the sake of renewal is also the title of an article that Timothy George published and first things in 2017, noting the founding of the center. So I'm hearing this in stereo retrieval for the sake of renewal is is really the mission, the clarion call of the Baptist center, the for the Center for Baptist renewal? How does your vision of resource month there at CBR? How does that differ from perhaps other visions of resource month that we may be aware of?
Well, I don't know that. Our vision of resource law, broadly speaking, is is all that different. Because that's, that's just trying to retrieve the past for the sake of the present as we engage moving towards the future. I think the difference in how we approach retrieving the past, and to what end is going to be different given the differences between Christian traditions. So a Roman Catholic approach to retrieval is going to look different not because retrieval itself is different, but because there are different ends to that retrieval related to proving the continuity of the tradition and demonstrating its authority related to other ecclesial issues. And, you know, I think there's still some commonality for the ends, right. So if you if you read source, Amal literature, you're going to find taught, talk about this renewal movement. So it's bringing the resources of the past into the present in order to help people in the present. So that's going to be common. There's there's still in emphasis on, at least in some sectors and emphasis on exegesis. You know, but depending on who you're talking to retrieval is going to have a different end Ecclesia Lee, I think, for Baptists, we're not a hierarchical tradition. So we don't have a hierarchy beyond the authority of the local church. And so whereas other retrieval, other works of retrieval might aim towards sort of denomination wide goals and ends might aim towards something related to a magisterium of some sort or confession of faith. For Baptists the aim is very particular. And and it's an aim to bolster the ministry of the local church. So I think that's how I describe some of those more subtle differences between retrieval projects. Excellent. The
the process of retrieval is the same for different denominations of bodies. But how that affects our church structures plays out really differently, depending on where we are in the, in the global church. Your article, Baptists in the Christian tradition explores the contours of Baptists catholicity. And so in your chapter Baptists baptism and the Christian tradition, you address the question of whether Baptist catholicity is possible or to what extent it is possible in light of the Baptist distinctives of adult believers baptism. What does baptism look like the doctrine of baptism look like in this lens of Baptists catholicity.
So this tends to be the sticking point for people who engage with our project. So on the one hand, you have our fellow Baptists, who would say, wait a minute, we're not in continuity with the Christian tradition, in particular in relation to baptism. On the other hand, you would you would have, and in fact, in, in a number of Baptist circles, what you would find in that regard is a kind of sense of pride, like, we didn't follow the tradition, we broke from it, in relation specifically to baptism. Outside of Baptist life, those who interact with our project, repeatedly will say, Listen, I like what y'all are doing. But I don't know how you get around the issue of baptism, and still call yourselves, you know, pursuing catholicity. Because you're denying the baptism of believers for 1500 years. So it's the sticky wicket in a lot of ways. And what I say in the chapter essentially, is that early Baptists did not see themselves as breaking from the Christian tradition, with respect to baptisms, purpose, and meaning. What they wanted to reform was the mode and recipient of baptism. So early Baptists, if you read in the chapter is taken up largely with quoting early Christian or early Baptist creeds and confessions, what you find is that the language use about the meaning and purpose of baptism is almost verbatim of what you're going to find throughout Christian history. Now, it's, I mean, that's in a reformational mode, obviously. So they're not they're not repeating late medieval Roman Catholic statements about baptisms, meaning and purpose. But they are, you know, so it's not sort of Sasser total, or a kind of Roman Catholic sacramental ism that they're repeating, late medieval Roman Catholic, but they are repeating and summarizing, what Christians throughout space and time, up to that point, and especially other reformational, Christians said about baptisms, meaning a purpose. So they see that, in other words, what I read that is saying is they see a lot of continuity with all all Christians related to what baptism is. What they want to reform is who receives baptism. So not infants, but professing believers, and how to baptize. So not sprinkling or fusion, but immersion. That's very different from the kind of narrative you get, even from Baptists today. Where this, this distinction in baptism is a distinction of kind, rather than a distinction of recipient or mode. So, you know, that's the gist of the argument of the chapter.
That's very helpful. Professor Emerson, um, let's shift if we can to focusing on the Lord's Supper, so can help us through this, can one both reach for catholicity and maintain the distinctives of a memorialist position concerning the Lord's Supper?
Well, I'll simply gesture toward another Baptist who's addressed this in answering this question. You know, whether or not whether or not you take a memorialist position on the separate is not actually what distinguishes the Baptists position. So again, early Baptists, even British Bab some British Baptists today would take a more sacramental view of the supper. In fact, early early Baptist views on the supper were almost entirely sacramental rather than strictly memorials. And again, you know, the the chapter of the book written by Michael Hakan makes that clear. He also has a chapter in the series I mentioned earlier, edited by Krause and in Thompson toward or sorry, Bab de sacramental ism as the name of the volume. He has a chapter that volume on the Lord's Supper, early Baptist life as well. It's very clear that early Baptist believed in a kind of spiritual presence view of the Lord's Supper. So I just I want, that's not the question, but I just wanted to state that to begin with that memorial ism is not the only Baptist view, nor is it the historic one, at least in terms of the very first Baptist. Nevertheless, it's it's the pervasive one today, especially in American Baptist life. And so can you maintain catholicity with a more or less position? And I would say yes, The there's a book called it's called the Lord's Supper, it's edited. It's an edited volume in the NAC new American commentary theology series, and I think is Jim Hamilton wrote a chapter in that volume on the memorialist position, acknowledging the presence of Christ in the supper, because when you remember God's act, he's present with you, right? So it's a bit different than saying He's present via the elements. So it's not a strictly spiritual presence view. But it is a view that acknowledges the presence of Christ at the Lord's Supper, it's, it's tied more to the verbal aspect of proclamation and to the, to the Lord's presence in the suburbs via that proclamation.
The Center for Baptist renewal is doing some really cool work in bringing, bringing these older voices, these historic currents into the life of various Baptist churches, in your context. Do you involve yourself in ecumenical dialogues, that part of the portfolio of things that the center does.
So not officially, we don't have any official relationships in that regard. We participate in scholarly activities that, you know, place us in community in context with people from different traditions, including non Protestant traditions. But we are we're not we're not official representatives, to any ecumenical body. Luke stamps, who's one of our executive directors, has participated in a scholarly project on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, the 16th, and has a chapter on Benedict's anthropology and select some volume. So engaging in Roman Catholic thought, but also identifying as a Protestant for where differs with with us. And then this book is not out yet. But I'm going to have a chapter in a book on a Protestant Catholic dialogue document that was produced on the Word of God in the life of the church. And I'm giving the the Southern Baptist response or a response from a Southern Baptist. So those are not official, CVR representative capacities we do and you know, so interpersonally, and then academically we have conversations. But we're not official representatives to the Vatican or anything like that.
Great. In the conclusion of this text, you offer 11 theses for the seeking to renew the church, and the 11th thesis and this list reads We believe all Christians should pray for and seek Christian unity across ecclesial and denominational lines, and that Baptist should not reflexively reject principled ecumenical and ecumenical dialogue with other Christian traditions. In your view, what are the the core elements of a successful and ecumenical dialogue?
Well, I would say that the main goal is actually pursuit of Christ. So interestingly, maybe not interesting, I don't know. I tend to think that the further in we dive into our own traditions, the closer we come to one another. So you know, the idea and in an ecumenical conversation is not necessarily to convince someone to jump ship, but rather to see the beauty of your own tradition in light of another tradition, deepen your understanding of your own tradition, in light of another tradition, and in doing so, grow closer to Christ together. Now, you know, we use the word principled in that statement for a reason, right? This is not some kind of squishy humanism, where it's a kind of paper, papering over differences or acting like differences don't matter that some of them are very serious. We do think that the differences between some of the various traditions are incredibly serious. But that doesn't mean you can't engage in conversation with somebody. And also doesn't mean that you can't help each other go closer, closer to Christ in some way, even by understanding your own tradition. So that's what I mean by by principle humanism and what I would say the purpose of humanism is I think there are possibilities related to convincing somebody of your own position. And, you know, likewise, there's always a possibility you yourself could be convinced otherwise I, you know, I never have been. But I think intellectual honesty demands taking other people's positions seriously, at least in order to engage them in conversation. But that's not really the point of those conversations. In my mind, the point is rather to grow closer to Christ by going deeper into your own tradition.
Excellent. For Professor Emerson, one of the points of this dialogue that we facilitate through this YouTube channel is to allow scholars like yourself thinkers from around the globe, to help us answer the question what what are your reunited churches look like? Can you help us envision what it would look like for the church to be united? We, as Christian bodies all over the world, pray, continued to pray passionately after the words that the Lord taught us to pray in John 17, for the unity of his church. What would that look like for the church to be united today?
Well, I think that's where it begins, is praying for one another. So when when Christ says that they may be one, as we are one, only when he's in John 17, he's praying, that's a prayer. He's praying for us to be one. And so the unity of the church, the visible unity of the church, that is catholicity of the church begins with praying for one another. So I don't know what specifically a United Church would look like in terms of polity and all that sort of thing. But I think just to begin with, it has to look like we pray for each other, and we do pray for each other. So what people will ask us or what's a good step towards pursuing Baptist catholicity. And the first thing we tell people is pray for other churches in your city. So pray for one another. Now, after that, I don't know other people. I was at a conference in Biola one time, and Peter Lionheart offered very specific ideas of what it would look like for the church to be united, which included by the way, getting rid of all the cradle Baptists, but you know, I don't want to speak into that level of detail. I'll just say pray for children.
It's been our delight today to be speaking with Professor Matthew Emerson, the dean for theology, arts and humanities at Oklahoma Baptist University, and also also co editor of the texts that we've been discussing today. Baptists in the Christian tradition towards an angelic Baptist catholicity available for me. Thank you so much, Professor, ever super speaking with us today?