The Quest for Baptist Saints

1 Jul

I’m heading today to Bangkok for the annual gathering of the international study commissions of the Baptist World Alliance. It is my privilege to lead one of these groups, the Commission on Baptist Doctrine and Christian Unity. Our work involves exploration and development of Baptist thinking about many matters, and then also engagement with other Christian communities towards unity.

Right now our Commission is engaged in a five year project considering the idea of ‘Baptist saints’. Many people are surprised by this idea because Baptist people, like other radical protestants and dissenters, have tended not to use the idea of ‘saints’, perhaps because of their rejection of some practices of the Catholic traditions, as they perceived them. But actually the word ‘saint’ is a perfectly good biblical word, that needs to be reclaimed and the project we are undertaking seeks to use this concept to celebrate people, thoroughly ordinary people in a sense, who may be good examples of what a Christian life might be and should be. They are in a sense exemplary, even if not ‘perfect’. Maybe that idea of perfection is not what it’s all about anyway.

I’ve recently written a paper about this project, which is not yet published but from its introduction I can quote these paragraphs explaining a bit about the purpose and methodology of the project.

Leading Baptist theologians in Britain and in the United States of America have been exploring the ways in which Baptist ecclesiology can be understood as catholic and one part of these studies is to reconsider the notion of saints, the ‘communion of saints’, and the possibility of the veneration of saints within Baptist worship.

As Derek Hatch has observed, Baptists are not generally given to referring to one another as ‘saints’, ‘preferring to use the term only in the strictest New Testament sense of “fellow believers”‘. Nonetheless, Hatch is one of a significant group of Baptist theologians who find an affinity with Roman Catholic teaching concerning the universal call to holiness. He quotes the declaration of Pope John Paul 11, who stressed that it was not just ‘special persons’ who are called to a holy life: ‘The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living’. Similarly, Pope Francis has urged ‘all Christians’ to share in the same vocation, ‘the universal vocation to being saints’.

Another North American Baptist theologian, Steven Harmon has explored the broader possibilities of a ‘catholic Baptist’ ecclesiology. Harmon observes that the stories of ‘saints’ have always been an important part of Christian worship and teaching: … the early church’s rehearsal of the divine story in worship was not limited to word, table, prayer and other verbal and symbolic means of telling the story. The story was also incarnated in exemplary persons whose life of Christian discipleship provided believers with concrete examples of what the Christian way of life. Such ‘exemplary persons’ are what we might call ‘saints’.

In a similar argument, three British Baptist theologians, Brian Haymes, Paul Fiddes and Richard Kidd, argue for a regained understanding of saints, both as exemplary disciples and as participants in the life of prayer, through ‘the communion of saints’. Haymes writes, With early Baptists we will want to affirm that this holiness, this power of disclosure of the Holy One, is the vocation of all those called into the covenant community. All members are saints. But at the same time, in some lives there appears to be a particular disclosure that calls for attention, such that we are inclined to stretch grammar and call them “the saints”. There is one holy community, but within this we can recognize “saints and the saints”, however blurred the difference might be between them. What is crucial to both Harmon and Haymes’ approach is the idea that through specific lives we may see something special or distinctive, a disclosure that better enables us to know and follow the way of Jesus Christ.

Harmon is one of a number of Baptist theologians whose work has drawn inspiration and direction from James McClendon, and particularly his book Biography as Theology. In this work on narrative theology, McClendon included an appendix on ‘Christian Worship and the Saints’. Here, as Harmon puts it, McClendon ‘developed a theology of the relation of the departed among the communio sanctorum to the worship of the earthly church that is consistent with the “baptist” vision and yet broadly catholic.’

So we have already received a number of papers presenting the life and work of ‘saints’ in places such as Germany and India, and next week I will present a paper about a Baptist person from Australia and another member of our group will present a paper about a leading person in the Jamaican community’s struggle against slavery. My hope is that over the next few years we can collect many stories of such persons, from all over the world, not always leaders and certainly not all ordained people. Our hope is that these stories will provide encouragement and also challenge. One interesting challenge is how we might appropriately celebrate our ‘saints’, within our essentially egalitarian form of community. (This, too, is a very Australian challenge!)

In a very interesting paper on a different theme, Stanley Hauerwas wrote that such persons remind us of our story, the story which has shaped our community, but also the story to which we have often been unfaithful: we’ve been less committed or less passionate than we might have been, and these ‘saints’ challenge us to do better—not alone, but as a community. That’s my hope too.

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