What do Catholic, Reformed and Baptist theologians have in common?
That question may sound like the beginning of a bad joke, but theologians from those three traditions gathered Nov. 6 to talk about the Reformation and ideas such as priesthood of believers and religious liberty.
BR photo by Dianna L. Cagle
Stephen B. Eccher, right, assistant professor of church history and Reformation studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, expounds on the Reformation during a panel Nov. 6 in Greensboro. He was joined by Reformed theologian John H. Armstrong and David Williams, left, who represented the Catholic viewpoint. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina made the audio available here.
The event, which was sponsored by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s Historical Committee, spurred discussions about separation of church and state as well as a couple of main tenets created during the Reformation: scripture and faith.
“Many of us live in universities and, God knows teaching is important, but the theological vocation is a service to God and His church, and it’s never more alive than when it’s expressing that service at events like this,” said David Williams, dean of faculty at Belmont College (N.C.). “This is where theology lives.”
Williams was joined on the panel by Reformed theologian John H. Armstrong, who is from the Chicago area, and Stephen B. Eccher, assistant professor of church history and Reformation studies
at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
Armstrong serves as president of Act3 Network, a ministry for “empowering leaders and churches for unity in Christ’s mission” and adjunct professor of evangelism and leadership at Wheaton College Graduate School.
Dale Robertson, pastor of North Main Baptist Church in Salisbury and member of the historical committee, served as the panel’s moderator.
Robertson gave a brief history of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to a church in Wittenburg, Germany, inviting debate about some practices in the church including the selling of forgiveness.
Williams said it remains “important to recognize we have one Lord, one faith, one set of sacred scripture.”
The differences rest in the how. Williams used Thomas Aquinas and Jerome to defend the Catholic view of scripture. “Nothing else is like inspired scripture,” he said.
For Catholics, justification and sanctification are seamless, Williams said.
“Reformers made a distinction between the two that has been vital to the development of the Reformed, Lutheran and even the Baptist faith,” Armstrong said.
At the heart of all Christian practice is love, he said, “not how clearly we can articulate our doctrine. The worst thing you can do is perpetuate the idea that what we believe is reading scripture on your own alone and coming up with whatever you see as a pretext for a new doctrine.
“At the same time tradition interacts with scripture.”
The idea of sola scripture (scripture alone) continues to divide Baptists today, Eccher argued.
“A lot of Baptists believe that sola scriptura just means that we just have the scripture,” he said, stressing that the church needs to recognize history and tradition. For a while Baptists would not hold to any creed or confession but the Bible, but Eccher said that view has been changing for some time among Baptists.
“Luther says faith is not just believing in the reality of the gospel, believing the historic facts of the gospel, but that faith requires a stepping out,” he said. “It requires a movement on our part. It is not just an intellectual ascent and belief that then is actually practiced. … There is a real danger in our Baptist churches of forgetting the very nature of the process of salvation, that yes, we can be saved, but we are also in the process of being saved until Christ returns.”
Eccher said the term “saved” is “very Baptistic” language.
“I want to be very careful that we don’t become goal oriented in what we’re doing with evangelism … forgetting that there’s a person on the other side,” he said. “Jesus said to make disciples.”
On the issue of denominations, the theologians agreed they each serve their purpose, but stressed the idea of working together on important issues.
Eccher said the priesthood of believers idea remains one of the most misunderstood of the doctrines that emerged out of the Reformation.
Just as every single ingredient is important for making a cake, every single person is important in the Kingdom, Eccher argued.
“[Pastors], you need to remind your people that they are theologians, and you need to remind your people that they need to rightly interpret and understand the scriptures,” Eccher said, “but you do that in a communal environment.”
He stressed that the term should not be “priesthood of the believer” because “when you start making foundational decisions on what you believe on your own,” it puts you in dangerous territory.
Williams said Catholics don’t use the term priesthood of all believers but instead focus on a “universal call of holiness.”
Armstrong said the Reformed faith baptizes children as a promise to God. Adults follow that baptism by teaching them in their faith tradition. In the Reformed church, they would accept the baptism of someone seeking to join their congregation.
Being part of a tradition that does baptize infants, Armstrong said the communal effort of the church should be involved in the service, pledging to rear this child in the traditions of the church.
Williams said scripture does not indicate whether baptism should be as an infant or not.
“We never find a time in the early church where people talk about infant baptism as new,” he said.
Eccher referred to the Anabaptist, Swiss group, breaking off from the Reformers. These believers, spurred on by Ulrich Zwingli addressed issues like tithing, images, separation of church and state and believer’s baptism.
They had seen flaws in “a nonregenerate, territorial church,” Eccher said.
Baptists veer toward baptizing young children, which Eccher said could be problematic. “Priesthood comes with responsibility,” Eccher said, such as congregational polity.
“That 5-year-old that just got baptized also has the responsibility to care for the spiritual needs of the church, to care for orthodoxy, to, by the way, vote on that $4 million dollar budget.”
Eccher affirmed the need for believer’s baptism because of the need for “word pictures of the gospel.”
Those Anabaptists’ efforts to fight against baptizing infants led to extreme persecution by both the early Reformers and Catholics. Robertson credits this defiance of the state enforcing theology with the move to America by those seeking religious freedom and the inclusion of separation of church and state in the United States’ early documents.
Zwingli “taught the future Anabaptists how to read scripture,” Eccher said. “He taught them how to love the text.”
Zwingli asked the question, “Why are we not doing what the scripture says?” His questions riled the religious and political leaders and stemmed a wave of persecution that resulted in many deaths.
Armstrong said the separation of church and state does not preclude people of faith from running for office or engaging in political activity.
“I think that we must, with vigilance, protect it,” he said. “Teach it, love it, protect it. The whole church needs you to do that.”
Armstrong recommended two resources on Reformation:
- Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George
- The Radical Reformation by George Huntston Williams.