Back to issue

Steven Harmon’s latest book seeks to address head on a lingering reputation of Baptists, namely that they are the intractable “problem children” of the ecumenical movement. He wonders out loud: is the Baptist refusal to come to the ecumenical table merely an outworking of an inherently schismatic nature, or does it owe more to the pitfalls of the ecumenical movement that Baptists (by and large) rightly protest? Is there anything that can be done to enable the lion of the Baptist movement to lay down with the lamb of contemporary ecumenism “in the hope that … those who long for visible unity of Christ’s church might increase among Baptists, and that other Christians might recognize them, so that together we can make our pilgrim journey toward the ecumenical future” (p. 19)? It is to these questions that Harmon turns, building on his earlier work which insisted that “Baptist catholicity” is not a contradiction in terms. Harmon identifies as a Baptist insider (particularly of the “progressive/moderate” variety); he writes as a postliberal who at times is sympathetic to evangelical concerns.

Harmon argues that, appearances to the contrary, the Baptist and ecumenical movements need each other and, more specifically, that “catholic renewal of Baptist life [is] necessary to the movement of the whole church toward the ecumenical future” (p. 9). In Part I: The Baptist Vision and the Ecumenical Movement, he launches his argument by recounting his previous work on Baptist catholicity while describing the potential and pitfalls of contemporary ecumenism, making the significant claim that “the ecumenical quest for the full visible unity of the church … [can’t] be fulfilled apart from a mutually receptive ecumenical engagement between Baptist communities and the churches from which they are separated” (p. 18). In Part II: Baptists, Biblicism, and Catholicity, Harmon takes a closer look at some of the defining marks of the Baptist tradition and seeks to diagnose where it is insufficiently catholic (in the qualitative rather than quantitative sense). He goes on in Part III: Baptist Identity and Receptive Ecumenism to examine how the tradition is not necessarily schismatic but rather has great potential for embracing and contributing to the catholic unity of the church. Finally, Part IV: Baptist Theology and the Ecumenical Future explores in more detail the distinctive Baptist theological and ecclesiastical contribution to the larger church, especially its penchant for guarding conscience against coercion, its insistence on God’s freedom amidst the church’s life together, its emphasis on the pilgrim nature of the church, its promotion of the necessity of personal faith adjoined with communal responsibility, its healthy aversion to over-realized eschatologies, and its radical commitment to delineating and living under the rule of Christ as found in the Scriptures.

The strengths of the book are many, not least of which is the breadth of sources which Harmon has engaged in making his proposal; this work is in many ways the culmination of his lifelong personal journey, scholarship and churchmanship. The meat of the book is much more concise and accessible than the extensive footnotes and total page count make it appear, and readers will certainly benefit from sustained reflection on Harmon’s proposed pathway for the Baptist tradition and his dynamic vision of the ecumenical future (even if they disagree with it). Thankfully, another strength of the book is that Harmon realizes the radical nature of his proposal and the significant amount of work that would need to be done for it to be embraced by Baptists and enacted by ecumenists. There’s no naïve idealism here; Harmon rightly recognizes that the blood of too many martyrs and the invective of too many anathemas has washed away that particular trail.

The book’s weaknesses stem mostly from a lack of evident cohesion between the chapters; at times, it’s unclear how each one contributes to the whole and relates to the others. Another weakness is the fact that after reading we are still left with a crucial question: can the skepticism which Baptists (and, by extension, many evangelicals) have toward the ecumenical movement be overcome? Harmon recognizes the reality of the mutual suspicion and even animosity that exists between the movements, but he fails to convince us there is a road to reunion that is agreeable to both the Baptist and the ecumenist. Harmon’s proposal leans heavily on ecumenical priorities, and this leaves me wondering whether the Baptists I labor with would resonate with his proposed telos (particularly the emphasis on full visible unity among all Christian communions) and recognize themselves in his portrait of their potential future. Harmon’s project ends up betraying the Baptist distinctive (which he commends) of contesting over-realized eschatologies, envisioning a visible unity that most Baptists believe will only manifest fully in glory.

However, it is clear that the vision Harmon offers of “ecumenical denominationalism” is badly needed amidst Reformation 500 assessments calling for the end of Protestantism and the end of denominations (e.g., Peter J. Leithart, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016]). Indeed, Harmon provides compelling reasons to view each denomination as providing unique love gifts to the rest of the church, and thus to see that “Baptists have their own distinctive ecclesial gifts to offer the church catholic, without which … [other churches] are something less than fully catholic themselves” (pp. 15–16). Harmon is right on target here, and thus we concur that the project of cultivating Baptist catholicity by God’s grace must go on; the future flourishing of the catholic church depends on it, whether or not it’s done under the auspices of ecumenism.

C. Ryan Fields
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois, USA