Baptists and the Ecumenical Movement: Article Critique

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John H. Y. Briggs, formally a professor of Baptist History at the University of Oxford, past chairman of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), and former editor of The Baptist Quarterly[1] records the role and history of Baptists in the overall scope of the ecumenical movement. Briggs links the origins of the Baptist movement in the history of the Radical Reformation and within the logic of English Separatism, making it difficult not to view the Baptists as being a schismatic movement. The specifics of this journal article summarize how some European Baptists were involved in that movement and the purpose of this critique will be to verify Briggs’ findings.

SUMMARY

Briggs begins by identifying how, “Early Baptists, though separating from State Churches, were well aware of the dangers of becoming isolated and sectarian.”[2] This was a peculiar development in the Baptist movement, as the majority of Baptists during this time period had just escaped persecution from the State Church, yet one of the first things established was a State Church, which led to the ostracizing of many other Baptist groups. Briggs cites E. A. Payne’s analysis of John Owen’s True Nature of a Gospel Church in 1689 as being very influential in this move away from the State Church. Briggs emphasizes this, “Separation from a corrupt state church that was seen as only partially being reformed, was nevertheless anxious to avoid lapsing into sectarianism.”[3] Because of this, the Baptist denomination is often viewed as being separatists, but Briggs’ overall goal seems to be showcasing how even during times of isolation, theological differences, and division, Baptists were still extremely effective in evangelism, and spreading the gospel message domestically and internationally. J. D. Hughey would agree with this statement and adds, “The great majority of Baptists have always felt kinship with large number of other Christians… [and] in a very important sense, Baptists have long been a part of the ecumenical movement.”[4] Christian union was and continues to be a lofty ambition and throughout the history of Baptists, considerable efforts were made to attain unity.

STRENGTHS/WEAKNESSES

Briggs does a worthy job detailing the Baptist’s history and role in the Ecumenical Movement, but very little was mentioned about the patterns of growth and decline. For example, H. Leon McBeth illustrates how, “One of the most persistent and puzzling problems facing English Baptists in the twentieth century has been their steady numerical decline.”[5] However, Briggs provides ample information pertaining to individuals like John Bunyan and Thomas Grantham who were in favor of wider patterns of interrelationship, as well as the interworking of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the BWA, which Briggs himself served on. These individuals and organizations were vital in defining the two dimensions of ecumenism: international and inter-confessional, changing the ecumenical question of relating to other people who were alike, to relating to other people groups who were nothing alike. Finding common ground, without sacrificing core doctrine would have helped Briggs’ illustration of this dilemma.

As Briggs addresses the issue of persecution and lack of civil rights, he draws an important conclusion, which remains just as relevant today: “Persecution in Eastern Europe [and other parts of the world] has drawn Christians closer together and when the pressure has been removed, old tyrannies have reasserted themselves.”[6] For Baptists, persecution led to the Evangelical Revival and made way for itinerancy and village preaching and overseas missionary endeavors. Unfortunately, the revival also led to problems for the Baptists, but in the end would reemphasize the case for open communion. This was area Briggs should have covered in more detail, since there are still many churches that observe the stance of closed communion. Had Briggs included what reasons led to the case for open communion and the change in tradition, this would have enhanced his details of the Evangelical Revival’s impact on the denomination. Despite that, Briggs uses this landscape, to make a profound assertion that; “Evangelicalism and ecumenism are far from being opposed; rather the one is the child of the other.”[7] In the WCC, Briggs then demonstrates how the Baptists continually worked for peace and reconciliation in a world torn apart by violence and how the Council carries that same faith and commitment today.

CONCLUSION

Briggs accomplishes the task he set out to do and while his list is not exhaustive of Baptist history in the Ecumenical Movement, he has demonstrated the Baptist contribution has been sacrificial, substantial, and often unrecognized.[8] He also clearly articulates how Baptists have continually been open to dialogue with other denominations, in an endeavor to fulfill the Great Commission and reach a lost and hurting world. Briggs could not be more accurate than when he said, “How can we expect an unbelieving world to take us seriously in our talk about a gospel of reconciliation when we remain so obviously un-reconciled one to another?”[9]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Briggs, John H Y. “Baptists and the ecumenical movement.” Journal Of European Baptist Studies 6, no. 1 (September 2005): 11-17. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 18, 2017).

Hughey, J. D. “BAPTISTS AND THE ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT.” The Ecumenical Review, 10 (July 1958): 401–410. doi: 10.1111/j.1758-6623.1958.tb01882.x (accessed April 19, 2017).

Manchester Wesley Research Centre Website. http://www.mwrc.ac.uk/briggs/ (accessed April 19, 2017).

McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing, 1987.

[1] Manchester Wesley Research Centre Website. http://www.mwrc.ac.uk/briggs/ (accessed April 19, 2017).

[2] John H. Y. Briggs, “Baptists and the ecumenical movement,” Journal Of European Baptist Studies 6, no. 1 (September 2005): 11. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 18, 2017).

[3] Briggs, “Baptists and the ecumenical movement,” 12.

[4] J. D. Hughey, “BAPTISTS AND THE ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT.” The Ecumenical Review, 10 (July 1958): 401. doi: 10.1111/j.1758-6623.1958.tb01882.x (accessed April 19, 2017).

[5] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing, 1987), 507.

[6] Briggs, “Baptists and the ecumenical movement,” 13.

[7] Ibid., 14.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Ibid., 17.

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