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[Ecdesiology 1.

3 (2005) 87-100]
DOl: 10.1177/1744136605052782
Article Review and Response
Baptist Ecdesiology
Paul Fiddes, Tracks and Traces: Baptist Identity in Church and
Theology (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2003). xvi + 305 pp. 24.99.
ISBN 1-84227-120-2 (pbk).
bis book may prove to be of considerable significance for tbe future of
ecumenical dialogue in ecdesiology between Baptists (as well as otber
cburcbes of independent polity) and those wbo espouse an episcopal-
synodical, episcopal-Petrine or connexional ecdesiology. In ecumenical meetings,
one is offen reminded tbat Baptists ascribe no ecclesiological status to intermediate
bodies or, indeed, to national or international ones above tbe level of tbe gathered
local cburcb. Baptists confess tbat they belong to tbe Universal Churcb, but regard
it as existing out of tbe communion of all local churches, understood as gathered
covenanted congregations, and involving no mandatory structures as sucb. Baptists
are always careful to remind others tbat tbe Baptist Union does not understand
itself as a cburcb in tbe sense in wbicb tbe Cburcb of England or tbe Metbodist
Cburcb of Great Britain do so; tbe Baptist Union is a voluntary association of many
local cburches, all of wbicb retain tbe sovereign right, under tbe lordsbip of tbe
risen Cbrist witb wbom tbey are directly in covenant in response to His gatbering
of tbem, to order all their affairs including tbe calling of a pastor.
In tbis book, one of the most creative pieces of ecclesiological writing in
recent years, tbe autbor. Principal of Regent's Park College, Oxford, opens up
important perspectives tbat may belp, at least over tbe long term, to transcend
tbe gap between tbe independent tradition and the otber major ecclesiological
traditions mentioned above; consideration of bis theses sbould surely feature in
tbe developing dialogue between tbe Baptist Union and the Church of England
and in otber Baptist ecumenical dialogues. Fiddes shares with the late Jean-Marie
Tillard tbe quality of loyalty to bis own ecclesial tradition held in tandem with a
willingness to explore, creatively, openness towards otbers. He displays familiarity
with a wide range of tbeological perspectives, particularly and interestingly
with those of tbe Ortbodox cburcbes. He surveys many of tbe issues current in
ecumenical ecclesiological debate including tbe perennially most difficult one,
tbat of tbe understanding of authority, botb in general and in specific relation to
2005 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks CA and New Delhi)
88 Ecclesiology
the pastoral office. He proposes important reconciling insights on the question of
Christian initiation which has so long divided paedobaptist from 'believers' baptist
churches. He pleads for a mutual recognition of alternative processes of initiation,
starting from the earliest initiation of an infant into the believing community,
whether this be done by dedication or by infant baptism. He offers an original
essay on eucharistic ecclesiology from a Baptist perspective in which he teases out
the relationship between the three related, yet distinct uses of the term 'body of
Christ' in the New Testament as referring, firstly, to the crucified and risen body
of the Lord, next to the body of the Church and finally to the eucharistic body
of Christ. He relates all three to the inner trinitarian movements of love between
the three persons of the blessed Trinity, commenting: 'Within these interweaving
relations and actions (perichoresis) there is, in this eternal dance of love... there is
room for created beings to move and to dwell.'
As one would expect, he has an irenic chapter on baptism, relating that sacrament
to creation as well as to redemption. He calls on his fellow Baptists to recognize
the truth in the paedobaptist emphasis upon prevenient grace in 'infant' baptism,
balancing this with an emphasis upon the supremely personal and relational nature
of baptism which he feels is more fully expressed and expressable in believers'
baptism. One wonders, however, how far he ignores the fact that the relationship
of parents with babies and toddlers is still supremely personal despite the child's
lack of a full vocabulary for response! He is right, however, to stress that Christian
initiation is a continuing process. There is a profound sense in which the Christian
life is nothing other than a search to live out the full implications of our baptism.
Fiddes recognizes that, in a state of division, separated churches have distorted the
full doctrine of baptism in differing ways; Roman Catholics by an excessive and at
times almost exclusive emphasis upon it as effecting remission of sin. Baptists in
using it as a boundary marker for purposes of separation.
Fiddes writes from within the context of a vibrant trinitarian theology. He
emphasizes that Christians are not just used by God as instruments; they are taken
up into God's very life. 'As we participate in the movement of sending within God,
we are assumed into the relationship between the Father and the Son and discover
the movement of the Spirit opening up new possibilities for life and service'. He
asserts that God goes out of God's own self in order to bring creatures into God,
that mission is the being of the Church because it is the being of God and that
mission is above all relational.
This trinitarian theology thus allows him to present the Baptist understanding
and practice of ecclesial life as a genuine typos within the Great Tradition of
the Church, seeking, however, in certain respects, a complementary enrichment
from other authentic typoi within that same tradition. His setting of the historic
covenant theology of the Reformed and Baptist traditions within the context of
modern ecumenical trinitarian discourse allows him to present traditional Baptist
Baptist Ecclesiology 89
ecclesiological emphases in a way that enables their reception and adaptation
within the ongoing common search for an all-emhracing ecclesiology that can
do justice to the positive emphases of all four ecclesiological strands mentioned
ahove. The non-Baptist reader is disabused of any illusions he or she might have
concerning the excessively voluntaristic or isolationist aspects of the Baptist
understanding of the local church. Fiddes, in his first two chapters, emphasizes
that the initial covenant between the members of a Baptist church always relates
to the prior gathering ofthe people by Christ and to the eternal covenant in which
God elects to be in fellowship with himself, with the man Christ Jesus and through
Him with all humanity. Subsequently, Fiddes emphasizes that the local church,
though competent to discern the mind of Christ for itself, needs the resources
of others in its wider mission. There is an inherent and necessary orientation
to the whole mission of Cod and to the universal Church, even if these are not
seen as involving the structures traditional to the 'catholic' churches. Perhaps the
key question in ecumenical ecclesiology across the 'catholic'/Protestant divide
is whether a pneumatology can be affirmed which sees the Holy Spirit as active
both through the structures underpinned by the historic episcopal succession and
through those of churches formed as a result of fresh outpourings of the Spirit
which, nevertheless, prove their authenticity in faithfulness to the trinitarian gift
of ecclesial life.
Fiddes relates his fundamental understanding of authority to his concept of
revelation. Revelation is 'the self-unveiling of Cod's very self to us, the free offer of
divine Being and life, a gift embodied in Jesus Christ. God is not telling us what to
do but drawing us into a network of relationships'. Final authority therefore lies in
a person and 'obedience has all the quality of an adventure since personal relations
are open ended'. Fiddes later relates this to the risk that God takes in creation. He
disagrees with the traditional Orthodox view of the inherent indivisibility of the
one Church on the grounds that God takes precisely this risk in his calling of people
of free will who thus necessarily have the ability to disobey or perform imperfectly
as well as the ability to fulfil the divine will. He argues, 'it is an aspect of the divine
humility ... to allow the Church to be divided; and it is a dimension of God's
experience of the Cross'. This does not, of course, negate Christ's will and prayer
for unity. He summarizes the Baptist view of the ecumenical vocation, 'a mixture
of realism about broken communion and determination to overcome the scandal
of division'.
For Baptists, the three sources of authority are Christ, the Bible and the church
meeting - in that order. However, in his finely nuanced chapter on authority in
relations between pastor and people, Fiddes makes it clear that the authority of
the church meeting is not a secular democratic concept. Rather, in the discerning
of Christ's will for the Church, not every voice will carry the same weight. In
particular, the voice of the pastor will be important insofar as the church meeting
90 Ecclesiology
has discerned the will of Christ in their very choice of him or her. The pastor is
one who is discerned as having the necessary gifts and graces, who comes with a
fuller training and awareness of the wider church than is the case with the vast
majority of church members. Above all, the pastor has the authority of his or her
quality of commitment and service. Fiddes argues that Baptists hold a dynamic
view of authority in which oversight flows to and fro between the personal and the
communal. This, in itself, is an interesting gloss on the Lima definition of episcope.
It surely coheres with a balanced understanding of Church as koinonia in which
there is mutual respect and listening on the part of the people of Cod and their
pastors. Fiddes, like the authors of the Gift of Authority, is concerned for a right
understanding and reception of authority within the Church. Is it perhaps the
vocation of Baptists and others in the 'independent' tradition to challenge those of
us with more heavily structural ecclesiologies to consider the value of a 'light touch'
approach to wider episcope and koinonia which more fully respects and enhances
the role of the basic local congregation? If each bishop in the'catholic' tradition had
the duty of safeguarding the traditions of his local church and sharing them to the
enrichment of the wider church, does not each pastor and church meeting in the
independent tradition have a similar responsibility?
He argues that, in the Church, true authority derives neither by delegation
from above, through a hierarchy, nor from below, through the people. Rather, it
results from discernment just as the authority of Jesus, accepted by his disciples
and others, did. One can argue that Fiddes's understanding of the partnership of
pastor and church meeting has enough in common with the Catholic concept of
the conspiratio between the hierarchy and the consensus fidelium to provide for an
interesting dialogue. For there to be true Christian authority and development
there must surely be a culture of communion in which the pastors and people of the
Church practise a mutually humble submission, the people listening to the voice
of those who come to them from and with the witness and memory of the wider
Church, the pastors listening to the witness of the faithful disciples in the place
to which they are appointed and invited. Fiddes argues that all that the minister
does is done from the perspective of the wider Church, thus widening the vision
of the local scene. Fiddes concludes his chapter with an analysis of the servant
nature of ministry and the nature of ordination as the culmination of discerning
process (there are echoes here of the Methodist tradition of ministerial probation
and of Paul Bradshaw's analysis of a strand of early Christian understanding of
ordination)' and 'a moment of special encounter with the triune Cod ... a key
moment... in shaping a way of being.. .that cannot be cancelled'. He stops short of
openly ascribing a sacramental character to ordination and one wonders how far
P. Bradshaw, 'The Liturgical Consequences of Apostolicae Curae', in W. Franklin (ed.), Anglican
Orders: Essays on the Centenary of Apostolicae Curae (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1996), p. 85.
Baptist Ecclesiology 91
his apparently ontological understanding of ministry would he generally accepted
within his communion.
Turning to Fiddes's chapter on the Church's ecumenical calling, one finds
many promising openings for fruitful dialogue, particularly between Baptists and
churches of'catholic' order. Fiddes is insistent on the need for continuing dialogue,
whatever the difficulties (he quotes, with approval, the Lamheth Conference of
1998 to this effect). He insists that the fijndamental definition of the Church as
the Body of Christ requires visibility. He adds, citing a statement of the Baptist
Union Doctrine and Worship Committee, 'it follows from a biblical understanding
of the Church as covenant... there is no option about local churches being part
of a wider fellowship of churches'. The duty of the churches to relate follows from
the summons to allow Christ to become manifest throughout His Body. 'If he is to
become visible at every level of human society... then he will be humble enough to
take on the rags and tatters of our organisations.' Though Fiddes is here speaking
of Baptist associations or local councils of churches, one feels that, by extension,
this is a challenge to Baptists about a form of connexionalism, possibly even about
the sign of the episcopal succession and, ultimately, the Petrine ministry, all of
which, on this side of the eschaton, can be acknowledged as both imperfect and yet
variant ecclesial results of the Incarnation in which Christ took on the weakness of
humanity including its social embodiment.
The reconciliation of the continuing authority of the local, gathered church
within the Baptist tradition with the understanding of the other ecclesiologies
obviously remains the $64,000 question for all of us. Fiddes provides three valuable
clues. Firstly, he reminds us that the purpose of all the manifold spiritual gifts
distributed within each and every local church is 'for Christ to use all His members
in order to become reachable and graspable by people today, to draw them into the
life of the triune God'. This surely applies also to the special charisms granted to
particular denominational communities and traditions, to the sum of the typoi of
Christian life. Fiddes then adds that conciliar communion is required not just to
make decisions about resources and strategy for mission, but because of'the more
fundamental need to meet under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discuss the
nature of the apostolic faith and its proclamation today'. Finally, he asserts that the
local church is not competent alone (my italics) to find the mind of Christ, but to
recognize it. This last point has implications for the current debate about reception.
Obviously, it is difficult to reconcile with a heavily magisterial understanding in
which reception virtually becomes meek submission but it may prove compatible
with the Orthodox and the evolving Anglican concepts of reception in which
conciliar decisions are certainly tested at the level at least of clusters of local
churches (understood, of course, in this case as dioceses).
Fiddes quotes one of his greatest Baptist predecessors, J. H. Shakespeare: 'The
true dimensions of the Church will appear only as we bring together the historic
92 Ecdesiology
past and the Divine working in the present age'. He cites the precedent of those
Baptists, who, on receiving assurances concerning the continuing role of the local
churches in seeking the mind of Christ, entered the episcopally ordered Church of
North India, believing that, in so doing, they were acting 'in the exercise of their
liberty ... to interpret and administer the laws of Christ'. He concludes, 'the form
that episkope might take in the future is surely one instance of allowing tracks from
the past to converge with traces of God's movement into the future'. Clearly, this is
a challenge to all traditions.
The logic of Fiddes's ecclesiological and ecumenical stance is that Baptists
and ecumenical partners must struggle for an appropriate embodiment of the
interdependent nature ofthe Universal Church. Might an insight from the Wesleyan
ecclesiological tradition help to point to a possible way forward for the Anglican-
Baptist relationship by way of enriching the 'Lima' heritage of the understanding of
apostolicity through an increased emphasis upon an apostolic duty of recognition^
The Wesleyan ecclesiologist, Benjamin Gregory, drew attention to an apostolic
paradigm in Acts 8. After the first great persecution in the Jerusalem church, many
of the first Christians were scattered abroad, founding churches apart fi-om direct
apostolic initiative. The apostles then visited these churches, and, according to
Gregory'lost no time in recognising and connecting them', accepting their genuine
ecclesial status while complementing it with a deeper integration into the life ofthe
rest of the Church.^
Bishop Kallistos Ware has already begun to struggle with this problem from
an Orthodox standpoint. He has recorded his encounter with a Singaporean
Pentecostalist, his recognition of the genuineness of the latter's trinitarian faith
and his own questioning as to whether the apostolicity of such churches may have
been maintained without the sign of the episcopal succession as treasured within
Orthodoxy.^ Anglicans now need to ask precisely this question; contrariwise.
Baptists now have to ask whether, no doubt in the best of faith, their ancestors were
justified in not recognizing the historic Church of England as a true manifestation
of the Body of Christ, albeit one under Christ's judgement (as are all churches) and
one existing under forms that they could not then easily identify within their then
understanding of covenant ecdesiology. Baptists also need to ask what witness they
can bring, from their own tradition of instruments of wider voluntary episcope, to
the ecumenical debate on the nature and structure of oversight.
In conclusion, there are, perhaps, four questions that stand out as requiring
answers. First, how confident is Paul Fiddes that his fellow Baptists, in practice, have
an ecdesiology that is neither voluntaristic nor isolationist? How does he assess
2 B. Gregory, Holy Catholic Church (London: Kelly, 1873), pp. 38-41.
' K. V^'are, 'The Tension between the Already and the Not Yet', in Colin D Oavey (ed.), Returning Pilgrims
(London: Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland, 1994), pp. 29-31.
Baptist Ecclesiology 93
tbe eddies and currents of contemporary Baptist ecclesiological self-understanding
and practice? Related to this is tbe question of bow effective Baptist structures,
sucb as those of tbe Baptist Union in this country, are in dealing witb internal
tbeological and other tensions, whicb can be considerable as between more 'liberal'
and more 'conservative', within the overall Baptist community. On a more positive
note, how effective are tbey in terms of mutual reception and accountability as
concerns developments witbin the Baptist tradition? Thirdly, what is the New
Testament basis for tbe understanding of tbe covenantal relationship between
Christ and the individual gathered congregation as opposed to tbat between Cbrist
and tbe Universal Cburcb? I feel it a weakness of this book that it is stronger on
tbe seventeenth-century basis of tbis ecclesiology than on tbe biblical basis for it.
Finally, and echoing tbe spirit of tbe first two questions, is Baptist ecclesiology (and,
in particular, practice), sufficiently strong on wider structures of oversigbt and
A Response to David Carter's Review of
Tracks and Traces
David Carter concludes bis very generous and perceptive review of my book.
Tracks and Traces, witb four questions. They come with the freshness of a cballenge
from another ecclesial tradition, and prompt me to look again - from new angles
- at the issues I have been handling. Three of tbe questions ask, in effect, how
the ecclesiological theory I bave presented matches up to the actual beliefs and
especially tbe actual practices of my fellow-Baptists in the present. The reviewer is
perhaps prompting me, in the most gentle way, to ask myself whether I bave been
straying away from tbe Baptist mainstream rather as J. H. Shakespeare did in his
ecumenical conversations in the 1920s - wbich left him uncomfortably leading no
one, and to nowhere. But I want to approach that sobering challenge by beginning
witb my reviewer's more theoretical question, tbe third on his list. Is there any New
Testament basis for a covenantal relationship between Cbrist and tbe individual
gathered congregation? That was indeed tbe conviction of early Baptists, and I
willingly accept the criticism that I have simply assumed it to be a valid exegesis.
Explaining now why I think it to be correct may well led us into the heart of tbe
issue of practice, and what may seem to be a bewildering variety of ecclesiological
practice among Baptists.
I must, however, take issue somewhat with the way that tbe reviewer bas framed
the question. In my account I have not been affirming a covenantal relationship