Five individuals within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina are causing quite a stir: they are, in effect, calling upon North Carolina CBFers to forsake the Baptist heritage of freedom of conscience and the priesthood of all believers, while downplaying religious liberty and separation of church and state, in order to embrace and formally align themselves with ancient creedalism and the magisterium ecclesiology of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
The five North Carolina individuals are: Don Gordon (pastor, Yates Baptist Church), Larry Harper (Forest Hills Baptist Church), Gail Coulter (retired pastor, Providence Baptist Church, Hendersonville), Ken Massey (pastor, First Baptist Church, Greensboro, North Carolina), and Curtis Freeman (Professor of Theology, Duke Divinity School). They are the authors of a newly-proposed foundational statement for CBF North Carolina, a statement that is clearly at odds with the both the current foundational statement of CBF North Carolina and current national CBF foundational statements.
The statement is currently being circulated among North Carolina Baptists via discussion sessions.
The provenance of the document has direct roots in the 1997 Baptist Manifesto, a "Re-Visioning of Baptist Identity" by a handful of Baptist theologians that denied freedom of conscience and soul liberty as central to the Baptist narrative, rejected the priesthood of all believers and the individual's right to interpret scripture, sought a magisterium to ensure proper biblical teaching within the community of faith, and moved toward the sacramental theology of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Curtis Freeman was a primary author of the Manifesto document, and Ken Massey attached his signature to it.
Since the penning of the Manifesto statement, the Manifesto movement, until now largely confined to theological circles in moderate Baptist seminaries, has moved further away from Baptist history and heritage and more fully embraced ancient creedalism, magisterium ecclesiology, and sacramental theology, along the way becoming known as "Bapto-Catholicism." Freeman has written extensively along these lines (you can see his bibliography by clicking on "Publications" on this page). Freeman's Bapto-Catholic theology is front and center in the newly-proposed CBF NC founding statement.
For their part, Baptist historians have watched Bapto-Catholic theologians tread deeper into creedalism and sacramentalism, and spoken against the movement's forsaking of Baptist history and heritage in favor of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology and thought. Buddy Shurden, pre-emient Baptist historian, penned an early, widely-circulated response to Freeman and his colleagues, entitled "The Baptist Identity and the Baptist Manifesto."
Bapto-Catholics, however, largely ignored the piece, and in the ensuing years Baptist historians and Bapto-Catholic theologians have largely talked past one another, rather than to one another, as Curtis Freeman and others have noted. Ralph Wood, Bapto-Catholic theologian and professor of Theology at Baylor University, perhaps best summed up the apparent disdain that some Bapto-Catholics have for the central Baptist principle of freedom of conscience. Lamenting that Baptists never created a "rich tradition," he praises the sacramental theology of the Roman Catholic Church expressed in baptism and Eucharist, and declares: "This enormously fecund tradition helps prevent Catholics from espousing a rather pathetic do-it-yourself religion, each believer determing truth for himself." (Source: Catholic.Net) Few Baptists in North Carolina are likely aware of the extent of the disdain that some Bapto-Catholics hold toward our historical Baptist identity.
The tendency of Baptist historians and Bapto-Catholic theologians to remain in their respective corners, however, may have dissolved with the emergence of Bapto-Catholics from divinity school theology departments into the mainstream of North Carolina CBF life. The response of historians and others to the Bapto-Catholic-centric proposed NC CBF foundational statement has been swift and public.
Aaron Weaver, doctoral student at Baylor University and blogging as "The Big Daddy Weave," gets credit for breaking the story and offering an appropriate, reasoned analysis of the attempt by Bapto-Catholics to lead North Carolina moderate Baptists away from Baptist principles. Tony Cartledge, professor of Old Testament in the Campbell University Divinity School (NC) and Contributing Editor of Baptists Today, followed up with a well-written and pointed response to Freeman and his Bapto-Catholic colleages and offered a word of caution to North Carolina CBFers. Glenn Jonas, professor of history and chairman of Campbell's Department of Religion and Philosophy, speaking as a historian, has weighed in on both Weaver's and Cartledge's blogs and today penned his own blog entry. And I have also joined in the discussion on Weaver's and Cartledge's blogs. From the Bapto-Catholic side, Steve Harmon, theology professor at Gardner-Webb University's School of Divinity (NC) and vocal advocate of sacramental theology, has also joined in the blogosphere discussion.
In the coming days, we can expect other Baptist historians (within and without the state of North Carolina) to weigh in regarding this development in North Carolina, while the moderate Baptist press provides increasing coverage. The discussion sessions regarding the newly proposed Bapto-Catholic founditional document continue until early November. I am certain that North Carolina moderate Baptists will have a robust dialogue about our Baptist identity between now and then, a dialogue that will be helpful and instructive as moderate Baptists everywhere move forward in the shaping of our future as a people of faith.