January 30, 2023
by Philip Thompson, Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Heritage
Last week, David Williams and Greg Henson introduced the idea of “directional sets” as a potentially more adequate model to use when reflecting on Christian identity and mission as we follow the Holy Spirit.
To this point, we have considered characteristics of different sets very generally, I mention this because we need to keep in mind that the concept of a directional set as presented by David and Greg has in view the Body of Christ in its broadest sense rather than the specificity of local communities of faith within particular traditions. These are often two very different sorts of “sets,” and their differences present us with tensions, with ambiguities – and with opportunities.
For better and for worse, most churches tend to be in some way bounded or centered sets. They have been since the days when the Scriptures were committed to writing. “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us” (I John 2:19). That’s strong “set language.”
Since churches are human realities, this strong “set language” can potentially signal something quite problematic. Since the church is the Body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, it can signal blessing.
Problematically, whether it’s overt, or merely implicit, there is often in churches a sense like the one conveyed in the lyrics of 1980s and 90s Christian rocker Steve Taylor’s song, “I Want to be a Clone”:
If you want to be one of His, you have to act like one of us!
Here is a strong form of the bounded set attitude in caricature. While this position is often embraced for the sake of mission, it isn’t necessarily conducive to participating in God’s Kingdom and its mission. The goal drifts toward replicating the institution. It more nearly calls to mind the quip of the 19th-century French Catholic liberal, Alfred Loisy, “Jésus annonçait le Royaume et c’est l’Église qui est venue” (“Jesus announced the Kingdom, and it was the church that came”).
Yet the church is, in all its imperfection, by grace also a sign of the Kingdom of God. Thus in the varied expressions of this sign, churches are means through which God gives gifts for mission. Each local community of faith has in its tradition something which enables persons to follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit.
There are two particular gifts the Baptist tradition I inhabit may offer for following the leadings of the Spirit as we share in Christ’s Kingdom mission. Baptists arose as part of the Puritan movement in 17th-century England. One of the striking claims made by the Puritans in their early years, one that has been invoked often by Baptists throughout their history, has been called by historians “the further light clause.” It was famously recalled of the Pilgrim leader John Robinson, “[H]e was very confident the Lord had more truth and light to yet to breake (sic) forth out of his holy Word.”
This “more light” is neither invention nor mere novelty. It is Christ – yet with awareness that the Truth Christ is is not so small as to be grasped easily. In a book titled What Baptists Stand For, we find this clearly affirmed. “Baptists frankly recognize that our understanding of Christ’s revelation must inevitably be a growing thing. . . . not because Christ Himself has in any way changed, but because God by His Spirit has taught us to see in Him treasure of wisdom and power that our (forebears) did not discover.”
Thus the “more light” is “[t]he true light, which enlightens everyone. . . .” (John 1:9) To live in expectation that, in the words of The First London Confession (1644), “the Lord will daily cauſe truth more to appeare (sic) in the hearts of his Saints,” is a humble acknowledgment that, this side of the Kingdom of God, we do not have full knowledge concerning God’s ways in the world. The Wild Goose flies ever ahead, the Spirit of whom Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12-14) The Puritans acknowledged this. As Edward Winslow said, “It is not possible . . . that full perfection of knowledge should breake (sic) forth at once.” Thus throughout the history of Baptist witness, we find paired “the ways known” and “the ways to be known.”
Again, this is neither invention nor novelty. Rather it is described by English Baptist historian Ernest A. Payne in his presidential address to the Baptist Union of Great Britain in 1977. “We have, we may believe, been led, in accordance with the promise of Scripture, to a better understanding of the mind of Christ.” How is the mind of Christ sought? It is by listening to the witness of Holy Scripture in community.
This is the second gift offered by the Baptists. In 1997, a group of Baptist pastors and scholars (one of which I was part) published a statement calling for Baptist communities more fully to embody and reflect the best aspects of our historical witness. We said that we, “affirm an open and orderly process whereby faithful communities deliberate together over the Scriptures with sisters and brothers of the faith, excluding no light from any source. When all exercise their gifts and callings, when every voice is heard and weighed, when no one is silenced or privileged, the Spirit leads communities to read wisely and to practice faithfully the direction of the gospel.” We might well think of the gospel as adventure as well as Good News.
I have often quipped that if there were a “Kairos hymn,” it should be one found in many Baptist hymn collections in the nineteenth century. It begins, “‘Tis God the Spirit leads in paths before unknown; The work to be performed is ours, the strength the Spirit’s own.” This sets us well to live into the vision set forth, in the words of pastor, theological educator, and Baptist Union president, Brian Haymes, “And with, I hope, and open-minded modesty, that recognizes that not even the Baptist word is final, I shall be glad to go on affirming such things until Christ leads us beyond the ways known to those yet to be made known.”