Baptists and Catholics have much in common, not only culturally, but also religiously. They share a great love for scripture and spirituality. They have a strong moral compass and a desire to help those in need of food, shelter, work and other necessities for personal and family living. In the Baptist/Catholic “conversations” delegates from the World Baptist Alliance (WBA) and Catholic delegates from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPUC) have learned much about each other. There have been two series of conversations; the first extending from 1984 through 1988, focusing on the Lord Jesus Christ and the second from 2006 to 2010 focused on the Word of God in the life of the Church which we are considering in this article.
The topic of the Word of God in the life of the Church was recommended by the earlier group and was pursued by the second. While a summary of the results of this latest study is difficult in a limited space, it does show a common ground of understanding and a fruitful sharing and emphasizing the solid foundations of Christian belief which Baptists and Catholics have in common about the role of scripture in the life of the Church.
The preface to our document, The Word of God in the Life of the Church (WGLIC), is a splendid overview of the work done by the dialogue team. They stress the Christological agreement reached in the first series of conversations and its influencer on the work of the later series. They summarize the contribution of their work in these words:
“We therefore warmly commend this report to Baptist and Catholic readers, and all others interested in relations between them. As we suggest in our conclusion, we do not think that such a sustained attempt has ever been made before to identify as accurately as possible the convergence and divergence between Catholic and Baptist Christians. Sympathetic readers will, we believe, find a great deal of light cast here not only on the beliefs of another Christian communion, but on the convictions of their own. It has been in setting our beliefs side by side in a thorough way that we have come to understand both them and each other more deeply, so that we have been able to move further towards the goal set by our Teacher and Master Jesus Christ, ‘that they all may be one’. While we do not expect our readers to be surprised by differences that remain, we think they will be surprised by the extent of the common mind that has been revealed.
…We came to discover, as we met year by year, that the choice of the overall theme of ‘The Word of God in the Life of the Church’ had been a wise one, not only prompting us to reflect continually on the relation between scripture and tradition, but also directing our attention to the one who is the living Word of God and the Lord of the Church. So we have tried to fulfill the aim which was formed at the planning of these conversations, to foster a life of shared discipleship.”
Introduction: Aims, History and Context of the Conversations
[In the paragraph preceding the Introduction, the document states the status of the work of the conversations. The statements of the delegated group are not an official statement of the World Baptist Alliance or of the Catholic Church. The authorities who appointed the participants have allowed the Report to be published so that it may be widely discussed. The Catholic Church and the Baptist World Alliance will both also evaluate the document.]
“The goal of the conversations is to respond to the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ to his Father for his disciples ‘that they may all be one…that the world may believe (Jn 17:21). Facing the challenges of our world today, we believe this means that we should continue to explore our common ground in biblical teaching, apostolic faith and practical Christian living, as well as areas that still divide us, in order to:
- Increase our mutual understanding, appreciation of each other and Christian charity towards each other;
- Foster a shared life of discipleship within the communion of the triune God:
- Develop and extend a common witness to Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world and the Lord of all life;
- 4. Encourage further action together on ethical issues, including justice, peace and the sanctity of life, in accord with God’s purpose and to the praise of God’s glory.
We envisage that we can move towards the fulfillment of these aims by focusing on the theme: ‘The Word of God in the Life of the Church: Scripture, Tradition and Koinonia.”
The central theme of the WGLIC is the relationship between the word of God in scripture and the Word of God in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. The second central theme is the relationship of the local church to the universal church founded by Jesus Christ to carry on his mission of salvation to the world. These two themes suggest a moral or ethical way of life which Jesus taught and exemplified, and which must guide the church in every age and place to incorporate the kingdom of God in Christ through appropriate moral living. Included in these various themes are the authority of scripture, the nature and mission of the church, the place of sacraments/ordinances in the life of the church and Christians.
As the document clearly admits there are many common lights of faith that are shared by Baptists and Catholics. There are also many divergences, notably the nature of the church, ordained ministry and the ministry of all believers (and their complementarity), the role of primacy and oversight (episcope) in a reintegrated Christianity. The question of baptism of believers and infant baptism, as well as the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper need special and careful study as well as the guiding principles of sacraments in general.
The place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in scriptural accounts of the Annunciation and birth of Jesus need to be studied again in the ecumenical context:
“Behold you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be called the Son of the Most High…and of his kingdom there shall be no end…The holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God (Lk1:31-33, 35).
The journey to unity is a long one, but it must be made together. There are gifts to be shared to make the way smooth and straight. There are stereotypes and caricatures that need to be acknowledged, and wrongs need to be forgiven. However, these conversations go a long way toward the goal of unity and the response of the prayer of Jesus for the unity of the church and all Christians.