This is Part 5 of this series. I’ve been looking at church history and exploring the reasons I am a Baptist despite the fact there were no Baptists prior to the early 17th Century.
Here is Part 1.
Issue 5: If evangelical Protestantism is true, how could an illiterate peasant in rural, 8th Century France be a faithful Christian? This might at first glance seem to be a ridiculous hypothetical question. However, it is the life situation of most humans ever. Evangelicism presumes easy access to a Bible and its people being able to read it regularly. But in reality the vast majority of humans in history have been illiterate and have lived in rural isolated places far from churches and education. Furthermore, books were very expensive to print and distribute. Being a faithful evangelical by today’s standards would have been impossible for most people, so how can it be the truest expression of the faith? In short, were there evangelicals before the printing press?
Answer: This is perhaps the most difficult of all five questions for me to answer. But it is also the most irrelevant. Let me explain.
Even though modern evangelicism may be largely infatuated with publishing, marketing, technology, stream lined small group studies, and consuming all sorts of new media as the foundation for spiritual growth, it doesn’t have to be that way.
I agree with the more ancient churches on this point. We, as thoroughly modernized evangelicals, need to realize that many of the religious practices we sneer at as “dead rituals” developed preciously because of the life situation described above. When people can’t read or don’t have access to books, other means must be developed for the Book to saturate their lives. That’s exactly what the church did and continues to do. Remembering this reality might help us to not only appreciate the past, but to see some of our own cultural and spiritual blind spots.
For example . . .
We would do well to have our lives shaped more by the rhythms of the church calendar and liturgy. Because generating emotional fervor every week is not sustainable. We need a connection to something bigger and a structure to guide us. However, many evangelicals are waking up to this. My own church has celebrated Advent the last few years as have many others.
We would do well to be inspired by the lives of the saints beyond Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and Billy Graham . . . though I certainly respect and appreciate all four. By learning about different types of heroic Christians from various professions, ethnicities, genders, ages, and social classes we can more fully see with the various ways the Gospel can profoundly influence a life.
We would do well to be transfixed by the transcendent architecture of places like Chartres and the paintings of people like Rembrandt. A thousand years ago Christians built and painted things that still amaze us in the CGI-special effects, anything goes era. What are we building that will do the same in another thousand?
We would do well to relearn with the Desert Fathers the ancient craft of virtue cultivation and spiritual formation. As stated by others such as Anthony Bradley, success and leaderhip too often replaces character and virtue in today’s evangelical churches. How do you actually learn how to be more patience or self-controlled or peaceful?
We would do well to remember with Bunyan that we are pilgrims and life is a long, upward struggle and that we are all in this together. It can’t always be fixed in three pithy points.
I think you get the idea.
But here’s the thing. I don’t think I need to leave my Baptist church to integrate these practices into my life. I need and appreciate the warm spirit and evangelical zeal of my Baptist faith. I want my children to grow up an environment where each person is held accountable for their personal holiness and where loving service to others is an expected way of life. I love that and wouldn’t trade it for anything. I also think the liturgical traditions have much to learn from us. I guess I’m hoping for both/and not either/or.
Furthermore, as I mentioned above there are already many signs this is happening and that makes me very excited and hopeful for the future of our movement. Click here, here, and here for a few examples.
So that’s it. Those are the five historical difficulties with the Baptist faith and the reasons why despite them I choose to remain an evangelical Baptist. To those who have joined in this conversation, thanks. I’ve enjoyed your diverse input and blessings on your own journeys.
In my next post, I’ll offer some concluding thoughts and since I’ve been pretty hard on Roman Catholicism I want to offer a few things I appreciate about that tradition.