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Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists
Curtis W. Freeman
Baylor University Press, 2014
630 pp., $49.95
In the mid-20th century, there was perhaps no more prophetic figure within Baptist ecclesial life in America than Winthrop S. Hudson. Hudson, who served as James B. Colgate Professor of the History of Christianity at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, sensed an unease among Baptists in the 1950s that pointed toward an uncertain future. Noting that Baptists were not heirs of a uniform ecclesial tradition but a variegated one, Hudson argued that it was important to "reduce the confusion that frequently results from an indiscriminate appeal to what is considered to be historic Baptist doctrine and practice." Arguments over "the" Baptist tradition, he saw, would be ultimately inconclusive, but he also foresaw the increasing fragmentation of Baptists in light of a growing emphasis on the individual believer as an autonomous interpreter of Scripture. Such fragmentation was in no small part due to a deep tension between Baptist commitments to Scriptural authority on one hand and freedom of conscience on the other. While Hudson wrote with an eye upon Baptist trends in the American North, his words fittingly described the American South as well, for while the division between fundamentalists and modernists had been playing out in the North during his day, those northern battles would be a harbinger of other things to come, and a distinctive but nonetheless eerily similar conflict would divide Baptists of the South a few decades later.
These battles did little to edify Baptist life but rather, in both North and South, led to a hardening of positions that left little room for theological nuance or ecclesial compromise, the edges pushing out the center. On one side stood the conservatives, those who stressed the inerrancy of Scripture and stood for a timeless orthodoxy. On the other side stood the progressives, those who sought to communicate the Gospel with relevance to the modern world, though in the later southern battle, such were more concerned with protecting ...