By Fr. Mark Perkins
A pun hardly seems the most promising ground upon which to build a theology — even when the pun-maker is Jesus Christ. The born-again conversion narrative at the heart of Baptist theology rests upon Jesus’ coy wordplay with Nicodemus in John 3. Granted, Baptists aren’t the only ones. Christ’s petros/petra pun in Matthew 16:18 provides the most prominent biblical basis for St. Peter’s status in Roman Catholicism as the one super apostle. In neither case is a pun the sole basis of an entire theology — Acts repeatedly alludes to the primacy of Peter, for example — but in both instances it constitutes the foremost biblical authority for a central doctrine. For Baptists, born-again conversion drives their theology of salvation and damnation, the Church, and the Christian’s eternal destiny. And for this one-time Baptist in particular, the unravelling of that narrative spelled the collapse of the whole Baptist system.
Al Mohler’s “Why I Am a Baptist” (First Things, August/September 2020) demonstrates the extent to which Baptist theology recapitulates the confusion of Jesus’ most hapless interlocutor. Mohler refers to born-again conversion as “the clear teaching of Christ himself, who told Nicodemus, ‘Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” It is true that that is what Nicodemus heard, but it is not precisely what Jesus said. The Greek translated “again” (anothen) is famously ambiguous, open to translation as either “again” or “from above.” In his commentary on John, Rod Whitacre suggests, “When Jesus says one must be born from above, Nicodemus takes it as being born again” (88). So too do the Baptists, and on the basis of that reading they claim that a singular conversion experience is necessary for salvation.
We, however, can see what Nicodemus could not and what Baptists will not, which is that Jesus describes baptismal regeneration: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). Granted, the passage’s interpretation is far more contentious than the foregoing might imply. But that’s just the point: building a theology on the basis of a pun whose meaning is fiercely disputed seems less than prudent — especially when the weight of the Church’s tradition is against your reading.
Having made, as Mohler puts it, “the radical reality of conversion” the foundation of the Christian life, Baptists naturally — and admirably — place missionary evangelism at the very heart of the Church’s purpose. This has produced remarkable fruit in American and world history, but it depends upon an imbalanced theology. In the standard romantic comedies, a passionate kiss marks the climax of a romance, sometimes followed by a “happily ever after” epilogue. In real life, the kiss marks only the beginning of life together. Likewise, implicit in Baptist theology and often explicit in personal testimonies (the believer’s narrative of his conversion experience) is the idea that conversion constitutes a conclusion. This tends to make post-conversion life seem a bit superfluous — one’s terrestrial existence continues primarily in order to bring others to saving faith. Even the heavenly worship of the eschaton lacks a bit of lustre. Indeed, one wonders whether the Baptists saints in heaven — of whom there are undoubtedly a multitude — do not feel a bit disappointed at the lack of pagan souls to save.
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At age three, led by my five-year-old brother, I prayed the sinner’s prayer — a twentieth-century formula designed to ensure that the requisite conversion has taken place. On my eighth birthday I was baptized by immersion in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My parents sometimes betrayed hints of uncertainty about the validity of my precocious conversion, but I reiterated my faith to them over the years, and they believed me. Perhaps this was because we as a family were more generically non-denominational than rigorously Baptist, even though my father was an ordained Southern Baptist minister working in parachurch ministry.
I distinctly remember my first moment of Baptist doubt. A visiting pastor declared that if you could not remember your conversion experience as a singular, life-altering event, it did not happen. This was standard Baptist doctrine, though he affirmed it rather more vigorously and with less nuance than was typical. What really stood out, though, was his subsequent assertion that any doubt about one’s salvation was also proof that one was not, in fact, saved. “Why would the devil cause you to doubt your salvation?” he thundered. “That’d just get you to go get saved!” Doubt was the Holy Spirit drawing the non-believer to salvation.
I must have prayed the sinner’s prayer dozens of times in the weeks that followed. Eventually I realized that this was a paralyzing way to live, and it dawned on me that, although the devil can’t damn the saved — once saved, always saved was our mantra — Christian paralysis might be a good fallback. And as I’d never heard our pastor or my parents or any other adult Christian say anything like that about doubt, I put the visitor’s proclamation out of my mind.
You see, it really was hard to believe that a prayer at age three — one I was not entirely sure I even remembered — could constitute that singular and necessary experience of conversion. And if it didn’t, then I was not a Christian.
Yet I knew that I was. For years the doubtful conversion experience I could not clearly remember and the faith I knew I had coexisted incoherently in my Baptist self. I occasionally regretted my rather anemic testimony — surely I could win more souls had I been saved from a life of drugs, alcohol, and loose women rather than tantrums — but I rarely doubted the reality of my salvation.
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If the theological insight driving Baptist theology is personal conversion, the animating spirit of Mohler’s essay is individualism: “when asked by an Episcopal bishop why Baptists were growing so fast on the nineteenth-century American frontier, [Francis Wayland] responded, ‘We don’t ask permission.’ He was likely tempted to add, ‘And we don’t have bishops.’” Mohler concludes his essay declaring, “No earthly permission needed.”
This rejection of authority is not universal. Baptists recognize the lawful jurisdiction of secular authorities. Indeed, Mohler recently repudiated his prior view that slaves needed the earthly permission of slaveowners to run away. It is more specifically a rejection of religious authority. “No pope, no bishop, no presbytery, no permit needed or sought,” Mohler writes. He affirms Thomas Helwys’s insistence that “man’s religion to God is between God and themselves.”
Casting Christianity as a private relationship between soul and Savior would seem to sideline the Church, but Mohler defends Baptist ecclesiology. He quotes at length a beautiful Baptist covenant about the duties of Christians one to another. Every phrase is true, and yet as an ecclesiology it is insufficient. It presents the Church as a spiritual support group — which it most certainly is, but not only. It is the Mystical Body of Christ.
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As a history major in college, curiosity about church history led me to explore other traditions, but in hindsight what led me out of the Baptist tradition was a theology of the body. Baptist theology need not be immaterial, but the emphasis on an internal conversion experience encourages psychological introspection, and the dedication to saving souls sometimes suppresses the cosmic scope of salvation. Growing up, I knew that the destiny of this earth and of these bodies was destruction.
Then in high school I read an aside by C. S. Lewis about how kneeling to pray affects one’s spiritual disposition. I couldn’t quite make sense of this startling assertion that the body matters. At the end of college I read N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, which affirmed that the body will matter in the eschaton. My body would not be discarded as so much superfluous waste but would, as God’s own beloved creation, be renewed and restored in the life of the world to come. Finally, as an aspirant discerning a call to Holy Orders, I read E. L. Mascall’s Christ, the Christian, and the Church, which taught me that, at baptism, my body was grafted into Christ’s own Body, the Church — and that, in the Eucharist, the union of the Christian with Christ and consequently with every other Christian is sustained and deepened.
Baptists taught me to love Jesus and to love the Bible. I am and will eternally be grateful to the Baptist tradition for these precious gifts. But the narrative of born-again conversion was not sufficient to the witness of Scripture, the teachings of the Church down the ages, or my own life story. Eventually a rector in an Anglican parish would give language to my experience of faith: ontologically we are made regenerate at baptism, but existentially the Christian life is a series of ever-deepening conversions.
In that Anglican context I would come to recognize the most profound absence from my upbringing. Worship was described as a natural and proper response to the forgiveness of sins and salvation from hell. Though a critically important duty of the Christian, it was theologically secondary to the gospel. My formation in the Book of Common Prayer eventually showed me that worship is not only a gracious response to the gospel but is in fact the gospel’s very climax — a climax we begin to experience even now in the Eucharistic liturgy. The gift of the Eucharist is, as Pope Benedict XVI put it, a “cosmic liturgy” through which “we do indeed participate in the heavenly liturgy” and in which “past, present, and future interpenetrate and touch upon eternity” (70, 60-61). In the end, the best of news is not that our sins are forgiven but that, because we are forgiven, we may — both now and forever, with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven — laud and magnify the Name of the Lord.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.