James B. Jordan

The Atomization and Individualization of the American Baptist Culture

The Atomization and Individualization of the American Baptist Culture

I know this is not the most friendly of titles. But there it is. The inspiration for the title came while re-reading a book edited in the 80’s by my theological mentor, James B. Jordan. The book is controversially entitled The Failure of the American Baptist Culture. a Though the title seems to put all baptists into one camp, the reality is that much of the evangelical landscape has changed in three decades. Today you will find baptist leaders declaring the glories of community life and the dangers of an isolated Christian experience. On the other hand, some modern Presbyterians have embraced this atomization in the Church. Some take this approach out of fear of sounding like post-modern clerics. So, they mistreat the corporate realities of the covenant and borrow baptistic vocabulary to do so, while claiming that they aren’t doing so.

Another way Presbyterians continue to pour gas into the individualist’s fire is by refusing to give communion to the least of these. Yes, I know that much–though not all–of the Reformation fell into this same trap and so I am the first to admit that my beloved tradition did not fully reform in every respect. Paedocommunion is not only a wonderful ecclesiastical response to the individualism that plagues the modern church, but it also affirms the covenantal promises of God to a thousand generations. It re-orients us to the unity that is inherent in the baptismal tradition of our forefathers.

In the book’s introduction Jordan wrote:

The failure of most of the Reformers to advocate paedocommunion, the development of the rite of confirmation, the rise of scholasticism, and later on the development of individualistic revivalism and anti-liturgism, all evince the strong nominalistic drift in all Christian thought in recent centuries.

What churches need to ask then is, “What practices force us to look beyond ourselves?,” or positively framed, “What ecclesiastical practices can help us restore this covenantal call issued by our Hebrew forefathers?”

The answer seems simple to me. But there are still several road-blocks to overcome in this process. Presbyterians have for far too long embraced the presupposition of our baptist brothers. Moving away from these presuppositions is the first step to avoiding the pitfalls of the individualized baptist culture. At the same time, I hasten to add that baptist theology today, especially in more reformational contexts, have become ripe for the type of language and practices I am advocating. While it is true they will never practice paedocommunion or paedobaptism, they are already using familiar corporate language that rings joyfully in any Calvinists’ ears.

The bottom line is we need to re-think these nominalist tendencies that may find a home in both circles. We need to see them and cut them out immediately. The individual cannot exist apart from a community. As Bonhoeffer observed in his classic Life Together, 

We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.

In this one-anothering, we find that isolationism is detrimental to the Christian experience. A wholistic Christian faith does not atomize, but incorporates. And in this incorporation, community finds its ultimate agenda fulfilled, the glorification of the kingdom culture.

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We Need New Ears and Eyes

I began my day reading through Jim Jordan’s magnum opus, Through New Eyes. Jim is a dear friend and we have worked together for three years (09-11). I have literally read and listened to hundreds of articles, sermons, & lessons. If Jim publishes, my eyes will seek to scan it. In many ways, he has taught me to love the Bible in a deeper way than before.

My seminary days were wonderful days. I had the privilege of sitting under some of the most renown Reformed theologians alive. It was filled with excitement and theological epiphanies. But none of these men came near to the theological revivals that James Jordan  caused in my own thinking. Jordan enabled me to appreciate the Bible for its own merit. He caused me to love the Bible for its own structure, poetry, cadence, rhythm, and music. Yes, the Bible is a beautiful song sung by Yahweh Himself in Genesis 1 and closing with the eternal song of eternity in Revelation 22.

In TNE, Jordan observes:

…the universe and everything in it reveals the character of its Creator. God designed the universe to reveal Himself and to instruct us. The problem we have is that sin has made us deaf and blind. We need new eyes and ears, and the Scriptures can help us get them (13).

These new eyes and ears are only re-shaped and re-designed as we allow the Scriptures to do so. The Bible shapes us as a people. The Word of the Lord re-orients our minds to see God’s instruction in everything. The world, and in particular, Scriptures, communicate to us through vast symbols. The revelation of Yahweh contains a specific language that we need to master. And the only way of mastering it is by seeking its guidance day and night.

Hear the Bible

One strong emphasis James Jordan has made over the years is that reading the Bible is not enough. Listening to it is equally important. The ancients did not manuscript copies available as we do, but yet their minds were saturated by the language of Scriptures. Their minds delved deeply into the rich types and symbols of the Old Covenant Scriptures. They heard it read and began to make connections. They did not only accept explicit types and symbols, but they saw that the entire Bible was one story pictured in symbols and types, and since this is the case, therefore every narrative is connected to the one previous and the one after.

Hearing the Bible especially in a community setting takes us away from our natural tendency to isolate ourselves. The isolation of evangelicalism is due to hermeneutical isolation. Individuals are perfectly satisfied to pietize the Bible. And as they do so, they turn their individualism into a standard for others. But when we hear the Bible, when we listen to one another in our communities, and when we allow the Church to speak–as she should–we become part of a greater hermeneutical project.

Hear the Bible, but don’t hear it alone. Hear it, and then contextualize it in this grand story of redemption. And when this is done, sin’s hermeneutical effects began to fade away and our eyes and ears will be able to do those things they were created to do.

For book resources, see here. For his audio series on How to Read the Bible, see here.