13 August 2003

Baptists and Methodists

While I was in Minnesota I actually had more contact with Baptists and Methodists than with Lutherans. So I owe something of a debt to these two traditions as well. When I was about 11 years old our family began attending a Baptist congregation, associated with the Baptist General Conference, a group with Swedish origins. This eventually led me to the denomination's college, Bethel College, north of St. Paul, Minnesota, in the community of Arden Hills. While there, I attended a multiracial United Methodist church in south Minneapolis, albeit without really embracing Wesleyanism.

Ironically, while at Bethel I decided I was not a Baptist, and at age 20 I underwent something of a paradigm shift that led me back towards the Reformed Christianity in which I was raised. During my second year a fellow student introduced me to the literature coming out of the Institute for Christian Studies, the old Wedge Publishing Foundation, and the now long defunct Vanguard magazine. This was an eye-opener for me, and I began to conceive of the relationship between religion and life rather differently than I had up to that point. Niebuhr would describe this as "Christ transforming culture." Calvin College's late Prof. Evan Runner would say that life is quite simply religion.

It's difficult to say whether I still carry with me something of my previous Baptist connection. In many respects both Baptists and Methodists follow typically American forms of Christianity. Both place a considerable emphasis on free will and have a largely voluntaristic notion of the church, something that flourished on the frontiers. Both were spawned largely in a revivalist method (hence "Methodism") that placed a premium on the making of a once-for-all commitment to the faith.

Since my younger days, by contrast, I've come to have a considerable respect for a more communal understanding of the faith. During times of doubt (which we all, after all, experience) it's enormously helpful to be able to lean on the accumulated faith of the larger body of Christ. That's one of the reasons I so love especially the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds and the Heidelberg Catechism. In these confessional statements we find the faith of the church expressed in ways that are accessible to generations of believers around the world. In confessing these we are joining our hearts with many who have come before us and many who will follow us.

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