Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Sources of Light: Resources for Baptist Churches Practicing Theology,” co-edited by Chilton and Harmon, which is a volume in the Perspectives on Baptist Identities series sponsored by the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion. The book is available here from Mercer University Press, which granted permission for this excerpt to be published.
The challenges of our times call for the formation of Christians in the convictions and practices that mark life under Christ’s rule so that they might be equipped for engaging in cruciform acts of solidarity with and ministry to people on the margins.
Toward that end, we and 21 other diverse Baptist theologians have engaged in a collaborative project that points ministers and theological students, as well as their theological educators, to the sources of light found in the whole church in its varied social locations through which congregations may receive the illumination of the Spirit necessary for this urgently needed formation.
The Spirit has been providing this formative illumination since the church’s creation at Pentecost.
In the story of Pentecost recounted in Acts 2, the Spirit provides light that enables people to see things: divided tongues as of fire, visions and dreams, portents in heaven and signs on earth.
Yet in the narrative much of this illumination is related to that which is heard rather than seen: the sound of violent wind, the speaking of other languages by the gathered disciples, the hearing by the gathered crowd of multinational pilgrims from the Jewish diaspora “in the native language of each,” Peter’s repeated summons to “listen” to what he has to say, and the hearing by which the crowd heeded Peter’s summons to listening.
In the Pentecost story, the sources of light by which the Spirit illuminates the church’s path to God’s future for the world are voices of difference that speak and are heard inter-contextually.
Voices speaking from one context are heard by hearers from other contexts, in this case participating in a shared context, and the Spirit brings about new understanding precisely through this encounter with difference.
We are convinced that this kind of listening is a formative ecclesial practice. Yet listening is a practice that, like all practices of the church, is susceptible to corruption.
Therefore, our listening is always in need of conversion by the Spirit, and conversion comes in part through the re-examination occasioned by the inter-contextual hearing of voices of difference.
The Pentecost-birthed community’s Spirit-enabled practice of listening underwent a gradual process of conversion through encounters with difference.
The outpouring of the Spirit at the feast of Pentecost did involve important elements of inclusion: the presence of people in the gathered crowd “from every nation under heaven” and the transcending of divisions of gender, age and social class in the pouring out of the Spirit “upon all flesh.”
But in this episode, those included by the Spirit were Jewish. The recognition that non-Jewish citizens of “every nation under heaven” were included in God’s salvation would await further conversion of the early Christian community.
By Acts 10, a few years after the Pentecost experience, the encounter with Cornelius and his household had led Peter to declare, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to [God]” and to ask, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Peter’s later recounting of this experience that had helped him see that God had “made no distinction between them and us” before the apostles and elders gathered for theological deliberation in Jerusalem was decisive for the church’s resolution of the question of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the community (Acts 15:6-11).
These encounters with difference had likewise formed the apostle Paul, who recognized in his letter to the Galatians that baptism creates a new community in which instead of the ways the world divides humanity and grants privilege according to perceived differences – “Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female” – now “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
That text must be read in light of both Jewish and Greco-Roman texts that prized the privilege possessed by the first group in each of the three pairs of divisions noted – ethnic, socioeconomic and gender.
It is not difficult to imagine its application to a contemporary community in which the light provided by the Spirit through inter-contextual encounters with difference leads the church to envision a new community created by baptism in which there is no longer white or non-white, “natural born citizen” or immigrant, straight or queer, or gender binary-conforming and -nonconforming, but all are one in Christ Jesus.
The local church’s practice of theology needs the illumination that God’s Spirit offers through the whole body of Christ because this is a practice of a church on pilgrimage toward a place that we cannot yet see.
While we are on this pilgrimage, the Spirit does not shine a spotlight all the way to the final destination or post streetlamps all along the route, but the sources of light through which the Spirit helps us see do illuminate the path just ahead of us, for the words that mediate the Word to us provide us with “a lamp to [our] feet and a light to [our] path” (Psalm 119:105).
Therefore, “let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev. 2:29) through these sources of light, that we might have the resources we need to practice theology, together, where we are.
Amy L. Chilton is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Wingate University in North Carolina and Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. She is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches USA and past president of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion, Region-at-Large.
Steven R. Harmon is Professor of Historical Theology at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina. The author of four books, including Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future (2016), he is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-affiliated ordained Baptist minister and past president of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion.