Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Yarnell. “From Christological Ecclesiology to Functional Ecclesiasticism." - A short review

Yarnell, Malcolm. “From Christological Ecclesiology to Functional Ecclesiasticism: Developments in Southern Baptist Understandings of the Nature and Role of the Churches.” Paper presented to the Anglican Communion-Baptist World Alliance International Theological Conversations, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, 11 September 2003.

In this article, Yarnell proposes to “elucidate developing understandings of the nature and role of the church” in Southern Baptist circles to show that “Southern Baptists have traded their original Christological ecclesiology for a functional ecclesiasticism” (1). It is not clear why understandings is plural, since he is tracing the historiography of one group, which he ultimately presents as having a relatively homogeneous ecclesiology. Yarnell’s journey begins, as is often his style, with a historical overview, where he traces Baptist foundations to the Reformation Church of England. Probably for the benefit of his audience, Yarnell spends much effort teasing out the common roots and similar beliefs of our English Baptist forefathers and their Anglican forefathers. It is not clear if Yarnell ignores the other forefathers of the modern Baptists due to his scope or due to his historical beliefs. Nevertheless, he finds parallels in Baptist and Anglican views of the Bible, justification, and prayer. He sees the beginning of tensions when “radicals were denied episcopal preaching licenses.” One is not clear if Yarnell believes that had the bishops agreed to license these radicals, they would not have separated, for he concludes that the difficulties ultimately lay with ecclesiology.

Yarnell transitions to a discussion of the historically Christological ecclesiology of our Baptist forefathers. He sees the genesis of Baptist ecclesiological doctrines in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and attributes the identification of the “locus classicus for early Separatists and Baptists” (Matt 18:20) to Anglican liturgical practices. It is in this passage that, according to Yarnell, early Baptists found inspiration for the authority of the gathered congregation. Christ, as prophet, priest, and king, our only Mediator, is the one who “dispenses the authority to preach, to pray, and to rule” (4). In these three offices of Christ, they saw the three marks of the church: the Word, the sacraments, and discipline. “God and His people came together in covenant and to form the local church” (4).

Yarnell eventually migrates his setting to the New World and focuses on the development of the Southern Baptist Convention. Yarnell sees a gradual transformation caused by the freedom of the New World, the eighteenth and nineteenth century evangelical awakenings, the frontier mentality, and the American governmental system. The transformation finally culminated in a separation from the early Baptist “ideological roots” due to a “general lack of education . . . coupled with the self-sufficient nature of the churches” (6). All that remained was the functional ecclesiasticism which was lacking ideological roots. This, coupled with individualism and liberalism, resulted in the demise of church discipline and resulted in a “crassly voluntaristic understanding of the nature of the church” (7). It is on this low note that Yarnell transitions to the last part of his essay, where he presents the average ecclesiastical model of the typical Baptist church. He divides this section into three parts: churches in relation to their people, churches in relation to God, and churches in relation to “the other.” His description of the typical Baptist church is unfortunately accurate and does prove his point. While Yarnell seems to identify the typical Baptist church’s problems and their causes, he does not offer any suggestions of how to return to a Christological ecclesiology, as a matter of fact, his article ends rather abruptly.

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