This is a very very good book and this is indicated by those who have commended it - Sarah Coakley, Ephraim Radner, Carl Braaten, David Tracy, Gerald O'Collins , Robert Louis Wilken and fellow Baptist, Paul Fiddes. This may well be one of the most important books written by a Baptist, both for its vision of Baptist life for Baptists and also for its vision of the church for those of other traditions.
The book tells something of Freeman's theological pilgrimage to becoming an 'Other Baptist.' The term 'Other Baptist' having its origins in being the only box Freeman felt he could tick in a list of various types of Baptist. There is something then of the confessional nature in the book. In Freeman's usage it describes a Baptist who is catholic, one who is seeking to chart a way beyond fundamentalism and liberalism. Freeman defines an Other Baptist as one in which there may well be:
frustration with both lukewarm liberalism and hyper fundamentalism; a desire to confess the faith once delivered to all the saints, not as a matter of coercion, but as a simple acknowledgement of where they stand and what they believe; a recognition of the Trinity as the centre of the life to which they are drawn; a longing to be priests to others in a culture of self-reliance; a hope of sharing life together that is not merely based on a common culture or determined by shared interests; a commitment to follow the teachings of the Bible that they understand and being open to receive more light and truth that they do not yet understand; trusting in God's promise of presence in water and table; a yearning for the fulfilment of the Lord's prayer that the church may be one.' (p.26)
The book demonstrates the influence of James McClendon and to lesser extent Stanley Hauerwas, both of whom have played very important roles in Freeman's journey to Other Baptist-ness. Another of reading the book is as one very long footnote to the "Manifesto" that Freeman, McClendon and others published in 1997, which was a cry for Baptists, particularly in North America, to a more radical way of being Baptist and catholic.
Contesting Catholicity comes in two parts. The first part sets out what Freeman understands as the 'sickness' in Baptist life. The sickness largely being an individualism, which has its roots in modernity, rather than Baptist beginnings, and is pervasive amongst Baptists, whether fundamentalist or liberalist. Freeman sees in postliberalism, and the work of Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, a faith that is best expressed as a 'generous orthodoxy' (Frei's phrase), which moves beyond the rigid positions of fundamentalism and liberalism.
The second part of the book explores what a theology for Other Baptists looks like in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, the doctrine of the church, the reading of the Bible, the Lord's Supper and the practice of baptism. Freeman demonstrates a really gift of narrating the way Baptists (in Western Christianity) have thought through and lived out their theology, moving freely across four hundred years of history. In this way Freeman follows his teacher McClendon in a way of doing theology that is embodied, not abstract, and that is rooted in local church communities. The voice that resounds throughout the book (one I had not come across before) is of a Baptist pastor and theologian named Carlyle Marney, active in the 1950s and 60s, who Freeman sees as articulating the basis and direction - a Baptist pilgrim road as it were - for Other Baptists. One of the things I most enjoyed about the book is the way Freeman does his theology largely through narrative (pointing to the influence of McClendon and Hauerwas).
Reading the book I found myself saying 'this is me'. I am an Other Baptist, or at least seeking to be. The book in many places was a means of confirmation rather than an initiation into a new way of being Baptist, but this may reflect that my reading habits in the last ten years have been from a similar shelf to Freeman - Hauerwas and Fiddes especially. If you're a signed up catholic Baptist, what there is to enjoy here is the clarity of the argument, the depth of the reading and analysis and done in a way that is particularly Baptist, but at every point with a catholic vision and intention. Freeman is writing theology for the whole church, not just the Baptist branch. Miroslav Volf's 1998 work After the Likeness put John Smyth (and Baptist theology) on the radar for a new audience, Freeman provides a form of sequel in which Smyth and those who have followed in his tracks are the central characters in 'a dissenting movement within the church catholic' (Fiddes).
The message to Baptists then is stop being anti-catholic whether aggressively or with indifference, because if we are not an expression of catholicity, then, if not going too far for Freeman, (and to borrow a phrase from Hauerwas), 'your salvation is in doubt.' The message to everyone else is you need to take us Baptists as offering a catholic tradition and vision that sits alongside others and so is contested. Freeman certainly provides a rich description of that catholic baptist tradition and vision and for that we must thank him.
I read this book over three nights, such was the pull of its narrative and its possibility of being an 'Other' Baptist, it now deserves to be read again, more slowly. I hope many others will do the same.