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“We saw ourselves as a kind of colony of heaven,” he says. “Whatever it was about, it was about the church.”

Even before he became pastor at West End, Freeman was corresponding with Hauerwas. After reading Hauerwas’ 1984 book Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer on Christian Ethics, Freeman sought help from the well known theologian. As is his practice, Hauerwas responded without hesitation.

Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology and director of the divinity school’s Baptist House of Studies, talks to students and guests at a recent presentation on the Baptist Manifesto, which he helped author.
York Wilson


 Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology and director of the divinity school’s Baptist House of Studies, talks to students and guests at a recent presentation on the Baptist Manifesto, which he helped author.

Through dozens of letters, phone calls and face-to-face meetings at conferences, Hauerwas, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, helped Freeman reconcile some of his conflicting ideas and further shape his theological perspective.

One point the two discussed at length was the question of whether people should read the Bible as individuals or as part of a community. On the one hand, Freeman understood the imperative among Baptists for freedom and individuality in worship. On the other, he saw a need for the reading of Scripture to take place as part of a church whole.

To Hauerwas, the answer was clear, although it was distasteful to many Baptists.

“You read the text as part of the ongoing life of the church across centuries,” Hauerwas said. “The meaning is always to be tested by other readers.”

For more than a decade, Freeman and Hauerwas talked and wrote to each other, with Hauerwas eventually serving on Freeman’s doctoral dissertation committee. In fact, Hauerwas suggested the subject of Freeman’s dissertation: Augustine of Hippo, who also famously found himself caught between distinct theologies. Freeman adopted as his own confessional statement the Augustinian maxim: “Unless you believe, you will not understand.”

In the mid-1990s, Freeman and a group of like-minded Baptist theologians came together to draft a document encapsulating their vision of Baptist identity. It imagined a new course for those who would embrace it. The “Baptist Manifesto” was published in 1997, drawing praise and criticism. Among the manifesto’s theses are:

  • We affirm Bible study in reading communities rather than relying on private interpretation or supposed “scientific” objectivity.
  • We affirm following Jesus as a call to shared discipleship rather than invoking a theory of soul competency.
  • We affirm baptism, preaching and the Lord’s table as powerful signs that seal God’s faithfulness in Christ and express our response of awed gratitude rather than as mechanical rituals or mere symbols.
  • We affirm and renounce coercion as a distinct people under God rather than relying on political theories, powers, or authorities.

“It was kind of a statement for the times,” Freeman says. “It stimulated a lot of conversation.”

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