Thursday, October 25, 2012

Six years later: Interview with Matthew Pinson on The Washing of the Saints' Feet

In 2006 Matthew Pinson published his book The Washing of the Saints' Feet. After its publication, I purchased the book, read it, reviewed it, and recommended it. Six years later I still recommend it. Six years later the author has agreed to the following interview. I hope you will find it interesting. J. Matthew Pinson is a Free Will Baptist minister & educator, and president of Welch College in Nashville, Tennessee.

R. L. Vaughn: Brother Pinson, one of your reasons for writing the book was to re-energize the Free Will Baptists' vision of washing the saints' feet. Why did you feel the vision needed re-energizing, and do you feel the book has helped accomplish that goal?

Matthew Pinson: Free Will Baptists are not isolated from the wider evangelical lack of attention to ecclesiology. Like other evangelicals, we have drunk in our fair share of consumer values and pragmatism in our attempt to grow our churches--concerned more about what will attract people than about the sufficiency of the new covenant means of grace. However, a younger generation is becoming more interested in ecclesiology, as it is in biblical theology and the Christian tradition. There is more of an interest in what Timothy George has referred to as "renewal through retrieval." Younger Free Will Baptists are not alone in this. But part of what is involved when younger Free Will Baptists engage in renewal through retrieval is the retrieval of the washing of the saints' feet. Most of the people I get emails from who have benefited from my book, used it for church Bible studies, etc., have been younger, well-educated Free Will Baptist pastors, youth ministers, etc. As we move forward, this will no doubt have the effect of helping to re-energize the vision for the rite of washing the saints' feet.

R. L. Vaughn: You also hoped that the book would help to offer that vision of washing feet to the wider Christian family. Have you seen or heard of any response of such an accomplishment?
Matthew PinsonI don't really have any knowledge of how the book has been received outside Free Will Baptists. You reviewed it, as did another feet-washing friendly Baptist, Robert Gardner, a historian at Mercer University. He gave it a positive review in Baptist History and Heritage. It was also reviewed positively in a Mennonite academic journal--I think the Conrad Grebel Review, which I think is published in Canada. It seems that there was also an Anabaptist reviewer in Europe that gave it a good review. This is all I know about its reception outside Free Will Baptist circles.

R. L. Vaughn: Have any of your views about feet washing changed since the publication of the book? If so, in what way?
Matthew Pinson: None of my main views have changed. However, I continue to develop and broaden my understanding of the concept of "ordinances" in Free Church life, especially in Baptist life. I am becoming convinced that, in Baptist life, the word and concept of "ordinance" gradually morphed from talking about simply a God-ordained church practice to being a Baptist synonym for "sacrament." This development made the subsequent jettisoning of the washing of feet by the myriad Baptists (Arminian and Calvinist alike) who practiced the rite an easier development--they simply parroted much of the sacramental language and categories of the wider non-Baptist Reformed movement, just without the deeper sacramental theology. Thus the "two sacraments" of the Magisterial Reformation became the "two ordinances" of many Baptists as they moved into modernity. This may not have happened as much if Baptists had retained the earlier usage of the concept of "ordinance" simply to mean a God-ordained Christian practice, rather than using it as a synonym for "non-sacramental sacraments." This does not mean, of course, that early Baptists did not use sacramental language (and we all know that all sorts of ritual ordinances were more important to early Baptists in England and America than they are now--rather than just being "tacked on" like they are now), even though it would still be seen as very "non-sacramental" to Reformed, Lutheran, or Anglican communicants. 

R. L. Vaughn: You included six songs in your book on feet washing. This seems unique in comparison to many such treatises. What motivated you to include these songs? Are songs on washing the saints' feet an important part of Free Will Baptist worship?

Matthew Pinson: My interest in the Christian tradition in general and the Free Will Baptist and larger Baptist traditions in particular, together with my musical interests, have fueled a fascination with the way Christians prior to recent times utilized song to inculcate doctrine. They saw themselves as fulfilling the command from Col. 3:16 about letting the word of Christ dwell in his people richly as they teach and admonish one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The Baptists in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries led the way in the development of extra-canonical hymnody (as opposed to exclusive psalmody). But, as some research I've been doing on the English General Baptist Joseph Wright and the English Particular Baptist Benjamin Keach (both seventeenth century) has shown, they were very intent on fulfilling the command in Col. 3:16. The main reason for hymnody, as they saw it, was to teach doctrine. They would have been completely mystified by the shallowness and non-doctrinal nature of much of our evangelical church music of late. It was obvious to these people, and to most of our Baptist forebears, that the practices of the church, including things like baptism, the Lord's supper, and feet washing, should be sung about by the people of God. Yet this seems so foreign to our time.  Believing as I do in the need to renew the church by the retrieval of Christian song which fulfills the dictates of Col. 3:16, and believing that good theology is always doxological, and given that what I am writing about in this book is itself a worship practice, I thought it was fitting to publish these songs. The music to one of the songs was even originally written for the book by my friend Dr. James Stevens, chair of the Music department at Welch College.

R. L. Vaughn: Were there any objections to your proposal that feet washing symbolizes resurrection, and if so, how would you answer those objections?
Matthew Pinson: I can't really remember, but it does seem that there were a few people that balked at that. If I were writing the book now, I would probably clarify a little more that it is not that the washing of feet necessarily directly represents the resurrection of Christ. Rather, it represents sanctification--which is referred to in Scripture (Rom. 6) as resurrection to new life (our identification with Christ in his resurrection), whereas justification is referred to as being planted together with Christ in his death (our identification with Christ in his resurrection). The trouble I see is that the Lord's supper doesn't seem to have a referent to sanctification (the horizontal) as it does to Christ's work an its appropriation in justification (the vertical). My use of the categories of identification with Christ in his death (justification) and my identification with Christ in new resurrection life (sanctification) should not be abstracted from the vertical/horizontal and first great commandment/second great commandment categories. I simply believe that the Lord's Supper more naturally symbolizes our identification with Christ's death (justification), our vertical relationship with God, and the first great commandment, whereas it doesn't directly picture our sanctification (Rom. 6--resurrection life), the horizontal outworking of our relationship with God, and the second great commandment. 

R. L. Vaughn: What, if anything, might you do differently if you were writing the book today?

Matthew Pinson: The things I mentioned above.

R. L. Vaughn: Is there anything you would like to add that I forgot to ask?

Matthew Pinson: No. Thank you so much for the opportunity to discuss this book.

R. L. Vaughn: Thank you so much for giving of your time for this interview, and the discussion of your book and the subject of washing the saints' feet.

Matt Pinson speaks on "The Washing of the Saints Feet" from John 13

Book review by Pieter Post
Book review by Robert Gardner


brad bahler said...

The comments on consumerism and pragmatism were interesting. The largest church in our area is a Separate Baptist Church which moved from it's rural setting and built a very large seeker church on the edge of the city ("They tore the old country church down, built a great new church way uptown" if you are familiar with that song). They changed their name and dropped feet washing.
The horizontal-vertical comments were also interesting to me as this is emphasized in anabaptist communion services

R. L. Vaughn said...

Brother Brad, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Interesting story about the Separate Baptist Church. This kind of thing plays out again and again as we become more "uptown" (mentally more than physically). I too thought Bro. Pinson had some good thoughts -- in the book as well as the interview.