Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"The Washing of the Saints' Feet" book review

Today's blog is a book review of The Washing of the Saints' Feet, by J. Matthew Pinson. The Washing of the Saints' Feet is religious non-fiction, available in paperback (156 pages) from Randall House Publications for $12.99.

J. Matthew Pinson is well-qualified to write a book on washing the saints' feet. He was raised in a "feet washing church" in a "feet washing denomination" (Free Will Baptist) and is the president of a "feet washing college" (Free Will Baptist Bible College in Nashville, TN). His presentation proves he is not merely repeating what he was brought up on (though certainly influenced by it), but is passionate about and learned on the subject. He has co-authored Free Will Baptist Handbook: Heritage, Beliefs, and Ministries and is one of the editors of Zondervan's Four Views on Eternal Security. He wrote "E. L. St. Claire and the Free Will Baptist Experience, 1893-1916" (Viewpoints: Georgia Baptist History, Vol. 17, 2000), "Toward a Theology of the Ordinances, with Special Reference to Feet Washing" (Integrity: a Journal of Christian Thought, Summer 2000), and articles for The Encyclopedia of Religious Controversy in the United States and The New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Pinson's aim is twofold: (1) to re-energize the Free Will Baptists' vision of washing the saints' feet, and (2) to offer that vision to the wider Christian family. The book grew out of an article he wrote for the publication Integrity, as well as a series of lectures he delivered at Free Will Baptist Bible College. This background contributes to a style that makes the book highly readable without detracting from its scholarship. The "primary audience" appears to be Free Will Baptists, but the book adapts well to a wider audience. It contains 6 chapter, 3 appendices, 6 hymns, biographical references, and an index.

"Introductory Reflections" prepares "outsiders" for what they may "view as an oddity", while prompting Free Will Baptists and other feet washers come to grips with their "oddity" -- which might not be that odd after all. Besides, as Pinson notes, "strange is a relative term". A few parts of this first chapter might be a little tedious for "outsiders". Some could be slighty discouraged with some discussion of minor Free Will Baptist concerns, such as "the myth of western non-observance". As an information gatherer, I relish such stuff. Everyone might not. But if the reader understands up front that this book will naturally discuss some points peculiar to its primary audience, there should be no problem persevering to the end. The book undeniably contains valuable information for a broad readership and this should be kept in mind.

"What is an Ordinance" investigates the backgrounds of the tradition of those who speak of ordinances versus the tradition of those who speak of sacraments. Pinson challenges the prevailing notions of many Baptists -- not just the majority who hold only two ordinances, but also the Free Will Baptists who hold three. Many folks never question "why two" or "why three". Pinson compels the reader to consider "...any attempt to limit the number of ordinances by criteria other than being ordained by God in the New Testament is not a biblical endeavor." He very effectively exposes the circular reasoning of accepting certain rites as ordinances and then defining ordinances in such a way as to exclude any other rites as ordinances.

As he builds his case, chapters three (Appointed by Christ for Literal Perpetuation) and four (The Symbolism of Feet Washing) explore the origin and meaning of washing the saints' feet and exhibits how this rite can meet the "high standard" designed to exclude it from being an ordinance -- literal practice, instituted by Jesus Christ, symbolizes His incarnation and humiliation. "If feet washing does not typify Christ, I do not think there is any thing in Scripture that could. It is the most beautiful and vivid symbol of Christ's condescension to us in all of Scripture." While making this case as an accomodation to those who hold the "high standard", he maintains and proves the standard itself is flawed.

"Feet Washing outside the Gospels" questions the objection that an ordinance must be mentioned outside the Gospels -- disputing both the premise that it must be mentioned outside the Gospels and the assertion that it is not mentioned outside the Gospels. Pinson believes it is mentioned in I Timothy 5. In addition he briefly advances the thought that feet washing in the post-apostolic churches was more widespread than is often generally supposed. For an in-depth look at the history of feet washing, see Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community by John Christopher Thomas.

The final chapter summarizes "Why the Lord's Supper and Feet Washing go together." Pinson uses tables to illustrate reasonable categories and subdivisions for ordinances -- ritual (initiatory, regular, and occasional) and non-ritual (singing, for example). Another table presents a side-by-side comparison of the symbolism of the Lord's supper and feet washing. Perhaps Pinson does not anticipate objections to his proposal that feet washing symbolizes resurrection. I have found other feet washers who strenuously objected to this understanding. In light of that, I would have liked to see more explanation of how he believes the two are linked.

Appendix One -- Further amplifies the history and development of the concepts of sacraments versus ordinances.
Appendix Two -- Ten pages of Augustine on John 13.
Appendix Three -- Study questions for individual use, or which help adapt the book for a study group.

“For Further Reading” should not to be overlooked. This bibliography provides a wealth of resources for anyone desiring to further research the subject of washing the saints’ feet. I have been trying to investigate this subject since about 1981, and know how hard it can be to locate materials. The subject is overlooked by many and ignored by more. Matthew Pinson provides a great service for us here.

Six songs
An added value of the book is the six hymns (with tunes) that Pinson includes in this work. Not random, they all deal with the subject of feet washing and one is inserted after the end of each chapter. Pinson desires that Free Will Baptists (and others) not view feet washing as an abstract theological discussion, but as an act of worship. The inclusion of the hymns highlights that fact. For those who are not interested, the hymns will not hinder. As a shape note singer, I am delighted by this unexpected addition -- especially that one of these songs is presented in shape note format and that "Love Consecrates the Humblest Act" uses an arrangement of a Southern Harmony tune (Resignation, p. 38).

Love consecrates the humblest act, and sanctifies each deed.
It sheds a benediction sweet, and hallows every need.

When in the shadow of the cross, Christ bowed and washed the feet

Of his disciples; twas a sign of His great love complete.

Love serves, yet willing stoops to serve. What Christ in love so true

Has freely done for one and all, shall we not gladly do?

The Washing of the Saints' Feet by J. Matthew Pinson -- buy it; read it; enjoy it. Those willing to think about the issue will find it thought-provoking. Those not willing to think probably should read the comics! If you believe in feet washing as a rite you may not agree with all he says, but you will find your position strengthened; if you do not believe in feet washing as a rite, you will come away having been challenged to support your own belief (and might even find some lesson with which you agree!). All will learn something.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review.

I myself practice feet washing as an act of worship when the occasion arises, although I don't think it is an ordinance.

As a act of worship, feetwashing is a most blessed experience

Anonymous said...

The fact that he is a so-called scholar and free-will (baptist) as a good indication of what credibility I would give to anything he says.

If I lived in the Middle East and wore sandals as I traversed the sandy surfaces of that country and time, I might consider feetwashing, as was the custom, even in non-Christian homes. It was just a polite thing to do.

I would no more let anyone wash my feet than I would sneeze in their face.



R. L. Vaughn said...

Jim, don't let your aversion to feet washing and free-will lead to undeserved criticism of the author. It's easier to dismiss without thinking about it than to read and answer the propositions.