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Baptists in an Orthodox style

by
22 January 2016

Stephen Platten reads a Georgian’s account of his denomination

Evangelical Christian Baptists of Georgia
Malkhaz Songulashvili
Baylor University Press £66.99
(978-1-4813-0110-7) 

 

MALKHAZ SONGULASHVILI is a phenomenon, both in terms of his intellectual fecundity and the charisma of his personality. This becomes clear in the pages of this book, which explores the unique nature of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Georgia, which Malkhaz has helped fashion as a 21st-century flowering of Christianity in the Caucasus.

The book first traces the roots of the Baptist tradition as part of the radical reform movement within the English Reformation. This is then placed in the wider context of the Continental Reformation. Alongside this is offered a concise but rich history of the growth of Christianity in Georgia; Georgia claims itself to be, along with neighbouring Armenia, the oldest Christian nation in the world.

The key missionary was Nino, a young woman from Asia Minor, who arrived in Georgia in AD 318, and so just before the Council of Nicaea.

Both the growth of the Orthodox tradition in Georgia and the migration of European Protestants into the country from Western Europe in the 19th century are traced. Earlier meetings with European Protestant leaders are noted, as, indeed, is the movement of exiled Slavic Christian groups from Russia into Georgia. Among these, the Molokans and the Dukhabors are characterised as “essentialists”, limiting their piety to the essentials of Christian belief.

Songulashvili then traces the historical roots of Georgian Baptists in five main chapters, followed by a conclusion. After the early history noted above, three chapters trace the periods from 1919 to 1941, and from 1941 to 1989, and then post-Soviet Georgia. The final chapter outlines reforms in the Church in the early 21st century.

It is impossible to understand the history of Christianity in Georgia apart from the secular background of Tsarist Russia, within whose hegemony Georgia fell, and then, in the 20th century, the continued Russian hegemony after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The contrasting response of the Baptists to the Orthodox culture of Georgia and the Soviet revolution magnifies and broadens the relevance of the book well beyond the borders of this small trans-Caucasian nation. Songulashvili achieves his aims with clarity, elegance, and attractive readability.

For the Baptist Church, the martyrdom of Ilia Kandelaki in 1927 was a defining moment. Kandelaki argued for the translation of the Bible and the liturgy into modern Georgian. He pioneered the contextualisation of Baptist Christianity in Georgia within the prevailing Orthodox culture. This deliberate missiological strategy was captured again by Theodore Kocharadze in the mid-20th century and then recovered classically, in the late 1990s and early 21st century, by Songulashvili himself, when he became Archbishop of the Georgian Baptists in his early forties.

The Church retains the threefold order of bishops, priests, and deacons. Its firm focus upon both word and sacrament stands within a liturgical tradition that is not a thousand miles from Anglicanism. Its cultural contextualisation retains the strength to be prophetic.

This book is essential reading for Western Christians. I hope that it will be made available in paperback with a more adequate index. It describes a Church rooted in a practical, living, and lived apologetic.

 

The Rt Revd Stephen Platten is a former Bishop of Wakefield.

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