There is a tendency among many fundamentalist and reformed Baptists to want to distinguish themselves from “Protestantism” as a whole. Some Calvinistic Baptists—persuaded though they may be of God’s sovereign grace in salvation—take issue with the label “reformed”. The reason for this tendency is often due to the fact that while Presbyterianism’s roots (for example) are traced with ease to the Protestant Reformation, many Baptists think they owe very little to that great historical movement of God because they are convinced that their history does not depend on a developing separation from Romanism. Many Baptists tend to be under the impression that their roots run parallel and distinct from Reformation history and do not depend on it. Contrarily, I think it is plainly demonstrable that all Christians—particularly Calvinistic Baptists—owe a great deal to the glorious Protestant Reformation.
It is quite possible that many of us Baptists—whether fundamentalist or reformed—have taken for granted the truth of a proposition like the one put forth by John Henry Blunt when he wrote that, “…Anabaptists were the fathers of the modern English Baptists”.[i] In the margin of my facsimile copy of his work are the following handwritten words: “no connection whatsoever”. It appears that particular reader knew something of the Baptists’ Reformational heritage.
It is my contention that the terms “Protestant” and “reformed” need not be used exclusively of Reformed and Presbyterian churches and others who proudly admit to their sixteenth-century heritage. While I understand the argument of both sovereign grace Baptists and fundamentalists that we must trace our doctrine and practice directly to the NT, such a claim need not be antithetical to acknowledging and admitting the debt we owe the Reformers.[ii] Tom Ascol corrects a common misunderstanding concerning the history of the Baptists:
“Sometimes Baptists live under the mistaken notion that they came into existence with little or no influence from any other evangelical group. Some even believe that Baptist churches have existed from the time of John ‘the Baptist’ to the present. While the principles that Baptists hold dear originate in the Word of God and have been found in various degrees of purity throughout church history, our origin as a distinct group can be traced to the early seventeenth century. We are a Reformational people.”[iii]
Some typical objections
As a case in point of this “mistaken notion”, W.R. Downing’s paper, ‘A Vindication of the Baptists’[iv], is one such attempt at finding an unbroken succession of “Baptistic” churches linking modern Baptists with the Apostles. Such an attempt necessarily implies a diminished view of “reformed theology” even by Calvinists because the assertion is that Calvinistic Baptists can trace their roots to the Apostles without going through Luther and Calvin.
I do not interact here with William Downing because he is a soft target. He is not. He is a most brilliant pastor, theologian and scholar, and has authored numerous excellent and robust theological works. I would recommend reading as much as you can get your hands on by Downing (some of which is available for free here). He is a dear brother in Christ and I have learned a great deal from his books. I published a very positive review of his epistemological tome The Bible and the Problem of Knowledge and have regarded his Lectures on Calvinism and Arminianism as one of the best resources available on soteriology both for its theological depth and acuteness and detailed historical survey. Downing has also written textbooks on Hebrew and Greek as well as many other scholarly works. Even the book from which this paper on Baptist history is taken is highly recommended for all of its other fine content. I chose to interact with Downing on this subject because he is not a decisional regenerationist, he is not an SBC traditionalist, he is not a fideistic fundamentalist, he is not an evidentialist and, according to his own testimony on Iron Sharpens Iron [time stamp: 17:52], he is not a Landmarker.[v] He is a consistent Calvinist with a high view of Scripture and holds to the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith with minor reservations. We are dealing with someone who is both “in our camp” and exceedingly qualified to speak to these subjects. So, in the big picture, of course, this is a minor point of disagreement I have with Downing. I simply use his paper as a launching pad to deal with some of the arguments put forth by modern Baptists as to their alleged non-Reformational heritage.
Downing takes issue with the term “reformed” Baptist because he believes we should trace our roots through the remnant of believers in history from apostolic times until now. Like many other Baptists, he takes issue with the term Protestant as it is applied to Christians in general (as opposed to Romanists):
“[We are] Baptists not Protestants. We did not come from the Protestant Reformation. Our forefathers, known under different, often derogatory names, have existed from the time of the New Testament. Modern Baptists are the inheritors and progeny of countless hundreds of thousands who have held to the evangelical faith, believer’s baptism and freedom of conscience through the ages.”[vi]
It is worth noting that in many ways the seventeenth-century Particular Baptists deliberately followed on the heels of the Westminster divines making no attempt to distinguish their Calvinistic theology and heritage from the Reformation. Greg Nichols notes that “the Reformed Baptist fathers were not embarrassed to copy verbatim from the Presbyterian fathers of the previous generation when they could do so conscientiously”.[vii] One would think if such a clear line of succession back to the Apostles were discernible three-hundred years ago, these early reformed Baptists would have capitalized on that historical data to help them justify their separatism and theological distinctives. Rather, consider the following by Kurt Smith:
“From an historical standpoint, Baptists have always been known as ‘people of the Book.’ By this identification, Baptists (since their emergence in 17th century England) had gained the reputation of being that Christian body within Protestantism, whose declaration of doctrine and practice was solely governed and ruled by the Word of God. In fact, the great Reformation principle of sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) can be argued as finding its fullest expression with Baptists than with any other Protestant group.
This is why church historian, Robert G. Torbet, in his History of the Baptists, made the case that:
‘Baptists, to a greater degree than any other group, have strengthened the protest of evangelical Protestantism against traditionalism. This they have done by their constant witness to the supremacy of the Scriptures as the all-sufficient and sole norm for faith and practice.’[viii]”[ix]
Smith, following Torbet, rather than separating Baptists from Protestantism at large, is quick to point out that they were the most scripturally devoted body “within Protestantism”, and admits their seventeenth-century heritage.
The simple fact is, in order for anyone to trace Calvinistic Baptists (or any other Christian group) back to the Apostles, they are forced to go through a series of very questionable sects. Considering the preponderance of anti-trinitarianism amongst many so-called Anabaptist groups, “questionable” is putting it mildly. Not only is it unprovable that all of these various groups actually held to believer’s baptism by immersion, their doctrinal aberrations should more than disincline us to forcibly trace our roots through them. Consider the broad and diverse groups Downing must list in order to assert that Baptists can trace their roots to the Apostles:
“These believers and churches have been known by various names in history, such as Montanists, Novatians, Donatists, Paulicians, Vaudois, Paterines, Albigenses, Berengarians, Bogomili, Cathari, Gezari, Arnoldists, Petrobrusians, Poor men of Lyons, Waldenses, Lollards, Wyclifites, Bohemian Brethren, Hussites, etc.”6
This list contains some dubious groups indeed. We will not examine the doctrinal distinctives of each of them here, partly because of the lack of information available, partly for the sake of space, and partly because it simply cannot be proven that all of these groups held to believer’s baptism by way of immersion anyway. It is true that many have been lumped into the broad and practically useless category, Anabaptist, but even that label does not prove that they practiced baptism by immersion! More accurately, there have been various people branded Anabaptists simply because they were antipaedobaptists. Their aversion to infant baptism (Romish, or otherwise) did not imply that they held to the doctrine, mode and method of baptism that post-Reformation Baptists adhere to. Ronald Cooke, drawing largely on the work of Baptist historian Albert Henry Newman, writes:
“Newman…says here, plainly, the method by which the first Antipedobaptists of the Reformation were baptized was affusion, not immersion. One of the other Baptist historians…mentions in connection with this decisive step of the Antipedobaptists, that the first group to be baptized were baptized out of a bucket of water…. It is difficult to document immersion before the Reformation times” [emphasis mine].[x]
Church historian George P. Fisher likewise maintains that, “The practise [sic] of immersion was not in vogue at first among the Anabaptists.”[xi] And Earle E. Cairns points out that even the esteemed Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier, along with three hundred of his followers, “were baptized by affusion.”[xii]
The lack of documentation that can even substantiate a clear history of immersionists prior to the Reformation alone discredits the idea that a direct path can be traced from modern reformed or fundamentalist Baptists through to the Apostles. Anabaptists were a mixed-bag. With no consistency in their mode of baptism and total absence of doctrinal parameters, the term, “Anabaptist” is rendered practically useless for our purposes. It tells us very little about any particular group, and most of the groups placed under that label are not ones any orthodox Christian would want to be associated with.
It is true that amongst the varied and diverse people Downing lists there existed true believers, but it cannot be sustained that they all practiced believer’s baptism by immersion, simultaneously holding to other Baptist distinctives. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge that Presbyterians and evangelicals can equally claim this “pilgrim church”[xiii] as fellow brethren belonging to the true bride of Christ, being a testimony to the truth that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. The existence of these pre-Reformation Christians only proves that God has always preserved His remnant. It does not prove that Baptists have the right to disregard the importance of the Reformation when discussing their history and theology. Furthermore, as we will see, many antipaedobaptists employed methods and embraced doctrines that any Bible-believing Christian would deride as unscriptural. Is it even worthwhile, then, for us to attempt to trace our roots through them?
Note that some of the groups Downing lists to support his thesis are at the least unorthodox or at most, completely heretical. These groups’ particular method of baptism and view of church-state separation becomes irrelevant at this point since primary doctrines (such as the trinity or proper Christology) were sometimes outright rejected by many of the so-called Anabaptists in history. It is surprising that a Calvinistic confessional cessationist[xiv] like Downing would want to share a common bond with montanists, for example, all for the sake of trying to establish an unbroken doctrinal succession to the Apostles.[xv]
In this paper, Downing has nothing critical to say of the Montanists and says that the “movement was orthodox in its doctrine”.[xvi] He makes no mention of the excesses and charismatic chicanery practiced by those within the movement. I think those not so inclined to trace their doctrine and practice in a continuous line to the Apostles would give a more objective assessment of the Montanists. While Downing claims that Montanists predate Montanus himself, I am not sure that such would insulate the group he is referring to from the charismatic behavior which has come to be identified with Montanism in general.
Regarding Montanus, it is noteworthy that like modern charismatics, “[he] gave utterances as though the Lord were speaking directly to him.”[xvii] Victor Budgen quotes such examples of Montanus’ twisted “revelations” and says, “Here was a man who was undoubtedly, in his own estimation, on a hot line to heaven.”[xviii] If it weren’t for Downing’s strained effort to find early Baptists in church history, we could be sure that Downing would himself repudiate practically everything they taught as recorded in the Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics.[xix]
The error of imagining a line of Baptists right through church history is more characteristic of fundamentalists, traditionalists and Plymouth Brethren then it is of confessional Calvinistic Baptists. Let us not fall into the same trap. There is no shame in our Protestant, reformed heritage, and acknowledging it means we don’t have to sidestep doctrinal aberrations and make excuses for heretical trends in history. Downing exhibits a very high view of the Reformers and the Protestant Reformation in his Lectures on Calvinism and Arminianism, but in discussing Baptist history the importance of the Reformation is diminished.
Given the choice, I think any Christian would be wise to embrace the heritage they owe to the Reformation over inventing a lineage that must necessarily pass through various antitrinitarians, montanists, violent social radicals and theocrats and other heretics who have all been put under the heading Anabaptist (so labeled simply because they repudiated paedobaptism). Following the clear NT pattern, it is very likely that early Christians baptized in the method of the Apostles and restricted the ordinance to believers only. Certainly, I am convinced along with Downing that such is the biblical method. But we must stop short of asserting what cannot be legitimately established with regard to Baptist history. We have limited knowledge of many of the early groups Downing lists, and often what we do know is not very good.
Downing admits that “the distinctive doctrines of the Donatists were identical with the Montanists and Novatians before them”. David Christie-Murray’s assessment is much the same, noting that the Novatian movement “was heretical in so far as it allied with the Montanists”, and that “the Donatists were in the main orthodox, although some of them were tinged with Arianism….”[xx] Should we not be at least a bit cautious in trying to trace our roots through these groups? I am not consigning all of these men and women to hell. There was most definitely a remnant that existed through the ages that never submitted to the mongrel faith-works monstrosity of Rome. I am simply trying to state the obvious; that much of the information available concerning these people would be enough to exclude them from membership in Downing’s own confessional church. If Downing wants to include Montanists in his Baptist family tree, it follows that he would likewise be obliged to extend their modern counterparts in charismania the right hand of fellowship. I do not think that is something he is prepared to do.
Cooke notes that there was a strong tendency toward antitrinitarianism even amongst many of whom Baptist historian Albert Henry Newman calls the “sounder” Baptists. He notes that Newman’s sympathies to the concept of an unbroken line of succession force him to have a sympathetic tone concerning the heretical nature of their teachings. Cooke writes:
“Some non-Baptists would not describe men who denied the Trinity as being sound in their theology. To say they ‘fell considerably short of the orthodox view of the Person of Christ’ is a euphemistic way of saying that they denied the humanity of Christ. And to say that such men who taught the Adoptionist Christology were like many of the medieval evangelicals is again stretching the point in an effort to save them from the charge of heresy. For some non-Baptists would be more apt to call such medieval men heretics rather than evangelicals. Yet, this is the line to which any Baptist unbroken line must be linked.”[xxi]
We have seen some of the difficulties in formulating an historical line of succession from the Apostles to modern Baptists. I will briefly address one more point with regard to our theological heritage.
Baptist covenant theology has a Reformational heritage
Coming out of dispensationalism, some of us held a low view of the historic creeds and confessions and possessed an abysmal knowledge of church history. I believe this was no accident, for to know church history would be to admit the newness of dispensationalism as a “unified interpretive scheme”[xxii]. I, for one, was merely Baptist by default. That is, I found no evidence of infant baptism in the NT and that was enough to dismiss such a practice as unbiblical. “Believer’s baptism”, seemed to be the method employed in the book of Acts, but I had no real grasp of the other historic Baptist distinctives.
Instead of regarding Presbyterians as compromising Christians who simply hadn’t purged a residual Romish tradition, a mere “trapping of popery”[xxiii], it would have been far more beneficial to have pursued a basic knowledge of the theory employed to justify infant baptism. In other words, I think many twentieth-century Baptists were merely Baptists in the sense that they immersed believers. They were unaware of the rich hermeneutical system which seemingly undergirded both the practice of paedobaptism and Baptist opposition to it. Only recently are we reclaiming our confessional and covenantal heritage. Today there is a wealth of literature available detailing the specifics of Baptist Covenant theology.[xxiv]
Downing embraces and defends Baptist covenant theology in multiple books and properly distinguishes it from both paedobaptist covenant theology and dispensationalism. But I think he would be hard-pressed to uncover a chain of local churches through which he might trace this comprehensive theological system back to the early NT church. We do believe that covenant theology (with its Baptist distinctiveness) is thoroughly biblical and extremely useful as a hermeneutical framework. But just like eschatological schemes, not all hermeneutical systems and doctrinal frameworks were formally and systematically worked out by the first-century church. Downing should simply admit what reformed Baptist author Pascal Denault notes, that “this approach to Scripture [Baptist covenant theology] was born of the Protestant Reformation”[xxv], and, unlike many modern Baptists, seventeenth-century Baptists
“were concerned with identifying themselves with the heritage of the Reformation. This explains the close relationship of their official documents to those of the other reformed movements. This desire for unity did not keep them from stating their distinct convictions within these same documents. Nevertheless, they always did it with irenic attitude.”[xxvi]
I close off this post with a final quote from Dr. Ronald Cooke:
“The Baptist movement of the sixteenth century was a great hodge-podge of many different ideas and teachings, some of which would definitely be classed as heretical today by just about every believer in a fundamental Bible-believing church. And there is scarcely one man, whose teachings we know anything about it detail, whom any Fundamental Baptist would agree with today. In other words, the only link that Baptists today would have with such men is water baptism, and even some of those, whom Newman classes as the sounder biblical Baptists of the sixteenth century practised [sic] affusion, not immersion….
“To say that we never came out of Rome because we were never in Rome cannot be documented at all by any historical evidence which now exists. Almost everything we know about the men of the lower middle ages, the men of the higher middle ages, and the sixteenth century dissenters, suggests that the reformatory movements came out of the hierarchical Church, or from some man who had separated from it.”[xxvii]
“…It was not until the time of the Protestant Reformation that a clear break was made which was based upon a sound hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures, and which resulted in a sound theology which taught clearly salvation by grace alone, justification by faith alone and that Christ’s perfect righteousness is imputed to the believing sinner by faith alone.”[xxviii]
Fellow Baptists, let us celebrate the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with our Presbyterian and reformed brethren and rightly recognize the great debt we owe those theological giants who went before us. I do not think I am being too liberal with the term “Protestant” in saying that we who adamantly protest the abominable false gospel of Rome should highly regard the Reformers’ protest and all of its fruits.
I, for one, consider myself both a Protestant and a reformed Baptist.
[i] Blunt, J.H., The Reformation of the Church of England: Its History, Principles and Results, Vol. 1 A.D. 1514—1547 (8th edition), Longmans, Green, and Co., New York, 1897, p. 551.
[iii] Ascol, T.K., From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist Convention: What Hath Geneva to do with Nashville? (revised edition), Founders Press, Cape Coral, FL, 2013, p. 11.
[iv] Downing, W.R., Selected Shorter Writings, PIRS Publications, Morgan Hill, CA, 2013, pp. 231—283.
[v] “Landmark Baptists particularly emphasized the local, visible congregation as being the church in its true form, and they opposed the idea of an actual universal church” (Bush, L.R., and Nettles, T.J., Baptists and the Bible, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1980, p. 378). In contrast to Landmarkism, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith 1677/1689 affirms the existence of a universal church. This is partly why Downing has an affinity for the First London Baptist Confession of Faith (1644/1646) (see Downing, ref. 4, pp. 257—59 and ref. 14, pp. 165 & 461). Sam Waldron comments that “The New Testament does speak of a universal church (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 1:22; 4:11—15; 5:23, 24, 25, 27, 29, 32; Colossians 1:18, 24; Hebrews 12:23). Such passages refute Landmarkism and its denial of a universal church” (Waldron, S.E., A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith [5th edition: revised and corrected], EP Books, UK, 2016, pp. 366-367). While Downing claims he is not a Landmarker, it is sometimes difficult to see precisely where he differs from Landmarkism.
[vi] Downing, ref. 4, p. 236.
[vii] Nichols, G., Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants, Solid Ground Christian Books, Birmingham, AL, 2011, p. 5.
[viii] Robert G. Torbet, History of the Baptists (revised edition), Judson, Valley Forge, PA, 1963, p. 483.
[x] Cooke, R., Some Modern Baptists and the Protestant Reformation, Truth International Ministries, Max Meadows, VA, 2007, p. 15.
[xi] Fisher, G.P., History of Christian Doctrine, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1916, p. 319.
[xii] Cairns, E.E., Christianity Through the Centuries, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1981, p. 306.
[xiii] Broadbent, E.H., The Pilgrim Church (1931), Gospel Folio Press, Port Colborne, ON, 2009.
[xiv] Downing, W.R., Theological Propaedeutic, PIRS Publications, Morgan Hill, CA, 2010, p. 162.
[xv] Again, Downing does not claim to be a Landmarker, but his arguments here seem to be characteristic of that camp.
[xvi] Downing, ref. 4, p. 262.
[xvii] Budgen, V., The Charismatics and the Word of God (2nd ed.), Evangelical Press, England, 1989, p. 116.
[xviii] Budgen, ref. 17, p. 117.
[xix] Clifton, C.S., Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1992, pp. 98—99.
[xx] Christie-Murray, D., A History of Heresy, Oxford University Press, New York, 1976, p. 96.
[xxi] Cooke, ref. 10, pp. 20—21.
[xxii] Erickson, M.J., Christian Theology (2nd edition), Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998, p. 1168.
[xxiii] While I agree with this assessment of paedobaptism by Shaun Willcock (Trappings of Popery, New Voices Publishing, Cape Town, South Africa, 2007, pp. 20—24), to ignore the particular version of covenant theology used to undergird the practice by Presbyterians means we have failed to interact with them at any intellectual level. Some of the strongest opponents of Romanism have retained paedobaptism not because they have some innate desire to retain papal traditions but as a “necessary” consequence of their own particular covenant theology.
[xxv] Denault, P., The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, Solid Ground Christian Books, Birmingham, AL, 2013, summary page.
[xxvi] Denault, ref. 25, pp. 10—11, footnote 13.
[xxvii] Cooke, ref. 10, p. 23.
[xxviii] Cooke, ref. 10, p. 24.