Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher



July 2010



Can Baptists Be Reformed? Part 3

Written by , Posted in History, SBC, Theology

This post concludes a three part series discussing the question “Can Baptists be Reformed?” The first post noted that many Calvinistic Baptists are comfortable with the Reformed label, while the second post mentioned other Calvinistic Baptists who are less sanguine about the word Reformed. In this final post, I offer my own thoughts on this question. There are several matters to consider.

First, no matter how we answer the question it is a fact that hundreds of Baptist churches claim to be Reformed. So at the level of self-identification at least, there absolutely are Reformed Baptists—indeed, entire associations and networks of them. This has been the case since at least the 1960s. Furthermore, many self-designated Reformed Baptists (like those in ARBCA) would argue that one must affirm some central doctrines in order to properly be called a Reformed Baptist. These include a Calvinistic view of salvation, a combination of baptistic ecclesiology coupled with covenant theology, the regulative principle of worship, and in most cases a Puritan view of the Lord’s Day. This would of course indicate they believe you can be a Calvinistic Baptist and not be Reformed, which is a different question than whether a Calvinistic Baptist can be Reformed.

Second, it is important to understand that most Calvinistic Baptists who use the Reformed label probably mean something less than self-designated, “capital-R” Reformed Baptists. Most of the Baptists I know who call themselves Reformed simply mean that they hold to the “five points.” In other words, they are speaking exclusively of a Reformed soteriology (view of salvation) and not other historically Reformed doctrines and emphases. So if one narrows the definition of Reformed to the “five points,” then not only can Baptists be Reformed, but there are lots of them that are and their numbers are clearly growing, including in the Southern Baptist Convention.

For what it’s worth, I personally think the above approach encompasses too broad a definition of Reformed, though I understand why others disagree. Nevertheless, for historical reasons, I think the term Reformed includes more than approbation of the “five points,” so I agree with both self-designated Reformed Baptists and Reformed pedobaptists that agreeing with Dort is not enough. Many (probably most) Calvinistic Baptists are not Reformed, no matter what terminology they use. But this still leaves us with our original question: Can Baptists be Reformed? I think the answer is both yes and no, depending upon what you mean by Reformed. (How’s that for equivocation?)

Yes, a Baptist church can be Reformed. As stated above, there have been self-designated Reformed Baptists for at least fifty years. They have official associations and networks and host periodic meetings and conferences. They embrace specific distinctives and practices that are articulated in a particular document, the Second London Confession. Furthermore, there are lots of other churches that do not affiliate with the Reformed Baptists in the formal sense, but who hold to the same distinctives and enjoy fraternal relations with Reformed Baptists. Many of the latter are Southern Baptist churches, though there are also SBC churches (and individuals) that more formally cooperate with Reformed Baptists.

Furthermore, there are also Baptist churches that do not self-designate themselves as Reformed Baptists, but they hold to the same faith and practice as those churches that do identify themselves as Reformed. We might call these churches (and individuals) “informal” Reformed Baptists, to distinguish them from self-designated Reformed Baptists. There are many Southern Baptists that would be in this camp. In fact, I would be comfortable calling myself an informal Reformed Baptist because I am in substantial theological agreement with “capital-R” Reformed Baptists.  (The sole exception is that I reject the Puritan view of the Lord’s Day, a position that differs from the Second London Confession and thus differs from most self-confessed Reformed Baptists.)

No, a Baptist church cannot be Reformed.  What I mean is that a Baptist church cannot be Reformed in exactly the same way that a Presbyterian or Dutch Reformed church can be Reformed. Reformed Baptists admittedly do not hold to the same ecclesiological convictions as the mainstream Reformed tradition, as has been ably argued by Reformed pedobaptist scholars. It is fair to say, from a historical standpoint, that Reformed Baptists are not Reformed in the fully historic sense of the term because they embrace a Free Church ecclesiology and credobaptism. If there were to be a contest to demonstrate which side can “out-Reform” the other (in terms of embracing historic Reformed distinctives), and if history were the judge, the pedobaptists would win, no question.

But I think Reformed Baptists recognize the above tension. Reformed Baptists agree that each word of their name qualifies the other. They are Baptist, but not like many other Baptists. They are Reformed, but not in exactly the same ways as other Reformed Christians. We might think of it this way: Reformed Baptists are Reformed, but with a Baptist twist. And every Reformed Baptist (and Reformed credobaptist!) knows that the twist is what makes this whole discussion so interesting.

Many Reformed pedobaptists may have qualms with the idea of a Reformed Baptist. And many Baptists who in principle reject certain Reformed distinctives may ditto those qualms (including many Calvinistic Baptists). But neither of these positions changes the fact that, if defined theologically, there are many Baptists who embrace Reformed distinctives less pedobaptism and a hierarchical or connectional ecclesiology. They have an established confessional tradition and a history that dates to three centuries before the name Reformed Baptist came into vogue a couple of generations ago. They launched the modern mission movement in the English-speaking world and established themselves as the dominant Baptist movement in North America. They influenced the confessional tradition among virtually all non-Arminian Baptists and advocated theological education for those who were shut out from the system by tradition or opportunity. And after a few generations in the wilderness, they are experiencing a comeback, both in their formal and informal manifestations–which, by the way, is why this discussion keeps coming up!