Baptists and the Reformation
Baptists are Protestants. I know there are some Baptists out there who don’t believe we are Protestants, but their rejection of this truth betrays a bapto-centric bias and ignores history. It is one of those beliefs that my colleague Keith Harper calls “history as apologetics”–using (or misusing) history (or alleged history) to make a theological point.
The first Protestants were theological and moral dissenters who ultimately left the Catholic Church and started new movements. Most Protestants continued to embrace some form of church-state union (or at least close partnership) and like Catholics used the state’s power to coerce religious conformity. Lutherans and most Calvinists could be included in this group. A few Protestants, such as the Anabaptists, embraced the believer’s church model and rejected the idea of territorial churches. These “Free Church” Protestants were typically abused by the “Magisterial” Protestants who were fans of state churches.
In England, Protestants were active from at least the 1520s, though it wasn’t until the 1530s that the Church of England withdrew from the Catholic Church and embraced a cautious Protestantism. After a period of religious and political turmoil, England emerged as a Protestant nation from 1559 onwards, combining a moderately Reformed view of salvation with a moderately Catholic view of worship and the church. This compromised Protestantism, more formally known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, pleased few of those folks who wanted to see England become Geneva or Zurich with a cockney accent and afternoon tea.
Most of the “hot” Protestants in England wanted to transform the Church of England into a Presbyterian state church–we call them the Puritans, though there were some early Puritans who were cool with bishops. Other staunch Protestants agreed with the Calvinism of the Puritans, but rejected the Presbyterian commitment to state churches. These Separatists, so-called because they left the Church of England and formed independent congregations, were in many ways similar to the Anabaptists in their ecclesiology, though they still held to covenantal infant baptism based upon their Reformed soteriology.
During the first half of the seventeenth century, some of the Separatists came to their senses and embraced credobaptism, which they added to their prior commitments to regenerate church membership, congregational polity, local church autonomy, and religious liberty. We call these folks the Baptists. While there is some debate about what influence, if any, the Continental Anabaptists had on at least some of these Separatists, at the end of the day the first Baptists were in fact Separatists who adopted confessor’s baptism. And by the 1640s, the mode of their baptism reflected the New Testament practice of full immersion.
So Baptists are Protestants. To be specific, we are third generation Protestants who in many ways represent an attempt to reform the Reformation. In the Baptist movement, the very best of the Magisterial understanding of Scripture and salvation was combined with the very best of the Free Church understanding of the church and discipleship. The result was a new movement that represented a further reformation among some of the Reformed churches in England. These Baptists were a diverse lot, they didn’t always play nicely with one another, and some of them chased some admittedly troubling tangents, especially in the eighteenth century. But Protestants they remained, albeit a different Protestant movement than the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists of Continental Europe.
So on this Reformation Day, I’m thankful for the Protestant heritage we Baptists enjoy. We stand with Luther and Calvin on justification by grace alone through faith alone. We stand with the Anabaptists on a believer’s church committed to radical discipleship and confessor’s baptism. We stand with all three of these groups in their commitment to the supreme authority of Scripture. And as good Protestants, we ultimately stand where we stand, not because others stand there as well, but because we believe the Spirit still speaks through His Word to guide Christ’s people on the narrow way.
Happy Reformation Day.
(Note: This post was first published in October 2010.)