Do Baptists have a Right to Celebrate the Reformation?

A painting of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses by Ferdinand Pauwels, circa 1872

Tomorrow we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, dated from Martin Luther’s purported nailing of the Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It’s been a yearlong celebration, and some might mourn the passing of this Renaissance in Reformation studies. Have no fear! This is only the first of many anniversaries. We can now celebrate 500 years since the Heidelberg Disputation, the Leipzig Debate, the Diet of Worms, The Bondage of the Will, and the first catechisms. I hope I make it long enough to celebrate all the different editions of The Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Unfortunately, there are some people who don’t think I should be celebrating at all, because I am a Baptist. Throughout the course of this year, I have often come across statements such as, “Luther would have called Baptists heretics,” “Baptists have no clue about church history or historic theology,” “Baptists ignore the principles of the Reformation,” etc. Invariably, these statements come from people who hold to one of the confessions that arose out of the 16th or 17th centuries, such as the Augsburg Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, or the Westminster Confession.

Why would people make such statements? Is there any truth behind them? Should Baptists be taking off their party hats and going home with their heads hung low in shame? These questions are somewhat difficult to answer due to the diversity among Baptists. Add to that the fact that by “Baptist”, the Reformed and Lutherans often mean anyone who practices credobaptism (also called “believer’s baptism”). This would force us to include a wide variety of churches that make no claim to being Baptist and may not even have a clear statement of faith.

Nevertheless, I will attempt to briefly address these questions. When people object to a connection between Baptists and the Reformation, they usually have one of the following things in mind.

  1. Baptists do not hold to a Reformed confession. This means that they do not subscribe to one of the detailed statements of faith that were drafted in the 16th and 17th centuries to help maintain doctrinal unity. Certainly, the majority of Baptist churches in the United States today do not subscribe to a Reformation era confession. However, Baptists certainly wrote such confessions. I myself subscribe to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. This is also known as the Second London Baptist Confession, because there was an earlier one in 1644. Other Baptists who do not hold to the 1689 LBC nevertheless have detailed doctrinal statements that cover many of the same issues. Therefore, the claim that Baptists do not hold to confessions is partially true, but also partially false.
  2. Baptists do not hold to the ecumenical creeds. These would include the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Once again, it very much depends on the Baptist. Plenty of Baptist churches would hold to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds at the very least. Others do not consider them officially binding, but agree with everything they have to say. Still others disagree on some minor point, such as the line that Jesus “descended into hell”. (I think a proper understanding of the origins of this phrase would clear up any need for objection.) Due to their congregational roots, Baptists are often hesitant to bind themselves by any authority beyond scripture and the local church. My breed of Baptist would fully endorse the creeds and consider them to be statements of biblical orthodoxy.
  3. Baptists have a low view of the Lord’s Supper. The majority of Baptists today view the Lord’s Supper in much the same manner as Ulrich Zwingli, who taught the memorialist viewpoint. In this, they are at odds with the modern day Lutheran and Reformed denominations. However, Zwingli himself was a Reformer, so his view of communion definitely dates from that period. Those Baptists who hold to the 1689 LBC have essentially the same view of the Lord’s Supper as Calvin: that the elements do not become Christ’s physical body and blood, but the believer nevertheless really does receive Christ spiritually during communion. Without question, Luther disapproved of any view of the Lord’s Supper that did not include the physical eating of the Lord’s body and blood, and this was why he and Zwingli famously refused to compromise at the Marburg Colloquy. However, more broadly speaking, Baptists are in line with the magisterial Reformers on this issue.
  4. Baptists practice credobaptism and/or have a low view of baptism. It is an undeniable fact that the only credobaptists in the 16th century were the Anabaptists – at least, in terms of a major movement. The Anabaptists are typically classified under the Radical Reformation (which rejected certain secular authorities), and they were condemned as heretics by the Reformed confessions. Luther certainly would have refused to fellowship with such Christians. The difficulty here is that the Anabaptists had a number of very odd theological viewpoints, some of which today’s Baptists would never claim. The Baptists who emerged in England in the 17th century were essentially Reformed in their theology, but had a different understanding of the covenants, and therefore concluded that baptism should be administered to professing believers. Were they influenced by the Anabaptists in some ways? Of course, but their understanding of baptism was much deeper and their arguments much fuller than the Anabaptists who came before them. This was why they eventually gained the grudging toleration of other Protestants…after years of making their case. Many of today’s Baptists have deviated into Dispensationalism, Fundamentalism, and borderline Pentecostalism. They are therefore very far from the Reformed on a number of issues. However, the difference between the Reformed/Particular Baptists and Presbyterians often comes down to their diverse understandings of the Old and New Covenants and the fact that Baptists use an even more typological hermeneutic than Presbyterians for understanding the Old Testament. Now, if the objection to Baptists’ credobaptism is that it goes against the principle of baptismal regeneration, then we are guilty as charged. We do not believe that baptism somehow contributes to or causes justification and/or regeneration, but rather that it is meant to mark the fact that these events have occurred. This places a gulf between us and the Lutherans, as well as some of the Reformed historically.
  5. Baptists believe in local church autonomy. This means that Baptists do not have bishops, synods, or other authorities that exist above the individual congregation. Some Baptist denominations do have a kind of loose process of appeals or a standard to which congregations are held. Certainly, those who accept the 1689 LBC are accountable to those principles. However, we must remember that today’s Baptists are largely descended from the English Baptists, who were routinely persecuted and forbidden from preaching. The authority of the Church of England was largely to blame for this state of affairs. This helps to explain why Baptists were so strongly in favor of congregational independence, and this tendency only increased when the Baptists came to America and were influenced by the Yanks’ preference for individualism, personal freedom, and the like. In general, Baptists practice congregational rule (i.e. without bishops or presbyteries), and the magisterial Reformers did not. Such views became more respectable during the time of the Puritans, with John Owen being a famous Congregationalist.
  6. Baptists have an improper understanding of church leadership. I attribute this complaint not to anything which existed among the early Baptist churches in England and America, but rather a trend that slowly increased over time in this country. Many Baptist churches and denominations abandoned the biblical distinction between elders and deacons. Instead, they simply had pastors and a team of deacons, the latter of which performed some functions of elders and some of deacons. In recent decades, this trend has been reversed. More and more Baptist churches are adopting a system of both elders and deacons. Therefore, while this charge may be true in as much as American Baptists have strayed a bit historically, I believe that there are positive changes occurring at the present time.
  7. Baptists have an improper view of soteriology. Martin Luther had a high view of predestination: the belief that God sovereignly chooses some for salvation (and not others) based on no merit or lack thereof in the individual person. This viewpoint is known as monergism, as God is fully responsible for a person’s salvation, with even faith itself being a gift and the Holy Spirit performing the work of regeneration. The Roman Catholic Church had taught a synergistic view of salvation in which God initially infuses the individual with grace, but they must then cooperate with that grace and participate in the sacraments to achieve final justification. Calvin was in agreement with Luther, and as a result the monergistic viewpoint is often called Calvinism. The complicating factor is that some Baptists are strong proponents of monergism, while others leave more room for human free will, having been influenced by the teachings of Arminianism. Within denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, there is an ongoing debate with regard to predestination and soteriology. The 1689 LBC is thoroughly in line with Calvin on this issue. Admittedly, many other Baptists are not. Just as the past few decades have seen an increase in the number of Baptists embracing the role of elder, so there has been an increase in the number of Baptists adopting a Calvinist or monergist view of soteriology. In this, they are also in line with the respected Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon. Therefore, as we have seen before, this charge is only true with regard to some Baptists and not all of them.
  8. Baptists have no appreciation for church history. Many people have suggested that Baptists have tried to remake Luther in their own image, when in fact he had as much in common with Catholics are he does with modern Baptists. This is certainly true in some cases, though I have met plenty of Baptists who have read Luther, are passionate students of the Reformation period, and are very concerned with how we can connect what we are doing today with historic Christian theology. Protestants of all stripes are often guilty of assuming that real church history began in 1517. The average layperson in any church is unlikely to be a great scholar of historic theology. Baptists are certainly more likely to focus on recent church history than the Reformation, Medieval, or Patristic periods. This is due to a natural human tendency to gravitate toward that which is most similar to yourself, and to devalue the old while worshipping the new. Some of the individualistic tendencies which permeate all aspects of American society, along with an unshakeable belief in the value of progress, have combined to cause modern Baptists and evangelicals to disregard history. This is less true in Baptist churches that hold to the 1689 LBC. I will say that at the very moment I start to despair that Baptists are paying too little attention to church history, they often surprise me with their insights. There are numerous initiatives at the moment that are attempting to reconnect Baptists with our own history and that of the wider church. We should be thankful for that.

Therefore, whether or not Baptists have a connection to the Reformation largely depends on what you think the major focus of that Reformation was.

If it was about denying that the pope and the Roman Catholic magisterium were God’s legitimate authorities on earth, then Baptists are certainly connected to the Reformation.

If it was about the unique authority of scripture as the norming norm as opposed to church councils or episcopal decrees, then Baptists are certainly connected to the Reformation.

If it was about the sufficiency of scripture for everything in life, with the exclusion of any kind of new private revelations, then some Baptists are more connected to the Reformation than others.

If it was about the ability of the individual Christian to interpret scripture for their self, then Baptists are certainly connected to the Reformation.

If it was about the rejection of a sacramental form of salvation, then Baptists are the most Reformed of all.

If it was about the five solas, then Baptists are certainly connected to the Reformation, though some fudge on the issue of sola gratia.

If it was about a monergistic view of salvation, then some Baptists are more connected to the Reformation than others.

If it was about covenant theology, then only a select group of Baptists are connected to the Reformation.

If it was about the great confessional documents of that period, then only a select group of Baptists are connected to the Reformation.

If it was about changing power dynamics and the rise in authority of the individual congregation and congregant, then Baptists are the most Reformed of all.

If it was about who Martin Luther liked, then Baptists are not connected to the Reformation.

If it was about complete agreement with one of the continental Reformers of the 16th century, then Baptists are not connected to the Reformation.

If it was about being a Western Christian who is not Catholic, then Baptists are certainly connected to the Reformation.

There you have it: a very incomplete analysis of the issue. Complain about our celebrating if you must, but we’re just going to go on celebrating anyway.

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