The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘Reformed Baptists

Reformed and Baptist: the third wave

with 15 comments

This is a cross-post from Reformation21.

Not long ago, the good Dr Trueman took up the question of why the label ‘Reformed’ is more often associated with Baptists than with Presbyterians.

I appreciated the irenic tone of Carl’s answer (appreciably and appreciatedly different to the caustic and dismissive attitude of some others), and I share a number of his underlying convictions. My intention in this post is not to start a fight with the esteemed Trueman or anyone else, nor to try to put clear blue water between churches like the one I serve and everyone else in the whole wide world, nor indeed to enter a competition about who is the most Reformed. (Indeed, I admit to a sinking feeling whenever someone – usually with a self-satisfied tone – takes it upon themselves to inform me that not only are they Reformed, but that they consider themselves to be very Reformed – whatever that means.)

Carl concluded his piece by saying that “the eclipse of Presbyterians in the evangelical world’s adoption of the term ‘Reformed’ is probably in large part a function of the transformation of the term’s meaning by the contemporary evangelical scene. This is not something I myself will lose any sleep over.” No more do I lose sleep over the strident demands of some Presbyterians that I relinquish any right to the label: I am happy to be a Reformed Baptist, a Particular Baptist, a confessional (or ‘1689’) Baptist, an independent Baptist, or whatever particular label enables someone to fit me fairly accurately into a fairly appropriate pigeonhole.

Similarly, I think that there is a degree of common ground between Carl and those of my ilk, stamp and kidney: I agree that the word ‘Reformed’ should mean more than ‘vaguely Calvinistic in its soteriology.’ I agree that the word ‘confessional’ is bandied around with some carelessness and a great deal of vacuity as a kind of synonym for ‘orthodox’. I further accept that real confessionalism – like any form of real conviction – enshrines certain proper distinctions (and, in degree, necessary divisions) over issues of the ordinances and ecclesiology (though it should be noted that soteriology raises its head here as well). Indeed, it is for these very reasons that when someone tells me that they are a Reformed Baptist, my response tends to be something like, “That’s great! Would you mind telling me exactly what you mean by that?”

Furthermore, I accept (without agreement) that for some Presbyterians (I am not suggesting that this is true for Carl), the historical narrative for the Reformed and the legitimate application of the word stop short somewhere in or around Dordrecht in the early seventeenth century (others would, perhaps, like to turn a little further back and south toward Calvin’s Geneva, some forward and west toward Westminster in the mid-seventeenth century). Indeed, I have seen one definition of ‘Reformed’ that included, as a fairly central element, the wearing of a Geneva gown in worship. Now if that isn’t an oddity, kindly fax me an explanation of what is!

But in the midst of it all, I find that nowhere does the good doctor properly allow for the kind of Reformed Baptist that I am and that many of my friends are, and neither do many of the discussions of this issue. I guess I am, in part, picking up on this because of Carl’s Anabaptist jibe of some moons ago, to which I responded with tongue equally firmly in cheek. But behind those friendly barbs and this post lies a more serious concern. In the discussion of what it means to be Reformed, and in the consideration of what it means to be a Reformed Baptist (or whatever else you wish to call us), I generally find that there is a gap on the spectrum that is overlooked or quickly dismissed, the gap that tends to be brushed over with the suggestion that there are Reformed Baptists who are not quite (or at all) Pipettes or a certain brand of Southern Baptists or Acts 29 types or SGM guys, but who actually – to use Carl’s words – “hold to more traditional forms of worship and polity.”

This post, after that long preamble, intends to introduce the small group of such men and churches more formally. And no, I do not presume to be any kind of appointed spokesman for all or part of that group. And no, I do not presume that relative smallness means that we have an innate claim to greater purity than anyone else (though it does have an effect on our visibility). Furthermore, we do not really have, as far as I know, any great gurus or monumental figureheads – I mean, we have enough personalities to start some miserable fights, but no name behind which we all line up. People might come to our churches and start throwing around the names of the evangelical and ‘Reformed’ celebrities and trying to figure out whether or not we are of Paul or Cephas or Apollos but – by and large – we do not neatly fit into such camps, although we have genuine and sometimes close affinities with several of them. It may be that part of the problem is that, historically, we did not have our roots in the US (although it is fair to say that the twentieth century resurgence – for the New Calvinists are not the first to use the word – among Reformed Baptists probably had a more American flavour than otherwise).

It was, indeed, the Anabaptists who provided the backdrop to some of the first public statements of those who would become known as Reformed Baptists, but not as some would imagine. The first Calvinistic or Particular Baptist churches in England had their origins in the 1630s when men like William Kiffin (and, later, Hanserd Knollys) sat under the umbrella of the Independent congregation usually known as the Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey church. By the mid-1640s both Kiffin and Knollys had left the Jessey church to form distinctively Baptist congregations.

Perhaps the definitive breaking of cover for the Particular Baptists was their 1644 Confession. This is an important document: seven churches produced it in order to make plain their distinctive beliefs while putting distance between themselves and the excesses and errors of the continental Anabaptist groups on the one hand, as well as the General (Arminian) Baptists on the other. At this time (and, my, haven’t things changed!) the label ‘Anabaptist’ was a deliberate slur, designating the kind of people who could be relied upon to turn any society morally upside down within moments (“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”), and was readily slapped on people or groups which advocated the novel and dangerous notion that the church did not consist of everyone born into a particular nation-state under the auspices of its national church. Drawing on a couple of earlier documents, the 1644 was an important step at a point when an essentially Presbyterian Parliament was exercising unprecedented powers and the Westminster divines were recommending some fairly uncomfortable measures for those considered outside the fold. Revisions swiftly followed in 1646, several of which read as unnecessary attempts to appease the powers that be – this was not necessarily an advance, although the line was holding firm.

When Oliver Cromwell died and – after a period of confusion – Charles II assumed the throne, the Baptists were among those who faced severe persecutions. The full weight of a church and state, yoked together in oppression, came down on anyone outside the restored and vengeful Church of England (whether Baptist, Independent or Presbyterian, who were all now more or less beyond the pale). Persecution drove these groups more closely together than they could have been when some Presbyterians had been advocating the forcible sublimation of Baptists and their churches.

Out of this arose a desire on the part of the Baptist churches to demonstrate their common ground with their fellow pilgrims, while maintaining their own distinctive identity from the Paedobaptists on the one hand and the Anabaptists on the other (including the Constantinianism/Erastianism of the former and the wild political radicalism of many of the latter). The result was what is commonly called the 1689 (Second London) Baptist Confession of Faith. Some slight awkwardness arises from the fact that this confession was actually written in 1677, although it was not signed and published until 1689, the year of the Glorious Revolution, when there was a greater degree of freedom afforded to the men and churches responsible.

The 1689 (which I will call it for the sake of simplicity) takes a line from the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians through the Savoy Declaration of the Independents. Much water had passed under the bridge (and, indeed, over the Baptists) since 1644, and this document was the result of the mature thinking of the finest and godliest minds among the growing churches of the Particular Baptists. It is a great shame that many modern editions of the 1689 omit the introductory epistle “To the Judicious and Impartial Reader,” and what is simply entitled, “An Appendix,” both masterpieces of irenic polemicism, or polemic irenicism, depending on which side you like your bread buttered.

In the former, they explicitly link their work with the form and purpose of the 1644 Confession, while making plain that they wanted not only “to give a full account of our selves, to those Christians that differ from us about the subject of baptism” (I modernise the English slightly in this and the following quotes) but also a defence of the genuine godliness that the doctrine of the Particular Baptists was producing, a godliness that would have been recognised as essentially the same as that of other orthodox believers, tying it in with the work of the Westminster divines and the Savoy Conference. “We have no itch,” they wrote, “to clog religion with new words, but do readily acquiesce in that form of sound words, which has been, in consent and the holy Scriptures, used by other before us.” With a sincere spirit, they went on,

In those things wherein we differ from others, we have expressed our selves with all candour and plainness that none might entertain jealousy of aught secretly lodged in our breasts, that we would not the world should be acquainted with; yet we hope we have also observed those rules of modesty, and humility, as will render our freedom in this respect inoffensive, even to those whose sentiments are different from ours.

The Appendix is equally irenic and equally incisive. It begins:

Whosoever reads, and impartially considers what we have in our forgoing confession declared, may readily perceive, that we do not only concenter with all other true Christians on the Word of God (revealed in the Scriptures of truth) as the foundation and rule of our faith and worship. But that we have also industriously endeavoured to manifest, that in the fundamental articles of Christianity we mind the same things, and have therefore expressed our belief in the same words, that have on the like occasion been spoken by other societies of Christians before us.

What follows, having established this common ground, is a quite brilliant Baptist apologetic (and I do not say that simply because of my fundamental agreement with it), laudable for its clarity and brevity and simplicity, setting out key elements of the Baptist view of salvation, covenant, ordinances and church, concluding:

So may it be now as to many things relating to the service of God, which do retain the names proper to them in their first institution, but yet through inadvertency (where there is no sinister design) may vary in their circumstances, from their first institution. And if by means of any ancient defection, or of that general corruption of the service of God, and interruption of his true worship, and persecution of his servants by the Antichristian Bishop of Rome, for many generations; those who do consult the Word of God, cannot yet arrive at a full and mutual satisfaction among themselves, what was the practise of the primitive Christian Church, in some points relating to the Worship of God: yet inasmuch as these things are not of the essence of Christianity, but that we agree in the fundamental doctrines thereof, we do apprehend, there is sufficient ground to lay aside all bitterness and prejudice, and in the spirit of love and meekness to embrace and own each other therein; leaving each other at liberty to perform such other services, (wherein we cannot concur) apart unto God, according to the best of our understanding.

What needs to be understood is that these men were not trying to start a war, but neither would their consciences allow them to retreat. The Particular Baptists of the seventeenth century unashamedly considered themselves as the heirs and the advancers – the third wave, if you will – of the Reformation.

Such an awareness was not misplaced triumphalism or mere bombast. These men and churches appreciated where they had come from, but they had clear views as to where they needed to go. In espousing their distinctive convictions they realised that they were in disagreement not only with the Anglican Church but also with fellow Dissenters – Presbyterians like Richard Baxter and Independents such as John Owen. They understood that the magisterial Reformers had struck the first blows, being responsible for exposing the corruptions of Antichrist and bringing important doctrines such as justification by faith to light. The second wave they identified in men like William Ames and later John Owen, who argued that on the one hand a true gospel church was comprised of professing saints, but on the other hand that the children of believers were still to be baptized by sprinkling. They appreciated that many of the Puritans had gone (far) beyond the half-way Reformation of Anglicanism (which – despite some outstanding men, and because of circumstances peculiar to the United Kingdom – stalled in its application of the same foundational realities), and how the Puritans pressed the principles of the Reformation into additional spheres of faith and life, many paying for it with their expulsion. But with the third wave the error of infant baptism was exposed. Now the Particular Baptists, self-consciously a part of this progress, were pressing those Reformation principles more fully into further areas of faith and life, not least the doctrine of the church, especially with regard to its very nature and its role and purpose on the earth.

This central issue and their sense of their place is evident in the preface to Philip Carey’s splendidly-titled A Solemn Call unto all that would be owned as Christ’s Faithful Witnesses, speedily and seriously, to attend unto the Primitive Purity of the Gospel Doctrine and Worship: or a Discourse Concerning Baptism (London,1690). Five prominent London Particular Baptists – William Kiffin, John Harris, Richard Adams, Robert Steed and Benjamin Keach, theological leaders among their brothers – put their names to this piece, arguing that “the true gospel visible church is to consist only of such as are saints by profession, and who give themselves up to the Lord and to one another by solemn agreement to practice the ordinances of Christ.” (For more on the doctrine of baptism these men held, see chapter 12 of Austin Walker’s The Excellent Benjamin Keach [Dundas, Ontario: Joshua Press, 2004].)

For all their esteem of the magisterial Reformers and for their ground-breaking labours, and for all their (and our) respect for the often underestimated and undervalued principles and practices that those Reformers embraced, Reformed Baptists cannot regard Geneva as the sole and abiding high-water mark of the Reformation. While recognising the genuine continuity between the Old and New Covenants, our forefathers – with modern Reformed Baptists of the same stripe – also recognised the genuine discontinuity that the Scriptures themselves demand.

In that respect, the principle of a gathered church of baptised believers, conducting itself in the holiness of renewed lives, was something to which those pioneers believed their brothers-in-arms had not attained. A failure to embrace this principle allowed a potentially fatal rot to set in. Again, Benjamin Keach made their convictions and concerns plain when he wrote Light broke forth in Wales, expelling Darkness (London, 1696):

I look upon Infant-Baptism to be one of the chief Pillars of the Romish Church, and of all National Churches and Constitutions in the European World; this is that Christendom that is so cried up, and the way of making and continuing the pretended Christian-Name; in the Anti-christian Church, and World, all are made Christian in their Infant-Baptism: And thus the inhabitants of the Earth are cheated, and deluded with a Shadow and empty Name that signifies nothing; and certain I am, until Christendom (as it is called) is Unchristianed of this pretended Rite, or Christendom, there will never be a thorough Reformation: I mean until they see that Christianity, or Christian-Name, which they received at their Infant-Baptism, signifies nothing, but throw it away as an Human Innovation, and labour after true Regeneration, or a likeness to Christ, and so believe and are baptized upon the profession of their Faith, according as in the Apostolical Primitive Church: ’Tis Infant-Baptism that tends to uphold all National Churches, and deceives poor People who think there were hereby made Christians. (234)

To those who follow these men, in terms of pursuing and applying the Biblical principles that have led and do lead to the reformation of the church, the Reformed or Particular Baptist activity of the seventeenth century was a further step in the right direction, and is an essentially healthy heritage. It is also a developing heritage, as the stream of Particular Baptist thought – with all its struggles and stands, its tensions and triumphs (in common with other traditions) – flows down through a host of gracious and godly men into the present day. (If you are interested in learning more about the men and the issues, you might begin with Robert Oliver’s History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1791-1892[Banner of Truth, 2006] or the volumes edited by Michael Haykin on The British Particular Baptists I, II and III[Particular Baptist Press].)

In speaking in this way, I am not trying to sneak in the assertion that we are ‘very Reformed.’ However, it ought to be recognised that these Particular Baptists, and those who follow them and take up in this sense the label of ‘Reformed Baptists’, were self-consciously advancing the cause of the Reformation by deliberately pressing its principles into every area of faith and life, even those which had been sacred cows beforehand. At the same time, they were concerned to emphasise their shared doctrinal and practical convictions with those who stood in the same stream of historic, orthodox, Reformed Christianity. (For a brief and popular treatment of both the common ground and the distinctive territory, I think one of the best documents that speaks to this definition of the Reformed Baptists remains the booklet, What is a Reformed Baptist Church? by Jim Savastio.)

And this is one of the particular blessings of a confessional inheritance with so much common ground. When I, as a confessional or 1689 Baptist, sit down with a Westminster Presbyterian or Savoy Congregationalist or Independent, I know just how much we hold in common, and I am able to enjoy fellowship with such a brother on a broad, deep, shared foundation. We also know, clearly and concisely, those issues on which we differ, and how and why we differ, and are therefore able to embrace one another as brothers who walk with a clear conscience before God.

But while we trace the spiritual history, let none of us forget the spiritual reality. Here faith and life must be joined or we will have nothing but painted fire. Surely the Reformed faith is far more than a particular historical connection, a certain theological tradition, or a series of dogmatic assertions. This grasp of things presumes a soul-conquering vision of the great God and Saviour lifted up; it embraces a soul-humbling conviction of one’s own natural sinfulness and wretchedness before that great and holy God; it supposes a soul-enrapturing reception of the grace of that great God and Saviour; and, it issues in a soul-encompassing consecration of the entire redeemed humanity of a saved sinner to the glory of the Lord. It was described, in its essence, by B. B. Warfield in his essay on Calvinism, as lying “in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature. . . . when the sinful soul rests in humble, self-emptying trust purely on the God of grace” (Works [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991], 5:354-5).

Surely this is the core of the matter: being captured and captivated by the triune God, therefore seeing oneself in proper and humble perspective, both in terms of what we once were without grace, might still be apart from grace, and have now become because of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. What fools we would be to ignore the treasure and fight over the box! If our confessionalism of any genuine stripe – which provides what we are persuaded are Biblical boundaries and direction to the whole – does not involve and produce this vibrant spirituality, then surely it is missing the mark, a mere cipher, a pretty shell without any enduring substance. By this measure, perhaps we ought to ask whether or not we have quite so much scope for self-congratulation as we sometimes seem to imagine? For this view of God in Christ, with all its concomitants and consequences, ought to be what above all unites those who are Reformed, and what imposes those degrees of separation from those with differing views of God and of man.

So, when the issue of what it means to be Reformed gets discussed, we ask not to be lauded and applauded, so much as simply, accurately and fairly recognised as existing. It may be that you just did not realise that we exist. It may be that the kind of Baptist convictions – about soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, doxology and a whole bunch of other ologies – to which you have been exposed have left you with some serious and significant questions, and you have given up looking for the answers among Baptists. It may be that you have met some who take the name of Reformed Baptists who, through pride or ignorance, have left you with a sour taste in your mouth, for which I am sorry. It may be – and I say this in a spirit of straightforward inquiry and not backhanded accusation – that you would rather not acknowledge this part of the spectrum because it does not fit into your historical narrative, and rather upsets your carefully piled apple-cart. But please do not repeat the old saw about Anabaptism; if I might be so bold, it will not wash. Neither dismiss us with the vague assertion that there are some Baptists out there who are both Calvinistic in their soteriology and traditional or conservative in our doxology. That is not what we really are, certainly not all we are. An honest historiography surely requires that – if nothing else – those original Particular Baptists (discounting, of course, the apostles and the early church!) are at least considered on their own terms, and taken for what they believed themselves to be, even if you might disagree with them.

There are those who are still doing what our forefathers did (and, in fact, what their Reforming, Presbyterian and Congregational forefathers had begun to do): seeking to press the Word of God ever further and more firmly into the hearts and minds of the people of God, individually and corporately, so as to promote, under God, this full-orbed appreciation of and consecration to the Lord God. As such, the Particular Baptists are – or should be – not so much slipping back as stepping forward in reformation, finding the older paths and walking in them, and – in the spirit of fraternal encouragement – it would be remiss of me, even churlish, not to invite you to join us.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 9 July 2012 at 12:50

Revival and reformation

with 2 comments

In two posts, linked in theme but not by design, Jeff Smith and Michael Haykin both engage with issues of Baptistic attitudes to church polity, purity, and the progress of the gospel, taking in issues of tradition and catholicity.

Jeff Smith, continuing his series of lessons from 18th century Particular Baptist history, points to Baptist negativity toward the 18th century revival because of their suspicions about those at its forefront: Whitefield and the Wesleys, and the Calvinistic Methodists, for example.  Many of those concerns had to do with church polity:

They had a hard time accepting that anything good could come out of a denomination they refused to consider as a true church. This was partly related to what was a commendable and faithful commitment of the Baptists to the importance of biblical church order. In some instances, however, this commitment went wrong by swinging over to the extreme of failing to have a proper spirit of catholicity toward all true Christians.

He draws out some important and challenging questions:

What is the lesson for us as Reformed Baptists as we enter into the 21st century? Well here we are reminded of how important it is to have a catholic spirit toward all true Christians, though they may not be part of our circle of churches. Though some may have difficulty accepting this, God in his sovereignty sometimes greatly blesses and uses men who are not Reformed Baptists; men who don’t have everything right in their ecclesiology, or even men who are wrong in other areas of their theology. They have the gospel and they preach the gospel, but they are lacking in some areas. May I dare to say it, they may even be confused Arminians. Yet God uses them, and He may even use them in ways He’s not using any of us. We need to be able to rejoice in that. We need to ask ourselves, if God raised up some men in our day full of the Holy Spirit; men who are preaching the gospel and whose preaching God is mightily blessing with every biblical evidence of true conversions (not merely decisions, but real conversions), and those men are Methodists or Episcopalians, or Assembly of God or some other denomination, or some other kind of Baptist, other than Reformed Baptist, could we rejoice in that and be thankful for it? Could we even consider those men as our friends and brothers and even work together with them insofar far as we can? Or is our almost immediate knee jerk reaction to be critical and to pick at any and every fault we can find to try to discredit any one God is using who is not one of us?

And again:

Related to this, there’s a common mistake we need to be aware of. It’s the error of thinking that there can be no revival without thorough reformation first. It’s true that reformation sometimes precedes revival. Likewise it’s true that we must always be pursuing more and more thorough reformation. If we are not seeking to reform our lives and our churches by the scriptures, it is presumption to expect revival. But in God’s sovereignty it is simply a fact of history that sometimes revival precedes reformation. Some of the Particular Baptists thought there could be no church renewal if there was a neglect of believer’s baptism and the principles of Baptist church government. They were wrong, and because they felt that way, they renounced the revival when it came.

Michael Haykin has been making some similar points:

Take the revival among English and Welsh Calvinistic Baptists at the close of the “long” eighteenth century. In the wake of this dramatic renewal came a fresh evaluation of what constituted the parameters of the Calvinistic Baptist community. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries these parameters had been oriented around the concept of the church as a congregation of baptized believers and any missional component largely lost. Revival came to be linked to Baptist polity. This focus among Calvinistic Baptists on ecclesiological issues and their linking of spiritual vitality to church order, however, received a direct challenge from the Evangelical Revival. The participants of this revival, who knew themselves to be part of a genuine movement of the Spirit of God, were mainly interested in issues relating to salvation. Ecclesial matters often engendered unnecessary strife and, in the eyes of key individuals like George Whitefield, robbed those who disputed about them of God’s blessing.

By the end of the century many Calvinistic Baptists agreed. While they were not at all prepared to deny their commitment to Baptist polity, they were not willing to remain fettered by traditional patterns of Baptist thought about their identity. Retaining the basic structure of Baptist thinking about the church they added one critical ingredient drawn from the experience of the Evangelical Revival: the vital need for local Baptist churches to be centres of vigorous evangelism. There is no doubt that this amounted to a re-thinking of Baptist identity. From the perspective of these Baptists, Baptist congregations and their pastors were first of all Christians who needed to be concerned about the spread of the Gospel at home and abroad.

Haykin also draws some positive and challenging conclusions:

May we, the spiritual descendants of those brethren-oh what a joy to have men and women like Andrew Fuller and John Sutcliff, Samuel Pearce and Anne Steele, Benjamin Beddome and Benjamin Francis as our forebears!-not fail to learn the lessons they learned so well!

Oh to treasure the traditions these brothers and sisters have handed on to us, but a pox on traditionalism! This is not a contradiction: to love our traditions, but to want nothing to do with traditionalism. The latter loves the past because it is simply the past and thinks that things were always done better then. The former loves the traditions of the past for they are bearers of truth and we dare not lose that treasure.

Oh to be found faithful to the end of our days to the faith once for all delivered to the saints and which these brethren have handed on to us. But oh to avoid like the plague the aridity of traditionalism in second- and third-order theological truth, not daring to think new thoughts in these areas. Fuller and his friends were not so fearful.

These are important points, and need to be borne in mind.  But let us also look forward a little distance from the time my brothers are writing about.

In 1813 the Baptist Union was established, on the back of such endeavours as the Baptist Missionary Society.  At the time, it was a distinctively Calvinistic body.  It was then restructured in the early 1830s to include General Baptists.  That re-establishment was on the broad and undefined basis of “the sentiments generally denominated evangelical.”[1] Those involved seemed to think that they knew what those sentiments were, and they were substantially convinced that such a foundation was sufficient to bear the weight of what would be built upon it.

Fast forward just a few years, and into the heritage of truth that the Particular Baptists of the 18th century passed down steps C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892).  He – if you study his life and read his writings carefully – was as much a reformer as he was anything else.  God used him mightily in the middle of the 19th century to bring the gospel to countless thousands and to establish a multitude of churches.  True catholicity reigned in Spurgeon’s heart alongside a blood-earnest attachment to Jesus and the truth as it is in him.  There was no contradiction.

Toward the end of his life, Spurgeon knew that he had expended his energies in the cause of Christ.  In March 1891, a preacher from the College called E. H. Ellis left for Australia.  Spurgeon bade him farewell: “Good bye, Ellis; you will never see me again, this fight is killing me.”[2]

What was the fight?  It was that which church history calls the Downgrade Controversy.  Those sentiments usually denominated evangelical – being largely assumed and undefined – had not held back the tide of error sweeping in “the New Theology.”  Spurgeon averred that the Baptist Union as he knew it had been founded “without form and void” and remained so.

I am not drawing direct parallels between the Higher Criticism against which Spurgeon contended and some of the men implicitly referenced in the work of Jeff Smith and Michael Haykin, but I do think that the period after the 18th century provides us with salutary warnings and necessary exhortations.

The best men are always genuinely catholic in spirit.  They love all those who love Jesus in truth, even when they disagree with them over matters that they mutually confess to be of genuine and significant importance (e.g. church polity).  Men like John Owen, Jeremiah Burroughs, George Whitefield, and Charles Spurgeon were able to see across and attempt to reach across certain divides.  It does us well to cultivate the same spiritual wisdom.

However, in so doing, let us not lose sight of gospel distinctives (even more than ecclesiological ones, though not ignoring that the former feeds and defines the latter).  The truth is too high a price to pay for peace and unity (even in the short term).  We must not breed a suspicious and judgemental spirit, but we must maintain a discerning and distinguishing one.  We would be fools if we allowed catholicity of spirit to blind us to issues of truth and error.  I accuse neither of the men referenced of this, but I know that wise men make judicious and righteous statements, and the foolish apply them in muddle-headed and dangerous ways, and that there are more of the latter men than there are of the former, with obvious consequences.

What a tragedy it would be if, on the one hand, we failed to recognise a genuine work of the Spirit of God, even if “God in his sovereignty sometimes greatly blesses and uses men who are not Reformed Baptists.”  We should rejoice wherever Christ’s kingdom advances, and yearn to be useful and fruitful in that work, alongside all who love the Lord Jesus in sincerity.  But, on the other hand, what a tragedy it would be if the inheritance we bequeathed to a generation to come was one of theological fuzziness, of pie-eyed and ungrounded optimism and well-meaning indistinctness that sold them into decades of unanchored drifting or bloody contention for the truth, or both.  In this regard, we have to say that – in surveying the broad theological landscape, not least among the “young, restless and reformed” and those to whom they look up – there are issues of which we must be aware, matters of pith and moment that are all too easily dismissed or overlooked.  Too little catholicity, and we may miss the boat.  Too much, and we sink it for future generations.

Some truth matters more, some truth matters less, but all truth matters.  We need wisdom to judge where the lines are drawn, and to recognise where they exist, even while we accept that some are scored more deeply than others.  Some are barely visible to the naked eye, although they exist and are worth knowing and appreciating.  Some we can reach across at certain times and in certain places even while we will never erase them.  Some we must maintain, even with sorrow.  Some are inviolable boundaries: our only efforts in those regards are to defend them with all we have and are, reaching out only to pull people across them from error and danger into truth and safety.

Let us be content, then, to be thought broad or narrow (as the spirit of the age dictates and the tenor of our own time and place in it require), so long as we are walking closely with Jesus, in spirit and in truth.  Conflict is miserable, and we must not allow times of conflict to determine all our conduct in times of peace.  At the same time, let us remember that our conduct in peace will determine our conduct in war.  The crisis will not form our character, it will only reveal it.  Taking this into account, consider that Spurgeon was fighting because he would not see Christ dishonoured, and that became a fight to the death.  In the midst of the battle, speaking to College students on the preacher’s power, he remarked

trimming [the gospel] now, and debasing doctrine now, will affect children yet unborn, generation after generation.  Posterity must be considered.  I do not look so much at what is to happen to-day, for these things relate to eternity.  For my part, I am quite willing to be eaten by dogs for the next fifty years; but the more distant future shall vindicate me.  I have dealt honestly before the living God.  My brother, do the same.[3]

There are lots of dogs, and they will eat us: let the dogs of liberalism eat us for our convictions, and the dogs of the blinkered hyper-orthodox for our catholicity, and the dogs of broad evangelicalism for our narrowness, and the dogs of the world for our exclusivity.  There are lots of dogs.  But let us content to be sheep of Christ’s flock, in company with other true sheep.  Let us pray for and pursue both revival and reformation, personally and corporately: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

If I may be permitted to reach across, while holding firm (the point will be clear if you look up the original!), let me end with a hymn from Charles Wesley:

A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.

To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!

Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live;
And O Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give!

Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely,
And let me ne’er my trust betray,
But press to realms on high.


[1] Ernest A. Payne, The Baptist Union: A Short History (London: Baptist Union, 1959), 61.

[2] Autobiography, 3:152.

[3] C. H. Spurgeon, “The Preacher’s Power, and the Conditions of Obtaining it,” in An All-round Ministry, pp.361-2.

What is it to be Reformed?

with 6 comments

When I reviewed Collin Hansen’s book, Young, Restless, Reformed, I asked a question about what it meant to be Reformed.

Furthermore, there is – if not a confusion – at least a question of terminology. Most of the subjects welcome the Reformed label, but how accurately is it being applied? It seems that most of those involved in this movement share a Reformed (or, at least, a Calvinistic) soteriology. The question is raised even in the book as to whether this really constitutes “being Reformed,” as well as how much it matters. Do we need, for example, a Reformed ecclesiology, a Reformed pneumatology, or Reformed worship (or all of the above) in order to call ourselves genuinely ‘Reformed’? In other words, would the patron saint of the new Calvinists, Jonathan Edwards, recognise all these individuals and groups as Reformed? One could argue that this very question may be redefined by weight of numbers involved in this movement who do not embrace what has traditionally been, and been accepted as, part of the Reformed package. On this basis, there may be many who will wonder whether or not they are a part of this movement, and whether they want to be, and – if so – to what extent. This is especially so where the question is being begged over the extent to which the church is reaching the culture as opposed to the culture assimilating the church.

Scott Clark is even blunter than I am.  An interview with Collin Hansen has raised the same issue again for him.  Clark uses the label ‘Baptist’ to make his case:

You can’t simply redefine ‘Baptist’ by fiat and you can’t impose such a minimalist definition [i.e. “I believe in baptism”] on the word ‘Baptist’ because, after all, all Christians believe in Baptism. Defining it that way doesn’t tell us anything about the person using the adjective. It becomes meaningless.

The progression of Scott’s argument is solid, but it is – I think – clear that, by the time he has done, there are not that many people who can use the word “Reformed.”  Here is his thinking:

So it is with those of us who are identified with the historic Reformed Churches and with their confessions. Our people spilled blood for being called Reformed and for confessing the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. The Synod of Dort did not simply issue five canons against the Remonstrants, they also published a church order and they worked on worship and other ecclesiastical issues. To break into the Armory (where the Synod met) and to steal the Five Points from the ecclesiastical context in which they were formed and in which they were meant to be applied and to use them alone to define the adjective “Reformed” is just vandalism and identity theft.

I’m glad folk want to identify with the Five Points of Dort. I’m glad that folks are interested in the Reformed reformation. Keep coming. The road to Geneva is a nice trip and I think you’ll enjoy the destination. If you’re hungry, we will feed you. You don’t have to steal. It’s okay, we love you. Indeed, we’ll put a Geneva gown on your ministers, we’ll baptize your children in recognition of their status as covenant children and we’ll offer you communion in the body and blood of Christ regularly (the Geneva City Council is dead, long live communion). We have a polity, a piety, and a passion for the lost. You’ll love it.

It is interesting to see that – perhaps tongue in cheek – being Reformed involves (of necessity?) wearing a Geneva gown to preach and being a paedobaptist, as well as enjoying the Lord’s supper.  Do you have to sing psalms only to be Reformed?

st-pierre-geneva-2I am a Reformed Baptist.  Can I be?  I hold to the 1689 (Second London) Baptist confession of faith.  Am I allowed to use the label?  Where does one draw the line?  At which point does your standing in the stream remove you from the current?

Don’t get me wrong: I agree with the essence of what Scott is saying.  To simply hoick the label ‘Reformed’ on to any believer who holds to the five points (or even four or so of them) is to empty the phrase of much of its significance.  But where does being Reformed start and end?  Do Scott Clark or Richard Muller finally pin it down?  Is being a Reformed Baptist an inherent contradiction?

I agree with Dr Clark that being soteriologically Reformed is not enough to warrant the label, but I want to affirm my standing in the stream of historic Biblical Christianity.  All of which demands an answer to the question: if you need to (and I agree with Scott that you do need to), where do you draw the line?

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 22 January 2009 at 20:52

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