Baptists and the Reformed Tradition

Since my early college days, I never tired of quietly laughing inwardly and shaking my head at the young Calvinist Baptists on campus who considered themselves "Reformed" and perpetually quoted from the likes of Calvin and Luther. Had Ulrich (Huldrych) Zwingli (1484-1531) and Martin Luther (1483-1546) encountered these neo-Calvinist Baptists, these Young, Restless and "Reformed" zealots, they would have encouraged the drowning of them as they did the Anabaptists of their own day regardless of their Calvinist views. While Arminius was entering the homes of Anabaptists, pleading with them to return to the Reformed church1 -- meaning, their views on Believer's Baptism removed them ipso facto from a Reformed context -- Zwingli, himself Calvinistic, was drowning the early Baptists.

For Luther, the Baptist view relegates a person to an inevitable consequence of uncertainty, as the sacrament of baptism rests upon the alleged faith of the individual rather than the promises of God. "For we can never know definitely whether the candidate for baptism really believes ... The Baptists' position has no certain basis and is thus an act of uncertainty."2 I understand Luther's point clearly. I have witnessed first-hand, and more than once, a Baptist minister conferring baptism to a person he imagined to have faith in Christ but was sorely mistaken. For Luther, a Baptist minister would have to possess the mind of God in order to justify only conferring baptism to a genuine believer, to know whether that person was truly trusting in Christ.3 The notion is presumptuous at best.

Worse, however, is Luther's perspective that the Baptistic view is idolatrous.4 "By depending on faith in this way, I make it a 'work.' The Baptist's practice is thus nothing else than a new work [of] righteousness. They speak about faith, but they actually emphasize human activity."5 I am not convinced of this argument; and Calvinists use a similar argument against Arminians regarding faith being a work, even if that faith was initiated by the work of the Holy Spirit. St Paul is clear: faith is not a work. (Rom. 4:4, 5)

Luther even brashly states: "There is, however, a devil who promotes confidence in works among them. He feigns faith, whereas he really has a work in mind. He uses the name and guise of faith to lead the poor people to rely on a work."6 This is a scathing remark -- linking the alleged works-righteousness of the Baptistic view with the work of the devil himself. Calvinist James MacDonald was scandalized for a similar remark; though he, lo and behold, joined the Southern Baptist Convention! (link) But I digress.

MARTIN LUTHER

Surely, then, Luther views the issues of election and predestination, coupled with sola gratia and sola fide, as solely corroborating with a pædobaptistic view (pædo, referring to a child, or an infant: hence infant baptism). Yet, today's neo-Calvinist credobaptists quote from these pædobaptists, as though there remains but little difference between them. History itself demonstrates otherwise. No matter their professed allegiance to "the doctrines of grace," these Baptist Calvinists would find no grace among their Reformed counterparts, yet they continue to call themselves "Reformed." This is because they equate being Reformed with being a Calvinist. In the minds of Dortian Calvinists, however, being Reformed referred to holding to the Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt -- all pædobaptistic works.

The Reformed document of 1562 (revised in 1566) referred to as the Belgic Confession, penned by Presbyterian Guido de Brès, and revised by infralapsarian Calvinist Franciscus Junius (who debated Jacob Arminius in several letters on matters of the Reformed faith, particularly the doctrine of election), maintained the Reformed principle of baptizing infants as a sign of the covenant. Those who could not subscribe to this baptism formula were not deemed Reformed (emphases added):
For this reason we believe that anyone who aspires to reach eternal life ought to be baptized only once without ever repeating it [critiquing the Anabaptists] -- for we cannot be born twice [an implied nod toward baptismal regeneration, at least in liturgical language7]. Yet this baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it but throughout our entire lives.
PREPARING FOR BAPTISMAL MARTYRDOM OF BAPTISTS
For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received [as an infant] and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers [as do Baptists even in our own day]. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children.
What perplexed the Reformed was why the Anabaptists could not just accept their infant baptism as valid. For the Reformed, the Anabatptists' second baptism seemed gratuitous. Mind you, the Reformed were thinking like a Reformed person, and not like a non-Reformed Baptist. Yet, how can credobaptist Calvinists -- those who adhere to believers-only baptism -- call themselves Reformed? Merely being a Calvinist or Calvinistic does not make someone a Reformed Protestant. Therefore, credobaptist Calvinists are in serious error ecclesiologically with regard to what being Reformed encompasses.

The Reformed document of 1563, known as the Heidelberg Catechism, considered one of the most highly regarded and influential of the Reformed catechisms, teaches the same regarding pædobaptism (emphases added):
74. Q. Should infants, too, be baptized?

A. Yes. Infants as well as adults belong to God's covenant and congregation.[1] Through Christ's blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to adults.[2] Therefore, by baptism, as sign of the covenant, they must be grafted into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers.[3] This was done in the old covenant by circumcision,[4] in place of which baptism was instituted in the new covenant.[5]

[1] Gen. 17:7; Matt. 19:14. [2] Ps. 22:11; Is. 44:1-3; Acts 2:38, 39; 16:31. [3] Acts 10:47; I Cor. 7:14. [4] Gen. 17:9-14. [5] Col. 2: 11-13.
We understand from history that the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism were among the documents that the Dutch Calvinists used against the Arminians at the Synod of Dordt (1618-19). The Canons of Dordt, that include doctrinal standards commensurate with these confessions, comprise the Three Forms of Unity, Reformed principles and dogma.

PREPARING FOR BAPTISMAL MARTYRDOM OF BAPTISTS

According to the Three Forms of Unity, particularly with regard to the Canons of Dordt, Jacob Arminius, the Remonstrants, and Arminianism as a theological system were viewed as insufficient, unbiblical, and in error with regard to Reformed standards (which alone were considered orthodox8). While Arminians who are also pædobaptists are considered far more Reformed than are credobaptists, including Calvinistic credobaptists, Dutch Calvinists still considered Arminianism, the anachronistic theology of the early Church,9 to be in error. Even the Calvinist articles of the Canons of Dordt, lauded by many Calvinist Baptists, ironically refute Baptist ecclesiology (emphases added):
Article 17: The Salvation of the Infants of Believers.

Since we must make judgments about God's will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.
Credobaptist Calvinists cannot accept these Dortian views and, therefore, cannot be considered Reformed. Hence the title "Young, Restless, and Reformed" is quite the misnomer. Baptists belong to what is known as the Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists, not to the Reformation of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli; again, the latter of whom would drown modern-day (and did drown in their own day) Baptists, regardless of their adopted Calvinistic views, for their perceived credobaptistic heresy.

Many Baptists also cannot accept the Reformed documents of the Three Forms of Unity because they are Presbyterian in nature, not democratically Congregational. Not only would the Reformers have rejected credobaptistic errors, but also Baptist ecclesiological errors of congregationalism (a model that those of us in the broadly Reformed tradition hold as having no Church support from an historical stance, as such contradicts the Presbyterian and Episcopal models of historically Reformed principles, as well as Scripture, cf. Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Even the Westminster Confession of Faith is a Presbyterian document, and not a Baptistic or Congregational confession. Again, merely being a Calvinist does not make one Reformed. Naming Calvinist Baptists "Reformed" is tantamount to calling a person a car merely because he is found in a garage. Calvinist Baptists: you are not Reformed.

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1 Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1985), 167. Take for an example the following quote: "When many Separatists in Amsterdam were going over to the Mennonites, or to Baptist views, [Henry] Ainsworth [a Brownist] remained firm in his Reformed beliefs." In other words, to be Baptistic, even if also Calvinistic, renders one outside the Reformed tradition. Ibid., 158.

2 Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996), 370.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 371.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Such is known as liturgical language, not to be taken strictly. The Heidelberg Catechism asks and answers: "73. Q. Why then does the Holy Spirit call baptism the washing of regeneration and the washing away of sins? A. God speaks in this way for a good reason. He wants to teach us that the blood and Spirit of Christ remove our sins just as water takes away dirt from the body. But, even more important, He wants to assure us by this divine pledge and sign that we are as truly cleansed from our sins spiritually as we are bodily washed with water." Such becomes a reality when one, by God's grace, places his or her faith in Christ, having already received the sign of the seal in the sacrament of baptism.

8 See Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, ed. Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 265-69.

9 Kenneth Keathley, Professor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, comments, "What is called Arminianism was nearly the universal view of the early church fathers and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy." See Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703. Dr. Keathley's accurate assessment is merely another reminder of how many theologians of the Church drifted into theological error due to the influence of St Augustine's errors of the early fifth century. These theologians include but are not limited to Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli and John Knox.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.