It is a widely held belief among a relatively large number of Baptists and not a few Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) folk that Baptists can be Reformed. Indeed, it is widely held among those in the Baptistic traditions that they (as distinct from the Reformed) are the true heirs of the Reformation, the true practitioners of semper reformanda (always reforming). Is it true and is it coherent? No, it is not.
The Reformed And The Baptists Are Two Traditions
The Baptist tradition and the Reformed tradition are two distinct traditions, and the Baptists are not a further Reformation of the Reformed confession. Let us address the last claim first. It is an odd thing to see Baptists asserting that they are the true heirs of the Reformation because they are practicing semper reformanda more consistently than the Reformed. It is odd because, first, the Baptist appropriation of semper reformanda is as wrongheaded as the Baptist appropriation of the Reformed identity. It assumes an incorrect (but widely held) understanding of the expression. The original meaning of the phrase semper reformanda was essentially, “We need to continually recover our own confession because there is always a tendency to drift.”1 Second, it seems incoherent to say simultaneously, “We Baptists are Reformed” and “The Reformed are wrong and we have fixed Reformed theology and practice.” In that case it seems that Baptists identify as Reformed when it suits them and distinguish themselves (via their abuse of semper reformanda) when it suits them. So Baptists may implicitly admit that, on key points, they are not Reformed but it is inappropriate for Reformed people to recognize the discontinuity and point it out?
Next, we come to the historical and logical facts of the definition of the adjective Reformed.2 The facts of the case, however, are quite clear. The Reformed Churches confess infant baptism.3 We do so because our covenant theology (one covenant of grace, multiple administrations) leads us to it. Our Baptist friends deny infant baptism because their covenant theology leads them to it. The Reformed and the Baptists have different covenant theologies. B. B. Warfield was correct—covenant theology is “architectonic” to Reformed theology.4 To change our covenant theology is to change our theology throughout. Thus, if the Baptists have a distinct covenant theology—and they do—then they have a distinct theology. All Baptists (i.e., Particular and General) and all Baptistic evangelicals (i.e., those who are not formally members of Baptist congregations but who hold a functionally Baptist theology) agree with the Anabaptists on the nature of redemption and baptism. The Reformed churches do not. We rejected the Anabaptist (and Baptist) understanding of redemptive history (and its consequences for the church and sacraments) from the beginning of the Reformation.
In his Fidei Ratio (The Ground of Faith) submitted to the Emperor at the 1530 Diet of Augsburg, Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) confessed for the Swiss Reformed,
From this it follows (as I willingly and gladly admit in regard to the subject of the sacraments) that the sacraments are given as a public testimony of that grace which is previously present to every individual. Thus baptism is administered in the presence of the Church to one who before receiving it either confessed the religion of Christ or has the word of promise, whereby he is known to belong to the Church. Hence it is that when we baptize an adult we ask him whether he believes. And only when he answers “yes,” then he receives baptism. Faith therefore, has been present before he receives baptism, and is not given by baptism. But when an infant is offered, the question is asked whether its parents offer it for baptism. When they have answered through witnesses that they wish it baptized, then the infant is baptized. Here the promise of God precedes, that He regards our infants, no less than those of the Hebrews, as belonging to the Church. For when members of the Church offer it, the infant is baptized under the law that, since it has been born of Christians, it is regarded by the divine promise among the members of the Church. By baptism, therefore, the Church publicly receives one who has previously been received through grace. Hence baptism does not convey grace but the Church certifies that grace has been given to him to whom it is administered.5
This is the argument that Zwingli had been making since about 1524, after his brief alliance with the Anabaptist Spiritual Brothers in Zürich. It was Reformed covenant theology that turned him around. He saw the substantial continuity of the (Abrahamic) covenant of grace. The phrase “no less than those of the Hebrews” and language like it would continue to echo through the Reformed confessions during the succeeding decades. The Anabaptists reject ancient Christian (e.g., Barnabas, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Augustine), Medieval, and Reformation consensus about the continuity between the promises made to Abraham and the new covenant.
For the Reformed, baptism is not conferred upon infants because it confers new life automatically or because we believe them already to be regenerate (we are not Baptists), but because we believe that just as God ordained that believers and their children were to receive the sign and seal of admission into the visible church under Abraham, so it is in the new covenant as well (Acts 2:39).
The 1530 Tetrapolitan Confession, drafted on behalf of four cities by Martin Bucer (1491–1551), Caspar Hedio (1494–1552), and Wolfgang Capito (1478–1541), in article 17, presented this confession to the Emperor on baptism:
But since Baptism is the sacrament of the covenant that God makes with those who are his, promising to be their God and Protector, as well as of their seed, and to have them as his people, and finally, since it is a symbol of renewing through the Spirit, which occurs through Christ, our theologians teach that it is to be given infants also, no less than formerly under Moses they were circumcised. For we are indeed the children of Abraham. Therefore no less to us than to those of old pertains the promise: I will be thy God and the God of thy seed.6
The key phrase here is: “For we are indeed the children of Abraham.” This language will be echoed in the Belgic Confession. The phrase, “no less to us than to those of old” will also be repeated in later Reformed confessions. The outlines of the fundamental disagreement between the Reformed and the later Baptist movements were drawn in the 1520s and 1530s.
The First Confession of Basel (1534), under the influence of Capito and Johannes Oecolampadius (1482–1531), denounced the Anabaptist theology and practice of baptism in the strongest of terms:
We clearly protest those strange and erroneous doctrines, which turbulent spirits have invented [so as] to reject and condemn, among other damnable and depraved opinions, as when they say infants are too small to be baptized (whom we baptize according to the custom of the apostles and the early church [Acts 2:38, 39; 16:33; 1 Cor 1:16], and because baptism has replaced circumcision [Col 2:11, 12]).7
What our Baptist friends need to recognize is that these condemnations apply equally to them because they agree with the Anabaptists on these points. The identity is unmistakable.
- See R. Scott Clark, “Always Abusing Semper Reformanda.”
- Should you wish to read a more extensive and heavily documented account of this argument, you might take a look at my essay “A House of Cards? A Response to Bingham, Gribben, and Caughey,” in Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, R. Scott Clark, Crawford Gribben, and D. G. Hart, On Being Reformed: Debates Over a Theological Identity (London: Palgrave-Pivot, 2018), 69–89.
- See R. Scott Clark, “The Reformed Churches Confess Infant Baptism.”
- Benjamin B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), 56.
- James T. Dennison Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523–1693, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–2014), 1.124–1.125.
- Dennison Jr., Reformed Confessions, 1.158.
- Dennison, Jr., Reformed Confessions, 1.295.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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