Baptists, The Definition Of Reformed, And Identity Politics (Part 1)

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.

Notes

  1. See R. Scott Clark, “Always Abusing Semper Reformanda.”
  2. 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.
  3. See R. Scott Clark, “The Reformed Churches Confess Infant Baptism.”
  4. Benjamin B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), 56.
  5. 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.
  6. Dennison Jr., Reformed Confessions, 1.158.
  7. Dennison, Jr., Reformed Confessions, 1.295.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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25 comments

  1. Thankyou for this series Dr Clark. The history of this matter has always eluded me. In fact during 40+ years in Presbyterian churches I have attended, I have not heard one sermon or lecture on the subject.

    The 1689 Baptist confession does bear some resemblance to the WCF. Could the Baptist not argue that they are “sorta, kinda” following in the tradition of the Protestant confessional churches? Or will you be demonstrating in this series that that is too much of a stretch?

    Also, if I may, is it true that the term Reformed belongs more strictly to the Dutch churches rather than to the English or Scottish or Huguenot churches?
    Thx.

    • John,

      I’ve been surveying the similarities and differences between the two confessions here. I’m not done yet but the differences are greater than I first thought. They are subtle at times but important.

      E.g., the Baptists (and there are varieties) don’t agree with us about that there is one covenant of grace with multiple administrations. Some of them (e.g., Sam Renihan and Pascal Denault) deny that the covenant of grace existed in redemptive history prior to the New Covenant. That’s utterly incompatible with the Reformed confession.

      The Particular Baptist tradition is a significant, and at times radical, revision of the Reformed tradition.

      No, the British (i.e., the English, Scots, Welsh, and some Irish) also called themselves Reformed as did the French, Swiss, and Germans among others.

  2. Would it be fair to say Baptists are the first Christians to embrace a liberal worldview? If the liberal worldview is defined as all Truth and Revelation has its end point in human comprehension and sentiment, the Baptist would fit this quiet nicely. There point of view is “Only one who feels like he is ready and has a true understanding of Scriptures as a text may receive baptism.”

    • John,

      It depends on what one means by liberal. There is an honorable sense of the word that means tolerant. Americans live in a tolerant (liberal) democratic Republic. It tolerates a diversity of people, creeds, ethnicities etc. That is a good thing.

      I understand that the word liberal has come to signify what you suggest. That’s unfortunate. There’s a significant difference between being tolerant and being radically subjectivist. I say that “left” isn’t liberal, as history shows. The Communists aren’t liberal. They’re totalitarian. The Fascists (who came from the socialist left) were also not tolerant. They were totalitarian.

      The Baptist equivocation on and appropriation of Reformed, however, does look a lot like the late-modern identity politics.

  3. Thanks for tackling this difficult subject. A few years ago we moved to a rural area in Missouri and I began attending a SBC, which I eventually joined as there are no conservative Reformed churches in this area. But before doing so, I researched what Baptists have historically believed and it is not the same as I was taught in the Reformed Presbyterian church. Lord willing, I am retaining my distinctives by studying the WCF and blogs like yours; but there is a difference which includes more than beliefs on baptism and I look forward to learning more. BTW – my pastor knows I’m reformed and he respects the theological differences we have.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Have you found any fruitful dialogue or communication with ‘reformed’ folk who think Baptists and Anabaptists can self-identify as reformed? The focus is on being polite to self-identifying Baptists. This feels very similar to trying to please a ‘woke’ tyrant!

    Doesn’t this self-identification equate to a false statement, as when a Baptist might self-identify as Christian?

    The problem is not the Baptist or Anabaptist, it is the thinking of folks who identify as ‘reformed’ without the perspective of the Reformation in Church history.

    If Baptists deny“the substantial continuity of the (Abrahamic) covenant of grace” then are Baptists of any definition or affiliation actually Christians?

    • Catherine,

      I’ve been discussing this with Baptists for 27 years, since I started at the seminary. They wouldn’t agree that Anabaptists can identify as Reformed but they think that they have the right to re-define Reformed to refer merely to soteriology.

      To be clear, I do not doubt their sincerity nor do I doubt their Christian profession but I do reject their subjectivist approach to the definition of Reformed.

  5. As a former Baptist (CBA) now Reformed, I have always wondered why so many Baptists are so desperate to be called Reformed? Why do they care so much?

    I was steeped in Chafer/Ryrie Dispensationalism and then studied at DTS under Bock and his Progressive Dispensational model. Nothing about Dispensationalism is Reformed. You cannot cherry pick the things you like from Dispensationalism and Covenantal Theology and stitch together some Frankenstein hybrid and call it Reformed. It’s not, and never will be. The same is true of the pre-Dispy Anabaptists. You don’t get to marry Anabaptist theology to Reformed theology and produce Reformed progeny. It doesn’t work that way.

    But still, why are Baptists so bent on getting Reformed recognition? Play in your own playground. If you want to come play in ours, we have different toys. It’s really not that hard. When I moved from being Dispy to being Reformed, I did not try to bring my Baptist toys with me. In fact, it was quite refreshing to leave them all behind.

    • SD,

      They want an identity that distinguishes them from the Arminian Baptists, by which they are surrounded (especially in the SBC). So, they latch on to ours and seek to redefine the adjective Reformed to make it work. I understand the discomfort of being exiled but they need to get used to it.

    • Or they need to present their’e children for baptism snd thenselves for communicant membership in the local NAPARC congergation 😉

  6. My Baptist friends would claim the moniker “reformed’ based on their adherence to the five points and five solas, nothing more. It becomes a mater of semantics as they define the word differently than what we might call truly reformed. While it sometimes makes for interesting discussion, I stop short of argumentation (they can label themselves in any fashion they wish), and rather prefer to break bread and enjoy one another’s company. We will share heaven….our theological differences will not divide us there and we choose not to let them divide us here. But I do choose not to attend their churches becasue I could not, in good faith, agree to their statements of faith and cannot, therefore, serve in ministry. May God get the glory.

    • Jerry,

      Yes, the Baptist move is to substitute a minimalist definition of Reformed that excludes our covenant theology, our ecclesiology, our sacramentology, and our practice. That’s radical surgery. Why should we accept that redefinition? May we redefine Baptist to omit believers only baptism? They wouldn’t accept that. Why should we?

  7. Dr. Clark, as a previous commenter mentioned, how do we address the Baptists faithful to the 1689 2LBC, and their desire to maintain unity with the WCF?

    Like Spurgeon and modern day folks like the guys from the Founder’s group? Tom Ascol, Voddie Bauchum?

    • Eric,

      It’s clear that the Particular Baptists agree with aspects of the Reformed confession. We should recognize that but for them to apply the adjective Reformed to their theology, piety, & practice is an equivocation on the word Reformed. They attempt to make the word say A and -A simultaneously. We should affirm that agreement as we affirm the Lutherans when they agree with us but the Founders guys et al. deny essential parts of Reformed theology, piety, & practice. They respond by saying “but those things don’t matter.” I reply, they most certainly do! Whether I am baptized is pretty important. One covenant of grace, multiple administrations is pretty important. That the new covenant is the new administration ozone (Abrahamic) covenant of grace is pretty important. Their response is tantamount to my saying, “You view of baptism is immaterial.” They would never put up with that nor should they and neither should we.

  8. Highly excellent article and comments! I’ve fellowshipped and been members of both Particular Baptists AND Reformed Baptists/Reformed Churches-US=Sacramento, CA area then! It’s not easy, yet I give our Great and Gracious God ALL the Glory! And I TRULY love the Reformed Faith, its History, and the fabulous members of the past and present and their fantastic Writings! Obviously I am still learning AND highly respect both.✝️📖🛐

  9. “our covenant theology, our ecclesiology, our sacramentology, and our practice.”
    I can’t remember having heard about these subjects from any Presbyterian church we ever attended or were members of. It’s as if they are ashamed, or perhaps ignorant.
    Dr Clark, when you wrote the above, it reminded me of the essay by Thomas Witherow, The Apostolic Church, where he said, “Though every statement in the Scripture cannot be regarded as absolutely essential to salvation, yet everything there is essential to some otherwise and important end, else it would not find a place in the good Word of God.”

    The independence of the Baptists comes through strongly in discussions. They rarely will refer to the 1689. Good Reformed folk on the other hand, are always comparing what is said against the WCF or 3 Forms of Unity etc, just in conversation. It seems a marked difference in approach, though I don’t want to paint all with such a broad brush, but it is a distinct difference I have noticed.

    • I agree, John, and thank you! Kinda funny to me, as I recall…years ago I used to even ‘pipedream’ that some how we could somewhat unite Doctrines of Grace/Calvinism into a closer knit unity…but of course I’ve ruled that out altogether! Let God be God and every man a liar… I suppose! Praise Yahweh for His Most Holy Word! At least I came to terms to stay away from Fundamentalism..save witnessing to them the true Gospel! Right now I’m reading The City of God in the mornings and Calvin’s Institutes in the evening! Huge Blessings indeed!✝️📖🛐😊

  10. Thank you for writing this Dr. Clark! I tire of the Baptists trying to take out the good of our tradition while retaining the bad. I recently had a discussion with a pastor about these issues, and he argued fairly well that Baptist churches based on the Reformed confessions should be seen as false churches. My gut tells me I’m right. I wanted to check your thoughts first however. Do you agree?

    Thanks In advance! I appreciate your wisdom

  11. Hi Dr Clark,

    You mentioned in your article that Baptists have a Covenant Theology. Can you describe what that theology is, if it isn’t Reformed Covenant Theology?

    Also, what do you make of Paul K. Jewett’s book titled
    “Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace”?

    Thank you,

    DE

    • Hi DE,

      There have been lots of covenant theologies that weren’t Reformed. Christians have recognized since AD 120 the importance of the category of “covenant” in the Bible. It’s only the Dispensationalists who tried to get rid of it altogether. E.g., in the late Middle Ages there was a movement among some Franciscan theologians who taught that God has made a covenant that says, “to those who do what lies within them, God will not deny favor.” That’s the covenant theology that Luther rejected when he became a Protestant.

      Particular Baptists have a covenant theology but it isn’t ours. Many of them deny that the types and shadows were actual administrations of the covenant of grace. They see the covenant of grace as identical with the new covenant. We deny that. We say that covenant of grace was, as I say, “in, with, and under” the types and shadows. The Baptists tend to conflate the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. We distinguish them. We say that the Abrahamic was paradigmatic (set the pattern) and the Mosaic was temporary. That’s why we baptize babies, because the promise to Abraham is still in force as we see in Acts 2:39 and Acts 16. We say that there is one covenant of grace, one church, multiple administrations. The Baptists deny. They tend to say that there’s one covenant of grace and one administration in the new covenant.

      These are competing covenant theologies. We’ve been teaching ours since 1524. The Baptists have been teaching theirs formally since 1644. When the Particular Baptist tradition emerged (from the General Baptists?) the Reformed (e.g., Robert Baillie et al.,) denounced them as Anabaptists because the the PBs made the same arguments about covenant and baptism as the Anabaptists.

      Yes, I’ve read Jewett. My prof, Bob Strimple, replied to him in class (and elsewhere) and I summarized that reply here:

    • Resources on Baptism
    • See esp. this.

      Jewett didn’t break any new ground.

      The arguments haven’t changed since Zwingli replied to the Swiss Brethren c. 1524.

      Either there is one covenant of grace in multiple administrations or there aren’t.

      Either the new covenant is new relative to Moses (something the Baptists don’t seem to grasp) or it isn’t?

      Paul consistently contrasts the new covenant to Moses not to Abraham, who is the father of all believers (Rom 4).

      Hebrews contrasts the new covenant to Moses.

      Paul says that Moses is fading.

      Moses is not Abraham.

  12. I’ve noted at least here in Kenya an interesting trajectory with ‘Reformed Baptists’ . When I used to hang out with 1689 guys they were big on Charles Spurgeon, John Murray, John Frame and Banner of Truth. I had the pleasure of listening to Geoff Thomas in Nairobi a few years ago too. These days they are into the Renihans, Ligonier and Doug Wilson. It shows how mobile their centres of interpretation really are. They seem not to revolve around their own confession even when they have it on hand but are always on the move.

  13. I would argue certain strains of Anglicanism are more Reformed than the Baptists. Historically speaking they were Reformed up to the restoration, though a lot more loose than other Reformed kirks such as the Scots who threw a stool on a minister just for using the Anglican liturgy

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