In part one, we began a survey of Reformed statements to demonstrate how the Reformed and the Baptists are two different traditions with distinctly separate understandings of redemptive history.
Theodore Beza’s personal confession of faith (Confession De Foi Du Chretien, 1559) was not adopted by the churches, but it did influence other Reformed Christians and confessions (e.g., the Heidelberg Catechism). He devoted an entire article to the baptism of infants:
We do not cease to communicate baptism to young children even though their faith is unknown to us. We have said before that it is requisite that they should be partakers of the fruits of the sacraments (Acts 8:36–37). And it is not very likely that they have faith because they do not have the use of understanding (Deut 1:39; Rom 10:14, 17), except God works in them extraordinarily (which does not appear to us).
First, there is now the same reason for baptism which was once in circumcision (called by St. Paul “the seal of righteousness which is by faith,” Rom 4:11), even the express commandment of God by which the male children were marked the eighth day (Gen 17:12).
Second, there is a special regard to be had to the infants of believers, for although they do not have faith in effect such as those do who are of age, yet they have the seed and the spring in virtue of the promise which was received and apprehended by their elders. For God promises not only to be our God if we believe in Him, but also that He will be the God of our offspring and seed; yes, to the thousandth degree, i.e., to the last end (Ex 20:6). Then by what right or title do they refuse to give them the mark and ratification of what they have and profess already? And if they allege further that although they come from faithful elders or parents, does it not follow that they are of the number of the elect and as a consequence that they are sanctified (for God has not chosen all the children of Abraham and Isaac, Rom 9:6–8), the answer is easy. It is true, all those are not of the kingdom of God who are born from believing parents, but with good right we leave this secret to God to judge who alone knows it (2 Tim 2:19). Nevertheless, we justly presume to be the children of God all those who are the issue and descended from believing parents according to the promise (Gen 17:7; 1 Cor 7:14). For it does not appear to be the contrary to us. Accordingly, we baptize the young children of believers, as has been done from the time of the apostles in the church of God (Origen, Commentary on Romans) and we do not doubt that God by this mark (joined with the prayers of the church, their assistants) seals adoption and election in those whom He has eternally predestined, whether they die before the age of discretion or whether they live to bring forth the fruits of their faith in due time, and according to the means which God has ordained.1
Again, our Baptist friends should observe the remarkable consistency among the Reformed on the fundamental unity of the covenant of grace and the strong connection, in the minds of the Reformed, between the promises given to Abraham and the nature and administration of the new covenant.2
The Belgic Confession (1561), drafted by Guy de Bres (1522–1567) and adopted by the Reformed in the 1560s and 70s and finally by the Great Synod of Dort (1619), picked up the substance and tenor of the earlier rejection of the Anabaptist errors. Article 34 says:
For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. 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.
The Reformed understood that implied in the Anabaptist rejection of infant baptism was a rejection of their baptism. The Anabaptists had effectively, as it were, unbaptized the entire church since at least AD 205.
It was not only the European Reformed churches who spoke this way. John Knox (c. 1514–1572) drafted the Scottish Confession, which was adopted by the Scottish Parliament in 1560.3 It used similar language in article 23: “We confess and acknowledge that baptism appertains as well to the infants of the faithful as unto those that be of age and discretion. And so we damn the error of Anabaptists who deny baptism to appertain to children before they have faith and understanding.”4
The German Reformed churches, in 1563, did not mention the Anabaptists but in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the reader will hear the echoes of the earlier Reformed confessions and note the strong consensus among the Reformed on the continuity of the covenant of grace and the administration of baptism:
HC 74. Are infants also to be baptized?
Yes, for since they belong to the covenant and people of God as well as their parents, and since redemption from sin through the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by baptism, as the sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament baptism is instituted.
Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75), in the Second Helvetic (Swiss) Confession (1566), in article 20, used the same sort of language used in the 1530s by the Swiss, by Knox, and in the Belgic, regarding the Anabaptists:
We condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that newborn infants of the faithful are to be baptized. For according to evangelical teaching, of such is the Kingdom of God, and they are in the covenant of God. Why, then, should the sign of God’s covenant not be given to them? Whey should those who belong to God and are in his Church not be initiated by holy baptism? We condemn also the Anabaptists in the rest of their peculiar doctrines which they hold contrary to the Word of God. We therefore are not Anabaptists and have nothing in common with them.5
It is worth rehearsing the early Reformed language regarding the Anabaptists, which our modern Baptist friends may perhaps be less familiar with, in order to help Baptists feel how strongly the Reformed repudiated the Anabaptist reading of redemptive history and the Anabaptist practice of believers-only baptism.
We could point to other documents—for example, Franciscus Junius’ 1566 Antwerp Confession:
I believe that baptism is the sign of the covenant of God with the seed of Abraham, ought to be given to those who belong to the covenant of grace, and, as a consequence, to the infants of believers. Thus I reject the error of the Anabaptists who detest the baptism of small infants (Rom 4:11ff; Col 2:11; Gal 3:27; Matt 9:14; Gen 17:2, 3; Acts 3:25).6
If the reader takes away nothing else from this survey, he should conclude that, right or wrong, the Reformed were (and remain) deeply convinced of the unity of the covenant of grace and the continued administration of the sign of admission to that visible church to the children of believers. One should also be impressed by the force with which the Reformed tried to distance themselves from the Anabaptists on these points.
The Reformed consensus on the fundamental points of difference between the Reformed and the Anabaptists are material to the contemporary discussion because the Reformed have the very same disagreements with modern Baptists. Our Baptist friends ought not affirm the very errors denounced by the Reformed churches across Europe and the British Isles to then turn around and call themselves Reformed. It is as incoherent as Reformed people calling themselves Baptists because we baptize hitherto unbaptized adult converts. We both know that the Reformed and the Baptists fundamentally disagree on cardinal points of the Baptist confession. We all know that the Reformed may not redefine the adjective Baptist to imply that the Baptist reading of redemptive history and the Baptist covenant theology is immaterial to being Baptist, any more than they can redefine Reformed theology to imply that our covenant theology is immaterial.
Some Baptists (e.g., the Particular Baptists) are Reformed-adjacent (i.e., they identify with parts of our theology, piety, and practice), but they reject core tenets of the Reformed confession as demonstrated above.
The Identity Politics Of The Debate
In On Being Reformed I raised the issue of identity politics relative to the definition of the adjective Reformed.7 Since 2018, identity politics have become pervasive culturally. The issue before us is the relation between signs and things. This is the question that Augustine discussed wonderfully in On Christian Teaching. Is the relationship between the word Reformed merely nominal (i.e., not real, arbitrary, subjectively determined), or is there a real relationship between the sign Reformed and certain qualities. Is one Reformed because one identifies as Reformed? The medieval (Franciscan) nominalists said there is no inherent relation between signs and things. The Postmodernists agree. That is the project of the French Deconstructionists, to destroy any relation between signs and things.
The mainstreams of the Christian tradition, however, have resisted such nominalism. We have affirmed that creation is real, that the world was made to be known and we were made to know it, that there are divinely ordained norms and patterns in nature, that God has a nature, and that he has revealed his nature, to a certain degree in creation, and to a greater degree in holy Scripture. In short, the world as we experience it is not a mere human construct. It is a divine institution. The Reformed tradition is not nominalist. We affirm the natural, non-saving knowledge of God and of his natural law (i.e., fixed patterns as designed by God for creation). We affirm that words mean what they were intended to mean by the author. We affirm that the creational pattern is such that there is a real (i.e., a genuine) relation between signs (words) and things. The sign or word woman denotes a human female with a certain genetic code and certain biological traits. We can answer with certainty the question, “What is a woman?” because we can observe creational patterns. We can trust that there is a stable relationship between signs and things signified. Bruce Jenner may identify as a female, but that subjective identification with the opposite sex does not create reality or a real relation between the adjective female and the sign Bruce Jenner. There is only a nominal relation between the adjective female and Bruce Jenner.
The Baptist appropriation of the adjective Reformed has certain similarities to the late-modern subjectivist approach to language and to the identity politics of our age. Despite the manifest and substantial differences between the Reformed tradition and the Baptist traditions, a large number of those who were historically known as Particular Baptists today identify as Reformed and insist upon being recognized by actual Reformed Christians as such. This raises the question of the relation of the word Reformed to the thing. Do Baptists, who identify as Reformed, actually have the characteristics of the Reformed?
According to the Reformed churches and the broader Reformed tradition (e.g., Beza and Junius), they do not. Thus, as a matter of history, the Reformed recognized neither the General Baptists (c. 1611) nor the Particular Baptists of the 1640s et seq. as Reformed. When the Reformed were confronted with the existence of the Particular Baptist movement they denounced it as Anabaptist.
To be sure, as I have acknowledged repeatedly, there are important ways in which the Particular Baptists are not Anabaptist. They reject the heretical “celestial flesh” Christology of Anabaptists. Unlike the Anabaptists, the Particular Baptists affirm the Reformation doctrine of salvation. These are important differences between the Particular Baptist movement and the Anabaptists; but real continuities also exist between all Baptists and the Anabaptists on the nature of redemptive history (i.e., the unity of the covenant of grace), the nature of the new covenant, and the proper recipients of baptism.
When I and others object to the Baptist appropriation of the Reformed identity, more than one Baptist has told me explicitly (and many have said implicitly) that the Reformed objection to the Baptist appropriation rests on matters that are immaterial. If the continuity of the covenant of grace, the nature of the new covenant, and infant baptism are immaterial, then why do not Baptists accept our baptisms, join our churches, and affirm our confession? Evidently, they do matter when Baptists are asked to confess them.
Baptists believe in a real relationship between signs and things when it touches Baptist theology, piety, and practice. But some of them insist that these things should not matter to the Reformed and that we should willingly accept a minimalist redefinition of the adjective Reformed to denote merely a shared soteriology. It is unclear to me why the Reformed should accept this bargain.
- 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), 2.293–94.
- This is not to say that the Reformed all agreed with everything Beza argued. His doctrine of the seed of faith (semen fidei) has roots in Luther’s early replies to the Anabaptists but it did not gain much purchase in ecclesiastical documents.
- Dennison, jr., Reformed Confessions, 2.186.
- Dennison, Jr., Reformed Confessions, 2.204.
- Emphasis added.
- Dennison, Jr., Reformed Confessions, 2.885.
- 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).
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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