Baptists, The Definition Of Reformed, And Identity Politics (Part 3)

The Psychology Of The Debate

If the objective, historical evidence is as clear as I claim about the historic definition of the word Reformed, why does this debate even exist? Again, the roots of this debate are partly to be found in the way Baptists think of themselves and others, particularly in the USA. In my experience, writing as a former Baptistic evangelical, the Baptist is absolutely sure that his position is correct and that therefore virtually everyone in the history of the church, prior to say 1523 and the rise of the Swiss Brothers, was wrong. This effectively unbaptizes, as it were, virtually the entire Christian tradition prior to 1523 and all those who dissent from Baptist convictions. In my experience as a pastor, a writer, and a seminary professor, this troubles most Baptist laity not at all. After all, from the Baptist perspective, the Baptist position is self-evident to any reasonable person. He is astonished that anyone would object to being unbaptized, as it were. For the Baptist, there is a simple answer: believe, make a credible profession of faith, and be baptized.

To those of us in the Reformed churches (as distinct from the Baptist), the Baptist conviction logically entails that we who were only baptized as infants are outside of the visible church, and therefore outside of salvation. In Belgic Confession (BC) article 28, we confess: “We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.”1 Though they may not intend it, from the Reformed perspective or from a Cyprianic perspective (that of the entire church prior to the Baptist movement), a willfully unbaptized person is in a precarious position to say the least.

Because, to the Baptist, his position is so self-evidently true, those of us who have been unbaptized, as it were, are expected to say nothing. When, however, I make the plainly and painfully obvious historical point that the reformed churches explicitly denounced the Anabaptist view of baptism (and logically, the Baptist view of baptism), the Baptist is likely to be in high dudgeon.

As several correspondents have pointed out to me over the years, I am not saying that Baptists are unbaptized. Indeed, in the Reformed churches, we have always baptized unbaptized adult converts. Further, BC 29 is quite clear that the Anabaptist congregations, which the confession characterizes as “sects,” lacked two of the three marks of the true church (i.e., the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline). I think that the Baptist churches lack one of the marks of the true church. It is rather clear that the Reformed churches have never accepted believer-only baptism and the Baptist rejection of infant baptism as the “pure administration of the sacraments.” Nevertheless, I do not consider Particular Baptist congregations sects or false churches (the other category we confess in BC 29). Instead, I characterize them as “irregular congregations.”2 Arguably, I am being more gracious to the Baptists than they are to me.

Just today, as I write, I received an email from a correspondent who was outraged about the logical (not moral) comparison between the Baptist self-identification as Reformed and Bruce Jenner’s self-identification as a woman. Why the outrage? That is an interesting question.

My theory is that most Baptists have spent little time reading Reformed (properly defined) history, confessions, and theologians. Because of a certain ignorance, they assume a degree of agreement between Reformed and Baptist theology that does not exist. This assumption creates the precondition for outrage. Further, many Baptists have never experienced actual Reformed church life. They have not experienced the differences. The differences of which they are aware are theoretical at best.

It is quite possible to be a Baptist in the USA and never meet an actual Reformed person. There are something like 60 million Baptistic Christians in the USA. There are approximately 500,000 Reformed folk. The confessional P&R world is approximately 0.0083% of the Baptistic world. There is a relatively large Baptistic bubble in the USA and actual P&R people are relatively rare—and in some places, almost exotic. In that Baptistic bubble, there is a significant number of people who consider themselves Reformed. Because of that number (potentially twice as many people as in the actual Reformed churches), it seems improbable and even incredible to them when they read someone from a tiny minority group distinguishing between Reformed and Baptist.

Too many times to count, it has been said or implied to me that the large number of Baptists who identify as Reformed means that whatever the word Reformed might have meant once upon a time, it means now what they say it means. Logically, this is nothing but an appeal to the mob or to numbers or to force; but it is a powerful, psychological, and emotional appeal. It helps to explain the outrage. Who is Clark, one guy in the midst of one million predestinarian Baptistic Christians, to object?

To further complicate things, there are lots of actual Reformed people who are more than happy to call Baptists Reformed if the Baptists would acknowledge them as evangelicals. This deal was negotiated in the post-WWII world. Why did the Reformed negotiate this settlement, implicitly conceding a significant re-definition of the adjective Reformed? The answer lies in part in what happened to the Reformed in the wake of the battle for the Bible with the liberals. The confessional P&R world helped to lead the charge against the theological liberals and the higher critics in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, but simultaneously they were losing their institutions and denominations. They were being exiled into micro-denominations and into poverty and obscurity. By the mid-twentieth century, the confessional P&R churches were in bad shape institutionally and financially. Our outsized intellectual influence did not reflect our institutional and financial condition.

The deal took on new dimensions, however, with the rise of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement. If we look at the use of the phrase, “Reformed Baptist,” in Google Ngram, we see that it spikes in 1999–2000. There is an earlier spike, but those occurrences do not signal “Reformed Baptist.” Though the modern roots of the concession of the Reformed identity to Baptists by some leaders in the P&R world goes back eighty years, the actual public formation of a Reformed Baptist identity is a very new phenomenon indeed.3 The Association of Reformed Baptist Churches in America organized in 1996. They reconstituted as the Confessional Baptist Association in 2022.

The recent formation of a Reformed Baptist identity and its adoption by elements of the Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s has intensified this debate.4 The YRR movement and the appropriation of Reformed by Baptistic Christians was like a tsunami that threatened to obliterate the actual Reformed identity. It presents a challenge that the earlier and informal Baptist adopters of a Reformed identity did not pose.

The rise of the Reformed Baptist identity among confessional Baptists, and more broadly in the YRR movement, in the early twenty-first century also seemed to offer a new platform (e.g., TGC) to actual Reformed Christians that they did not have before the YRR movement. This created a disincentive for confessional P&R folk to speak up about the differences. To call attention publicly to the differences between the Reformed and the Baptist (more than a few P&R folk have spoken about them to me privately) runs the risk of alienating the much larger and influential YRR platforms and opportunities.

Certainly, there are notable leaders in the P&R world who have characterized the Particular Baptist churches as part of the Reformed movement. Others have embraced even more broadly predestinarian (but not confessionally Particular Baptist) Baptists as Reformed. Some of these figures are celebrities within the P&R and broader evangelical worlds. But do those endorsements and characterizations change the facts and the truth? In BC 7, the Reformed churches confess:

Therefore we must not consider human writings—no matter how holy their authors may have been—equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else. For all human beings are liars by nature and more vain than vanity itself.

What matters here is not personalities, authorities, or even subjective identity, but objective truth. Perhaps I am wrong—if I am, my life will be much simpler. But if I am to be persuaded that I am wrong it must be by facts and evidence and reason, and not by anything else.

Notes

  1. This is an allusion to Cyprian’s saying, “Quia salus extra ecclesiam non est” (Because, outside the church there is no salvation) in W. Hartel, ed., Cyprianus, Opera omnia, Corpus Scriptorium Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL), vol. 3, bk. 2 (CSEL, 1871), Ep. 73.21. Thanks to Harrison Perkins for helping me to get this question.
  2. My teacher, dear friend, and colleague Bob Godfrey has argued in “The Belgic Confession and the True Church,” in Ronald S. Baines, Richard C. Barcellos, James P. Butler, ed. By Common Confession (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2015) that “at least some of Baptist churches are true churches” (p. 275). He contends that the Belgic uses “sects” and “false church” synonymously. This reading, in my view, defies the history of the usage of “sect” by the magisterial Protestants in the sixteenth century. In Luther and Calvin’s work, sect is a synonym for various radicals, including the Anabaptists. It is not used as a synonym for the Roman communion. He also argues that Baptist churches are not descended from the Anabaptists and thus are immune from the condemnations leveled against the Anabaptists. I disagree. We should distinguish between theological influences and institutional history. The Baptist movement originated in the Netherlands where a group of English congregationalist refugees came into contact with Dutch Anabaptists. It is not a coincidence that the Baptists use the same language and arguments to defend their views of the history of redemption and baptism as the Anabaptists. Considered institutionally, the people who made up the Baptist movement came from a variety of places (e.g., the Church of England) and were not derived from the Anabaptists.
  3. The Institute for Reformed Baptist Studies was just beginning when I began teaching in seminary in 1997.
  4. For more on this, see RSC, “Resources On The Young, Restless, And Reformed and New Calvinism Movements.”

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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20 comments

  1. Irregular is a good way to put it. I use the words , not true, to convey the same thing. I think there three views, true, false, and by implication not true.

  2. “In the Baptist Confession, baptism is not a sign and seal of the covenant of grace but a seal of the believer’s fellowship with Christ. In many respects, this shows an incompatibility between historic Reformed expressions and the Baptist expression of the relationship between God’s covenants and their respective signs. At least at a technical level, it seems more appropriate to call the Baptist Confession a Particular Baptist (or Calvinistic) confession rather than a Reformed confession.”
    – Fesko, “Word, Water and Spirit”

    He also describes Particular Baptist ordo salutis as “naked” given their excision of historia salutis to merge a credobaptist view of the sacraments with Calvinistic soteriology.
    Baptist churches are very entrepreneurial and appeal to that side of the human spirit. Therefore they proliferate at the expense of Reformed churches especially by sowing doubt amongst Reformed covenant children and rebaptizing them.
    I have learned quite a bit from Joel Beeke for which I am grateful. He has been to Kenya and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa yet, seems to only work with Baptists whenever he is here. You would think we (P&R confessional Christians in Africa) are non-existent yet there are several denominations in Africa that constitute the ICRC. Small and quite different from the American evangelical experience but nevertheless, confessional and conservative.
    Over time I have learned that there are Baptists within Africa for whom it is to their great advantage to sell the narrative that there are no conservative Reformed churches in Africa and that they alone are upholding Calvinism on the continent. The advantage is monetary.

      • Indeed. I first heard about the NKST on a White Horse Inn episode sometime in 2013 or 2014. When I told my Baptist Nigerian friend about them he almost threw a fit and claimed there are no Reformed Christians in Nigeria! He’d just discovered the doctrines of grace through the ministry of Metropolitan Tabernacle not long before.
        When I told him I had changed my mind on baptism he went cold. We have not spoken in years. I think for Reformed Christians the allure of being invited to the large Baptist conferences to breathe that “rarefied air” and “glide along with the enlightened” is strong. I am of course being a bit facetious.
        An ordinary means of grace ministry while holding strongly and unapologetically to our Reformed confessions is the only way forward.

  3. I’ve seen you mention the 500k number for P&R Christians in America a several times. I’m wondering where you’re getting that number from. NAPARC alone has more members than that, and I would think that with the EPC and CRCNA, you’re getting quite close to a million.

    • RW,

      When I give that number it’s for NAPARC. It probably does not have much more than 500,000 members and it is certainly not 1,000,000.

      1. I start with the PCA, which is far and away the largest group. No one knows for certain how large the PCA actually is since congregations are not required to report their membership and not all do. The number I’ve heard and seen for the PCA most consistently for decades is 300,000. It’s probably north of that now but whether it’s crossed 400K is anyone’s guess.

      2. The second largest group is the KPCA, which about 75K last time I looked.

      3. Then you have the OPC, which south (I think) of 50K.

      4. The URCNA with might be around 30K.

      5. Then there are the RCUS (3-4K?), the RPCNA (4-5K?), KAPC (?), ERQ (?), and Pes RC (?).

      The EPC and CRCNA are not in NAPARC.

      If we include the borderline groups (EPC, CRC, RCA) then the number climbs considerably.

      The mainline is reports just over a million, which is likely a lagging number. The PCUSA has historically been reluctant to be forthcoming about its continued decline to oblivion.

      500K is a conservative estimate of an uncertain number.

      That’s .00833% of the 60 million American evangelicals, which 99.99 Baptistic.

  4. Just an editors comment 🙂 –
    “60 million Baptistic Christians in the USA. There are approximately 500,000 Reformed folk. The confessional P&R world is approximately 0.0083% ” should be .83%

    Thanks for the Post!

  5. I have a question that it pertinent to this thread: There is a very large congregation (not a megachurch, just a large one) that was originally established by a Congregationalist in the mid-19th Century. I’ve been told that the membership is now estimated to be comprised of at least 90% baptistic evangelicals. Similarly, I’ve read that the Southern Baptist Seminary was originally founded by Congregationalists, as well, but is now considered to be almost entirely Baptist. And I’m sure there are many more examples of a similar drift in institutions around the country.

    What happened? How did they get from their founding doctrinal and confessional structures to evangelical/baptist? Was it the effect of 18th – 20th Century revivals? Was it the influence of people like Moody, Sunday, and others and later Billy Graham? Or were other factors involved, as well?

    • I would be very surprised to learn that the Southern Baptist Seminary was not founded by Southern Baptists. I’ll defer to Baptists on their own history, but I would want to see facts before believing their seminary has an origin outside their denomination.

      But as to your question of Congregationalism and infant baptism vs. believers baptism, that’s a more complicated question and it’s one I dealt with for many years as a member of the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.

      I do need to say up front that this is my personal opinion, not official 4C policy. The 4Cs do not take a position on infant baptism, and while I don’t know if any official statistics exist, I have been told about half of the churches favor infant baptism and about half oppose it. Also, I left the 4Cs a decade and a half ago when I transferred my membership to the church in Missouri where I attend since I would have to drive almost three hours to find a Reformed Congregational church, and even farther than that to find one that is in the 4Cs.

      The English term “Independent” is often considered a synonym for “Congregational,” and that’s largely true but not entirely so. The New England Puritans objected to the term “Independent” (the 1648 Cambridge Platform includes a rejection of that phrase), and they objected for good reason because it implied the churches did not depend on God. Unfortunately, the New Englanders created a brand new problem for themselves with their new word — the Cambridge Platform is quite clear about elder rule, but as standards for ruling elders in New England became higher and higher, the ruling eldership began to die out as most men felt they were not qualified and those who did believe themselves to be qualified sought ordination as pastors rather than as ruling elders. Congregationalism went through a period until the mid-1800s in which the ruling eldership was all but nonexistent, though today most Reformed Congregationalists would affirm the elder rule taught by the confessions.

      But back in England itself, the word “Independent” was used to describe any church that didn’t accept the authority of either bishops or presbyteries. That mostly meant what in New England would have been called “Congregationalists,” but the word was broader than that. It included men like John Bunyan, who today is claimed by the Baptists but whose views weren’t fully Baptist or fully Congregational, and unfortunately also included a wide swath of other aberrant sects that supported Oliver Cromwell and had influence because of their role in his New Model Army.

      As the example of Bunyan shows, whose books were published by John Owen, the lines that later became harder and clearer between Baptists and Congregationalists weren’t as clear in the 1600s as they later became. The word “Independent” was used for a broad range of churches, most of which were Congregational and Puritan, but some were different to varying degrees.

      Partly as a result of that history, Congregationalists have historically been considerably more willing to accept Baptists into church membership and into teaching and leadership roles than Presbyterians. Accepting Baptists into membership usually isn’t a problem for Presbyterians, unlike the Dutch Reformed, due to a different view of confessional membership, but Presbyterians aren’t supposed to allow Baptists to hold office. (Yes, I’m well aware of Presbyterian churches that have Baptists in leadership roles, but that’s not supposed to happen.) By contrast, since standards for local leadership are determined by the local Congregational church, it’s up to each local church whether to say Baptists are allowed to be members, are allowed to teach, or are allowed to hold office. I know of Congregational churches that follow the Dutch Reformed practice of confessional membership, which has the effect of barring Baptists from being members, but that’s uncommon. The most common practices in Reformed Congregational circles would either be 1) the Presbyterian position of allowing Baptists to join as members but not allow them to hold office, or 2) to say that the church practices infant baptism but is not going to force parents to baptize their infants, and if a person who doesn’t choose to have his children baptized is willing to accept the legitimacy of other people’s infant baptism, he can teach and hold office while taking an “exception” to the confessions that teach infant baptism. (That’s more or less when Bunyan’s views on baptism ended up.) If a Baptist is willing to say that people baptized as infants are legitimately baptized and shouldn’t be rebaptized, I seriously question if that person is a Baptist at all, but the reality is there are such people out there.

      The simple reality with which Congregationalists have to deal is that baptistic views dominate American evangelicalism. Most people who show up at the door of a Bible-teaching church are going to assume baptism following profession is the norm. It takes some very strong commitments to be willing to tell the vast majority of potential members that they are not allowed to become members (the Dutch Reformed position) or are allowed to become members but not to hold office (the Presbyterian position).

      That same issue faces Reformed churches all over the theological spectrum and forces small churches to make decisions that can be very, very difficult.

  6. It is sad that the unity of Scripture, which the Reformers defined as one covenant of grace, throughout redemptive history, from Adam to the return of Christ, under different administrations, is being redefined by the overwhelming majority of evangelicals. They see Scripture divided, where God’s people were under an administration of the covenant of works until the crucifixion, after which, only then, was there an administration of the covenant of grace. This division calls for a new sign, in the new church, where everyone that belongs to it is identified by baptism on a confession of faith. In claiming to be
    Reformed, they obfuscate this comforting principle of assurance, that throughout history, God can be counted on to always relate to His people in the same way, through faith in the promised One. Hebrews 13:8-16

  7. Well, ok, it’s true that Baptist misappropriate themselves as Reformed. That’s kinda how I feel as a formally Reformed convert to the to Lutheranism when the Reformed do their Crypto Calvinism thing and try to make the argument that Luther was really a Reformed guy.

    • Troy,

      Not sure what you mean by “crypto-Calvinism thing.” That was a charge made by some Lutherans against other Lutherans.

      There was a contest, to a certain degree, over Luther’s legacy between the Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy. I think there’s a reasonable “Luther v Lutheranism” argument to be made. That debate goes back to 1580 and the Colloquy of Montbeilard, when Beza stood, held up Luther’s De servo arbitrio and said, paraphrasing, “We stand with Luther” and the Lutheran delegates said, “next question.” See Jill Raitt’s account of the colloquy.

      Calvin was deeply read in Luther and thought of himself as Luther’s son, theologically considered. Take a look at this essay where I describe Calvin’s relationship to Luther.

      He signed the Augustana Variata while he was exiled to Strasbourg. He did it without crossing his fingers. I understand that some Lutherans are convinced that he signed the Invariata was lying but the evidence doesn’t support that supposition.

      On Lutheran hostility toward Calvin see this essay.

      Remember that Bucer was deeply influenced by Luther. He became a Protestant after the Heidelberg Disputation.

      Ursinus was Melanchthon’s student for 6 or 7 years. He didn’t see himself as departing from Luther fundamentally. Anyone who knows Luther will recognize him in Ursinus. Olevianus was deeply influenced by Luther and paraphrases him all the time. That’s true of lots of our better writers. The Marrow Men, Perkins, Rollock, and many others were much influenced by Luther.

      • In my past experience with Lutherans, I was shocked that they teach that unless you sufficiently cooperate with grace, you can lose your salvation. They vehemently oppose the idea of the Calvinist doctrine of the security of the saints, calling it a once saved, always saved error. In my experience, if you ask most Lutherans and Luther’s De servio arbitrio or Bondage of the Will, they have never heard of it, even though Luther considered it his greatest and most important writing.

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