Toward a Convergent View of Baptist Origins, Part 2

2009 marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of the modern Baptist movement in 1609. This year will witness a plethora of conferences, symposia, books, articles, pamphlets, and even sermons devoted to the history and theology of the Baptists. I hope to weigh in from time to time with short articles, book reviews, and random musings about the past four centuries. This material was first published a little over two years ago at my former blog, The Fullness of Time, under the title “The Question of Baptist Origins.” Though my views have not changed, I have made several revisions and have divided the material into two separate articles. This is the second article.

As noted in my previous article, I argue for a fifth understanding of Baptist origins that, I believe, includes the various strengths of the other four views while avoiding their respective weaknesses. I call it a convergent view of Baptist origins. Though there are few scholars that currently hold this view, I sense there is a growing trend in this direction. I also suspect there are many who basically hold this view, but think they fall into one of the other four categories.

Let me begin with a caveat that affects my entire reading of this issue: we will never be able to establish a hard-and-fast historical connection between Baptists and earlier movements, including Anabaptists. I think historians such as Steven Wright have shown that the “paper trail” is sketchy and debatable and the historical milieu was complicated and fluid. I prefer the approach of historical theologians such as James Leo Garrett who prefer to focus on theological affinity (which I think presumes at least indirect influence) rather than firmly established organic continuity.

Think of the Baptist tradition as a great river, like the Amazon. A number of tributaries flow into that river. The tributaries are separate from each other and the river itself, but they flow into the river. As they do so, the tributaries create something that is related to them in some respects, yet at the same time is entirely different; the river is the sum of all its tributaries.

This illustration depicts what I argue occurred with the 17th century English Baptists. The Baptists were a historically new movement (river) that was influenced to varying degrees by a number of other movements (tributaries). This influence was primarily in the realm of ideas, particularly theological ideas. And even within the category of theological ideas, most of the influence was ecclesiological in nature.

The earliest Baptists were first and foremost English Separatists who came to baptistic convictions. As good Protestants, they came to these convictions through their reading of Scripture. We should rightly emphasize the English Separatist roots of the Baptist movement and not downplay the role that the Bible played in shaping Baptist convictions.

But the earliest Baptists were aware that they were not the first baptistic Christians since the New Testament era. In fact, just like us they were aware that there had at least occasionally been free church movements in church history. Some of these groups likely immersed, though there is evidence that there were soteriological deficiencies and other shortcomings among the independent medieval sects. But Baptists knew that they were not taking a historically novel step in arguing for religious liberty, believer’s churches, and credobaptism.

Even more importantly, Baptists recognized that the Continental Anabaptists had recently rejected infant baptism, mixed membership, and state churches. Furthermore, both General and Particular Baptists actually interacted with these Anabaptists, though the Arminians appeared to have been more inclined to such interaction than the Calvinists. It seems very unlikely that the Anabaptists had no influence on the earliest Baptists.

Add to the mix the milieu in which the earliest Baptists found themselves: a century in which England was filled with various forms of political radicalism, ecclesiastical reform movements, theological innovation, and a multiplicity of sects. These movements interacted with each other and at times even cross-pollinated each other, resulting in what historian Christopher Hill calls “a world turned upside down.” This was certainly true of the Baptists, where even the line between Calvinists and Arminians were not neatly drawn until after the English Civil War, though that is another discussion for another day.

For these reasons, I am in favor of breaking out of the too-simplistic either/or approaches to Baptist origins (Anabaptists versus English Separatists, apostolic origins versus post-Reformation origins). The portrait is too complicated for tidy answers.

The English Baptists represent the culmination of the reformation era, agreeing with the basic evangelical soteriology of the magisterial reformers and some Anabaptists and the radical ecclesiology of the orthodox Anabaptists and some English Separatists. They also recognized and appreciated that some medieval sects were correct in at least some aspects of their ecclesiology. But Baptists did not agree with these positions because they were affirmed by Waldenses, Lutherans, Reformed, or Anabaptists, but because Baptists believed an evangelical gospel and a free believers’ church represented the heart of New Testament Christianity.

The question of Baptist origins is best answered with a both/and rather than an either/or. The 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement seems like a great time to rethink our origins and appreciate the polygenetic theological roots of the Christian people called Baptists.