Friday, July 1, 2011

Defining "Baptist"

At Books & Culture, Mark Noll, in "So You're a Baptist," reviews two books about Baptist identity, concluding that the most significant thing the diverse groups known as "Baptists" have in common is our history.
.... They agree that Baptists should be considered offshoots of the Puritan movements that insisted on scriptura sola as the sole reliable basis for faithful Christianity and the most effective source of correction for the halfway reforms in the national Church of England. A very high view of biblical authority has remained central to almost all later Baptist movements, but even more distinctly Baptist was how this loyalty to Scripture was practiced. Baptists, that is, pushed the logic of "the priesthood of all believers" beyond where most of their fellows, even most of their Puritan peers, wanted to go. In their view, a properly functioning Christianity required not just diligence in following Scripture, but the personal and intentional commitment of each church member to practice that diligence. For Baptists, common Protestant teaching about the lordship or kingship of Christ was taken to mean that no intermediate authority should stand between God and the gathering of his people to worship and serve him.

.... These earliest Baptists were "General" because they believed in the potential efficacy of Christ's death for all humans. .... Before long, however, they were joined by "Particular" Baptists who maintained the era's standard Calvinist teaching that Christ died particularly for the elect rather than for humanity as a whole.

Within a generation from their founding, both "Generals" and "Particulars" would begin baptizing by immersion, the standard practice that has continued for Baptist churches around the world to this day. In this early period, adult baptism upon personal profession of faith was only partly a conclusion drawn from "the Bible alone." Even more, this approach to baptism represented a protest, as Mennonites and other Anabaptists also protested, against the idea of inherited or bestowed Christian identification symbolized by the traditional practice of infant baptism. To be a follower of Christ meant to commit oneself personally rather than to rely on the mediation of family, church, or a supposedly Christian society. Extensive biblical arguments for both baptism upon profession of faith and baptism by immersion soon appeared within Baptist ranks. But the broad pre-conviction underlying specifically baptismal practice was a positive vision of the self's individual responsibility under God and a negative vision of human institutions or traditions as distorting that personal relationship.

...[B]eyond the common approach to baptism itself, these prominent Baptist principles did not lead to a common theology, common church practices, or common attitudes to social engagement.

Almost inevitably, the very principles that Baptists shared made it difficult for Baptists to agree among themselves. And so within less than a century of organized Baptist existence, differences emerged in response to a number of questions that led to the formation of separate Baptist denominations: Was the atonement universal as Generals claimed or specific as Particulars urged? Should adults who were baptized also receive the laying on of hands? Should the day for public worship be the Sabbath/seventh day (Saturday) or the first day/Resurrection (Sunday)? Should local leaders accept the validity of adult baptism done elsewhere? Should they require the re-baptism of those who had received infant baptism? Should Baptist fellowships have confessions of faith? Should churches follow Christ's command literally to wash one another's feet? Should Baptists take part in politics or hold aloof? Should conferences of Baptist churches or leaders of those conferences be given any authority within local congregations? For each of these questions, and for many more that would come later, sincere believers were able to cite biblical chapter and verse that were completely convincing to themselves but that did not convince other Baptists. .... [more]
"Completely convincing to themselves" but unpersuasive to other Baptists — not a bad summary of Seventh Day Baptist efforts regarding the Sabbath.

So You're a Baptist— | Books and Culture