Toward a Convergent View of Baptist Origins, Part 1

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.

There are at least four different views about Baptist origins. One view, which we might call the spontaneous origins view, claims that at least two groups of English dissenters in 17th century England and Amsterdam were reading their Bibles and came to the conviction that the Bible teaches the baptism of professing believers either by pouring or immersion (eventually just by immersion). We now call those dissenters Baptists.

This view is appealing in that it takes the idea of biblical authority seriously–wherever Baptists came from, you can bet they were reading their Bibles as they made their decisions. But I think this view is too simplistic as it virtually divorces theology and practice from its historical context.

The second view argues for Baptists’ apostolic origins. This view has often been called “Landmarkism” since the mid-19th century, though belief in the apostolic origin of Baptists predates the formal Landmark movement. Proponents of this view argue that there have always been Baptist (or baptistic) churches. Furthermore, most Landmarkers contend that these baptistic congregations are the true churches over against medieval Catholicism and later Protestants because baptistic churches alone presumably retained believer’s baptism by immersion and rejected the Constantinian union of church and state.

There are two variations of the apostolic origins view. Some claim there is a historical succession of baptistic churches from the New Testament era to the present day. This version is popularly called the “Trail of Blood” (based on a 1931 booklet of that title) and is basically the Baptist version of apostolic succession, though churchly authority is passed through ecclesiological continuity rather than episcopal continuity. Others argue for a perpetuity of Baptist principles or distinctives. Proponents of this variation admit that this perpetuity cannot necessarily be historically verified via a succession of churches, but nevertheless they argue for this view based on their understanding of Matthew 16:18-19.

The strength of the apostolic origins view is that it rightly recognizes that immersion was not “lost” sometime between 100 and 400, only to be “rediscovered” sometime between 1525 and 1641. From time to time there have been movements that embraced believer’s baptism and rejected Constantinianism. The weaknesses of this view include its historical unverifiability, its tendency to “de-church” other traditions, and its penchant for taking almost any sectarian movement during the middle ages and attempting to make them card-carrying Baptists based upon their rejection of the majority tradition.

A third option, which is currently enjoying something of a revival in many circles, is often called the Anabaptist kinship view. This view argues for historical continuity between certain Continental Anabaptists and the English Baptists. Naturally advocates of the apostolic origins view argue for Anabaptist kinship, but so do many scholars who reject the presuppositions of Landmarkism. Non-Landmark proponents of this view argue that English Baptists are more in continuity with the orthodox wing of the so-called radical reformation than the mainstream Protestant reformations, all of which continued to affirm pedobaptism and articulated some version of church-state union.

The strength of the Anabaptist kinship view is that it recognizes that there was definitely substantive interaction between the earliest Baptists (both General and Particular) and some Continental Anabaptists. There were also some Anabaptists in England, a fact which surely did not escape the first Baptists. One weakness of this view is that some proponents ignore, or at least downplay, the earliest Baptists’ historical roots in the English Separatist movement. Whatever their relationship with Anabaptists, the first Baptists were definitely Separatists who started pouring/immersing believers instead of sprinkling infants. A second weakness is that advocates sometimes over-emphasize the relationship between the Anabaptists and the Baptists, resulting in the latter being depicted as more or less the English-speaking version of the Anabaptist movement.

The fourth option, which is presently the dominant understanding among historians, argues for English Separatist origins. This view claims that Baptists are not radical reformers like Anabaptists, but are actually one type of dissenter among many in 17th century England; specifically, the non-sprinkling kind. Baptists are seen as third generation Protestants that happen to share some ecclesiological convictions with some Anabaptists.

The strength of the English Separatist origins view is that it recognizes that the organic roots of Baptists are found in Separatism rather than Anabaptism or earlier baptistic groups. A second strength of this view is that it correctly notes that some of the earliest Baptists, especially the Particular Baptists, went to great lengths to distance themselves from Anabaptism. But this view also has its weaknesses. First, this position often ignores, or at least downplays, any influence from Anabaptists or similar pre-1525 movements. Second, at times proponents of this view seem to be ideologically driven. Some moderates interested in the ecumenical movement seem to want to downplay any connection Baptists have with Anabaptist sectarianism, while many of Calvinist convictions apparently want to reject any influence from a decidedly non-Calvinistic movement like the Anabaptists.

In my next post, I will make the case for an understanding of Baptist origins that I have dubbed the convergent view. I will argue that a convergent view is the best way to account for the beginnings of the Baptist movement.

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