Though there have been attempts to construct a successionist lineage of Baptists back to the Apostles or even John the Baptist, these constructions are revisionist at best and often end up as simply poor historical scholarship. Doctrinally these attempts do more harm than good as they are heretical attempts to prove that the Baptist church is the only, true church. In the end these attempts are dishonest and unnecessary.
The historical truth is that Baptists emerged not from a single stream, but more from the convergence of several movements that stemmed from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Therefore, to properly understand Baptist history one must examine the context of the Reformation.
Background of the Reformation
In our previous session we discussed two of the major challenges of the Patristic or Early Church; persecution and heresy. Both of these issues raised major questions as to who are the people of God, or who is the church? In response to the rising tide of persecution through the first 500 years of its history, the church was forced to ask, “What becomes of the lapsed?” For those who renounced Christ to save their skin, is there room for restoration? This question resulted in several church councils, the most notable of which being the first meeting of Carthage under Cyprian in 251 AD. Subsequent councils or synods of Carthage would meet over the next century to deal with other issues; perhaps the most notable of which being the Canonicity of certain books of the Bible. Yet, before dealing with questions about the authenticity of the Bible, Carthage was called together to deal with the authenticity of the church.
Another notable council dealt with the other critical Patristic issue, heresy. The most looming issue was the identity and nature of Christ. Arius (250-336 AD), an elder in Alexandria, taught that the Word, Jesus, was not coeternal with the Father but rather the first of God’s creation. Arius’ teaching did serious damage to the identity of Christ and caused quite a schism in the church.
The controversy also had an adverse affect on the Roman Empire. Constantine, who had experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity, had risen to power in the western section of the empire. Constantine’s attributed his victory to the blessing of Christ in his life. Therefore, Constantine represented the end of the persecution of the church and the beginning of Christian favor in the empire. Constantine allowed the church to own land and build places of worship so that it could establish itself as a legitimate faith in what was otherwise a pagan, polytheistic state. With Constantine being the first Christian emperor, the church and the state became bedfellows. This turn of events becomes critical to understanding the next 1,000 years of church history leading to the Reformation.
Because the church was so closely related to the state under Constantine, the Arian controversy not only brought unrest to the western and eastern Church, but also to the western and eastern empire. Constantine knew that it was not only critical for the church, but also for the state, that consensus be reached concerning the nature of Christ. In 325 AD Constantine called a council of church leaders together from both western and eastern sections to draft a common statement concerning Jesus. The end result was the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
by whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];
who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
Conspiracy theorists would argue that the church did not understand Christ as the divine Son of God until Nicaea. The idea of the conspiracy is that Constantine manipulated the meeting to his own ends as to legitimize Christ as King and himself as divinely chosen emperor. This is simply not the case. Because this is only a contextual accounting for purposes of Baptist history, there is simply no time to deal with this charge. I would only state simply, that to assume the church had no understanding of Christ as divine before Nicaea is a total fabrication that is unscholarly, dishonest, and illogical. To charge that the church did not believe something strongly before it stated it in council is a major historical and philosophical leap into total conjecture. In fact, Philippians 2 could be argued as one of the earliest creeds of the church. A text in which it is plain to see that indeed the church held that Jesus Christ was equal with God.
The positive of Nicaea is that it was the beginning steps to quench a critical heresy. The negative is that after Constantine the marriage of the church and the state became adulterous. The next 1,000 years of church history are riddled with deep corruption in the Catholic Church as popes, bishops, and priests competed with and against emperors for massive amounts of wealth, popularity, and power. It is from this fabric that the Dark Ages, the Medieval period is woven.
Yet even in this time one can trace the struggle for purity in the church as the key question comes to the front over and over again, “Who is the church?” During this time monastic life and the ascetic movements find reasons to flourish. Against an increasingly immoral church certain men and women of the period would separate themselves to demonstrate extreme holiness and seek to find the true people of God.
The question of “Who are the people of God?”, “Who is the church?” reached its boiling point in the 16th century. Many people associate the Reformation with Luther, but he did not work alone. Luther was certainly the voice and face of the Reformation, but the seed of the thought can be found in the humanist movement, most notably in Erasmus (1466-1536). With Erasmus came a revival of reading original and sacred texts. In an otherwise illiterate generation, scholars began to study the Bible in its original languages (Greek and Hebrew) and translate it into the language of the people (refer to Wycliffe 1328-1384). The humanist movement inspired a revival of learning and began to loosen the grips of the Catholic Church on the Biblical text. Until this point the Catholic Church conducted worship from the Latin text, a language long lost in Europe by the 16th century. With the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press (1440) the Bible was no longer the exclusive property of the papacy (leaders of the Catholic Church). Despite persecution, revival began to break out in remote corners of the Holy Roman Empire. The flashpoint would come on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
The immediate context of Luther’s 95 Theses was the selling of indulgences by Johann Tetzel (1465-1519). Tetzel’s occasion for selling indulgences was to not only raise money for the building of St Peter’s Basilica but also to pay off debts to the pope owed by the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg. Indulgences promised those who paid that deceased loved ones would spend less time in purgatory. He would travel the streets singing, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” While Tetzel’s heresy may have pushed Luther over the edge, it was the greater corruption of the Catholic Church and the lack of theological orthodoxy that Luther addressed most poignantly in his 95 Theses. As he stated in his introduction, Luther protested for one reason alone, he sought the truth.
In the early stages, at the core of the Reformation movement there was affection for the Catholic Church. The primary desire was to reform the church from within. Yet as the Catholic Church declared the protestant reformers heretical and excommunicated them, the need to begin something new become increasingly apparent. Yet again, it is important to note that despite the fact that the end result was Protest-ing or Protestant Churches, this was not the initial agenda of Luther and the Reformers. So as the Reformers saw that they could not bring about Reform within the church the question became how far should they go in their reform and separation from the church?
This question resulted in two Reformation camps:
- The first camp would be those Reformers who in the end retained some influence of Catholic doctrine, polity, and praxis.
- Martin Luther (1483-1546) – Although these ideas were not original to Luther, his proclamation of Sola Fide (by faith alone), Sola Gratia (by grace alone), and Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) began the great divide between Catholic theology and the Protestant churches. As a powerful preacher and a brilliant scholar, Luther’s skills to communicate his message fueled the flames of the Reformation. Although he did not subscribe to the Catholic understanding of Transubstantiation (the bread and wine become the body of Christ) in communion, Luther did hold to consubstantiation (the bread and wine are with the body and blood of Christ) in communion. Calvin strongly disagreed with Luther in this point. However, along with Calvin and Zwingli, Luther held similar views of the church’s relationship to the state and the necessity of infant baptism.
- John Calvin (1509-1564) – If Luther’s contribution was the idea of the Reformation, Calvin’s was the organization of the idea. It was through Calvin’s well organized theology that the doctrines of the Reformation spread throughout Europe. Calvin’s Institutes became the standard for a Reformation theology that centered on the sovereignty of God. As such, ultimate authority did not reside with the pope or the state, but in God alone. The state could not rule over the church, but if the state was not accomplishing the will of God it was the duty of the church to right the ship. In the end Calvin retained an idea of a magisterial state heavily influenced by the church. Also, along with Luther and Zwingli, Calvin believed that infants should be baptized as a way to remove original sin and bring them into the covenant of grace. For the Reformers, like the Catholic Church, baptism had not only implications for membership into the church, but also citizenship with the state.
- Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) – Zwingli was the militant arm of the Reformation. He did not agree with Luther’s ideas of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but he was persuasive in retaining the Catholic praxis of a close state/church relationship. Because of his military prowess Zwingli was able to wrestle several municipalities away from Catholic control and establish Protestant states. Zwingli had no problems using the power of the state’s military might to continue the spread of the Reformation ideal.
- The legacy of the Reformers could be summarized as follows:
- The recovery of the authority of Scripture and salvation by faith.
- The emergence of Protestant states and the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire.
- Close relationship between the church and the state. An unrighteous state had no power over the church, but the church had the responsibility to bring the church to righteousness and could then use the power of the state to enforce righteousness. (It is interesting to see the legacy of the relationship of the church and the state post-Constantine, yet notice the Reformers still had great faith that this relationship had redemptive potential).
- Lutheran form of church government.
- Presbyterian form of church government.
- Reformed theology.
- The second camp would be those Reformers who held that the Reformation fathers did not go far enough. In the end these Reformers retained nothing of the doctrine, polity, and praxis of the Catholic Church. The movement first began to emerge with a group known as the Swiss Brethren. Some of the original members were students of Zwingli. Their disagreement arose when they did not feel that Zwingli took the principles of the Reformation far enough. Their sharpest point of disagreement was over Baptism. The Brethren held that Baptizing children gave people a false sense of conversion. They were Christians only because they were baptized into the Christian church and were citizens of a Christian state, but there was lacking in many a real sense of repentance, faith, and following Christ. When the Brethren saw that Zwingli would hold fast on his views, the Brethren sought to begin a new congregation of true converts.
On January 21, 1525 at the fountain in Zurich square George Blaurock, a former priest, asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him. Blaurock and Grebel held that baptism was reserved only for believers and because children were baptized without willing consent, theirs was illegitimate. The followers of Blaurock and Grebel soon became known as Anabaptists or “re-baptizers.” Their views on Baptism drew strong opposition from both Protestant Reformers and Catholics.
The Anabaptists also took the Reformation to other ends. Unlike Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, the Anabaptists were pacifists, believed strongly in separation of the church from the state, and religious freedom. Most all of the early Anabaptist were martyred, tortured as heretics, drown in rivers and burned to death by Protestant Reformers. The more they were persecuted the more the movement grew.
Persecution not only brought about the deaths of the first generation of Anabaptists, but it brought about some diverse and more radical views in subsequent generations. Some later Anabaptists forsook Pacifism and incited rebellion against Protestant states. This led to the idea that a New Jerusalem must be established first in Strasbourg and later in Munster. The end of the radical movement came in unfulfilled prophecies, a lost sense of the foundational principles of the movement, and a great deal of bloodshed.
The restoration of the Anabaptists ideal came through Menno Simons ( 1496-1561). Simons returned the Anabaptists he influenced to pacifism, forbid the taking of oaths, and advocated obedience to civil authorities. Because they would not take oaths nor serve in the military, Simons’ followers were considered subversive to the state. Being persecuted they were scattered, migrating to new lands that offered the prospects of religious freedom. Subscribing to Menno Simons’ principles the Anabaptist became known as the Mennonites.
The Legacy of The Reformation and Its Influence on Baptists
- It may be argued that Baptists are not Protestant in the true sense, but there is no doubt that Baptists “are a Reformation people.”
- From Luther Baptists continue the legacy of Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura, and the priesthood of the believer.
- From Calvin Baptists have been heavily influenced by Reformed theology.
- Because of Zwingli the Anabaptists emerged giving another Reformation root from which Baptists owe a great deal.
- The Anabaptists heavily influenced Baptists in their ideas of the relationship of the church to the state, believer’s baptism, the importance of discipleship, religious freedom, and congregational forms of church government.
- The initial question that sparked Reformation continues, who are the people of God? If anything, Baptists have gleaned that this is a question that should never be lost.
Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries
Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity vol. 1 and 2
Leonard, Bill J. Baptist Ways, a History
McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage, Four Centuries of Baptist Witness
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language