Recommended Reading: The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Carl Trueman; The Baptist Heritage by H. Leon McBeth
What does it mean to be a Baptist? We have covered a lot of ground in terms of particular doctrinal and ecclesiological distinctives and we now turn to a labels that has been affixed to us (correctly but just how meaningfully is up for debate) and two which we have embraced. These are “evangelical” (that which has been given), “orthodox” and “Reformed” (two which we have embraced). They will increase in their helpfulness, in terms of defining Trinity, as we go.
Virtually every Baptist Church would consider itself to be an “evangelical” church. But what does that mean? Historian David Bebbington defines evangelicalism by four marks: 1) biblicism (a high regard for the Bible as the primary source of spiritual truth), 2) crucicentrism (a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross), 3) conversionism (a belief in the necessity of spiritual conversion), and 4) activism (the priority of publicly proclaiming and living out the gospel).
One might notice that the definition does not specify anything regarding the church but rather focuses on experience. Thus, “evangelical” can refer to a bookseller, a musician, an organization, a school, or a church.
It is also noteworthy that the doctrinal position of an “evangelical” is not strictly defined.
United Methodist minister Thomas Lambrecht calls himself an evangelical and says that to be an evangelical means “recognizing the primary authority of Scripture in living out the Christian faith. It also means maintaining a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and believing that salvation comes through Christ alone, he said. The obligation for evangelicals, then, is to invite people into a relationship with Christ.” Another United Methodist minister, Pamela Lightsay, also refers to herself as an “evangelical” but disagrees on what that means. She an associate dean and theology professor at United Methodist Boston University School of Theology and identifies as the first out African-American queer lesbian clergy in the denomination. For Lightsey, being an evangelical means “working to ensure the poor are raised up, the sick receive adequate care, children are protected, discrimination is eradicated and war ended.”
Both stress that “the labels ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘evangelical’ are not synonymous.” “Fundamentalism today is really related to a fairly rigid understanding of Scripture — an almost literalistic understanding, evangelicalism, which still maintains the primary authority of Scripture is willing to look at a more nuanced interpretation.” (see their explanations at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/what-does-it-mean-to-be-evangelical)
This does not mean that those who would fit Lambrecht and Lightsay’s definition of “fundamentalist” would not see themselves as being “evangelical.” They would heartily agree with Lambrecht’s definition of evangelical and label themselves as such, but would insist that his and Lightsay’s “liberal” doctrinal stance is in error.
It is readily apparent that the evangelical camp is so broad that it includes virtually every doctrinal persuasion.
Carl Trueman describes a meeting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) in which attendees were separated into groups. There was an “evangelical” group which included “Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, and free-church people.” He writes “It appears ATS was operating under and assumed definition of evangelicalism” which included “those who were committed in some way to taking the Bible seriously, to evangelism, to the importance of Jesus Christ, and to some kind of existential commitment to God- additionally, those who were not Catholic or Orthodox.” Trueman goes on to point out that within the group the doctrinal diversity was so broad, and, thus, the disagreements between them so strong, that the ATS’s working definition “amounted in practice to little more than a judgment based on demographics or aesthetics: Evangelicals presumably look, sound, and act in ways that are unlike Catholics and the Orthodox.” In the end, he states that this is “arguably as good a definition as we have.”
With such a broad definition of what it means to be an evangelical, is the designation very meaningful at all? Trueman argues that it is not and says that if he is asked if he is an evangelical he always responds by asking “What do you mean by that?”
The word “orthodox” means “right belief” or “right praise.”
One of the tasks of the early Church was defining, and defending, orthodox theology against the battering waves of heresies. These heresies often appeared in disputes over the nature of the Trinity, or how Jesus could be both God and Man. Church Councils were called to search the Scriptures and put into words the common faith.
The universal confession of the church has been that the Bible clearly teaches that the affirmations we find in the Apostles’, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian creeds are essential for our salvation. Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox believers are united in their commitment to these essentials. It is important to make the point that the creeds are not true because the church says so; the church affirms the creeds because they are true.
To affirm the historic teachings of the church contained within these creeds is what it means to be “orthodox” in one’s belief.
In the early years of the church, the terms “catholic” (universal) and “orthodox” were used to describe all right believing Christians around the world. Augustine wrote in On True Religion: “Religion is to be sought . . . only among those who are called catholic or orthodox Christians, that is, guardians of truth and followers of right.” In 1054, a division occurred between Christians in the West and in the East. The Western Church adopted the “Catholic” label and the Eastern Church became associated with the “Orthodox” label. Much like when Protestant churches affirm the Apostle’s Creed’s statement of belief in the “catholic church” and point out that is a “little c” meaning “universal” not “big C” meaning “Roman Catholic, Protestants could say that they are orthodox “little o” not “big O” meaning “affirming right doctrine” not the Eastern Orthodox Church.
This “formal” definition of orthodox is limited in its ability to speak to what is normative belief and practice. Strictly speaking, it would be possible for someone to affirm homosexual behavior and still affirm the creeds and, thus, refer to themselves as “orthodox” (although it could be pointed out that an affirmation of homosexuality, as D. Rishmawy notes, “assumes a denial of a broader theological vision of creation as well as the meaning of the human body assumed by the whole of the Christian church and the creedal tradition itself. It is, in that sense, a functional denial of doctrines like creation and the Christology implied by the incarnation of the Son and the resurrection of the body” and (is thus) an issue of heresy and orthodoxy by “good and necessary consequence,” to take the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF 1.6)”). In common vernacular, however, to describe someone as an “orthodox believer” usually means that the totality of their beliefs falls within the acceptable spectrum of Christian belief and practice. In this usage, the individual affirming homosexuality may be strictly “orthodox” in their creedal affirmations but would not be considered (by at least the majority of the Christian world) “orthodox” in belief and practice.
So Baptists are evangelical, orthodox believers in Christ. Though this says a good deal (and we heartily embrace the “orthodox” designation), it still allows for much wiggle room in terms of practical theology and does little to distinguish Baptists from other Protestant groups.
For this reason, Trinity Baptist, and other Baptist churches like her, also identify as “Reformed.” What does this mean? Well, it means that we stand in the tradition of those Baptists that have come before us, but more on that below.
1) The “The Five Solas.”
To be a Reformed Baptist is, for one thing, to affirm the “five solas” of the Reformation. “Sola” is the Latin word for “alone” and the reformers stood on a foundational belief in: “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone); “Sola Gratia” (Grace Alone); “Sola Fide” (Faith Alone); “Solus Christus” (Christ Alone); and “Soli Deo Gloria” (To God Alone Be Glory). Each were developed in response to specific teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church taught that the foundation for faith and practice was a combination of the scriptures, sacred tradition, and the teachings of the magisterium and the pope; but the Reformers said, “No, our foundation is sola scriptura”. The Catholic Church taught that we are saved through a combination of God's grace, the merits that we accumulate through penance and good works, and the surplus of merits that the saints before us accumulated; the reformers responded, “sola gratia”. The Catholic Church taught that we are justified by faith and the works that we produce, which the righteousness that God infuses in us through faith brings about. The reformers responded, “No, we are justified by faith alone, through the righteousness of Christ that God freely credits to the account of those who believe”. The Catholic Church taught that we are saved by the merits of Christ and the saints, and that we approach God through Christ, the saints, and Mary, who all pray and intercede for us. The Reformers responded, “No, we are saved by the merits of Christ Alone, and we come to God through Christ Alone”. The Catholic Church adhered to what Martin Luther called the “theology of glory” (in opposition to the “theology of the cross”), in which the glory for a sinner's salvation could be attributed partly to Christ, partly to Mary and the saints, and partly to the sinner himself. The reformers responded, “No, the only true gospel is that which gives all glory to God alone, as is taught in the scriptures.”
2) An observance of “the regulative principle.”
The regulative principle of worship states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded upon specific directions of Scripture. As the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 puts it: “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures” (22.1). This gets to the heart of why Calvinistic Baptists separated from their Presbyterian brethren. Because the Bible does not command infant baptism, early Baptists believed that infant baptism is forbidden in public worship, and the baptism of believers alone is to be practiced in worship. This regulative principle of worship limits the elements of public worship to the Word preached and read, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, prayer, the singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and whatever else the Scripture commands.
3) Confessionalism- Reformed Baptist churches are Confessional Churches. see our previous article on being Confessional: https://www.trinitybaptistangier.org/post/being-baptist-a-confessional-church-on-creeds-and-confessions
4) A Covenantal view of the Scriptures – Reformed Baptist Churches are not dispensational. Baptist theologian James Leo Garrett notes that dispensationalism is a departure from Baptist’s historical roots and is an “incursion” into Baptist theology, which only emerged in the last one hundred fifty years or so. - see our previous article on baptism and the covenants: https://www.trinitybaptistangier.org/post/being-baptist-baptism-and-the-covenants
5) Rule by a plurality of elders- though not exclusively Reformed, it is certainly a distinction – see our previous article on the elders in the church: https://www.trinitybaptistangier.org/post/being-baptist-elders-in-the-church
6) Federal Theology/Calvinistic. Particular Baptists (see below) held to the federal theology of the 17th century and were, thus, all Calvinists. Today’s Reformed Baptists continue to hold to federal theology. This view teaches that Adam acted as a representative of the entire human race. He was placed in the garden to act not only for himself but for all of his future descendants. Just as a federal government has a chief spokesman who is the head of the nation, so Adam was the federal head of mankind. When Adam sinned, he sinned for all of us. His fall was our fall. When God punished Adam by taking away his original righteousness, we were all likewise punished. The curse of the Fall affects us all. Not only was Adam destined to make his living by the sweat of his brow, but that is true for us as well. Not only was Eve consigned to have pain in childbirth, but that has been true for women of all human generations. All human beings now have totally depraved natures (Isa 24:5-6), making them unable and unwilling to come to Christ for salvation. It is only by God taking the initiative to call people unto Himself is anyone able to be saved.
“But wait, certainly you don’t intend to say that today’s Baptists have Reformed roots from which many have wandered do you?” Yes.
The first Baptists emerged as part of the English Separatist movement in the 1600’s. The Queen and the Church of England, growing tired of the Puritans’ call for biblical reform, began to enforce religious conformity by law. Seeking to free their religion from State rule, the "Separatists" refused to comply. It was during his twelve-year imprisonment for attending a non-approved church and refusing to stop preaching that English Particular Baptist preacher John Bunyan composed his book “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
A group which came to be known as the “General Baptists” (because of their view of general atonement which teaches that Christ died for every person who has and will ever live) emerged around 1608 or 1609. The first was led by a former Anglican Priest named John Smyth who had determined he could not conform to the rules of the crown. Fleeing to Holland, he founded a church and, embracing believer’s baptism, founded the first Baptist Church we have on record. As the years went by, his theology continually changed and in the end he sought to join his church to the Mennonite church. Another minister, Thomas Helwys, founded the first Baptist church on English soil in 1611. By 1650 there were 47 General Baptist churches. Although they started out strong, their theological grounding was not and by the 1800’s most of them had disappeared.
Another group of Baptists that came out of the Separatist movement was the “Particular Baptists,” so-called because they held to the Calvinistic view of a “particular atonement” (or “Limited Atonement” in the TULIP acronym). It is thought that the first Particular Baptist church was founded between 1633 and 1638, but we know that by 1644 there were at least seven Particular Baptist Churches and these churches came together to issue the First London Confession of Faith.
Given that Calvinism is not a majority belief among Baptists in the U.S., one might assume that it was the General Baptists who gave birth to Baptist life in America, but that is not true. Historian H. Leon McBeth notes that General Baptists always represented a small part of Baptist life in England, an even smaller part in America, and their influence upon the main currents of Baptist life in either country appears to have been slight.
The first Baptist church in America is thought to be the church at Providence founded by Roger Williams in 1639. This church was founded on Particular Baptist doctrine. In the 1700’s Baptist churches were appearing in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and, then, into the Southern Colonies. All of them were founded on Particular Baptist beliefs. In 1700, there were only 24 Baptist churches with 839 members, but in 1790 there were 979 churches with 67,490 members. In 1707, the Philadelphia Baptist Association was founded. A Particular Baptist fellowship, it adopted the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 as its founding confession, and gave it a new name: The Philadelphia Confession of Faith. As time went on Baptist churches, for a variety of reasons, began to depart from their doctrinal distinctives. Their doctrinal beliefs and church practices have become so varied that to be a Baptist could now mean any number of things. Baptist churches today who call themselves “Reformed” make clear who they are and what they believe by standing in the great tradition of our Particular Baptist ancestors and holding to the great old truths that they once held so dear.