Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - The General vs. the Particular Baptists

"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - Introduction
"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - Roots in the Reformation
"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - The Anabaptists 
"Baptists Through the Centuries": Blogging Through Bebbington - The General vs. the Particular Baptists


One chapter I was looking forward to reading in David Bebbington's book Baptists Through the Centuries was the fourth regarding the early relationship between the General (Arminian) and Particular (Calvinist) Baptists. This chapter covers material in the 17th Century and is both a historic and a theological survey of the issue.

For the sake of space, I will mostly bypass his historic survey of the Particular Baptists. He had already asserted in the previous chapters that the first baptists, from John Smyth and others, were more Arminian without a direct influence from Arminius himself. Bebbington suggests that John Spilsbury and William Kiffin should be numbered among the first Reformed Baptists (to use a more modern term).

To me, the best part of the chapter regards his compare and contrasting of the two sides. Admitting there were some real similarities (the most obvious being immersion), no doubt the divisions between the two sides were strong and real.

Obviously, the strongly contrast between the two regards their soteriology. The first confession of faith among the Baptists, if I am reading Bebbington correctly here, was among Particular Baptists known as the 1644 Confession of the Particular Baptists. He describes this confession as follows:
As a confession of faith issued by the seven churches in 1644 made plain, they were resolutely Calvinist. Like the Puritans and separatists from whom they were descended, they believed in particular redemption. . . . Alongside their Calvinism they maintained a strict policy in the observance of communion. Only those baptized as believer were allowed to receive the bread an wine at the Lord's Supper. One of those who signed a 1646 revision of the 1644 confession, Benjamin Coxe, explained that they "doe not admit any to the use of the Supper, nor communicate with any in the use of their ordinance but disciples baptised, lest we should have fellowship with them in their doeing contrary to order." So the new churches were both particular in their doctrine of salvation and closed in their practice of communion. (47-48)
It isn't until 1660 that the General Baptist published their own confession of faith. In this context, Bebbington makes a very surprising statement. He suggests that Because the teaching of the General Baptists was formulated by men who normally had little or no theological training, their views were often rather more homespun than those of their Calvinist opponents (53). That is an academic way of insulting the theological depth and giftedness of the General Baptists of the late 17th Century. Two lines later, he refers to a Brief Confession that, to put it nicely is homely in style (53). With that said, nonetheless, one thing was clear, the General Baptists became identified not just for their Arminianism but their Anit-Calvinism.

But the doctrines of grace were not the only difference between the two sides. Bebbington shows how their polity was difference. He suggests that though they believed in local autonomy, they nevertheless formed associations for mutual advice, financial support, and joint work. They saw, he adds, no contradiction between independency and this degree of interdependence (55). The General Baptists, on the contrary, were not strictly upholders of independency (55).

Two other matters of difference discussed by the author regard worship (the General Baptists were more strict literalists and would even practice foot washing) and politics. Ultimately, however, Bebbington wants the reader to see that these differences were too severe for their to be unity. Historically speaking, they were distinct communities. Far from uniting for the purpose of disseminating the baptismal practice that they shared, the two groupings were normally hostile to each other (54). So strong was this divide, most General Baptist churches would not recognize the baptism of the Particular Baptists and thus would rebaptized them into the true faith. This leads Bebbington to conclude: In common acceptance of the immersion of believers seemed much less weighty than the differences that separated the two bodies. (54-55)

The significance of this chapter, and why it is worth our time here, should be obvious to anyone that has been hanging around Baptist circles in recent years. To me, the conservative resurgence of the late 20th Century naturally gave rise to a resurgence of reformed theology among the baptists. This is not to suggests Reformed soteriology ever disappeared among the baptists, but no doubt recent decades has seen an increase in their number.

As such, the debates of the 17th Century are back and real as ever. Interestingly enough, the same arguments are being used on both sides. Many modern General Baptists are as much Anti-Calvinist as they are Arminian. That is not healthy in my estimation.

I still believe that a baptist church can and ought to welcome members of both theological persuasion. I am not convinced that the divide between the two now is as strong as it was at the beginning. Just looking at the categories presented by Bebbington in this chapter, I believe, makes that clear. The two sides do not war over communion, worship, politics, or polity. Most of the disagreement appears to be over soteriology.

With that said, it is important for us to look back at our forefathers before we can have a real honest conversation. Bebbington provides a helpful survey in this regard.


For more:
The People's Preacher: The Life of Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers
John MacArthur on Baptism
Credo vs. Paedo: MacArthur & Sproul Debate Baptism
"The Baptist Reformation"
Recoverying a Vision: A Documentary on the Presidency of R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
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