EBC Manifesto, Article III: Always Reforming

by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps

Always Reforming

We affirm the fundamentals of reformational theology, especially as they are expressed in the great solae of the Reformation: fallen humanity can be saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone on the basis of Scripture alone to the glory of God alone.

Baptists like to debate our origins. Some Baptists have sought to trace the movement back through a “trail of blood” all the way to John the Baptist himself—a kind of baptized version of apostolic succession. Others have pointed to the affinities that some of the earliest (General) Baptists had to the continental Anabaptist movement. Still others seek Baptist origins in the Separatist movements of post-Reformation era England. Regardless of which of these latter two theories, or some combination thereof, one adopts (the first is too idiosyncratic and historically suspect to attract many contemporary adherents), clearly the Baptist movement of the 17th century is only explicable in light of the seminal events of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. As such, we believe that the Baptist tradition constitutes a renewal movement within a renewal movement—it seeks greater biblical faithfulness within evangelical Protestantism, which in turn seeks greater biblical faithfulness within the “little-c” catholic church.

Thus, we see the Baptist movement as a Reformational movment (we deliberately avoid the term “Reformed” movement because the Baptist movement has always enjoyed what we consider a blessed diversity on the finer points of the Calvinism/Arminianism debate). In short, our Reformational commitments can be summarized in the five solae of the Reformation:

·      Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone is the sole, final authority in all matters of Christian belief and obedience. While there may be other derivative, or ministerial, authorities in the church (church officers, the congregations themselves, the consensus of the faithful expressed in the great creeds and councils of the worldwide church), Scripture alone is the definitive witness to Christ and therefore is the final bar of appeal for all other doctrinal and ethical claims.

·      Sola Gratia: Salvation is a gift of grace alone. It is not a wage earned for obedience. It is not in any respect the result of human merit, even if that merit is conceived of as a gift worked in and through us by God. Grace and merit are mutually exclusive paths to justification and life.

·      Sola Fide: Salvation in its legal or forensic aspect (i.e., justification) is received by faith alone, apart from any good works performed by the believer. Faith is not a stand-in for righteousness but is simply the passive reception of the gift of Christ’s righteousness, which is imputed to the ungodly who trust in him. While true saving faith inevitably produces good works, the two must remain notionally distinct in order to safeguard to the gratuitous nature of God’s saving work in Christ.

·      Solus Christus: Christ alone is the way of salvation. He alone is the believer’s “wisdom…righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). As the incarnate God, he is the only Mediator between God and men and the only hope for everlasting life and forgiveness.

·      Soli Deo Gloria: The exclusive claims made in the previous four solae serve to underscore the ultimate glory that belongs to the Triune God alone. Human reasoning must be submissive to the authoritative Word of God. Attempts at self-justification must give way to the decisive act of God’s grace in Christ. Any claims to moral superiority must be abased before the gift of Christ’s righteousness, which can only be received by the open hand of faith. And Christ himself must have sole pride of place in our understanding of God’s saving work. Human wisdom, merit, self-justifying works, and rival mediators must decrease so that Christ and the glorious Trinity that he reveals can increase.

At this point, of course, one might raise the objection that the five solae are not in service of, but rather contrary to, catholicity, since (as one narrative goes) their proponents precipitated the split of the previously united Roman Catholic Church. We prefer an alternative explanation, one that the Reformers themselves used – the five solae and their derivatives are not antithetical to catholicity, but instead a recovery of the faith that was “once delivered to the saints.” The Reformers believed that their project was a renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, precisely because the call of ad fontes was a call to recover the plain meaning of the apostolic deposit, Holy Scripture, and to do so with the help of early Christian theologians. What the Reformers objected to was not tradition or catholicity, but a view of tradition that placed its authority alongside Scripture and that made it, not the apostolic deposit alone, the final source of the church’s catholicity. 

Making this plain actually helps conversations about ecumenicity and catholicity because it clarifies the object of disagreement, especially between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The issue at hand is not that, on the one hand, Rome believes in apostolic authority, while Protestants believe in biblical authority. Instead, we should acknowledge that both Roman Catholics and Protestants affirm apostolic succession. The question is wherein that apostolic authority lies. For Roman Catholics, it lies with the apostolic deposit of Holy Scripture, yes, but as it is authoritatively interpreted by its apostolic successor, the Bishop of Rome. Protestants, on the other hand, cry semper reformanda, “always reforming,” because, for us, Holy Scripture has no earthly, supremely authoritative interpreter other than itself. Scripture alone is finally authoritative for belief and practice. The church’s creeds, councils, and bishops/elders/pastors have ministerial authority, yes, but that authority is derivative. They are “normed norms,” authoritative only insofar as they are in accordance with Holy Scripture. The Bible, and the Bible alone, has final authority and can always norm, or reform, creeds, councils, and ministers.

To end where we began, this means that the Reformation was and is a renewal movement, one that sought and continues to strive toward a thoroughly biblical faith and practice for Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The slogan “always reforming” meant then and means now seeking to correct where the church has strayed from its final authority, Scripture. It does not cut this project off from the voices of the past, but instead attempts to appeal to those who faithfully guarded the good deposit in their own day for the sake of the church in this day. Catholicity, the visible unity of the church, is thus not defined by all Christians submitting to one bishop, or by all Christians becoming part of one ecclesiastical organization, but by their common submission to the final authority for Christian faith and practice, God’s Holy Word. An evangelical Baptist catholicity will thus affirm and practice the Reformation’s commitment to be always reforming, to norm our creeds, confessions, ministers, and practices by comparing them to the final authority of the Bible.