Baptists as Orthodox Radicals

by R. Lucas Stamps

I’ve recently been reading Orthodox Radicals: Baptist Identity in the English Revolution, by Matthew Bingham, on the emergence of the so-called Particular Baptists in mid-seventeenth century England. His central thesis is that this group has been anachronistically mislabeled “Baptist,” as if  there were an already existing pan-Baptist movement at the time (including the so-called General Baptists which had emerged earlier in the century) to which Separatists could naturally join themselves, and that this mislabeling in the historiography of Baptist origins has obscured the theological logic that led many Congregationalists to a rejection of infant baptism. Instead, Bingham argues that the groups we normally identify as “Particular Baptist” at mid-century are better termed “baptistic congregationalists.”

This reconceptualizing of the identity of the baptistic Separatists in question helps to illuminate how the logic of congregationalism—a non-national understanding of the church as comprised of local congregations of visible saints—led some congregationalists to the conclusion that baptism was to be reserved only for those who could attest to saving faith in Christ. The Reformed arguments for infant baptism made the church de jure (not merely de facto, as all would have admitted) a mixed community, made up of both the elect and some who may in time prove themselves not to be regenerate.

Bingham’s discussion of the theological genealogy of the baptistic position in chapter 3 is, in my estimation, worth the price of the book (which is rather steep at $99 from Oxford Press; full disclosure: I got the book via interlibrary loan!). The story runs roughly as follows: The Reformers’ rejection of the ex opere operato understanding of baptism as guaranteeing regeneration, coupled with their retention of infant baptism, necessitated an understanding of the church as, in principle, a mixed community. Some may be Christians merely externally and federally but not internally and savingly. The Congregationalists eventually came to reject this mixed understanding of the church, and the national church they believed it underwrote. According to the Congregationalists, the visible church is not to be identified with any national church but only with local congregations of visible, that is, internal, Christians, but, importantly, they did not reject the practice of infant baptism. But this position proved to be unstable, as the Half-Way Covenant controversy demonstrated (in this dispute, the question was whether or not infant-baptized non-church members could present their children for baptism). The Baptists, or baptistic congregationalists, simply carried the logic of congregationalism to its necessary conclusion: if the church is made up of visible saints and if baptism is the entryway into the church, then baptism is only rightly administered to those who give credible evidence of conversion. It wasn’t some kind of radical biblicism that led to this conclusion, but instead the logic of congregationalism and, arguably, of Reformed theology itself—at least in terms of its rejection of the late medieval understanding of baptismal regeneration.

It is worth noting how these seventeenth-century developments might map onto or inform contemporary debates about the subjects of baptism. Defenses of infant baptism both among members of the established church and among the Presbyterian churches in the seventeenth century assumed the rectitude of some kind of national church. It wasn’t just the Erastians who conceived of English Christendom in these terms (note, for example, the original statement on the civil magistrate in the Westminster Confession of Faith that was revised in an American context). So, one question a contemporary Baptist might pose to, say, Presbyterians in a modern, pluralistic society is this: what becomes of the defense of infant baptism when the notion of a national church is no longer a reality? Some might be tempted to repristinate a sort of “Christian nation” ideal, especially given recent conversations about the so-called “end of liberalism.” But others might balk at this suggestion and argue instead that a national church was never a necessary component of infant baptism. Paedobaptists might simply argue their covenantal case for infant baptism based on the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant with the New Covenant, admitting that the church is a society separate and distinct from any nation-state. They might further acknowledge the legitimacy of at least part of the “visible saints” ideal of Congregationalism (in either its paedobaptistic or baptistic forms) by means of church discipline. The children of believers are admitted into the membership of the church, but excommunication might still await some of those members, if they prove in their mature years to have denied the faith in doctrine or practice. Whatever we make of the coherence of such a defense of infant baptism, it still must be acknowledged that this precise argument—a denial of the national church and a pursuit of a pure church, at least among adults—does not map neatly onto the seventeenth century defenses of infant baptism in an English context. In other words, we’re all Baptists now.

At any rate, Bingham’s argument is well-documented, demonstrating from the primary sources that the “Baptists” conceived of themselves as travelers along the “Congregational way.” Many Congregationalists and Presbyterians also tended to locate the Baptists within the Congregational movement. Bingham’s work provides a helpful corrective to much of Baptist historiography, which has tended to import later concerns for denominational identity back onto the 1630s and 1640s.

But Bingham’s theological acumen is also on display in this book. He grasps not only the historical record but the soteriological, ecclesiological, and sacramental issues at stake in these seventeenth-century debates. This book is highly recommended not only for Baptists wishing to better understand our historical and theological origins, but also for non-Baptists who are sometimes wont to misidentify all Baptists as “Anabaptists” and to miss the connections between the earliest Baptists and their fellow Reformed orthodox brethren.