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Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People
Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People
David W. Bebbington
Baylor University Press, 2010
327 pp., 39.95

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A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches (Introduction to Religion)
A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches (Introduction to Religion)
Robert E. Johnson
Cambridge University Press, 2010
470 pp., 32.99

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Mark Noll

So You're a Baptist—

What might that mean?

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Other Christian traditions also manifest great internal diversity, but Baptists seem to outdo them all. Even to Baptists who have deeply pondered the question, it can be a real puzzle to say what it means to be a Baptist. We have, thus, recent historians who stand back in some perplexity before "the bewildering range of Baptist identities." Or who conclude: "Neither can Baptists point to a single theological tradition …. Contemporary Baptists are not the product of a single cultural influence." Or who might seem to run up a white flag: "In the end … the Baptist identity, a phenomenon of the flux of history, may elude definition."

Against this council of despair, two recently published books suggest that it is possible to find a meaningful Baptist constant in shared history, common affirmations, and religious tendencies. Both Robert Johnson in his encyclopedic A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches and David Bebbington in his textbook primer Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People recognize the difficulty in isolating a common Baptist theology or social stance or programmatic consensus. But both also make a convincing case for a meaningful degree of continuity in foundational principles or persistent instincts characterizing virtually all Baptist movements.

Both books relay succinctly the often-told story of Baptist beginnings as an extension of efforts by England's most ardent Protestants to carry the Reformation to what they thought should be its logical conclusions. They agree that Baptists should be considered offshoots of the Puritan movements that insisted on scriptura sola as the sole reliable basis for faithful Christianity and the most effective source of correction for the halfway reforms in the national Church of England. A very high view of biblical authority has remained central to almost all later Baptist movements, but even more distinctly Baptist was how this loyalty to Scripture was practiced. Baptists, that is, pushed the logic of "the priesthood of all believers" beyond where most of their fellows, even most of their Puritan peers, wanted to go. In their view, a properly functioning Christianity required not just diligence in following Scripture, but the personal and intentional commitment of each church member to practice that diligence. For Baptists, common Protestant teaching about the lordship or kingship of Christ was taken to mean that no intermediate authority should stand between God and the gathering of his people to worship and serve him.

Movement from a desire for more thorough reform to the creation of distinctly Baptist churches occurred early in the 17th century. Dissenters who had already separated from the national church and fled to Holland in order to find greater religious freedom provided the spark. In 1609, John Smyth, a Cambridge-trained Separate, baptized himself and a few others and so established the first Baptist church. Although there is scant evidence of influence from Anabaptists, Smyth himself did have connections with the "Waterlanders," a group similar to Mennonites who had been practicing adult believer's baptism by the pouring of water. Smyth himself remained only briefly with the Baptist congregation he established before moving on in a further quest for the true church. More stable leaders, like Thomas Helwys, provided continuity of leadership and also brought Baptist principles back to England where the movement gradually spread.

These earliest Baptists were "General" because they believed in the potential efficacy of Christ's death for all humans. While no connections have been found between Smyth and followers of Jacob Arminius, General Baptists in the 17th century and to this day have endorsed Arminian theologies that stress the freedom of the human will. Before long, however, they were joined by "Particular" Baptists who maintained the era's standard Calvinist teaching that Christ died particularly for the elect rather than for humanity as a whole.

Within a generation from their founding, both "Generals" and "Particulars" would begin baptizing by immersion, the standard practice that has continued for Baptist churches around the world to this day. In this early period, adult baptism upon personal profession of faith was only partly a conclusion drawn from "the Bible alone." Even more, this approach to baptism represented a protest, as Mennonites and other Anabaptists also protested, against the idea of inherited or bestowed Christian identification symbolized by the traditional practice of infant baptism. To be a follower of Christ meant to commit oneself personally rather than to rely on the mediation of family, church, or a supposedly Christian society. Extensive biblical arguments for both baptism upon profession of faith and baptism by immersion soon appeared within Baptist ranks. But the broad pre-conviction underlying specifically baptismal practice was a positive vision of the self's individual responsibility under God and a negative vision of human institutions or traditions as distorting that personal relationship.

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