Thoughts of a Pastor-Historian

Should Baptists Celebrate the Protestant Reformation?

This month marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, usually dated as having begun on October 31, 1517, when a German monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses for discussion on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. For this reason, many Baptist churches, including the one where I pastor, are preaching this month through the Solas of the Protestant Reformation, which summarize the key theological contribution of the Reformers that are still embraced today by Baptists (See below for a listing of the Solas.).

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century was many things, but it was not anything less than a recovery of the gospel. Imperfect men like Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin in France and Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland brought reformation and revival by emphasizing once again the authority of Scripture and a gospel of salvation of Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone so that God receives all the glory. Thus, the theology of the Reformation can be summarized by the following phrases:

One result of the Protestant Reformation was the formation of the  Church of England (this was slightly more complicated due to Henry VIII’s involvement). Many within the Church of England continued to work to purify the church and some separated to form independent congregations. These independent congregations became either congregational or presbyterian in their church government. Among these separate congregations in the early to mid- 17th century, a number of the pastors and members of these churches became convinced by their study of Scripture that believers were the only proper subjects of baptism, then later that immersion was the only proper mode according to New Testament command and practice. These new Baptist churches which were formed are the direct spiritual forebears of modern-day English and American Baptist churches. For this reason, the core doctrines of the Reformation summarized in the Solas should be extremely important to us as Baptists.

This is not to say that the Reformers were perfect (they weren’t) or that we agree with everything they taught (we don’t) or that there were not other groups prior to and during the Reformation that held to similar convictions as we do about regenerate church membership, immersion of believers, separation of church/state, etc. (there were). The Anabaptists of sixteenth-century Europe are one noble example. There were other groups throughout the medieval period that were persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church, but it is virtually impossible to reconstruct a line of “Baptist” churches dating back to the first century (though many have tried to do so, the Trail of Blood being the most notorious example). Many of the groups who practiced believers’ baptism were not orthodox in other areas of doctrine more central to biblical Christianity (Trinity, person of Christ, justification by faith alone, etc.). These are not my brothers no matter what they believed about baptism.

The seventeenth-century English Baptists were not interested in proving that they were descendants of the Anabaptists or any other group from the medieval period (In fact, they distanced themselves from the Anabaptists.). For them, as it should be for us, it was sufficient to follow what the Scriptures teach and to establish churches according to the pattern found in the New Testament. By following the authority of the Scriptures in establishing their churches they were more consistent in their application of the principles of the Reformation than even the magisterial Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.) had been. So, Baptists are more Protestant than other Protestants, not less. We do not celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation because the key leaders were flawless. They were deeply flawed men who deserve critique and correction. We celebrate the Reformation because the core truths recovered are timeless and are the foundation of our Baptist identity.