17th Century Baptists

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:

  • By the Scriptures Alone / Sola Scriptura
  • By Grace Alone / Sola Gratia
  • By Faith Alone / Sola Fide
  • By Christ Alone / Solus Christus
  • To God Alone Be The Glory / Soli Deo Gloria

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.

Hercules Collins on the Hypostatic Union

Hercules Collins (1647-1702) made clear his own personal commitment to this union of two natures in Christ in his own writings. Among his 36 recommendations to preachers on how to rightly handle the Word of God in The Temple Repair’d, Collins included an explanation of how scriptural language often reflects this understanding of the union of the two natures.

In holy Scripture you will sometimes find that which properly belongs to one Nature in Christ is attributed to another by virtue of the personal Union; hence it is that the Church is said to be purchased with the blood of God; not that God simply consider’d hath Blood, for he is a Spirit; but it is attributed to God, because of the Union of the Human and Divine Nature. Moreover, it is said that the Son of Man was in Heaven, when he was discoursing upon Earth: Here that which was proper to the Godhead and the Divine Nature, is attributed to the Human Nature, because of the Union of the Natures.

Here Collins’ commitment to the hypostatic union becomes an important hermeneutical principle. He indicated the importance of explaining this in one’s preaching “with all the clearness imaginable,” because this doctrine “is so necessary to Man’s Salvation.” For Collins and his fellow Particular Baptists, doctrine mattered. Indeed, the salvation of individuals depended upon the proper explication of the key doctrines of the Christian faith. Collins considered the doctrine of the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures to be at the very core of orthodox Christianity.

In his Marrow of Gospel-History, Collins extols the theological truth of the hypostatic union in poetic terms. While attempting to describe the unique identity of the virgin born God-man, Collins expressed wonder at the mystery of the incarnation.

But yet that King, and holy Thing,
Which was in Mary’s Womb,
Was God indeed, of Abr’am’s Seed,
True God, and yet true Man.
Who understands, how God and Man,
Should in one Person dwell?
One Person true, yet Natures two,
But one Immanuel.

Collins does not seem to know how to explain the mystery of the incarnation, but he is committed to affirming and rejoicing in this divinely-revealed truth. Later in the same work, Collins expressed a similar amazement at how God was able to preserve Jesus as a man from the effects of original sin.

And tho this Man from David sprang,
He’s pure without, within:
And tho is made of Abraham’s Seed,
Hath no Orig’nal Sin.
Pow’r Infinite can separate
Between the Virgin’s Sin,
And Virgin’s Seed, for there is need
Christ be a holy Thing.

The sinlessness of Christ was important to Collins because the God-man had to be fully human, yet sinless in order to atone for the sins of other humans. Collins knew that it was the mystery of the divine-human union which preserved Jesus from the effects of original sin. He expressed the connection between the union of the two natures and the sinless of Christ and mankind’s salvation in the following verse.

A King of Peace, and Priest most high,
Who offer’d once for all;
Not for his own, but others Sins,
Himself, not Beasts did fall.
The Peoples Covenant thou art,
In Substance, Person, Name;
And hence art called Immanuel,
Two Natures, Person one.

Once again the important issue for Collins was how this doctrine relates to the doctrine of salvation. Humans need a savior who is simultaneously divine, human, and sinless. This is precisely the kind of savior which Collins saw set forth in Scripture. Therefore, this doctrine was of central importance. In the end, the never-ending union of the divine and human natures of Christ serve as an illustration of the eternal union between God and his elect because of the work of Christ.

That tho by Sin Man’s separate
From God, the chiefest Good,
Yet now in Christ united are;
Man shall live still with God.
And if the Union cannot cease,
Call’d Hypostatical;
No more can that ’tween God and his,
Because ’tis Eternal.

Seventeenth-Century English Baptists on the Incarnation

The Second London Confession of Faith was issued, in part, to set the record straight with the general public that Thomas Collier’s heterodox views on the Trinity and the eternality of Christ’s human nature did not represent the Particular Baptist community as a whole. The latter is addressed in the confession’s strong statement on the full divinity and humanity of Christ united in his one person.

The Son of God, the second Person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Fathers glory, of one substance and equal with him: who made the World, who upholdeth and governeth all things he hath made: did when the fullness of time was come take unto him mans nature, with all the Essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin: being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Womb of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit coming down upon her, and the power of the most High overshadowing her, and so was made of a Woman, of the Tribe of Judah, of the Seed of Abraham, and David according to the Scriptures: So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, were inseparably joined together in one Person: without conversion, composition, or confusion: which Person is very God, and very Man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and Man.

Contra Collier’s position on the eternality of Christ’s human nature, the confession asserts that Christ “did when the fullness of time was come take unto him mans nature, with all the Essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin.” The human nature was assumed at the incarnation and did not exist prior to this point in human history. At this point, the framers of the Second London Confession were following the wording found in the Westminster Confession and Savoy Declaration. Just after this section, however, the Second London adapts language from the First London Confession not included in either of these historic Protestant confessions. This wording further emphasized the full humanity assumed by the second person of the Trinity at Bethlehem. They added: “the Holy Spirit coming down upon her, and the power of the most High overshadowing her, and so was made of a Woman, of the Tribe of Judah, of the Seed of Abraham, and David according to the Scriptures.” This issue was important because these Baptists believed that the same human nature possessed by Eve, Judah, Abraham, and David was shared by the Christ. Only in this way could the prophecies concerning the Messiah’s coming be fulfilled.

A Parable of the Law and the Gospel (Christian in Interpreter’s House)

In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan describes a scene in which Christian enters the house of one called “Interpreter” (who represents the Holy Spirit). In this house he is shown many “profitable” things. The first such is a picture of a true minister of the gospel. The second thing shown to Christian was a dusty room:

Then he took him by the hand, and led him into a very large parlor that was full of dust, because never swept; the which after he had reviewed it a little while, the Interpreter called for a man to sweep. Now, when he began to sweep, the dust began so abundantly to fly about, that Christian had almost therewith been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a damsel that stood by, “Bring hither water, and sprinkle the room;” the which when she had done, it was swept and cleansed with pleasure.

Christian: Then said Christian, What means this?

Interpreter: The Interpreter answered, This parlor is the heart of a man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel. The dust is his original sin, and inward corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first, is the law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel. Now whereas thou sawest, that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about that the room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou wast almost choked therewith; this is to show thee, that the law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, Rom. 7:9, put strength into, 1 Cor. 15:56, and increase it in the soul, Rom. 5:20, even as it doth discover and forbid it; for it doth not give power to subdue. Again, as thou sawest the damsel sprinkle the room with water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure, this is to show thee, that when the Gospel comes in the sweet and precious influences thereof to the heart, then, I say, even as thou sawest the damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean, through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of glory to inhabit. John 15:3; Eph. 5:26; Acts 15:9; Rom. 16:25,26.

A Picture of a True Minister (from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress)

In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan describes a scene in which Christian enters the house of one called “Interpreter” (who represents the Holy Spirit). In this house he is shown many “profitable” things. The first such is a picture which is described as follows:

Christian saw the picture a very grave person hang up against the wall; and this was the fashion of it: It had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon its lips, the world was behind its back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over its head.

After Christian asked what the picture meant, Interpreter explained:

The man whose picture this is, is one of a thousand: he can beget children (1 Cor. 4:15), travail in birth with children (Gal. 4:19), and nurse them himself when they are born. And whereas thou seest him with his eyes lift up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, and the law of truth writ on his lips: it is to show thee, that his work is to know, and unfold dark things to sinners; even as also thou seest him stand as if he pleaded with men. And whereas thou seest the world as cast behind him, and that a crown hangs over his head; that is to show thee, that slighting and despising the things that are present, for the love that he hath to his Master’s service, he is sure in the world that comes next, to have glory for his reward. Now, said the Interpreter, I have showed thee this picture first, because the man whose picture this is, is the only man whom the Lord of the place whither thou art going hath authorized to be thy guide in all difficult places thou mayest meet with in the way: wherefore take good heed to what I have showed thee, and bear well in thy mind what thou hast seen, lest in thy journey thou meet with some that pretend to lead thee right, but their way goes down to death.

The footnote in this edition adds:

This is a true picture of a gospel minister, one whom the Lord the Spirit has called and qualified for preaching the everlasting gospel. He is one who despises the world – is dead to its pleasures and joys; his chief aim is to exalt and glorify the Lord Jesus, his atoning blood, justifying righteousness, and finished salvation; and his greatest glory is to bring sinners to Christ, to point him out as the one way to them and to edify and build up saints in him. But there are many who profess to do this, but turn poor sinners out of the way, and point them to a righteousness of their own for justification in whole or in part. Of these the Spirit teaches us to beware; the former, he leads and directs souls to love and esteem highly for their labours and faith in the Lord, and zeal for his honour and glory, and for the salvation of souls. Take heed what you hear. – Mark iv.24.

What a beautiful and convicting picture of a true gospel minister! May God grant multitudes of such, while delivering us from those who would lead astray.

Brief Survey of Historical Background to Church Discipline in Baptist Churches

Tonight for an open forum on church discipline sponsored by the Franklin Baptist Association I was asked to give a brief historical survey of church discipline in Baptist life. Below are my prepared remarks.

First, and most importantly, it is biblical. It was commanded by Christ for His church (Matthew 18:15-19). It was practiced in the early church (1 Corinthians 5) and throughout church history. Others will address the scriptural basis for the practice, so I want to focus on why church discipline has historically been important to Baptist churches.

Baptist churches have especially been concerned about the issue of church discipline because of our commitment to a regenerate church membership. When English Baptist churches began to form in the 17th century, they were different than their Church of England counterparts precisely because they were composed only of baptized believers. This was in contrast to the national church whose individual churches were made up of everyone who lived in their parish.

Since Baptist churches were committed to a regenerate church membership, only baptized believers showing evidence of being born again were allowed to be members of their churches. Since these churches weren’t composed together of all adults and their children living in geographical proximity to the church, they were united together by a common confession of faith (what we believe) and covenant (how we agree to live together).

This is foundational! We don’t have any grounds for our existence if we are not united around a confession of faith and a church covenant. We need to recover these documents. You likely had to have them to incorporate or constitute, but sometimes they just get relegated to the archives. These are important documents for you to use in recovering your church’s identity.

Since Baptist churches were composed of members who agreed to certain doctrines and a certain way of life, whenever members deviated from those doctrines and way of life, there was a means to remove them from membership. This is vital because church membership is a church’s testimony that we believe an individual is a Christian. If that person can deny essential truths and/or live in unrepentant sin, there is no reason to believe that person is a genuine believer. To allow them to remain as a church member is to contribute to that individual’s self-deception. Or course, church discipline isn’t just excluding members. It isn’t merely corrective, but is also formative. I’ll let others explain that later.

For the earliest Southern Baptists, church discipline was essential to healthy church life. A popular and influential church manual in the nineteenth century gave three reasons for church discipline:

  1. The Glory of God.
  2. The Purity of the Churches.
  3. The Spiritual good of the disciplined.

So important was church discipline that the early nineteenth-century Baptist theologian, John L. Dagg (1794–1884) said, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” This may explain the powerlessness of our churches today!

One of the most common questions I’m asked whenever I talk about church discipline is, “Does anyone really do that anymore?” American Baptist Historian Greg Wills has addressed the issue of the decline of church discipline in the late nineteenth century:

After the Civil War, Baptist observers began to lament that church discipline was foundering, and it was. It declined partly because it became more burdensome in larger churches…. Urban churches, pressed by the need for large buildings and the desire for refined music and preaching, subordinated church discipline to the task of keeping the church solvent. Many Baptists shared a new vision of the church, replacing the pursuit of purity with the quest for efficiency. They lost the resolve to purge their churches of straying members.

No one publicly advocated the demise of discipline. No Baptist leader arose to call for an end to congregational censures. No theologians argued that discipline was unsound in principle or practice. No “freedom” party arose to quash the tyranny of the redeemed. It simply faded away, as if Baptists had grown weary of holding one another accountable. Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion, 9.

So, as Baptist churches became more prominent and big city, they increasingly lost the will to practice church discipline. But church discipline continued to be practiced well in to the early 20th century in rural areas in the south. Before I came to Frankfort, I served as the pastor of a small church in East Tennessee that was founded in 1908. Their church minute book was filled with cases of church discipline prior to World War II. When I was teaching the church and leading the church to embrace church discipline, this minute book was a tremendous resource to answer the question, “Would our church ever practice church discipline?”

Jan. 21, 1923 – Received acknowledgment by Littlefield of being drunk. He said he was guilty and sorry. No further action was taken.

March 4, 1923 – Charge against Mcfaller for drunkeness, a move and second to withdraw fellowship from him. What is the difference? Repentance

Oct. 13, 1923 – A charge against Homer Rogers for unchristian conduct and gave him till next meeting to report to the church.

Nov. 10, 1923 – Gave Homer extra month.

December 9, 1923 – Homer removed from church roll. Charges brought against Guyder.

Jan. 12, 1924 – Guyder removed from church roll.

Sept. 25, 1924 – Guyder restored to church roll.

March 7, 1925 – If a member comes to S.S. and leaves before preaching they are to be dealt with.

July 11, 1925 – Charges preferred against Pete Williams for denying the faith of the missionary Baptist doctrine. Withdrew fellowship. Charges preferred against Herbert Ryans for public drunkeness and swearing. Withdrew fellowship.

Oct. 11, 1925 – Deal with any members missing more than 60 days in Church service without legal excuse.

Jan. 17, 1926 – Charge against Gladys Underwood for fornication, removed. 25 people removed for Covenant breaking.

Feb. 20, 1926 – Motion to withdraw fellowship from Genette Golf for denying the faith of the missionary Baptist.

July 17, 1926 – Tommy Richeson removed for transporting whiskey.

April 17, 1927 – 4 charged w. nonattendance, 1 charged with unchristian conduct, 1 excluded for drunkenness.
Minute Book of West Broadway Baptist Church, Lenoir City, TN

Eventually, even the rural churches were influenced by their urban counterparts and the practice of church discipline faded as churches became more concerned about being viewed as successful by our culture than being faithful to Christ. It is hoped that now, as our churches are increasingly not cultural acceptable that we will return to the Scriptures to find our true measure of success in our submission to Christ’s authority over His church. Perhaps this will be the means that God uses to bring the long-desired revival to our churches.

“The Church of Christ, who upon Confession of Faith have bin Baptised”: Hercules Collins and Baptist Ecclesiology

This afternoon (November 19th) at 4:30 PM, I will present a paper titled: “The Church of Christ, who upon Confession of Faith have bin Baptised”: Hercules Collins and Baptist Ecclesiology (PDF) at the 66th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in San Diego, California. The paper is part of the Puritan Study Group which has an annual slot at ETS featuring paper on, you guessed it, Puritans and Puritanism. The theme of the annual meeting this year is Ecclesiology and the Puritan Study Group chose to focus on the topic: “A House Divided: Competing Views of Puritan Ecclesiology.” Below is the schedule for the session. I’m not sure if they saved the best ecclesiology for last or the worse paper. Either way, my paper wraps up the session beginning at 4:30 PM.

2:00 PM-5:10 PM
PURITAN STUDIES
A House Divided: Competing
Views of Puritan Ecclesiology
Room: Towne
MODERATOR: STEPHEN YUILLE
(Redeemer Seminary)

2:00 PM—2:40 PM
W. BRADFORD LITTLEJOHN
(The Davenant Trust)
What Makes a ‘Puritan’? Hooker,
Ussher, and English Reformed
Episcopacy

2:50 PM—3:30 PM
MARK JONES*
(University of the Free State)
“The (True?) Gospel Coalition”:
English Presbyterianism in Puritan
England

3:40 PM—4:20 PM
STEPHEN YUILLE
(Redeemer Seminary)
The Primitive Institution of Christ’s
Church: Thomas Goodwin and
Congregational Polity

4:30 PM—5:10 PM
STEVE WEAVER
(Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies)
“The Church of Christ, who upon
Confession of Faith have bin
Baptised”: Hercules Collins and
Baptist Ecclesiology

You can download a copy of the paper I will present here (PDF) and you can order the audio here.