The continuation theories of Baptist origins address when Baptists came into existence, but also delve into hypotheses of how the Baptists continued from the beginning to the present. Continuationist theories hold in common that there have been successive groups of baptized believers from the time of the New Testament to the present – or at least a continuation of the New Testament faith.
Identified in our views of Baptist origins outline are two categories, with appropriate subdivisions: (1) Continuation of biblical teachings and (2) Succession of Baptist churches. I have further tried to link these continuationist views with William Wright Barnes' identification of four views of succession.
Unlike the restoration theories, each of which gain their distinction from the other based on when the Baptists started, continuation theories agree that the Baptists (or the Baptist faith) began with Jesus Christ. The distinctions in the continuation theories are primarily theological and theoretical matters (rather than historical), disagreeing on details of how the Baptist faith passed from the days of the New Testament to the present.
The theory of a continuation of Biblical teachings appears to agree with Barnes' "spiritual succession". The continuation of Biblical principles theory views the continuity in a more indirect fashion than the linear thinking of the continuation of Baptist churches theory. Advocates do not claim a succession of Baptist churches, but rather that the faith and practice now identified with the modern Baptists existed from the time of Christ to the present. Nathan Finn describes it this way "...often the claim is made that there has been a perpetuity of Baptist principles, which cannot necessarily be historically verified by looking at a succession of churches, but nevertheless is accepted by faith." This view often finds "spiritual kinship" between baptistic groups throughout history without identifying them as Baptists. It emphasizes the principles rather than the people. Somewhere on a blog I can't locate right now, Ben Stratton observed that it would be odd to have a continuation of Biblical teachings without some people who held and taught those teachings (sorry, Ben, if my memory of your statement isn't too exact).
I subdivided the Succession of Baptist churches viewpoint. Once again, this is not to indicate a disagreement over when the Baptists started, but a theoretical/theological difference over how Baptists churches are perpetuated. The difference therefore in categorizing "church perpetuity" and "chain-link succession" is the difference of how the Baptist faith was transmitted. Chain-link succession requires some sort of organizational succession from one church to the next (kind of like a relay runner handing off a baton). It may be viewed as church succession (succession of church organizations); apostolic succession (succession of valid ordinations); baptismal succession (succession of valid baptisms); or even a combination of all three.
Though he mistakenly calls it Landmarkism, Tom Ascol succeeds in defining a baptismal chain-link succession as "a particular view of baptist origins that requires a certain kind of historical succession in order for present baptist expressions of church to be valid. In the case of baptism it would argue that only those are properly baptized who have been baptized by a proper administrator, who himself has been baptized by a proper administrator, who himself...(you get the picture)." -- Recommendations and observations on the attempt to remove a conservative IMB trustee "Apostolic" succession requires a succession of valid ordinations. Many older Baptist associational articles of faith require a valid ordination for administering the ordinances (See Sandlick District Association of Virginia, for example). A recently coined terminology -- Essential Mother-Daughter Authority -- describes one popular church succession view of chain-link succession which mandates that a Baptist Church (daughter church) may only come into existence by the vote of an existing Baptist Church (mother church).
Church perpetuity and chain-link succession share more similarities than differences, so much so that some would dispute listing them separately. It might be argued that chain-link succession is a systematized form of church perpetuity. Baptist church perpetuity, in its simpler forms, is not concerned with the details of how the church continued from the New Testament times to the present, but with the fact that it did. Some Baptists who hold the idea of church perpetuity outright reject the concept of a chain-link succession. This creates a difference in polity of church organization. For example, many who hold Baptist church perpetuity (but reject chain-link succession) believe a group of baptized believers can come together and organize themselves into a Baptist congregation, with no need of a "mother church" vote or authority.
According to Philip Bryan, "The oldest and most generally accepted theory of Baptist origins has been the successionist theory." -- A Critique of the English Separatist Descent Theory in Baptist Historiography Chapter I, Theories of Baptist Origins I do not have data on this, but it is definitely my impression that until the 20th century, ideas of a "Baptist faith" perpetuated from the days of Christ was the prevailing view of both Baptist historians and rank-and-file Baptists.
Bryan also writes, "William Morgan Patterson...has concluded that successionist writers wrote from an apologetical and polemical approach and that their conclusions were based upon a priori reasoning and not scientific methodology." The expected promise of continuation/continuity/perpetuity is believed based on passages such as Matthew 16:18 ("...and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it [my church]"); Matthew 28:20 ("I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world"); and Ephesians 3:21 ("glory in the church...throughout all ages"). Patterson is correct in stating that these theories are founded on a priori reasoning -- if he means a belief held before the fact of historical research. These theories are not historically driven; they are "a-historical" in the sense that they begin with the Bible rather than historical research. They are Biblical theologies of the church that rest on Biblical exegesis and interpretation. This doesn't invalidate their historical research or conclusions, any more than scientific research is invalid because the researcher believes in creation. It does cause non-successionists to view them with suspicion -- especially in the case of polemical writings.
Possible implications of this view
Baptist polity – Since continuity does exist, a new Baptist church is formed with some connection to prior baptism, ordination or church authority.
Baptist history -- Baptist history begins with Jesus Christ forming His church during His personal ministry on earth, and continues to the present – whether seen or unseen, known or unknown.
Baptist identity -- Baptist identity is based on the basic faith and practice of New Testament Christianity. A "true church" is one which holds this faith and is part of this historical continuity.1
The continuation of Biblical principles theory shares with multiple origins the idea of theological/spiritual kinship of various unconnected groups who have been a part of the continuity of New Testament faith and practice.2
With restoration, continuation shares the element that Baptists have some sense of continuity (whether for 400 or 500 years, or 2000).
As noted in Tuesday’s post, the Converging streams or multiple origins view may share some elements with succession. A theological conservative holding a multiple origins view agrees with continuation theorists that Baptist identity is based on the faith and practice of New Testament Christianity (though they may not agree on exactly what the that faith and practice is).
1. A "true church" movement is any church or group within Christianity that claims to exclusively represent the true faith and order of Jesus Christ and His apostles. Many "true church" groups assert this only in reference to their church doctrines, polity, and practice (e.g., the ordinances). Primitive Baptists, Landmark Baptists and the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, for example, believe they are successors in a line of true churches linked back to the first century. A few denominations go further, holding that they [their denomination] are the only true Christians. The "Spurling/Tomlinson" Church of God, the Stone-Campbell restoration movement, and some others represent a variation in which the "true church" apostatized and was restored, in distinction to the idea of apostolic or church succession. [Note: this last paragraph will sound like Wikipedia because it is a revision of something I wrote for an article there.]
2. In Philip Bryan's opinion "...what Torbet has called the 'Anabaptist kinship' theory is actually what Barnes has included as a succession theory: 'spiritual succession'." He further notes that "...Patterson has included the 'spiritual kinship' theory as a variation of the 'successionist' theory" in "A Critique of the Successionist Concept in Baptist Historiography," Th.D. dissertation, Baylor University, Waco, 1956.