Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Restoration views of Baptist origins

In my opinion, Spontaneous origination centers on how a Baptist church may come into existence. The continuation and restoration theories of Baptist origins, while they may also address how, both purport to address when Baptists came into existence.

Restorationist theories hold in common that there have not been successive groups of baptized believers from the time of the New Testament to the present. Conservative Baptists who hold this type of theory reject a historical continuity of Baptist churches or Baptist believers, but nevertheless believe that the Baptist faith is built on New Testament principles. As Nathan Finn writes, "...theological conservatives who hold to the post-apostolic origins of modern Baptists agree with continuationists that New Testament Christianity was baptistic." More ecumenically-oriented theological moderates who agree with conservatives on the late origins theory of the Baptists may nevertheless vary widely on the nature of the Baptist faith. Tim Bonney, addressing this in an internet forum, states, "While Baptists hope to model ourselves off of New Testament practices, we are no more the New Testament church than the Methodists, Presbyterians, or any other reformation or radical reformation related denomination." This view really seems to reject the idea that there is any particular New Testament identity or polity to "restore".

In our views of Baptist origins outline, I identified three sub-groups that I believe fit this restoration category -- Outgrowth of English Separatism, Influence of Anabaptists, and Converging streams (or multiple origins).

According to the Outgrowth of English Separatism view, the Baptists grew out of a Separatist movement in the Church of England. In this view, the Anabaptists' influence upon early Baptists is considered from minimal to non-existent. Within this camp there are variations as to the exact point of Baptist beginning. For some it is traced to 1609, when John Smyth, Thomas Helwys and others embraced believer's baptism. For others in this camp, the Baptist denomination does not start until 1641, when certain English Separatists accepted immersion as the mode of baptism. William H. Whitsitt of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY pioneered this viewpoint in the late 1800s. The English Separatist view of Baptist origins is currently the most widely accepted view of Baptist origins, and has been (at least in the academic community) for about a century. Writers holding this viewpoint include William H. Whitsitt, Winthrop S. Hudson, and H. Leon McBeth.

According to the Influence of Anabaptists view, some of the early English Baptists were influenced by some Anabaptists. This view holds that the direct origin of Baptists was from English Separatism, but that this origin was influenced by earlier Continental Anabaptism and contact with the Dutch Mennonites, Collegiants, etc. Writers holding this viewpoint include A. H. Newman and William R. Estep. Though marginalized by the English Separatist theory's dominance, interest in the Anabaptists' influence on the rise of the English Baptists is making a comeback. The title of the first article in Truett Seminary's Journal of Church and Mission, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring 2006) hints of some of that interest: "Contemporary Anabaptists Historiography and Theology and the Broadening of Baptist Identity" (by Rady Roldan-Figueroa).

According to the Converging streams or multiple origins view,1 the Baptists owe their rise to multiple converging factors. Nathan Finn explains it this way: "Think of the Baptist tradition as a great river, like the Amazon. Into that river flows a number of tributaries. These tributaries are separate from each other and are not themselves the river but they feed into the river. Once they flow into the river, they create something that is related to them in some respects but at the same time is entirely different; the river is the sum of all its tributaries. This is what I would argue happened with 17th century Baptists–they were a totally new movement (river) influenced to varying degrees by a number of other movements (tributaries)." It is possible that some might argue for this view as a main category among views of Baptist origins. I chose to place Converging streams under restoration theories based on its shared elements with the other two restoration theories. This idea seems to be fairly new and in its growth stages. So it remains to be seen what role it will play in the future of Baptist historiography. John T. Christian, well-known successionist historian, seems to indicate that some idea of multiple origins is compatible with his brand of successionism: "It must be borne in mind that there are many sources of Church History...For example it is undoubtedly true that the Waldenses originated in the West and the Paulicans in the East, and that they had a different history. In later centuries they came in contact one with the other, but in origin they were diverse. Any effort to treat them as one and the same people is misleading. In my judgment both parties were Baptists. The above distinction will account for many minor differences, and even today these sources will be found coloring Baptist history." (A History of the Baptists, by John T. Christian, Vol. I, Preface)

Renewed interest in Anabaptist role in Baptist origins may be influenced by several things, from ecumenical interests to renewed historical interests to anti-Calvinistic bias. For an example of the first, "Any conclusion reached on this matter will have significant ecumenical implications, for one’s position can indicate how one views other denominations. Reestablishing lost ties with Anabaptist roots will accomplish much in bringing the believers of the 'free churches' into a closer unity. The evidence cited in this essay ought to be enough to concede that the Anabaptist influence cannot be dismissed. With this clear foundation, Baptists can enter the ecumenical dialogue well aware of their history, their origins, and their modern kin in the Christian world." (
General Baptist Roots in the Radical Reformation: an examination of a vexing question, by Eric Barreto). But ecumenical interests also have influence on the other views. For example, Winthrop S. Hudson felt the need to view Baptists as Separatist Puritans rather than Anabaptists "if unnecessary obstacles are not to be placed in the way of ecumenical discussions". (W. S. Hudson, "The Ecumenical Spirit of Early Baptists," in the Review and Expositor, LV (April, 1958), 182-95)

An influence on the thinking in this area is the rising Calvinistic and Reformed movements in the Southern Baptist Convention and among other Baptists. Opposition to this rising Calvinism might encourage some to find Baptist antecedents to the Calvinistic English Particular Baptists. Promotion of this Calvinism might encourage some to overemphasize the influence of the Calvinistic English Baptists. (Personally, I would find it hard to say we could overemphasize them, since they are our direct ancestors. But an inordinate affection could cause people to stop their study at that point with no interest in any antecedents whom they fear might hold some "skeletons in the Calvinistic closet".)

Lastly, a nod and a nudge to the rise of the scientific movement in historical research, which helped install the English Separatism view as the foremost view of Baptist history for a century. Prior to the "scientific movement" and the work of William H. Whitsitt, much supposed "history" of the Baptists might well be considered sectarian promotionalism. Whitsitt's question, though it aggravated many, served to send Baptist historians looking for original documents as opposed to relying on secondary sources and repeating what others had said. A down-side of the "scientific method" is that it must of necessity not consider the supernatural -- the movement of God in history. Its restriction to observation assumes no outside forces at work in history, and works from a naturalistic secularistic mentality. This is more than the Christian historian can accept. Another down-side is its touted lack of bias, when that is not necessarily the case. In his dissertation investigating the historiography of Whitsitt, Christian and Newman, Donald Cureton points out that Whitsitt's objectivity could have been clouded by his "excessive desire for reputation" as an original discoverer, and the fact that he was a soldier in the war against Landmarkism. (pp. 95-96)

Possible implications of this view
Baptist polity -- Though antecedents may exist, there is no need of prior baptism, ordination or church authority to form a new Baptist church.
Baptist history -- Baptist history begins with particular groups of believers adopting believers' baptism.
Baptist identity -- Baptist identity is both theological and historical, based on the common elements of these groups identified as Baptists.

Shared elements
With spontaneous origination, restoration shares the element that Baptists can start independently of any historical continuation or succession.
With continuation, restoration shares the element that Baptists have some sense of continuity (whether for 400 or 500 years, or 2000).

Influence of Anabaptists view shares with the Converging streams or multiple origins view the idea of more than one point of influence and origin.
As noted above, the Converging streams or multiple origins view may share some elements with succession, when continuation notes the reunion of "Baptist streams" that had flowed in different directions.

1. In Anabaptist studies, this type of origins view is often called polygenesis.

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