Joseph Minich also assisted with the writing of this response.
As editors of People of the Promise: A Mere Protestant Eccleisology, we were honored by Samuel D. James’ review of our co-writers’ primer in Christianity Today. And while James tone and review is largely positive, he did register a few objections that we wish to address. We are sensitive to the fact that responding to a review of one’s work runs the risk of coming off as thin-skinned or reactionary.
However, as we have discussed the basic premise of the book with others, it turns out that James’ concerns align with the concerns of others. Suspecting, therefore, that his main concern is one apt to arise from many quarters, we thought it best to address this concern in a public forum. We will offer a few general comments about the review and then proceed to some broader remarks about the issues raised implicitly by the review.
James’ Review Itself
The essence of James’ critique occurs in the following section
“The true spirit of the Reformation, (Littlejohn) counters, is one that refrains from policing the boundaries of the church too aggressively. It concedes, instead, the utter impossibility of separating wheat from tares, both within the local community of faith and in the larger society (which are not nearly as separate as Baptists might suppose).
If this sounds a bit slippery, that’s because it is. Disappointingly, Littlejohn does not offer any substantive interaction with competing Protestant theories. His failure to quote or engage any contemporary descendants of the “Anabaptist model” cuts against the book’s ambition to present a “mere Protestant ecclesiology.” What Littlejohn mentions almost as a historical footnote is, in fact, one of the most important theological disagreements in Protestantism, one which a brief historical evaluation of Luther, while helpful, does not really address.”
There are several items worth noting here: The author assumes that it is obvious that we should treat Anabaptists as “Protestants.” In point of fact, while they flourished during the Reformation period, there is good reason to not treat them as (especially Magisterial) Protestants. This is true both historically, but more importantly, as it pertains to principle.
That is to say, the basic principle of Anabaptist ecclesiology is merely an inverted papism—and was seen as such by the original Reformers. Anabaptist ecclesiology saw the essence of the church as essentially visible and politically constituted. It was in this sense that the title of “Radical” (i.e. to the root) Reformers really belongs to the Magisterial crowd—because their redefinition of the church was not merely a change in cosmetics, from papacy to laity, but in definition—from visible community to invisible faith. This was the argument made by Belschner in chapter two of People of the Promise, when he writes (concerning the Anabaptists) that they held to “an odd imitation of one key tenet of sacerdotalism, even amidst their fierce reaction to it: They too made the external visible community part of the esse of the church, rather than a manifestation of an identity hidden in Christ” (34).
It seems there is some confusion about the very thesis of the book. The point was not to identify all groups that have been considered Protestant and to find the “lowest common denominator” between them. Rather, the point was to identify the principle that united a coherent international community of theologians across many confessionals lines and which can be identified as a key ecclesiological revolution in history. That is, the historical actors would have seen themselves as working on the same “Reform” movement whereas others were understood to be working on a different project altogether. The question then becomes what principle united them in this sense of theological identity (as it pertains to ecclesiology). It is this unifier that we sought to recover in the book, that the essence of the church is just faith in the gospel through the word – and that all else is secondary.
By contrast, James seemed interested in denominations as such, noting the many denominations listed by the authors in the book, and mentioning one article’s capacity to encourage “enlightening dialogue between differing ecclesiological traditions.” And yet, our main goal is more precisely to encourage enlightening dialogue across different theologies, not groups as such. And that point is no triviality but constitutes the essence of our retrieval project. We are not as such concerned with “denominationalism,” but unity in faith which comes to manifold ecclesiological (in the visible sense) expression. In fact, a good bit of those we seek to persuade are in our own “traditions” rather than outside of them. To this extent, James is correct to highlight the difference between our project and that of Jonathan Leeman, though Leeman has graciously and helpfully engaged in fruitful dialogue with Minich.
But this is not to suggest some antinomy with Baptists in general. The antinomy, if there is one, is one of theology and of preserving the historical and principled heritage of the Protestant Reformation on the definition of the church. This point can be put in provocative refrain by noting that we might just as well be opposed to certain Presbyterians whose denominational history might have a Protestant pedigree, but whose doctrinal development might compromise the historical doctrine to the point of compromising their claim to being theologically Protestant on this issue. Hence the title of the series, “Davenant Retrievals.”
There are other lesser points in the review that we might wish to respond to such as James’ curious comment that Meador’s contribution contains no “sturdy theological foundation” (though Meador develops at least three of these), that it “comes up short of presenting a comprehensive summary of Protestant ecclesiology” (it was intended to be the opposite of comprehensive, focusing rather on a single point), or that it “reads more like a primer on Reformation history than a handbook on theology.” In most of these cases, it would seem that Littlejohn’s introduction would provide sufficient guidance concerning the scope and purpose of the volume, when he writes,
“The task of the present volume is, at first glance, a simple one: to present the basic core of the Protestant doctrine of the church, shorn of the distractions of the secondary disputes about polity, ministerial offices, sacramental efficacy, liturgy and more that have so often preoccupied discussions of the church…Certainly, it cannot claim to be a mere descriptive task, as if we were pretending to function merely as historians, investigating the history and founding documents of the Protestant churches to find the shared kernel concealed in the variegated husks of the Reformation traditions. No, our endeavor here is in large part a normative one, and unabashedly so.
We aim to present in clear outline form what the basic principles of Protestant ecclesiology should look like, as an offering to a church today bewildered by the myriad of fashionable models on offer. Of course, ours is not, we hope, an arbitrary ecclesiological wish list vying for attention amidst these fashionable models. In other words, although it is not merely descriptive, neither is it merely normative. On the contrary, it is built on the fruits of three descriptive tasks (as all good Protestant theology should be): an exegetical description of the revealed content of the Scriptures, an historical description of the central claims of the Reformation and post-Reformation dogmatics, and a dogmatic description of what, according to the internal logic of Protestantism’s claims, must be its true doctrine of the church. These three tasks correspond loosely to the Parts II through IV of the book, respectively, though to some extent, each is operative in greater and lesser degree at every point.” (ix-x)
In any case, we move on to consider the issues that James raises more broadly.
What About the Baptists?
Although James seems to have misunderstood the primary purpose of the book, he raises a question that is still one very worth asking and answering. So, what about the Baptists?
That is to say, if it is the case that 16th-century Anabaptism was profoundly out-of-step with the magisterial Reformation on central theological principles, and if the later English-American Baptist tradition follows in the footsteps of the early Anabaptists, then must we make like Trump and build a wall with the true Protestants on one side and the schismatic Baptists on the other (a gutsy move indeed given their contemporary dominance of American evangelical institutions)?
Well, it all depends. And ultimately it depends on the answer that Baptists themselves give when presented with magisterial Protestant ecclesiology. So ultimately we must turn the question around on James and all his fellow Baptists: Here is our sketch of magisterial Protestant ecclesiology—will you take it or will you leave it?
Still, I can offer a few historical and theological guideposts to try and jumpstart that conversation. First, two historical points.
The first thing is to say that it is generally accepted among historians that the mainstream Baptist tradition does not derive in any direct way from Reformation-era Anabaptism, but rather from 17th-century English Baptists (exiled in the Netherlands) who arose within the milieu of Separatism, which itself was an outgrowth of the Puritan movement. And this, of course, arose within the milieu of magisterial Reformed theology. (Note that “arose within the milieu” is intentionally vague; we will clarify more in due course) So to this extent Baptists have at least a good prima facie claim to be part of magisterial Protestantism, even if they do deny a practice (infant baptism) that had been shared by the whole catholic tradition since the very early church.
The second thing to say is that as Baptist theology took root and spread rapidly in the distestablishmentarian context of America, the mainstream Protestant traditions themselves became much more baptistic in theology and practice, blurring the boundaries of the two.
This 19th-century boundary-blurring was accelerated following the fundamentalist/modernist controversy in which it appeared that there were much bigger fish to fry than those issues that had historically separated Baptists from other Protestants. As this realignment has persisted, the cross-pollination has gone in both directions, particularly between conservative Presbyterians and Baptists, with the former imbibing many baptistic assumptions and the latter imbibing many Reformed assumptions.
We are not interested in any kind of boundary-drawing by fiat that would try to turn back the clock, demanding that non-Baptists purify themselves and come out from among Baptists, re-establishing an unambiguous and untainted magisterial Protestant identity. On the contrary, we think the cross-pollination and iron-sharpening-iron within the large, squabbling family of Protestantism is one of Protestantism’s strengths rather than its weaknesses. Protestant churches in the future will continue to re-align in ways that render obsolete the precise boundaries that hardened in the post-Reformation era.
But while sociology is fluid, truth is not. And we do believe that there are particular doctrinal affirmations made by the magisterial Reformers that should be clung to and not diluted. And that includes magisterial Protestant ecclesiology. We would like to see the current cross-pollination within Protestantism result in this doctrinal framework becoming more widely adopted. Whether this is something that the contemporary Baptist tradition can sign onto is ultimately for them to decide. However, we are optimistic, given that our contention is that this ecclesiology really is what you end up with when you apply basic biblical teaching and common sense; ultimately, even those who affirm other ecclesiologies make the kind of commonsensical qualifications that tilt their positions toward ours.
So, let’s get a better theological handle on the essential issue, in order to determine to what extent contemporary Baptists (or indeed any number of contemporary groups) might be willing to sign onto our sketch of essential Protestant ecclesiology.
What makes historic Anabaptist ecclesiology different?
Three answers to that question quickly suggest themselves.
- The first is, obviously enough, the practice of re-baptism, and rejection of infant baptism.
- The second is the oppositional posture toward the state, resulting variously in versions of pacifism or millenarian attempts to build a theocracy. All of these were held together by a conviction that Christian community must stand thoroughly apart from the mundane and imperfect structures of secular authority.
- Third is a tendency toward independency in church polity, with the gathered assembly of the congregation as the only locus of authority in the church, and a concomitant rejection of larger institutional church structures or hierarchical offices.
So far as we can tell, modern Baptist churches have significant continuity with Anabaptism on each of these three points. The first is obvious enough; the third has certainly been attenuated by the growth of massive Baptist denominational structures, although it is still preserved in some measure relative to magisterial Protestant traditions; the second is more complex. Certainly, in contrast to Anabaptists, Baptists have not rejected the appropriateness of Christians serving in civil government, nor have they had much of a tendency toward pacifism that we know of. However, they have been much more emphatically disestablishmentarian than other magisterial Protestant traditions, and have tended to be more pessimistic about the idea of Christian statecraft or political discipleship, even if, in the American context, they have often been at the front lines of culture war political lobbying.
Does this settle the question, then? No. On the contrary, I would argue that each of these three distinctives are apt to distract us from the central point. This was perfectionism, the attempt to collapse the gap between visible and invisible churches, rejecting the magisterial Protestant insistence on the church as a “mixed multitude” made up of both wheat and tares.
To be sure, each of the three distinctives relates to this in a certain way. Credobaptism was an attempt to ensure that only the truly faithful became members of the church, and even today, many Baptists argue for the practice not just on exegetical grounds but in order, they insist, to keep the church from being overrun with nominal Christians. Indeed, this concern explains why in historic Anabaptism, the practice of credobaptism was always linked to rigorous practice of “the ban”—excommunication.
Likewise, the strong separation of church from state arose out of a desire to prevent authentic pure Christian discipleship being tainted with the structures of this world that govern the common life of believers and unbelievers.
The role of the institutional church presents an interesting twist. Outwardly, it might seem that the biggest difference between the Baptist tradition (and something it tends to have in common with Anabaptism) and the magisterial Protestant churches is that the latter lay great weight on the church as institution and the former do not. We might be tempted to speak of Baptists as being “low-church” for this reason, compared to more “high-church” magisterial Protestants. Indeed, some remarked that our project in People of the Promise seemed quite Baptist because of its de-emphasis on institutions.
But appearances are deceiving. For magisterial Protestants, institutions are important not as the church itself, but precisely as the scaffolding that helps sustain and support the real thing. And that real thing is elusive, hidden, dynamic, organic, etc. The church itself remains hidden, but the institution allows it to take shape in this world. Rightly understood, though, the institution always points away from itself, and no particular institutional form is essential to the church being what it is. By discarding the institutional form, Anabaptism, and the Baptist tradition more generally, is forced to make the thing itself—the gathered assembly—carry all its own weight. It ends up pointing to itself rather than away from itself. It claims a false ultimacy. To this extent, we argue implicitly in People of the Promise that, if anything, it is Anabaptism that is more “high-church” and magisterial Protestantism that is more “low-church,” at least in one important sense (although we would want to defend a vigorous sacramentology, which is often linked with “high-church” theology).
So if perfectionism is the central issue, how does the Baptist tradition stack up to magisterial Protestantism? Well the first thing that must be said here is that it is not a simple either/or—either you insist on a community of visible saints or you settle for a mixed multitude. On the contrary, the magisterial Reformers cared deeply about visible holiness and spoke frequently of the need for church leaders to vigilantly counter ungodly behavior within the churches and, where necessary, purge the evil from among them. To this extent, you could say that it was a difference in emphasis between them and the Anabaptists, with both aspiring for the visible church to reflect the holiness of the invisible, and the former simply being more pessimistic/realistic about how far this ideal would ever be attained.
Still, if it was merely a difference in emphasis, it was one that made all the difference. It was the difference between “if you are baptized, you are in until you prove that you are out” and “you are out until you prove that you are in (and keep proving it),” with the former position maintaining the Reformation’s central emphasis on the prevenience of God’s saving action towards us, and the latter danger displacing the focus to that which the believer himself does to establish and maintain his position within the kingdom of grace. For Anabaptists, re-baptism served to mark out the true Christians from the false, such that those who had been baptized as infants, showed true signs of faith, and yet rejected re-baptism must be shunned. To this extent, credobaptism functioned as a Judaizing barrier between brethren.
The second thing that must be said here is that the delicate dialectic between the invisibility of the church and the aspiration to visible holiness was hardly preserved perfectly in all the magisterial Protestant traditions. In Elizabethan and Jacobean Puritanism, particularly (and especially those Puritans who migrated to the New World), there was a heavy stress on the importance of church discipline and the need to maintain a church community purged of all signs of unfaithfulness and all fellowship with Antichrist. Those who took this imperative most seriously broke away altogether from the established Church of England and established separatist communities, which practiced infant baptism, to be sure, but increasingly required further signs of regeneration and commitment for full membership in the church. The ambiguity inherent in attempts to retain infant baptism while pursuing the ideal of the church as a community of visible saints led to confused solutions like the New England Halfway Covenant. However, other Reformed polities, like Scottish presbyterianism, had their own ways of over-obsessively pursuing purity.
To this extent, our call for a “mere Protestant” ecclesiology is not a least-common-denominator distillation of the Protestant traditions, but a normative theological principle which we are willing to use to critique sub-Reformational tendencies within any Protestant churches, Baptist or otherwise. Indeed, the worst transgressors today are probably to be found within “TR” Reformed communities.
Finally, then, where does this leave contemporary Baptist churches? Well, given the state of church discipline among most of them, perfectionism does not seem to be the dominant ideal. To be sure, there are many voices calling for a return to stricter church discipline, though this need not be a bad thing; on the contrary, the American church as a whole is wildly undisciplined even by magisterial Protestant standards.
More serious is the renewed emphasis in some Baptist circles on credobaptism as a sine qua non for communion, effectively unchurching paedobaptists. However, to the extent that Baptists today have effectively accepted the inescapable imperfection of the visible church, practicing credobaptism not to ensure a pure body of visible saints but simply in obedience to what they understand is the Scriptural meaning and practice of the sacrament; to the extent that Baptists today have accepted Christian participation in the state and other “temporal kingdom” tasks as a part of faithful Christian discipleship; and to the extent that Baptists today tacitly recognize the provisional character of all church institutions, whether individual congregations or larger more formal structures, accepting the credentials of other Christian communities that preach the Word and observe the sacraments—to this extent, Baptists too can name and claim the magisterial Protestant tradition.
We are thankful for James’ engagement of our work, and we hope that these clarifications help him and others to have a clearer grasp of which concerns drive the community of writers who contributed to the volume. In particular, we hope it is sufficiently clear that the goal is not to draw institutional lines in the sand between the Reformed and the non-Reformed (for institutions are not the issue). Rather, we are concerned with the recovery and enactment of a key principle concerning the definition of the church, the implications of which vary by circumstance as inflected through sanctified prudence.