Should Baptists spend time and effort identifying with the Reformation? Over the years, Baptists of varying stripes have debated this with differing opinions.
Some think of us as rooted in the first century, glossing over all references to later church history. Others link us with the Radical or English Reformations while a small group asserts that Baptists are not Protestants and stand in a category of their own.
A proper and informed understanding of Baptist identity quickly clarifies the issues because all Baptists have good reason to celebrate and identify with the 16th-century Reformation.
We can certainly affirm the principles of the Reformers in themes like the priority of Scripture, the importance of the individual before God, the relevance of congregational life and spiritual renewal among God’s people.
Another good reason to affirm the reforming principle is that we are always in need of renewal and reformation – semper reformandum – along with all others who seek the leading of God’s Spirit.
Our own specific heritage is inextricably woven together with heroic figures: Huldrych Zwingli and the likes of Conrad Grebel and Felix Mainz, with Martin Luther and John Calvin, and with Thomas Cranmer and John Wycliffe.
Specifically, we are indebted to Luther’s soteriology, expressed as salvation by faith, Calvin’s understanding of the sacraments/ordinances as signs of our redemption, Cranmer’s order of worship, as adapted from the “Book of Common Prayer,” and both Wycliffe and Zwingli’s sense of the authority of Scripture in confessing our faith.
Importantly, Baptists share with Balthasar Hubmaier and the 1525 martyrs of Zurich a deep conviction for religious liberty as a defining mark of Christian ethics and human dignity. It was Hubmaier who lived by the rule, “Truth is unkillable!”
The connection of early English Baptists with the ideals of congregationalism, a believer’s baptism, the continual reference to a biblical theology, a desire to be an authentic ethical fellowship, and a concern for sharing their faith all attest to an awareness of the enduring values of the Reformation.
John Smyth and Thomas Helwys were both schooled in the Puritan-Separatist tradition (Smyth at Cambridge; Helwys through associations with the Mayflower community of dissenter-emigrants), and they drank deeply in Reformation thought.
Likewise, the earliest Baptists in America were well-versed in Protestant culture, both English and Continental.
Our heritage is decidedly Protestant and evangelical in the Reformation usage of these terms, both having roots in the German word evangelische.
Over the course of their recent history, Baptists have used a good deal of ink in criticizing other denominations and traditions about perceived flaws or inadequacies in their theology or polity.
We have tried to separate ourselves from the more violent episodes of the Reformation, like the debacle at Munster, Luther’s denunciations of Anabaptists or Calvin’s treatment of freethinkers. Our first collective confession of faith (1644) denies any connection to radical reformers.
What we share with the Reformers, however, is much more significant. Reformation Sunday gives us the opportunity to affirm our commonalties with others of similar faith and practice.
History is like a pair of eyeglasses and helps to set things in perspective. In an increasingly post-Christian North America, it is important to stand with those other Christians whose mantra is also Scripture, faith, witness and discipleship.
William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia. He currently serves as president/chair of the Canadian Bible Society board of governors.