Can Baptists Be Reformed? Is this a contradiction in terms? by Bill Smith


*Bill Smith is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church of America. He is a writer and is a contributor to a number of Reformed journals and resides in Jackson, MS. This article first appeared at his blog, The Christian Curmudgeon, and is used with his permission.


Years ago I submitted a book review of a biography of a little known Reformed theologian whose most important contribution to the Reformed churches was to raise questions about 19th century revivalism, which he saw as an unfortunate departure from a Reformed understanding of Christian conversion and piety. The review was not accepted. I was puzzled. (Yes, if you have read previous blogs I have referred to this more than once. It’s one of those things that sticks in one’s craw and at the same time provides an insight into the nature of reality – in this case, the way an important segment of the broadly Reformed world works.)

Later I had the opportunity to talk over breakfast with a seminary president who knows the Reformed evangelical world quite well. He said to me something like this, “The problem with the review was that you wrote something that questioned the Baptists.” There you have it.

Now I married a blond, green-eyed Baptist. This does not put me in the category of Hosea, but it does say that what I saw trumped theological differences. Moreover, I have had and have quite a few Baptist friends. (In the South one would be hard up for friends if he did not include Baptists.) I have also had Baptists preach in my pulpit a number of times. So I suppose that, as I might appeal to the fact that I black friends and have paid some dues for racial views and practice to prove I am no racist, so I might appeal to the fact of my various relations with Baptists to prove that I am friendly-disposed toward Baptists.

But what are we to make of the reality that we speak without any sense of contradiction of “Reformed Baptists”? Of the fact that Presbyterians and Baptists form their alliances and coalitions while Presbyterians and Lutherans do not? And, as one thinks about it, that these Presbyterians come together with a lot of Baptists (and some charismatics) but not so much with the Reformed whose roots are on the Continent? Is this really British non-conformist unity?

As many Presbyterians take it, Reformed Baptists are Reformed except that they do not baptize infants and do not practice connectionalism in the relationships among local congregations. On the other hand Reformed Baptists seem to believe that most Presbyterians are Biblical except that (1) they continue to hold an ancient though misguided view and practice regarding the subjects and mode of baptism and (2) fail to see that that the church at the local level is complete and so practice various forms of mutual accountability in which a local church (through its elders sitting in Session) is under the authority of a broader representation of the church (Presbytery) which itself is under the authority of the whole church as it is expressed in that denomination (General Assembly). (It is a live question whether the “distinctive polity” of the PCA is more congregational or connectional in its practice.)

What do Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians have in common? Well, they seem to agree on the formulation we call the Five Points of Calvinism. Reformed Baptists and these Presbyterians have an allegiance to the points made by the Synod of Dordt, not as a summary of Calvinism, but as a refutation of the views of the Remonstrants. Reformed Baptists confess with Presbyterians the five controverted points of soteriology – that depravity is total and pervasive, that election is unconditional, that the atonement is limited (or definite) with regard to its design, that saving grace is irresistible, and that the saints both persevere and are preserved.

Nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first Reformed Baptists and most Presbyterians find common ground in “experimental Calvinism.” Among Presbyterians the “New Side” triumphed over the “Old Side.” So New Side Presbyterians and Baptists agree with the revivalists regarding matters touching on conversion, spiritual growth, how the church advances, and the impact of the church on society with regard to social issues they see as having a moral component. Among these commonatilies are the ability of a professor of Christianity often, if not normally, to identify a time when he came out of the crisis of sin, guilt, inability, and hopelessness into an experience of regeneration (the new birth) resulting simultaneously with or immediately after in a conversion that is distinct and remembered. The convert has a sense that “once I was blind but now I can see” or “I was dead but now am alive” that points to one’s translation out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light so that one who was born in sin is now alive by the Spirit. Such Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians believe that the believer, who is likely to be dull and dry in ordinary times, will be renewed and revitalized in times of special visitation by the Spirit. Reformed Baptists and revivalist Presbyterians agree that the way the church makes its most significant advances, is not through the regular and faithful administration and reception of the Word and sacraments, but by times of supernatural intervention called “revival.” They may believe in “ordinary means” (and here they mean the Word to the exclusion of the sacraments), but they are hoping for extraordinary effects.

One might ask if we are doing nothing more than making an observation about the revivalists, whether Presbyterian or Baptist. But this writer contends that even the “constitutional documents” of those termed Reformed Baptists, reveal that the differences are more and more profound than differences regarding the subjects and mode of baptism and the relations of particular churches. The London Confession of 1689 shows there are significant differences beyond those usually admitted. These are worthy of mention: (1) The concept of church membership: In the Baptist Confession there is nothing of the visible church consisting of believers and their seed. Rather, according to the Baptists the church (particular congregations, says the London Confession) consists of “visible saints” who profess faith and obedience to God and who do not undermine their profession by errors of doctrine or life. (2) The high view of the visible church found in the Westminster Confession (as well as the Belgic), that outside there is no ordinary possibility of salvation, is notably missing. (3)There is a different concept of what historically are called sacraments. They are “ordinances” and “signs” but never “seals” or “means of grace” by which the things signed communicated and conferred. These observations are sufficient to indicate significant differences, not just about whom and how to baptize of in what manner relate congregations are related to another, but about the truths expressed in the theological categories of soteriology and ecclesiology.

All the Reformed agree that the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments do not “work” ex opere operato. The work of the Spirit is absolutely necessary. The difference, however, comes with the question of whether the Spirit ordinarily works through the ordinary means of grace, or if, the ordinary needs an extraordinary work of the Spirit. Is it through ordinary Sunday worship or, through revivals that we expect people to come to Christ and to be preserved and sanctified. The question one must ask is this: Are we satisfied with the ordinary results in response to the ordinary means on ordinary Sabbaths, or do we desire and long for something more (and really) different?

The question is whether, if with the subjects and mode of baptism and issues of church government set aside, Reformed Baptists and historic Presbyterians are one. The present majority that forms the “big Reformed tent” associations believe the answer is yes. I think not.

I rejoice that there at Baptists (and others) who believe and preach the doctrines of grace, i.e. that God is sovereign in salvation and that TULIP (now some are calling the points BACON) is true. But there is much more to Calvinism (and to being Reformed) than the five points of Calvinism. These points were not Calvin’s summary of his own system of doctrine, nor were they the attempt of church courts or historians to summarize Calvin’s system. Rather, they were the necessary and correct responses to a controversy. They preserved these controverted truths in their day and have continued to do so now for almost 500 years. However, if the Institutes are taken as the summary of the Christian religion, Reformed Baptists will find much more to disagree with than Calvin’s views on baptism and church order. Is not their whole view of the sacraments and their effectiveness different from Calvin’s? Is not their doctrine of the church, its powers, and its necessity for salvation different from Calvin’s? Would Calvin recognize such Baptists as Reformed churches in the same way he could recognize the Church of England or the Hungarian Reformed?

There is a lot more significance to the question of baptism than perhaps is usually acknowledged. The question those who practice paedo-baptism must answer is this: Does baptism make any difference? This question can be illuminated by others. Are the children of Baptists covenant children who just lack the technicality of the application of water? (Are Presbyterian infants really babies dedicated with the addition of the application of water?) Do we prefer the Lutheran practice of baptizing children, however much some of the language of the liturgy might trouble us, to the Baptist practice of not baptizing children at all? If we end up saying that baptism makes no difference (except perhaps as an act of parental obedience), it seems to me that we are saying it is not a means of grace, in which case we have conceded most the argument to the Baptists. And, if baptism makes no difference, then we might do well to ask, “Why bother?” since our giving it up would deny nothing vital to our children and bring to an end one of the major issues that divides Presbyterians and Baptists.

How do baptized children come to faith? Do we expect that through the faithful covenant nurture of home and church they will come to rely on the Savior for their acceptance with God? Do we expect that through such nurture they will come to be able with sincerity to answer affirmatively the questions by which a person professes faith and is admitted to the Lord’s Table?

Or do we look for something more distinct, more memorable, more conscious? That is, do we really want to hear more of the child’s testimony to a consciousness of regeneration and/or conversion? Are we uncomfortable when we don’t hear these things? If so, then we well might, as many Presbyterians do – hold crusades, camps, and conferences, at which we hope our young people, will experience some kind of crisis experience of conversion rather than just believing as they are taught in home and church. This might explain why we have so much less catechesis in home and church. Shall we abandon the old communicant membership questions by and ask all if they have Jesus in their hearts and if he is their personal Savior?

What do we think the Church is? A community of believers and their children or an association of believers (always presumptively so one must add)? Of what does the church consist? Believers and their children? Or, those who have (we think) experienced something? When a child of faithful believers does not come to faith, are we not surprised at all since they are no different from the world in being dead in trespasses and sins, or do we appeal to the mysteries of God’s covenant dealings?

Obviously much is at stake in this discussion, whether we are Baptists or Presbyterians. It is whether we believe Calvin and the Westminster divines to have got their soteriology and ecclesiology right or the Baptists who corrected them.

In my youth, it was somewhat common to hear conservative Southern Presbyterians refer to themselves as “Bapterians” meaning that, except for the fact that they baptized infants and had elders and courts, they found their sympathies to be with Baptists. I see today what that means far more than I did in my youth. Are we Baptists or Presbyterians?

We acknowledge that both Presbyterians and Baptists are concerned to be faithful to the Bible. But the fact remains that in significant areas of faith and the practice that expresses faith, there is a major divide. The adjective Reformed in its 16th and 17th century sense refers to Presbyterians who hold to the system taught by Calvin and expressed in the Westminster Confession. Baptists may share with such Presbyterians the Dordt view on the controverted points of soteriology, but Reformed in the historic Calvinistic sense, they’re not.

This is not intended to put a wall of partition among brothers. Surely we can regard one another with true affection and can on many levels co-operate with one another. But “Reformed” and “Baptist” don’t go together any more than Darryl and the Bayly.

*Weirdly enough, I was just informed that the writer of this article, Bill Smith is now Episcopalian. So much for being reformed.