committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

CHAPTER XXVI

PROGRESS OF BAPTIST PRINCIPLES

AS we have seen, the number of Baptists at the end of the nineteenth century had come to be more than five millions. But a denomination that has nothing better upon which to congratulate itself than mere numbers is to be pitied. Numbers alone are not strength. Before our worth to the world can be duly estimated, it becomes necessary to ask and answer the question, What have Baptists contributed to the religious thought and life of the world, and what is the value of that contribution? It may be sufficient to reply to this question that the value of Baptist contribution to Christian life and thought is sufficiently proved by the fact that nearly all the principles for which Baptists have contended are now the common property of Christendom. This may seem a sweeping if not a rash statement. Let us proceed to justify it in detail.

The chief of these distinctive principles of Baptists, as has been set forth in a previous chapter, relates to the nature of the church. Baptists have always contended that the church is not a worldly, but a spiritual body—spiritual, not in the sense of lacking a local organization or visible identity, but because organized on the basis of spiritual life. In other words, the church should consist of the regenerate only—that is, of persons who have given credible evidence to the world that they have been born again of the Spirit of God. This principle of Baptists, which was scouted at first and for centuries, has now won its way to general acceptance among nearly all Protestant denominations, such bodies as call themselves evangelical. In Europe, where State churches still exist, the principle has, it is true, made comparatively little progress. Where citizenship and church-membership are practically identical terms, it is evident that the church cannot insist upon regeneration as a condition of membership. Every one who is born into the State and upon whom some form of so-called baptism has been practised, must be presumed to be regenerate, and therefore to be a fitting person for all the privileges of church-fellowship, unless by a notoriously immoral and profligate life he negatives the assumption and warrants the State-supported minister or priest in refusing him communion. In many of the New England towns during the early period, church-membership was essential to the full enjoyment of the rights of citizenship, the State being in fact and almost in form a theocracy. It was natural, therefore, that persons who lacked spiritual qualifications for church-membership should yet desire a formal membership, in order to avail themselves of the accompanying civil privilege. How this pressure brought about the “Half-way Covenant,” with its disastrous effects on the churches, has already been told. It was for vehemently protesting against these evils that Jonathan Edwards was driven from his pastorate at Northampton, and sent forth like Abraham, “not knowing whither the Lord should lead him.”

The Baptist churches, as we have seen, through insistence upon a regenerate membership, were a bulwark against the rising tide of anti-scriptural doctrine that for a time threatened to overwhelm evangelical religion in New England. The influence of these facts was potent, not only among the Congregationalists, but among Presbyterians and other Protestant bodies. The necessity was clearly seen of a reform that should separate the worldly from the spiritual elements in the church. Gradually but surely, without outward change in their formularies or an avowed alteration of practice, these bodies came virtually to adopt the Baptist principle of a regenerate membership. They still to a certain extent vitiate the principle by maintaining the unscriptural practice of infant baptism, but they are quite rigid in the requirement that those thus baptized in unconscious infancy shall, on reaching years of maturity, make a public and personal profession of religion before they are received into full membership. And in many churches, Congregational, Presbyterian, Methodist, if not in all, this profession is not a mere form of words, but care is taken by the officers of the church to secure credible evidence of regeneration before the candidate is received. In many cases the examination is quite as careful and searching as that to which candidates for baptism are subjected in Baptist churches. While, therefore, we regret that our evangelical brethren of other faiths do not see the truth as we see it and that they are yet, as we believe, rendering an imperfect obedience to the commands of Christ, we have reason to rejoice that Baptist example has so far borne fruit that these brethren have in so large measure adopted, as their rule of church order, the cardinal distinctive principle of Baptists.

We may note as a second contribution of Baptists to Christian thought the fact that what is known as the baptismal controversy is now practically at an end. The issue has been decided and the verdict of scholarship is rendered. It is true that there are some Pedobaptists who imagine that the war is still going on, just as there are said to be mountaineers in Tennessee who still imagine that Andrew Jackson is a candidate for the presidency. But Andrew Jackson is not more unmistakably dead and buried than the baptismal controversy. No scholar of world-wide repute would risk his fame by denying that the primitive baptism was immersion, and immersion only. Not more than one or two Greek lexicons ever printed give any other meaning for the word baptizo than ‘‘immerse “ or   “dip“ or their equivalents in other languages.1 No exegete of the first rank attributes any other meaning than this to the word wherever it occurs in the New Testament. No church historian of the first rank has put his name to any other statement than that in apostolic times baptism was always the immersion of a believer. The admissions to this effect from Pedobaptist scholars of all countries during the last three centuries are numbered by scores, even by hundreds. There is no voice to the contrary except from men of scant scholarship, and the question is no longer disputed by anybody who is worth the attention of a serious person.

The candid Pedobaptists have entirely changed their ground. They no longer engage in pettifogging about the meaning of baptizo and the force of certain Greek prepositions; they boldly acknowledge, with Dean Stanley, that “there can be no question that the original form of baptism—the very meaning of the word—was complete immersion in the deep baptismal waters,” but that such immersion is “peculiarly unsuitable to the tastes, the convenience, and the feelings of the countries of the North and West.” This argument ignores, to be sure, the historical fact that sprinkling originated in the warm South, and immersion lingered longest in a cold country like England; but never mind that. The triumphant conclusion is fine—this quite unauthorized substitution of sprinkling for immersion, though it “has set aside the larger part of the apostolic language regarding baptism, and has altered the very meaning of the word,” is nevertheless to be regarded as “a striking example of the triumph of common sense and convenience over the bondage of form and custom.“

To meet their opponents on this changed ground, Baptists have but to stand by their cardinal principle that the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, as expressed to us through the Scriptures, is paramount with a true follower of Christ. When he says, Do this, whatever it may be, his loyal follower has no choice but to obey. And he cannot long persuade himself or persuade the world that it is obedience to do something quite different, under the plea that “ it will do just as well.” Nothing will do as well as unquestioning, exact, glad obedience to Christ’s lightest word.

It would be flattering to denominational pride to say that a third Baptist contribution to Christian thought is the doctrine as to the place of the Lord’s Supper among the ordinances of Christ; but to say this would not be true. The Baptist doctrine in this respect has never been peculiar, though opponents have sometimes made strenuous efforts to represent it as such. There is not—there never has been—a Christian body whose standards authorized its clergy to administer the communion to the unbaptized. Individual ministers have stretched church law to cover their own wrong practice in this regard. It is not uncommon, for example, for Episcopal clergymen to admit to the communion practically all who present themselves and are not known to them to be persons of immoral life, and they sometimes invite people whom they know to be Christians not in fellowship with their church.

These things are, however, done in spite of the rubric, which says, “And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion until such time as he be confirmed or be ready and desirous to be confirmed.” If Episcopal ministers here and there violate the well-established rule of their own church, that cannot be regarded as altering the rule. This principle applies equally to pastors of Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches that on their own authority invite to the Lord’s table other than baptized Christians. Their church formularies authorize no such invitation.

Only the exceptionally ignorant or the exceptionally unscrupulous now reproach Baptists because of their “close” communion, since intelligent and candid Pedobaptists know and acknowledge that we stand precisely where all Christendom stands, and where all Christendom always has stood from the days of the apostles until now, with regard to the qualifications for communion. All that Baptists can claim to have done in this matter is to have cleared away the mass of sophistries with which opponents had beclouded this question, until no excuse for ignorance and no apology for misrepresentation are possible.

But if Baptists cannot properly claim the honor of contributing this principle to Christian thought, they can honestly claim to have added another principle, namely, that the union of Church and State is contrary to the word of God, contrary to natural justice, and destructive to both parties to the union. Next to a regenerate church-membership, this has been the principle for which Baptists have most strenuously contended and with which they have been most prominently identified. For this teaching they were from the time of the Reformation until a period within the memory of men now living, despised and rejected of men, loaded with opprobrium, reviled, persecuted, put to death. Toleration was a byword and a hissing among all parties of Christians, and religious liberty was an idea that apparently never entered men’s minds until it was professed, defended, and exemplified by Baptists. It is difficult for Americans, living in an atmosphere of perfect religious liberty, where no law restrains any man from worshiping God in any way that his conscience dictates, or compels him to contribute of his substance to the support of any worship that he does not approve—it is hard for us even to imagine a state of society in which the majority determined what the community should believe, how men should worship God, and repressed all dissent with savage laws and penalties that did not stop short of the stake and the scaffold.

The once despised teaching of a few Baptists has become a commonplace of thought in our country, a fundamental principle of law, and he would be laughed at who should propose its overthrow or even its modification. But to appreciate what change has been wrought by this idea in American religious and civil life, an American must study the institutions of Europe, where there is no State that has not its established church, where dissent from the established religion is punished more or less severely by civil and social disabilities, if not by imprisonment and fines; and where, even if unmolested, those who dissent from the established religion are, nevertheless, heavily taxed for its support. This was the principle that prevailed during the colonial period in our own land. This would be the system under which we should now be living had not this despised principle of the Baptists become incorporated into the very spiritual and moral fiber of the American people.

There is still reason why Baptists should continue to bear their testimony in favor of this principle. It is generally acknowledged and professed, but not always obeyed. The separation of Church and State is not yet absolutely complete. Appropriations are made from Federal and State funds for the support of sectarian institutions on one plausible pretext or another; a certain denomination is recognized as having almost a monopoly of chaplainships in the army and navy, and its form of worship is generally maintained in both services; in some States inoffensive people who conscientiously observe the seventh day are prosecuted and punished by fines or imprisonment for quietly laboring in the fields on the first day of the week. And it is a fair question for debate whether the exemption of church property from taxation is not a relic of the old idea of church establishments. Here are still opportunities for Baptists to lift up the voice in behalf of their cherished principle, to cry aloud and spare not, until it is not only acknowledged to be abstractly true, but is concretely obeyed.

The Baptist principle of the independence of each church has also won its way to a very considerable degree of acceptance among churches of all orders. Among the Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Methodist churches, although in theory there is a more or less centralized and hierarchical government, the independence of the local church is practically unquestioned. The Methodist bishop still retains his theoretical power of ordering any man to any church, but it somehow happens that where a church desires a certain pastor, and the pastor desires to settle with that church, the bishop makes that identical appointnient. The Episcopal bishop has, in theory, large powers; in practice, every. Episcopal church chooses its own rector as absolutely as though there were no bishop. In theory, no Presbyterian church can call a pastor, and no pastor can be dismissed, without the concurrence of presbytery; but where both parties have made up their minds, presbytery always concurs.

Baptists have also contributed their share to the world’s advancement by their interest in missions, in education, in Sunday-schools, and in general philanthropic movements. The facts that justify this claim have been given in detail in previous chapters of this history, and only this statement needs to be made here, by way of giving completeness to this brief summary. Though not, strictly speaking, pioneers in most of these forms of religious activity, our churches have helped to bear the heat and burden of the day.

Though Baptists have thus powerfully influenced other bodies of Christians, it would be a mistake to infer that they have themselves escaped modifications in belief and practice through the influence of other Christian brethren. Mr. Spurgeon was reported, some years ago, as proudly remarking that he had never changed an opinion, and that he then preached precisely what he did when he began his ministry. The remark is probably not authentic, and was certainly not true; and if it had been true, it would be a reflection on the intelligence of a man who could spend fifty years in the ministry without learning anything. Mr. Spurgeon’s admirers, and their name is legion, cannot think so meanly of him. If a great preacher cannot live and labor a half-century without having his beliefs modified, still less can a large body, composed of many elements, some of them discordant, exposed to numerous hostile and disintegrating influences, and subect to those laws of development and growth that affect all social organisms. Change was inevitable, but change is not necessarily deterioration. Whether the modification is for the better may be left for the decision of theologians; the historian merely records the fact.

Modifications in Baptist faith and practice during the last two centuries may be noted (1) in the character of public worship, (2) in a less rigidly Calvinistic theology, (3) in a change of emphasis that marks the preaching of our day.

The feeling has gained ground among Baptist pastors of late years that the public worship of our churches lacks elements of color and variety and richness that it should have, and that it has departed from the scriptural method in practically giving over the public worship of God to two hired functionaries—the minister and the choir. The introduction of congregational singing and the use of the Psalter, as well as certain ancient forms of devotion that are the common heritage of Christendom and not the property of any church, has followed close on the conviction. Something like a general tendency in this direction is now observable, but how far it will proceed it were vain to speculate.

That both Calvinism and Arminianjsm have been so modified as to bear little relation to the systems once passing under these names is so well understood, and so little likely to be questioned, that it is not worth while to waste space in more than a statement of the fact. Each has reacted on the other, and between the latest statements of the two opposing systems a critical student can discern little more than a difference of emphasis. Both assert the sovereign election and free grace of God as the ground of the sinner’s salvation; both admit that the will of man, free as regards all external constraint, accepts God’s proffered grace; the Calvinist laying the greater stress on the former idea, the Arminian on the latter.

This matter of a changed emphasis has not been confined to theological circles alone; it has affected every pulpit. Any one who will read the published discourses of a century a~o and compare them with those of the present day must be struck by this fact. The same doctrifles are professed and believed as then, but how different the mode of presentation. The eternity of future punishment is still an article of faith, but the preacher no longer threatens sinners with a hell of material fire. Retribution is conceived as something at once more spiritual and more terrible than physical torture. The infinite love of God as shown in the redemption of a lost world; the atonement a satisfaction for its sins; salvation not a thing of the future life, but beginning here and now, not a mere rescue from hell, but the consecration of a life to God—these are the ideas that are most emphasized in the best preaching of to-day. To note the change is not to pronounce judgment on either the past or the present.

Another change is at present in progress among Baptists, but it is too soon to attempt to record its history. Two parties are in process of formation in the denomination, one who call themselves Progressives, another commonly called Conservatives. The names are not very happily chosen, but they are convenient, and their application is generally understood. These parties differ on questions of speculative theology, of history, of literary criticism, of denominational policy, of church order. At times there are symptoms that their opposition may break out into an open warfare; at times a peaceful issue seems not only hopeful, but certain.

In the judgment of men of other faiths, the most characteristic fact in the history of the Baptists during the last two centuries has been, not their rapid growth in numbers, but their marvelous continuity of belief, their orthodoxy of doctrine. It is the wonder of many members of other churches having elaborate written standards, and an ingenious system of checks and devices to prevent and punish heresy, that a denomination without a creed, without a government, with no central authority or other human device for preserving unity, with each local organization a law unto itself and responsible to none save Christ—that such a rope of sand should hold together at all, much less sustain a strain that the strongest bodies have borne none too well.

But one cause can be plausibly assigned for this phenomenon, and that is, Baptist loyalty to their fundamental principle, the word of God the otiiy rule of faith and practice. The Scriptures are easily “understanded of the people,” even the unlettered who approach them with open minds desiring to know the will of God. Such may not become great biblical scholars, but they will learn everything that it is important for them to know for their eternal salvation and daily guidance. They may not become profound theologians, but they will learn the cardinal truths of the Christian faith, and learn them more accurately in their right relations than the student of some human system is likely to learn them.

Loyalty to this principle has been the strength of Baptists in the past, and as they are loyal to it in future they may expect increase in numbers, in strength, and in unity.

 

1  The secondary meaning, “to dye,” recognized in most lexicons, cannot be called another meaning, since it expresses a mere modification of the root signification of the word—the dyeing is performed by dipping.

 
 
The Reformed Reader Home Page 


Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved