Is “Reformed Baptist” an oxymoron?

I was a Baptist when I came to believe in a Calvinistic soteriology, in a theological shift that was triggered by reading John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied, so I quickly found myself in sympathetic fellowship with people who called themselves “Reformed Baptists” or sovereign grace Baptists. I got into reading publications from the Banner of Truth Trust, Spurgeon’s sermons and other literature which Calvinistic (Reformed) Baptists recommended to me.

In recent years, however, I have read numerous objections from Presbyterians and Reformed Church members to the idea that a believer baptist could be called Reformed. In their minds, the ecclesiology of those traditions that are rooted in the Reformed wing of the Reformation is critical to Reformed identity. With some of these people, I have tried to make a case for the legitimacy of a wider understanding of what is really distinctive and essential about being Reformed, but lately I have been inclined to respect their complaints and to think of myself simply as a “monergistic Baptist.”

(The huge irony of this is that numerous philosophers, and some theologians, within traditional Reformed church bodies have become synergists. Late in the day, Arminius seems to be winning converts inside the church that so carefully excluded the synergism for which he and his theological heirs argued. It seems to me that monergism is far more central to the spirit of Calvinistic or Reformed thought than is its ecclesiology, but the Reformed credentials of synergists remain unquestioned from within their churches.)

A recent blog post by Kevin DeYoung, an enthusiastic Presbyterian, asks whether John Piper is Reformed, and it has me  reconsidering the necessity of rejecting the moniker “Reformed Baptist” as an oxymoron.

Kevin DeYoung

DeYoung writes:

 . . . it doesn’t bother me when John Piper is called Reformed. Besides the fact that he could likely affirm 95% of what is in the Three Forms and in the Westminster Standards—and I’m not suggesting the other 5% is inconsequential, I’m just making a point that the differences are not as great as one might think—I can readily acknowledge that the word “Reformed” is used in different ways. “Reformed” can refer to a confessional system or an ecclesiastical body. But “Reformed” or “Calvinist” can also be used more broadly as an adjective to describe a theology that owes much of its vigor and substance to Reformed theologians and classic Reformed theology.

Herman Bavinck’s chapter on the history of “Reformed Dogmatics” provides a good example. For starters, Bavinck notes how different Reformed theology is from Lutheran theology, the former being less tied to one country, less tied to one man, and less tied down in a single confession (Reformed Dogmatics, 1.177). Doctrinal development, Bavinck argues, has been richer and more multifaceted in Reformed theology (which may be one of the reasons you don’t hear of Lutheran Baptists).

In particular, Bavinck claims, “From the outset Reformed theology in North America displayed a variety of diverse forms.” He then goes on to mention the arrivals of the Episcopal Church (1607), the Dutch Reformed (1609), the Congregationalists (1620), the Quakers (1680), the Baptists (1639), the Methodists (1735 with Wesley and 1738 with Whitefield), and finally the German churches. “Almost all of these churches and currents in these churches,” Bavinck observes, “were of Calvinistic origin. Of all religious movements in America, Calvinism has been the most vigorous. It is not limited to one church or other, but—in a variety of modifications—constitutes the animating element in Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and German Reformed churches, and so forth” (1.201). In other words, not only is Bavinck comfortable using Calvinism has a synonym for Reformed theology (in this instance at least), he also has no problem affirming that Calvinism was not limited to one tradition alone but constituted the “animating element” in a variety of churches. Calvinism, as opposed to Lutheranism, flourished in colonial America as the typical orthodox, Reformational, sola scriptura-sola fide alternative to the various forms of comprised Arminianism and heterodox Socinianism.

The reason “Reformed” has not been confined in this country to those, and only those, who subscribe to the Three Forms or the Westminster Standards, is because from the beginning the basic contours of Calvinist theology pulsed through the veins of a variety of church bodies. Does this mean nothing but “the basic contours of Calvinist theology” matter for life and godliness? Certainly not—why else would Herman Bavinck go on to carefully delineate the intricacies of Reformed dogmatics for 2500 more pages. I am gladly Reformed, with a capital R as big as you can find.

Which is why my first reaction to the proliferation of even some of Reformed theology is profound gratitude. Do I think TULIP is the essence of Calvinism? No. Do I wish many who think of themselves as “Reformed” would go a lot farther back and dig a lot deeper down? Yes. But does it bother me that people think of Piper, Mohler, and Dever as Reformed? Not at all. They are celebrating and promoting Calvin and Hodge and Warfield and Bavinck and Berkhof—not to mention almost all of the rich Scriptural theology they expound—in ways that should make even the most truly Reformed truly happy.

I appreciate the generous spirit displayed by DeYoung in these statements. There is a widespread assumption in credo-baptist circles that  it is legitimate to consider Baptists to be “Reformed” if they have broadly Calvinistic convictions. These are people who would happily affirm the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677, reissued in 1689) or its successor, the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742).  I am going to return to using that terminology myself, since some others who are within pedo-baptistic Reformed now adopt a perspective similar to the one enunciated by Kevin DeYoung. It is very clear that the framers of the London Confession, particularly in its revision in 1646, intended to identify themselves as within the tradition previously defined by Presbyterians in the Westminster Confession, since they followed that confession so closely, changing only the areas necessitated by their pedobaptist convictions.

I know that the term “Reformed Baptist” will continue be protested by many Calvinistic pedo-baptists, but I welcome DeYoung’s extension of the right hand of Reformed fellowship across the baptist dividing line. I shake that hand warmly.

[Edited: Nov 20/13]



By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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