I do not spend a lot of time thinking of my identity. When I do, I simply look at my License and what that does not tell me my wife fills in the rest including some stuff I do not want to know. Identity seems to be an issue of discussion today not only in scholarly Christian circles but also in the Political realm. In this post I am only concerned about the scholarly Christian discussions. A recent book called On Being Reformed: Debates over a Theological Identity by Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, Scott Clark, Crawford Gribben and D.G. Hart discusses just this. The main question of the book is can Baptists be rightfully called Reformed. As a member of a Sovereign Grace Baptist Church, I have no ecclesiastical agenda in considering this topic. I couldn’t care less whether any Baptist group calls itself “Reformed” or not.
For myself growing up in an independent fundamental dispensational Baptist church, I at some point in my teens got hold of the classic The Sovereignty of God by A.W. Pink (unabridged version) and it changed the way I looked at scripture. I then started reading a variety of different authors that were called “Calvinists” and even Calvin himself. At some point some (Baptist) friends of mine said we should not call ourselves Calvinists because that glorifies a man and instead call ourselves Reformed because that just indicates the movement. So I said that sounds reasonable and started using the moniker informally. Then I came across some books by a Regular Baptist named Kenneth Good called Are Baptists Calvinists? (to which he answered Yes!) and Are Baptists Reformed? (to which he answered a resounding No!) who took the exact opposite opinion on the labels. Calvinist for him was essentially the doctrines of grace whereas Reformed was a whole system of doctrines that Baptist distinctives could not allow. I found some of his arguments convincing but I found I disagreed with him so much that I did not give him much heed. Then I later started coming into contact with other “Reformed Baptists” as I considered myself at the time and found that we did not see eye to eye on much. They were strict London Confessionalists who were Sabbatarian, loved Banner of Truth (Pietist Calvinist organization) and thought that Pink’s unabridged book was hyper-Calvinist as well as John Gill, whom I had grown a fondness for. I also came under the influence of the Scotch Baptists and so was labeled as a dreaded "Sandemanian". This led me away from using the term Reformed to identify myself, but realize it was because I could not identify with the group of Baptists using the name and not out of pity for a victimized denomination called “Reformed”.
Who Are Baptists?
Baptists are so variegated that it is hard to have a specific identity. This is one of the criticisms of Baptists by other denominations and by the Reformed Baptists. Reformed Baptists often argue that in order to be a Baptist one must submit to the 1689 London Confession. This they say defines “Baptist” and so I guess they would have the rest of us stop calling ourselves Baptist, which is a little ironic considering they are upset over being denied the “Reformed” label. But Baptists are called General, Particular, Free Will, Regular, Missionary, Primitive, Landmark, Strict, English, Scotch, Swedish, Southern, Independent, American, Sovereign Grace, Reformed and probably more I am forgetting.
On Being Reformed?
Now to the book mentioned above. The first chapter is written by Chris Caughey and Crawford Gribben. They take the position that the seventeenth century confessions are the roots of a Reformed theological family tree that has many branches. In this view Reformed can include "the more conservative 'new Calvinists' "(think John Piper). The second chapter is written by Matthew Bingham. He takes the position that "Reformed" should be restricted to covenant confessionalists only. He would include in this group Baptists who hold strictly to the London Baptist Confession. Chapter three is written by D.G. Hart. I am a little confused on this as Darryl is a Presbyterian and does not have a dog in this fight. After all there is no Association of Presbyterian Baptists that I am aware of. By his own standards he is not even Reformed as the Presbyterians wrote their own confession in Westminster and did not follow the Three Forms of Unity. They also were founded by John Knox and not Calvin and so may not be able to claim the term "Calvinist" for themselves. I doubt John Calvin would approve of the Westminster Confession in it's infralapsarian predestination and it's views of assurance and definition of the Sabbath. Nevertheless, in his chapter he argues that Baptists are different. He writes "Baptists did not simply revise the Westminster Standards but wrote a new confession of faith" (p. 57). One of his problems with the London Baptist Confession is that it does not have a chapter on marriage and divorce as Westminster does. He nowhere explains why he believes Westminster follows the "Reformed" tradition when it differs with the Three Forms of Unity on assurance being of the essence of faith and Sabbatarian definitions. The final chapter is written by R. Scott Clark. His main arguments are that historically Baptists never identified themselves with the Reformed and that paedo-baptism is essential to the definition of Reformed.
At this point I want to reiterate my lack of care if any Baptist fellowship calls itself Reformed or not. In a way Bingham is correct in that it is a signpost for those either looking for or to avoid strict confessionalism or Sabbatarianism. I do not think a Reformed Baptist church sign will cause any confusion for Three Forms of Unity advocates who may slip up and visit the wrong church. There are Methodist Episcopal, Reformed Episcopal, Reformed Presbyterian churches that are clearly understood as to their identity (there is a Primitive Baptist Church of Christ church near my house that confuses me, but since I am neither hyper-Calvinist nor Campbellite, I would not visit it anyway). One of the authors of this book is an Orthodox Presbyterian and to my knowledge they are not being picketed by a bunch of Greeks and Russians for stealing their name. I am sure no one expects a thurible to be used in the worship service of one of these churches either (although D.G. Hart is High Church!). In my opinion the chapter by Caughey and Griffen was the best argued but that does not make it the correct one. Bingham, Hart and Clark are right in that Reformed should not just mean the five points of Calvinism, as Jansenist Catholics would agree with them, and I do think Charismatics veer off the sola scriptura trail too far to be considered Reformed. So Reformed should at least include the five points of Calvinism and the five solas, but whether it necessitates strict adherence to a confession, Sabbatarianism, paedo-baptism, and a particular view of marriage and divorce I am not prepared to say. Maybe we all do need to ask ourselves whether we are Christians first, Baptists first, Calvinists first, Sandemanians first or what?