Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Encounters with tradition (3): from Congregationalist to Reformed Baptist

A guest-post by Guy Davies

Charles Haddon Spurgeon began his Christian life as a Congregationalist who believed in infant baptism. But soon after his conversion, he embraced Baptist views. His Congregationalist parents were a little disappointed in Charles’ decision to seek baptism. But they gave him permission to follow his conscience. His mother wrote: “Ah, Charles, I often prayed to the Lord to make you a Christian, but I never asked that you might become a Baptist.” The dutiful son replied with a note of typical Spurgeonic wit: “Ah, Mother, the Lord has answered your prayer with his usual bounty, and has given you exceedingly abundantly above all you asked or thought.”

I began my Christian life as a rather charismatic Congregationalist. I quickly became disillusioned with charismatic experiences as it became obvious to me that my “speaking in tongues” was just me blurting out incomprehensible nonsense. I needed something that would give my new Christian life depth and stability and I found this in the riches of Reformed theology. In Puritan and Reformed teaching, I discovered a convincingly biblical theology that was married to an emphasis on true experiential Christianity. Here I found head and heart united to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

The transition from Charismatic to Calvinist was accomplished in a brief period of time. But it took some years to shift from a paedobaptist Congregationalist to a Baptist. As a young Christian I learned that the great Congregationalist divines like John Owen and Thomas Goodwin were infant-baptists, as were the reformers and the early church fathers. Their argument seemed pretty convincing: baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant. As (male) children were circumcised under the old covenant, so children of believers should be baptised under the new. This view was based on a semblance of biblical theology and backed up by many of my theological heroes. How could it be wrong? Besides, I was just a little fed up with Baptist friends telling me that I needed to be baptised! As far as I was concerned, I was baptised – as an infant, and that was that.

But the more I thought about the matter, it became clear to me that infant baptism is neither implied by the Old Testament nor taught in the New. Reformed Baptists are committed to applying sola scriptura to the matter of baptism. We honour the reformers and Puritans – but on this issue, they were mistaken. This reminds us that our heroes have feet of clay. Tradition is to be valued, but the Bible alone is our authority. “Repent, and let every one of you be baptised” (Acts 2:38). In the New Testament, water baptism always follows repentance and faith.

There is a danger that when we changes our views we set ourselves against those we formerly agreed with. But I still hold to Congregationalist views of church government, and still have deep respect for infant-baptist Christians. There are aspects of the Reformed Baptist tradition that I am not entirely happy with. The movement has sometimes veered away from evangelical Calvinism into hyper-Calvinism and even antinomianism. Some Reformed Baptist churches will not allow infant-baptist Christians to join them at the Lord’s Table. To me that is uncharitable and sectarian. But I think that the Reformed Baptist position, as set forth in the 1689 Baptist Confession, is a faithful expression of biblical Christianity.

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