Baptist Identity: An Interminable Dilemma

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In authority and power in the free church tradition, Paul Harrison observed, ‘It is clear that Baptist history is freighted with ambiguity, and those who strive to establish the singularity of the tradition are on a weak foundation.’ Any attempt to write a history of Baptists must begin with such an admonition. From their beginnings in seventeenth-century Europe, Baptists have demonstrated beliefs and practices so diverse as to make it difficult to compile a consistent list of distinctives applicable to all segments of the movement at all times. Brief examples illustrate an interminable dilemma.

Bill J. Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History, p. 1

Is this a strength, or a weakness?

Leonard goes on to list various Baptist compilations of those characteristics that make Baptists, Baptists. In the 1640s, Anglican Daniel Featley said the “Dippers” “dipt,” and I don’t mean snuff. The immersed people all the way into the water. No pouring or sprinkling. The didn’t baptize children, they didn’t follow a Prayer Book or set liturgical form, but worshiped God “onely by the Spirit.” They refused to take oaths under any circumstance, and they thought no Christian could, in good conscience, “execute the office of civil magistrate.” Baptists were antiestablishment. Maybe they are still. Depends on the Baptist.

A list familiar to me, written by Robert Torbet, claims the Baptists distinctives include: “(1) the authority of Holy Scripture; (2) regenerate church membership; (3) baptism by immersion as the sign of new life in Christ and membership in the church; (4) the autonomy of the local congregation; (5) the priesthood of all believers; and (6) religious liberty.”

That leaves room for a lot of nuance, and a great deal of quibbling.

If you asked me for a seventh Baptist distinctive, it would be quibbling. I prefer it when the arguments are edifying. But I guess that, too, is something to argue about.