Non-Calvinistic Southern Baptists have received no small amount of ridicule for the label “Traditionalist” despite our continued effort to explain our reasons for sticking with this label (which can be read HERE.) The term “traditional” rarely means “the way something started.” For example, “traditional music” in our churches today is not how music sounded when it first began. The term “traditional” typically refers to what has been most widely accepted by the majority for the last several generations. So, when Calvinistic Baptist insist that the term “Traditionalist” is misleading because many of the earliest Southern Baptists were Calvinistic, they have simply misunderstood our intentions.
Even if we were to talk about “the way something started” with regard to this doctrine, we could always appeal the the Early Church Fathers, who even by Calvinistic historians’ own admission, “clearly held to a form of libertarian free will.” <link> Further, it should be noted that Baptist history goes beyond where many Calvinistic Baptists wish to focus their studies, which brings us to our topic today.
Many of you probably read my recent article in response to William Birch, which expressed the reasons I do not consider myself an “Arminian.”
However, the label Arminian, for many, has simply come to mean “not-a-Calvinist.” Few are fully aware of the various nuances that mark these labels which can lead to much confusion. However, for the purpose of this article, those nuances are going to be ignored so as to better understand the formation of Baptist doctrine from its very beginning. Who better to do this than William Birch, who references the work of J. Matthew Pinson: Arminian And Baptist.
This article was originally posted at williambirch.net, but has been reproduced here by permission:
Arminian and Baptist: Can Baptists Be Arminian?
by William Birch
Due to a lack of teaching Church history, combined with apathy from the average pew-sitter Christ-follower, few realize that what we refer to as Arminian Baptists are the General Baptists of the sixteenth century. The focus of these Arminian Baptists is not free will but atonement provided, though not applied, to all. Hence these early Baptists defend not a limited atonement, as their Calvinist counterparts, but an unlimited atonement or, better, a general atonement — an atonement provided for and available to all generally. (cf. John 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15; 1 John 2:2)
These “Arminian Baptists” are the first Baptists; and they provide a proper framework for the “Calvinist Baptists” known as Particular Baptists — “particular” referring to the atonement, that God had provided an atonement particularly for those whom He intended to save, i.e., the unconditionally elect. But the advent of Calvinistic Baptists would take a whole generation after the formation of the General Baptists.1Why? I can only grant my opinion: Calvinism proper, in its Reformed context, is framed as strictly pædobaptistic. If a Calvinist decides to become a Baptist, this means he is abandoning the Reformed tradition, as is evinced by Arminius, when he enters the homes of the Anabaptists, attempting to persuade them to return to the Reformed church.2 The question remains whether a Baptist can be considered Reformed. See the post: “Baptists and the Reformed Tradition.”
The question “Can Baptists be Arminian?” assumes an entirely new and affirming perspective when considering that Arminians comprise the first Baptists. A better question may be “Can Baptists be Calvinist?” But whether these early Arminian Baptists derive their theological doctrines directly from Arminius is inconclusive and, I think, implausible. Granted, Arminius’ theology is very popular, especially among certain professors and clergy, even if not exhaustively so among the populace. Yet, Arminius is a favorite preacher among other preachers at the Old Reformed Church, and his teachings are widely discussed.3 So, early Baptists such as John Smyth (1570-1612) and Thomas Helwys (1575-1616) may learn about Arminius’ soteriological debates from the average Joe on the street.
Helwys in particular does not name Jacob Arminius — neither does Smyth — in their theological writings and yet both advocate his soteriology, and even theodicy, including liberty of conscience and freedom of religion. Pinson writes: “That Helwys would tie his doctrine of general redemption to the Dutch Reformed churches, despite his lack of reference to Arminius personally, indicates he was familiar with early Dutch Arminianism and viewed it favorably.”4 There is a possibility, of course, that Helwys, like the early Anabaptists (or Mennonites), came upon “Arminian beliefs” on his own. After all, Arminius’ theology is merely the expounding upon the teachings of the early Church fathers,5 and others disconnected to Arminius in his Dutch context arrive at similar conclusions regarding the atonement, predestination, and the operative Holy Spirit in His work of grace.
Helwys, because of the controversies stirred up among the Calvinists in Holland over the doctrines of Arminius, may decide to refrain from quoting Arminius directly. He is already distancing some of his doctrinal views from that of his friend and colleague, co-founder of the General Baptists, John Smyth. Perhaps in order to avoid a guilt by association charge he merely outlines and defines his theological positions without formally aligning those doctrines to Arminius or the Remonstrants. I remember reading Jason K. Lee’s view that John Smyth did not name Arminius, either, as the theological progenitor of his doctrines on the atonement, predestination, or the work of grace.6 Among most Southern Baptists today, very little mention is made of Arminius, though they agree with him on matters such as predestination, general atonement, grace, a non-causal or non-necessitated view of God’s sovereignty, and ecclesiological matters such as freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.
Free Will Baptists, however, are proud to name Jacob Arminius as representative of their theology, as these Baptists align their views with his on subjects such as total depravity, total inability and, hence, a will that must be freed in order for one to believe in Christ7, conditional election, general atonement, a proactive, initial, enabling or prevenient grace that can be resisted (though regeneration proper cannot and would not be resisted), original sin, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer, the absolute authoritative and infallible Word of God, and, of course, a non-determined view of the sovereignty of God. Are these Baptists considered Reformed?
In a traditional and historical sense Baptists do not care to be considered Reformed — though, without doubt, they belong to the broadly Reformed tradition, given that they quite zealously reject the Roman Catholic Church, its supposed authority, and its teachings, and give heed to the Reformed mantra of the five solas: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, soli deo gloria (one is saved by scripture alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone). According to historically Reformed persons, however, any Baptist who rejects pædobaptism is not in the Reformed tradition. Such is not a concern for historic Baptists, many of whom claim, “We have no creed but the Bible.” Other Baptists, particularly Free Will Baptists, include the moniker for themselves: they are Reformed Arminians within the broadly Reformed tradition.
Can a Baptist be an Arminian? A Baptist is the singularly most appropriate candidate for being an Arminian! Arminianism is not defined strictly as either pædobaptistic, or Presbyterian in church government, as are Arminius and the Remonstrants, as is demonstrated in the life and teachings of Thomas Helwys. Pinson argues that Helwys’ theology is “a more grace-oriented Arminianism that emphasized that salvation was by grace alone, through faith alone, by the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, though divine grace is resistible. Helwys’s plain-styled approach in [the] first Baptist treatise on predestination laid the groundwork for more extensive works by General Baptist thinkers such as Thomas Grantham.”8 The modern-day Free Will Baptist tradition is the only major denomination that is “historically connected to the seventeenth-century General Baptists.”9
3 Ibid., 183.
4 Pinson, 84.
5 Kenneth D. Keathley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.
6 Jason K. Lee, The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2003).
7 “In an epilogue, Helwys clarified what his beliefs were concerning human free will after the fall. He argued that the belief in free will as Calvinists commonly define it is often attached to the doctrine of general redemption. Yet he wished to distance himself from that doctrine. If by free will is meant the Pelagian or semi-Pelagian belief (which, for example, John Smyth and the Waterlander Mennonites held) that man after the fall has the natural free will to choose the good without the interposition of divine grace, then Helwys does not believe in it.” Pinson, 98.
8 Ibid., 99.