Baptist Identity in the English Revolution
Review by Chuck Ivey
Bingham, Matthew C., Orthodox Radicals: Baptist Identity in the English Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 248 pp. $99.00
Biographical Sketch of the Author
Matthew C. Bingham serves at Oak Hill College in London as lecturer in systematic theology and church history. He was lead pastor of Flint Reformed Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia before moving to Ireland to pursue his PhD. He was a contributor to On Being Reformed: Disputes Over a Theological Identity, in which he defended Baptist connections to the Reformed tradition.
If you are a regular reader at Things Above Us, you know that all our writers cherish and affirm the Doctrines of Grace, also known as Calvinism or Reformed Theology. We recognize the nuances and distinctions to these terms, but also celebrate the unity that can be found within them. At the same time, those of us in SBC churches are grateful for the big tent that allows for cooperation and sharpening from believers who affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 but disagree with us on the Doctrines of Grace.
The common wisdom has been to think of “two streams” of Baptists in American history over the past 300 years. Baptist historians have pointed to the Calvinistic stream from the Charleston Association and the more Arminian leaning stream from the Sandy Creek Association. A fuller appreciation for Baptist history requires us to go back even further, to seventeenth-century England. Many historians have written about our British forefathers in terms of Calvinistic “Particular Baptists” (as in “particular redemption”) vs. more Arminian leaning “General Baptists.”
While it may or may not be legitimate to think of two “streams” of evangelical Baptists in modern North America, the question of exactly when these groups developed and came together has been, at best, unclear. Many who identify as “Reformed Baptist” exist today, but is that how groups like the original framers of the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 would have described themselves? Should these groups even be lumped together solely based on a shared rejection of infant baptism?
In addition to these questions, those of the “Reformed Baptist” persuasion have experienced the frustration of contradictory claims by their opponents from the Reformed pedobaptist tradition. On the one hand, the claim is made that the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 is simply a copy of the Westminster Confession minus some changes regarding baptism and church polity. And at the same time, the claim is made that the Particular Baptists who produced the 1689 were so fundamentally different from the Westminster Assembly that they should not be called “Reformed” at all and should be lumped in with the Anabaptists.
Particular Baptists or Baptistic Congregationalists?
Matthew Bingham steps into this discussion with what I think will be one of the most significant claims in recent years. He rightly points out that theological disputes and formulations do not take place in a vacuum. Also, those who we depend on for our study of the theological past may have been more interested in “denominational history” than they were in objective reporting (5). The author makes some incredibly bold claims in this book. For example, he argues that historians have erroneously thought in terms of “kinds of Baptists” when it comes to the mid-seventeenth century. He writes that “the very category ‘Baptist’ was an eighteenth-century development and to impose it upon the mid-seventeenth century is to think anachronistically about the past.” (10).
In Chapter 1, “The Jessey Circle and the Invention of the Baptist Identity”, Bingham provides a brief look at some of the players involved in the movement (12-37). He begins with the story of how Samuel Richardson and Benjamin Cox passed out pamphlets with a baptistic confession of faith (12-13). They hoped that it would be recognized as within the bounds of orthodoxy by the religious authorities of the time (12-13). The confession was dismissed by their critics as a deceptive attempt to “cover a little rats-bane (poison) in a great quantity of sugar.” To put it mildly, the movement was off to a rough start.
Bingham moves on in Chapter 2 “Baptists Along the Congregational Way” to explore what a proper name for this group would be (38-61). Interestingly, he notes that the now commonly accepted labels “Particular Baptists” and “General Baptists” may have been coined not by “Baptists” themselves, but Quakers writing about them (42). Bingham ultimately lands on “Baptistic Congregationalists” as what he believes to be the most accurate term. For example, in 1641 William Kiffen wrote of the “great truth” that “Christ hath given his Power to his Church, not to Hierarchy, neither to a National Presbytery, but to a company of Saints in a Congregational way.” (48, emphasis added). Also, those who were only later called “Particular Baptists” produced a catechism in 1695 in which they never actually called themselves “Particular Baptists.” They self-identified in the catechism as “congregations of Christians, (baptized upon profession of their faith) … owing the doctrine of personal election, and final perseverance” (42, emphasis added). In other words, congregational polity was much more of the driving conviction for them as believers. The extent of the atonement was obviously important, but it was not the issue they would have grouped “Baptists” over.
In Chapter 3 “Between Us and the Compleat (sic) Anabaptists”, Bingham connects the abandonment of pedobaptism to congregational church structure (62-89). Those in religious authority did not exactly welcome Baptistic Congregationalists right away, but there was a progression towards greater acceptance and distinctions between so called “semi” and “compleat” Anabaptists (62-63). Bingham posits that the most surprising development of all this was the fact that Baptistic Congregationalists came to exist at all (64). The title of this book can be summarized in the author’s statement that their “essential orthodoxy and relatively conservative temperament seems at odds with their radical departure from the Christian tradition’s near universal consensus on the appropriateness of infant baptism.” (64). Bingham goes on to argue that the label “Baptist” as a category for that time period is unhelpful and that the importance of baptism itself has been exaggerated (65-66).
In Chapter 4 “’Opposite to the Honor of God’ No Longer”, Bingham starts by describing the change of heart experienced by Robert Baillie, a Scottish presbyterian and commissioner in the Westminster Assembly. In 1646 Baillie declared that so called “Anabaptism” was the “true fountaine (sic)” of every other heresy (90). It is important to remember that just 12 years earlier there was a violent uprising by the Anabaptists in Münster, Germany. The Anabaptist leader John of Leiden had declared himself the prophet and “king of righteousness” in Münster and instituted property seizure, forced polygamy, and the execution of dissenters (93). It is understandable how “Anabaptists” became the boogeymen of their day. Baillie and others shifted in their views of “Anabaptists” from total condemnation to toleration and eventually to legitimation. By 1652, the Baptistic Congregationalists, those “commonly, though falsely called Anabaptists”, were being appointed by the state to serve on local ecclesiastical committees as “ejectors” with authority to remove “Scandalous, Ignorant, and insufficient ministers” (107).
Finally, Chapter 5 “Years of Freedom, by God’s Blessing Restored” opens with the 1649 “First Year of Freedom.” (118-146). Baptistic Congregationalists hoped this would provide them with opportunities to prove the legitimacy of their cause. One such opportunity came when a politically radical group known as the “Levellers” began to disrupt meeting halls by reading their manifesto (118-119). A group of Baptistic Congregationalists, lead by William Kiffen, petitioned the House of Commons with their rejection of the Levellers. The Speaker of the House of Commons praised Kiffen and his group of “Anabaptists” for their actions.
In the Conclusion, Bingham restates the major themes and assertions of the book (147-156). The Baptistic Congregationalists had no desire to be theological bomb throwers. The later development of “Baptist” as a category was not their defining trait. They are best understood as “congregationalists who, as it happened, reached novel conclusions regarding the legitimacy of infant baptism.” (153).
This is an important book, but not one I would recommend for casual reading. Bingham’s claims here are carefully and thoroughly laid out. He includes a few historical events which add some intrigue, but this is clearly an academic work intended for an academic audience. There are extensive notes and bibliography that scholars will surely be debating for some time. That being said, I did not find the book to be dry, just one that demands and rewards careful reading.
Orthodox Radicals is going to be one of those watershed books that will be championed and debated by historians. Both those who agree with Bingham and those who reject his claims will have to consider what he presents here. One of the primary takeaways I gained from this book was an insightful comment the author makes in the Conclusion. As he puts it, “The labels with which we describe the past inevitably presuppose and project an interpretation of that past.”
Access to a digital copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.