Continuing our series of Sermons when we invited ‘guest’ preachers from our parent denominations to speak on ‘the Reformation in respect of their denomination’, our fourth and final guest is retired Baptist minister, Rev Ray Vincent, who is also a member of St David’s. This what Ray shared with us .
Morning Worship at St David’s – a Baptist’s view on the Reformation
This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church, which sparked off the Reformation and divided Europe between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Protestantism developed into two main streams:
- the Lutherans in Germany, who reformed the worship and teaching but kept the basic episcopal pattern
- the Calvinists in Geneva, who re-formed the church into a structure of councils that became the Presbyterian pattern
These had one thing in common, something that Christian Europe had always taken for granted: i.e., that it is the duty of the State to uphold and enforce the true faith.
- Luther had the support of his local prince, and as his ideas spread an agreement was reached that each kingdom or principality had the right to practise its own version of Christianity without outside pressure; so to this day there are Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist regions in Germany
- Calvin was appointed by the Geneva city council to be in charge of reforming the Church there
In Scotland, John Knox persuaded Parliament to adopt the Presbyterian pattern.
In England and Wales there was a turbulent history:
- Henry VIII took away the Pope’s power to rule the church in England, but it remained firmly Catholic
- Under Edward VI (1547-53) it became fiercely Protestant for 6 years
- Under Mary (1553-58) it was Catholic again for 5 years
- Elizabeth I (1558-1603) returned it to a moderate Protestantism, so we got the Church of England
But everywhere it was generally assumed that, whatever your nationality, that decided what your religion was to be, and you were not allowed practise any other religion. Even after Baptists and other Nonconformists achieved toleration, limitations on their rights remained for a long time.
The first people to break this pattern were the Anabaptists. They believed that being a Christian means being a true believer and a follower of Jesus Christ. That is a personal commitment that cannot be forced. No one is automatically a Christian through being born in a Christian country.
So the Anabaptists stood for freedom of religion – an idea that is taken for granted in most countries today, but in those days it was revolutionary and dangerous.
Along with this went believers’ baptism. No one can be made a Christian at birth: following Jesus is a choice and a personal commitment.
They also stood for baptism by total immersion, because that seems to be the pattern in the New Testament:
- baptism derived from a Jewish cleansing ritual that involved the washing of the whole body
- Paul saw it as a symbol of dying and rising with Christ
“Anabaptist” means “baptising again”: they did not believe that the sprinkling of infants was real baptism, so they baptised each other as a mark of commitment.
They were the radicals, the extreme wing of the Reformation, persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants. For some, the punishment was total and permanent immersion in the lake!
They were virtually wiped out in the early 16th century, but some of their ideas lingered on and influenced the rise of Baptists nearly 100 years later.
The first Baptists were English, but living in exile in Amsterdam. John Smith led a church there that started in 1608, and in 1612 some of them moved to London and established a Baptist church in Spitalfields.
From these beginnings, the Baptist way spread over the world, and there are now more than 20 million Baptists. Famous Baptists have included John Bunyan, C H Spurgeon, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jimmy Carter.
Like the Anabaptists, they stood for:
- baptism of believers by immersion
- independence from the state.
They also stood for:
- individual responsibility, the “priesthood of all believers”
- government by church meeting: Christians gathering to pray and seek God’s will together
- association of churches for mutual encouragement rather than a hierarchy
British Baptists have a Declaration of Principle, first adopted in 1873. Its first clause is: “That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws”.
This is a declaration of principle, not a creed. Baptists believe in constantly seeking God’s truth and God’s will by reading the Bible, praying, and conversing with one another.
Note the order: it is not the Holy Scriptures that are the supreme authority, but Jesus Christ as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.
The liberty of each church to interpret the way of Christ is central to the Baptist way:
- C H Spurgeon tried to get the Baptist Union to adopt a doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture, but (although he was a very popular preacher with influence over big, wealthy churches, it was resisted
- At the height of the Temperance movement, an attempt was made to rule that Baptists must be total abstainers, but this too was resisted
- We are fighting for the principle again today in the controversy over homosexuality and same sex marriages
It is things like this that make me proud to be a Baptist. Though Baptists generally have the reputation of being conservative, narrow and fundamentalist, the Declaration of Principle is still there.
My life in the church has been mostly ecumenical. Many Baptists (more than people realise) have worked to bring the churches closer together. Like John Bunyan 350 years ago, we do not let differences over water cut us off from our fellow-believers.
Some Baptist ideas have by now permeated the Church and society:
- freedom of belief
- respect for conscience
- more democratic ways of running the Church
- the importance of commitment
- even believers’ baptism by immersion
We all still have a long way to go in understanding and living the gospel. We are still challenged by the third clause of the Declaration of Principle: “That it is the duty of every disciple to bear personal witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to take part in the evangelisation of the world”.