Baptism is an important event in the life of any church. A church’s understanding of baptism is a mirror of the theology that a particular church holds, even though it may not be apparent to the undiscerning eye. Our doctrine of this subject raises a crucial question as to the direction that the baptismal sign is directed. I would like us to take a brief step back into history to know something of the first English baptist, John Smyth. As we briefly peer into the life of this pivotal character upon the stage of the development of believer’s baptism, we will understand the roots from where this doctrine sprang, and some of the consequences for our theology.
John Smyth, the first English baptist
John Smyth (?1570–1612) belonged to what is historically referred to as the “English Separatist Tradition”. B. R. White asserts that this movement “reached its climax” through Smyth’s theological developments. A summary of his rapid trajectory is supplied by Jason K. Lee who writes:
John Smyth is one of the most intriguing figures in Baptist history. Though most renowned as a pioneer of the General Baptists, Smyth was actually a Baptist for less than two years. His pilgrimage of faith included stages as a Puritan, a Separatist, a Baptist, and a Mennonite. These changes took place in a period of about a decade.
In 1606, as an ordained Anglican preacher, Smyth seceded to pastor the Gainsborough Separate Church which was twinned with a congregation in nearby Scrooby, where he became acquainted with the famed leaders John Robinson, William Bradford (who later became the Governor of the Plymouth Plantation) and William Brewster. The year 1608 was probably when Smyth and his congregation emigrated to Amsterdam; 1609 the time when believer’s baptism was introduced; and 1612 marks his death and the forming of the first baptist church in Spitalfields, London by his former associate Thomas Helwys, who incidentally had previously seceded from the disbanded congregation led by Smyth in Amsterdam.
The doctrine of the church had been subject to constant debate for decades, prior to Smyth’s innovations. The crux of the issue revolved around where the locus of congregational authority should rest, to replace the assumed Anglican episcopal system. Matthew 18:15–17 was the heartbeat of much of the discussion. The phrase “tell it to the church” in Matthew 18:17 was understood by the Reformed church to mean “tell the elders”, however for Smyth, he strongly advocated that the “final seat of church authority was the congregation”. Ecclesiology was “in the mix” but Smyth moved away from his contemporaries, such as Robinson, Richard Clifton and Governor Bradford.
Smyth demonstrated discontinuity from the Separatist tradition on a number of inter-connected fronts. He adopted his own ideas for baptism, church government and liturgy, and theology. Smyth arrived in Amsterdam during a “time of theological ferment concerning the theology of Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609)” and this was prior to the Synod of Dort’s (1618–19) theological settlement. Walter H. Burgess observed that he abandoned a Calvinistic scheme for particular redemption, unconditional election and predestination, in favour of the Arminian framework of a universal atonement and partial depravity. His democratic church polity led him to bring the ministry of pastors and elders “under full subjection to the mind and will of the congregation”. This opened the way for a weakness in church order because the authority of elders became one that was conferred by the congregation, instead of being derived from the Lord, as confirmed by other elders. However, he is most remembered for forging new paths in radically changing his doctrine, practice and constitution of baptism, and this we now address.
A two-pronged influence probably accounted for his reorganised baptism: a rejection of Church of England practices, including the baptism of infants; and the influence of the Arminian anabaptists in Amsterdam. Smyth rejected paedobaptism and he provocatively preached that the baptism of infants was anti-Christian and that it led to a false constitution of the church. Therefore, we now understand that Spurgeon’s comments which open this article, have had a long and unfortunate polemic history. The fountainhead of English baptists arose from the theology, pen and preaching of Smyth, and few baptists and Christians know this. For the Separatist tradition, according to Stephen Brachlow, there was laid “considerable stress on the conditional covenant relationship of visible obedience” for the constitution of a local church. It is unanimously testified by historians, that for Smyth “baptism now replaced the church covenant”. Here lies the problem.
The sign of baptism was changed. Children of believing parents were now excluded from church membership through the rite of baptism. Any notion of covenant promises on the basis of Genesis 17:10–12 and Acts 2:39 as holding validity, were effectually rendered null and void. It was a new understanding of the new covenant. Instead of baptism pointing to God’s gracious and future provision in the case of infants, it now pointed in a 180-degree different direction. Baptism pointed to an individual’s visible gospel obedience and faith. The ideas for this new baptism were derived from an Arminian stable and it understandably led to disruption with the historic Reformed community, both then and now.
To be frank, it would not be without warrant, if someone suggested that believer’s baptism is “a prop and pillar” of Arminian thought. This conclusion does not mean that there cannot be Calvinistic baptists or baptists who hold to covenant theology. Spurgeon being a prime example; he was a preacher of Calvinistic soteriology par excellence. In my view, covenant baptism is fully consistent with and mutually reinforces with Reformed theology and adult believer’s baptism is fully consistent and mutually reinforces with Arminian theology. For a Reformed baptist, God’s sovereignty and grace in the salvation of sinners in their Calvinistic scheme is being held in tension with a believer’s sacrament of baptism. For an Arminian baptist, both their theology and baptism are congruous, so it does not matter in this case. Many may disagree with this notion, but the doctrine of baptism does shape our understanding of the church and also evangelism. Additionally, believer’s baptism, as Smyth teaches us, points to individual faith and obedience and this has significant implications for evangelism.