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500 YEARS: Baptists & the Reformers: intersections & departures

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a three-part series on how Baptists have been shaped by the Reformation yet have developed key distinctives in such areas as believer’s baptism, religious liberty and global missions. The Reformation sparked by Martin Luther began 500 years ago this month.

DEERFIELD, Ill. (BP) — Baptists share many essential teachings with other Protestant Christians who have been influenced by the 16th-century Reformers. Baptists have moved beyond the Reformers in charting a distinctive path, beyond primary doctrines like the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of salvation, often referred to as the formal principle and the material principle of the Reformation. To these matters we now turn our attention.

The Reformers were in full agreement in their affirmations of scriptural authority and the essence of the doctrine of salvation. Likewise, they rejected the superiority of the priesthood, of vocational ministry, stressing instead the priesthood of all believers. Not only did this mean that all believers in Christ had access to God (Hebrews 10:19-25) but it underscored the Christian dignity of ordinary human callings, including artists, laborers, homemakers and plowmen. By implication, this elevated the importance of family life, opening the door for clerical marriage.

The Reformers rejected the mediation of Mary and the intercession of all the saints, insisting that Christ alone was our high priest to bear our sin and sympathize with our weaknesses. They rejected the medieval teaching regarding the seven sacraments, insisting that the New Testament taught only two sacraments or ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Reformers unanimously rejected the sacrificial nature of the Lord’s Supper, refuting the church’s teaching regarding transubstantiation. Baptists have emphasized a view of the Lord’s Supper that reflects much of the perspective of Ulrich Zwingli.

The Reformers also departed from the medieval teaching which affirmed that the church was dependent on communion with the papacy. Instead, they insisted that the church was called into being by God’s Spirit and was established on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).

Baptists have shaped their beliefs regarding the Triune God, Jesus Christ, Holy Scripture, salvation by grace through faith, the church, the ordinances, Christian service and the family in recognition of their gratitude for and indebtedness to the courage and conviction of the 16th-century Reformers. Yet, Baptists have chosen not to be content merely with the basic teachings of the Reformers. They have also modified these teachings and moved beyond them in key areas that we often call “Baptist distinctives.”

Baptist distinctives

While Baptists are heirs of the 16th-century Reformation (with influence also from the “radical reformers” like Menno Simons, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and Balthasar Hubmaier), they have moved beyond the Reformers in at least five key areas.

Baptists affirm believer’s baptism by immersion instead of the Reformers’ view of infant baptism. Baptists have contended for a voluntary understanding of the church and congregationalism based on a regenerate church membership instead of an inherited understanding of church membership connected with infant baptism. The third key distinctive involves the repudiation of church-state ties, stressing religious liberty along with the local organization of church life instead of state control or even denominational control. Also, Baptists believe that the two ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are to be practiced as matters of obedience and fellowship rather than as a means of grace. Lastly, Baptists, more so than any of the 16th-century Reformers, have consistently stressed the priority of the Great Commission and global missions.


Baptists are a people committed to the primacy of Scripture, who are heirs of the best of the Reformation. The Gospel-focused, scripturally grounded core to which we all must hold has been greatly influenced, both directly and indirectly, by the teachings of the Reformers. It is important for us during this year of commemorating and celebrating the Reformation to clarify our confessional commitments and reappropriate, retrieve and reclaim the very best of both the Reformation heritage and our Baptist heritage. We pray that the reminders to which we have pointed in this series will enhance our understanding of the Gospel, deepen our commitment to Scripture and to our Baptist confessional heritage, bringing renewal to our churches. May we seek to pass on this heritage in a faithful manner to the next generation, even as we seek to take the Good News of Jesus Christ to a lost and needy world.

    About the Author

  • David S. Dockery