EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first 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) — The Lord blessed me with the wonderful privilege of growing up in a Christian home — a faithful, Baptist home. Sundays included Sunday School, church services, afternoon choir practice as well as Bible Drill, Discipleship Training and Sunday evening after-church fellowship. It was generally a very busy day. Wednesdays included church suppers, prayer meetings, mission organizations, committee meetings and choir practice.
During the week there were opportunities for outreach visitation, WMU and other activities. Summer calendars were built around Vacation Bible School, church camps and other church-related events. My family planned weeks and seasons around church activities. Our heroes were Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong and Bill Wallace of China.
But apart from a world history course as a high school student, I do not recall ever hearing stories about the Reformation, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin or other early 16th-century Protestant leaders in any church-related activity.
My guess is that my experience parallels that of many other Baptists. Why, then, should Baptists pay attention to the many events and programs taking place this year to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation for we are not Lutherans nor Anglicans nor Presbyterians. Yet, whether we realize it or not, many of our core convictions as Baptists have been influenced or shaped by those 16th-century thinkers.
What was the Reformation?
Many people across Germany and Switzerland over a period of several decades contributed to the wide-ranging movement of theological and spiritual renewal in 16th-century Europe known as the Reformation. But the most visible event according to tradition took place on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther (1483-1546), a monk and university professor, nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was concerned with papal abuses and the selling of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church, along with what he considered to be faulty understandings of justification by faith, biblical authority and other important doctrinal matters.
Philipp Melancthon, one of Luther’s colleagues who knew him as well as anyone, called Luther the Elijah of Protestantism and compared his influence to that of the apostle Paul in the first century. Luther roused the church from her slumber, reopened the fountain of God’s Holy Word for many people and was responsible for directing a generation to know Jesus Christ as their Lord. When one thinks of the Reformation period, one reflects on the titanic force of Luther, the good sense and preaching ministry of Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zurich, Switzerland, as well as the biblical exposition and theological articulations of John Calvin (1509-64) in Geneva. Among these three important leaders of the Reformation, there is general agreement that the one with the greatest influence was Martin Luther.
What have Baptists inherited from the Reformers?
For many people who grew up in a home or church with experiences similar to mine, we somehow had a sense that our parents, grandparents and pastors had received an understanding of the Christian faith as if it had come directly to them from the first-century apostles. We were naively unaware of what went on in between then and now. By and large, Baptists do not know very well our heritage, our history or our theological identity. The reality is that while we are “a people of the Book,” shaped, formed and informed by Holy Scripture, we also have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us who stood on the shoulders of others.
Such a debt to those who have gone before us was recognized by seventeenth-century Baptists who, in the Orthodox Confession of 1678, acknowledged that they stood with and affirmed with all Christians everywhere the teachings of the Nicene Confession, a fourth-century document that clearly maintained a commitment to the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ as well as Trinitarian orthodoxy. Francis Wayland, a most significant Baptist leader in the 19th century, wrote these words in “The Principles and Practices of Baptist Churches” (1861):
“I do not believe that any denomination of Christians exists, which, for so long a period as Baptists, has maintained so invariably the truth of their early confession…. The theological tenets of the Baptists, both in England and America, may be briefly stated as follows: they are emphatically the doctrines of the Reformation, and they have been held with singular unanimity and consistency.”
While most of us have not been directly influenced by the Reformers, our Baptist heritage and beliefs have been informed by the teaching of the Reformers as we will see in part two of our series.