Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

The Influence of Calvinism on Seventeenth-Century English Baptists: Theological Labels Need to Be Treated with Care, for They Are Not, and Cannot Be, Representative of Fixed Systems, Totally Resistant to Reinterpretation According to Changing Context, Be This Temporal, Geographical, or Political

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

The Influence of Calvinism on Seventeenth-Century English Baptists: Theological Labels Need to Be Treated with Care, for They Are Not, and Cannot Be, Representative of Fixed Systems, Totally Resistant to Reinterpretation According to Changing Context, Be This Temporal, Geographical, or Political

Article excerpt

In tracing ecclesiastical influences, care must be taken, in default of specific evidence, not to confuse the process of "derived from" with "conforms to," particularly given that numerous groups were thumbing the scriptures at one and the same time, anxious to discover biblical patterns of belief and churchmanship. (1) Moreover, self-respecting Puritans would argue that the authority for their reforms was not a human-made system of theology, be it ever so orthodox, but the authority of Christ as discovered in the scriptures themselves. (2) But that said, it remains that the norm of theological thinking among English Puritanism, and the Dissent that derived from it, was a "prevailing Calvinism," from which deviations have to be established and evidenced. Even so, a common origin can be found for even apparently discrepant thinking.

W. T. Whitley, for example, argued that Richard Baxter was as much in the Calvinist tradition as was John Owen, however much the doctrine and system followed by them diverged. (3) Recent thesis writer, Stephen Wright, contended that some in the General Baptist tradition continued to uphold aspects of Calvin's teaching, even though diverging from him on other matters. Wright noted that Thomas Lambe, normally identified as a General Baptist, wrote a pamphlet defending particular election as well as general redemption, and that his 1645 Fountain of Free Grace Opened explicitly condemned Arminianism. (4) Wright also wrote that Thomas Crosby was not in error, as some have suggested, in attributing A Treatise of Particular Redemption to this same Thomas Lambe, soap boiler and General Baptist, who wrote of "those that are predestined, and therefore effectually called, justified and glorified, but others to walk in their own ways, as the vessels of wrath, fitted to destruction." (5) Wright argued that debates about the issue of grace did not define the theological outlook of Lambe's Bell Alley Church at this early date, but rather those disputes took place within that congregation that seems to have combined both free-willers and high-Calvinist antinomians.

Different groups readily adapted the Calvinism of Calvin's Institutes in order to meet their own institutional needs. For example, when exported from the Swiss cantons, where it had been the creed of ruling oligarchies, to northwest Europe, Calvinism proved itself easily capable of metamorphosis into a creed for those in opposition, anxious to challenge the status quo. (6) The differences between the Westminster Confession (1646-48) and the Savoy Declaration (1658) (7) are of themselves sufficient witness to Calvin's theology donning differential ecclesial garbs, presenting the reformer's theology in the context of either synodical or congregational forms of church government. At the same time, others, properly called Puritans, were content to uphold essentially Calvinist articles within an established episcopal church.

Within a Dutch context, and indeed at Cambridge rather earlier through Peter Baro, some theologians offered revised and more liberal understandings of Calvin's doctrine of election and the particularity of atonement, (8) even to the extent of giving rise to rival theological systems, though such liberal developments were perhaps sometimes more measured than the way, earlier, others of Calvin's disciples tended to harden the teaching of the reformer into a more restrictive scholasticism.

In his recent study, Ian Shaw admitted that agnosticism surrounded the origins of high Calvinist thinking, querying the root of high Calvinism in Calvin's own teaching. While predestination was central to Calvin's thinking, it was not primary. He instructed his readers to "treat this question sparingly," warning that on it "an idle curiosity is not to be indulged." Beyond this "the evidence as to whether Calvin taught limited atonement is somewhat unclear." (9) In his commentaries, certain texts taught general redemption, while others supported particular redemption. …

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