Baptism, Baptists, and Church History

Overall, a Baptist History has to have 3 elements:

1.  The Anabaptists – 1500s around Luther and Zwingli and then forward. Most of the Anabaptists were Arminian in theology, except for, apparently, Zwingli’s students.

2.  The General Baptists – 1601 (John Smyth and Thomas Helwys) and forward. (This has the most adherents today.) Most of today’s Baptists believe in Perseverance of the Saints (or “Eternal Security”), but have various views on the other 4 points of Calvinism.

3.  The Reformed Baptists– around 1644 to  (1689 2nd London Baptist Confession) – those that accepted the Westminister Confession of Faith except for infant baptism and Presbyterian (Presbytery, session, like a Council) form of church government. (Calvinistic Baptists) 

2 early Anabaptists that are noteable in an overall understanding of Baptist history:

Most of the more well-known Anabaptists were Arminian in their theology (Menno Simons, later the Mennonites came from them) and some were pacifists (believed it is wrong for a Christian to be a soldier or policeman) and some were violent, and some were heretical (Anti-Trinitarian) and some were apocalyptic and crazy with end-time events ideas and even Polygamy. (see the Munster Rebellion – wow! crazy! Listen to James White’s lectures on this – see below.) 

But 2 Anabaptists that were especially noteworthy are:
1.  Fritz Erbe was imprisoned for the last 6 years of his life in a deep dungeon and died there, just because he believed in believer’s baptism.  (in the same Wartburg Castle that Luther spend translating the NT into German a few years earlier !!)

2.  The Zurich city council executed Felix Manz by drowning!  (just because he re-baptized himself and rejected his infant baptism and taught others this.)Zwingli was the pastor of the Reformation in Zurich at that time.  It is shocking to me that they drowned him.  when I first learned that years ago; I was shocked.

Note:  According to some, Zwingli wrestled with the issue and was open for a time to believer’s baptism, but later became hardened against it.  The original and first Anabaptists in Zurich and Switzerland were the former students of Zwingli.p. 189, Believer’s Baptism, edited by Schreiner and Wright (see below)  Zwingli had discussions with Balthasar Hubmeier (who was later burned at the stake by the Roman Catholics!)

Some great resources:
Believer’s Baptism, edited by Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright (B & H Publishers, 2006) – foreword by Timothy George

Christian History Magazine, “The Radical Reformation:  The Anabaptists”, Volume IV, No. 1  (good summary of main characters and timelines)

An early church history where 2 padeobaptists (they both believe in infant baptism), but admit that it was a development after late second century.  The first clear reference is Hippolytus around 215 AD and Tertullian around 200 argued against infant baptism.

Baptism in the Early Church, by H. F. Stander and J. P. Louw (both are padeobaptists)

check out James White’s series on church history:
The Entire series is excellent, but for the issues around Baptists, go towards the end to listen to the lessons about Zwingli and Anabaptists and the Munster rebellion.  I learned lots of new things in his lectures. For earlier, go to his lesson on Tertullian and Baptism.

It seems clear that the dominant method of Baptism in the early centuries was immersion and for believer’s only. (see Justin Martyr’s description of baptism, Ist Apology, 61 around 150-165 AD). (see my earlier articles on this, especially this.) (I give the full quote in that article and link to Justin Martyr’s work at Look under others in the category for Baptism and baptismal regeneration for more on Justin Martyr.

Infant baptism started around 200 AD and continued ALONGSIDE of Believer’s baptism until the late 300s and 400s AD and then combined with the State Church (381-392 AD onward under Theodosius 1) and then combined with the idea of priestly ex opere operato powers that with baptizing a baby, the child is justified, saved, sanctified, forgiven (baptismal regeneration) – the combination of infant baptism, baptismal regeneration, ex opere operato priestly powers and the State Church Government, from 400s onward, with exceptions (why did Augustine not get baptized as an infant ?) – the reactions of the first Reformers in the Reformation was because they thought rejecting infant baptism would be disruptive to society and culture. The way governments recorded citizenship was at infant baptism dates and later, the record to get taxes.

Constantine used force against the Donatists in the 314-317 AD, even before Theodosius 1 declared Christianity the state religion around 381-392 AD.

An excerpt from the above link:

Emperial Edict Against the Donatists
In 317 Constantine issued a severe edict against the Donatists: the death penalty would be imposed on anyone who disturbs the peace. A later decree orders the confiscation of Donatist churches. Donatus refused to surrender church properties in Carthage into the hands of Caecilian. Caecilian then appealed to the local Roman authorities.

There is a lack of documentary evidence about what happens next, but it appears that extremists in the Donatist camps took to the streets in violent protests. On March 12, 317 armed forces move in to take Donatist church buildings by force; attacks were made on churches with Donatists defending them. Donatist writings claimed many were killed. While there are no other records, there have been other pieces of evidence that lend some credibility to these reports.
It should also be pointed out that the violence only happened in Carthage – in the surrounding regions Donatist bishops were allowed to keep their buildings and their positions. (Frend, pp.159-160)

One of the pejorative names that the early era of Protestant Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, up until the Reformed Baptists came into being) called the Anabaptists was “Donatists!” According to some, they based their punishments on the Anabaptists on the earlier laws and traditions that went all the way back to the 300s and 400s against the Donatists. See the book, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin.

For more Biblical and theological studies on the issue of Baptism:

John Piper’s chapter: Magnify the Meaning of Baptism, in the book, “Brothers, We are not professionals”

Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, by Paul Jewett

A String of Pearls Unstrung, by Fred Malone

The Debate between John MacArthur and R. C. Sproul on Baptism. (search for it on You Tube and you can find it, audio only.)

The 3-4 Debates of James White vs. Presbyterian friends. (Rev. Bill Shishko, 2 with Dr. Gregg Strawbridge (below is the second one), and one with Jeff Volker vs. Gary Johnson and Robert Strimple)

Addendum: I want to make it clear that I love my paedobaptists brothers and sisters in Christ! – Presbyterians (and other conservative Evangelical Protestants (Lutherans, Anglicans, conservative Methodists), who hold to inerrancy and the authority of Scripture) friends and the unity we have in the gospel and Christ. I am learning and benefitting from current conservative Lutherans like Dr. Jordan Cooper. I love Charles Wesley’s hymns, “And Can it Be?” (which is very Calvinistic at root), and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, “O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”, “Christ the Lord has Risen Today”, and others.

I especially appreciate conservative Presbyterians and their scholarly tradition and excellent systematic theology, from Calvin, Knox and down the line to the great theologians like Jonathan Edwards, the Hodges, B. B. Warfield, John Murray, Louis Berkhof, J. Gresham Machen, and John Gertsner and R. C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, Robert Godfrey, Kevin DeYoung, John Frame, Ligon Duncan, etc. and Gregg Strawbridge is a personal friend of mine and we went to seminary together at Columbia International University in 1987-1988. (Gregg and I debated over infant baptism for several hours, several times (?), as I recall, after he was convinced and switched to the paedobaptist position. I love our unity in the gospel, as in the t4g group. One of my favorite teachers to listen and learn from is R. C. Sproul, who passed away in Dec. of 2017. See Ligonier Ministries. and also “Renewing Your Mind”.

Dr. Michael Kruger of Reformed Seminary in Charlotte, NC maybe the very best resource on the Canon of Scripture and early Christian history. See his blog articles on the Canon and his 4 books:

  1. The Canon Question, 2. Canon Revisited, 3. Christianity at the Crossroads (About the Second Century), 4. The Heresy of Orthodoxy, with Andreas Kostenberger. I wish I had the time and money to get somekind of doctorate degree under him!

Another internet friend is James Swan, who runs the web-site, “Beggars All Reformation and Apologetics”, and James was very kind to invite me to write at his blog and many of my older articles are there. I have not been able to have much time to write in recent years, but still value our friendship. Also, the late Steve Hays and others like John Bugay, of Triablogue are other Presbyterians who have meant a lot to me. I hope I have not left anyone out!

So, just to say that this is a secondary issue in comparison to the gospel message of salvation and justification by grace alone through faith alone, but it is important when speaking of discipleship (baptism into a local church membership) and local church authority and church membership. I am grateful for the Protestant Reformation and the freedom from a State Church government and the penalties of being a Baptist.

About Ken Temple

I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I am a sinner who has been saved by the grace of God alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), through faith alone (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:28; 4:1-16), in Christ alone (John 14:6). But a true faith does not stay alone, it should result in change, fruit, good works, and deeper levels of repentance and hatred of my own sins of selfishness and pride. I am not better than you! I still make mistakes and sin, but the Lord is working on me, conforming me to His character. (Romans 8:28-29; 2 Corinthians 3:16-18) When I do sin, I hate the sin as it is an affront to God, and seek His forgiveness in repentance. (Mark 1:15; 2 Corinthians 7:7-10; Colossians 3:5-16 ) Praise God for His love for sinners (Romans 5:8), shown by the voluntary coming of Christ and His freely laying down His life for us (John 10:18), becoming flesh/human (John 1:1-5; 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8), dying for sins of people from all nations, tribes, and cultures (Revelation 5:9), on the cross, in history, rising from the dead (Romans 10:9-10; Matthew 28, Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24; John 20-21; 1 Corinthians chapter 15). His resurrection from the dead proved that Jesus is the Messiah, the eternal Son of God, the word of God from eternity past; and that He was all the gospels say He was and that He is truth and the life and the way to salvation. (John 14:6)
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