I am persuaded God has a sense of humor. When I was once a Presbyterian, Calvinist seminarian, I tried, without result, to persuade my then-Reformed Baptist girlfriend that paedobaptism—the practice of baptizing infants and children—had biblical warrant. A few years later, after I had converted to Catholicism and began working as an editor of the ecumenical website “Called to Communion”, I found myself in frequent and often fruitless debates with Reformed Baptists. I don’t think I persuaded a single one of them.
I was reminded of those experiences —some with more personal relevance than others—when reading the recent First Things article “Why I Am a Baptist” by R. Albert Mohler Jr., President and Professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler, a prolific Baptist theologian and writer, recounts an anecdote in his article’s lede about an exasperated Desiderius Erasmus, the Catholic humanist and foe of Martin Luther, who grew increasingly frustrated with the German monk and Reformer’s proclivity for extremes, hyperboles, and emotive assertions.
In Mohler’s account of the historical development of Baptists in the post-Reformation era, these truest-of-true Protestants sought to affirm the “central doctrines of the Christian faith,” and “unite and confirm all true Protestants in the fundamental articles of the Christian religion,” as the 1679 Baptist “Orthodox Creed” explains. Of course, many of these “central doctrines” and “fundamental articles”—sola fide, sola scriptura, for example—are rejected by substantial numbers of self-described Christians, including, notably, Catholics and Orthodox. This provokes a question of paramount importance: who decides what doctrines are “essential” and “central”?
The answer in the Baptist theological paradigm is the individual, Bible-reading Christian, guided by the Holy Spirit. This presents its own immediate problem, since determining who even counts as a legitimate Christian is a question only an individual person who claims to be a Christian could answer, and is thus a form of limitless, circular question-begging. Who are true Christians? “People like me who believe the central truths of biblical Christianity, as taught by the Bible.” But what about other people who read the Bible and come to different conclusions than you about its central truths? “Well, they must not be Christian.”
Baptist theology is thus essentially individualistic. Each individual person is the ultimate arbiter for interpreting the Bible’s meaning. This framework can only have a semblance of coherency if one also believes in the peculiar Protestant doctrine of perspicuity, the tenet that the Bible is so clear regarding the “essentials” of Christianity that any individual Christian can identify them. This also is question-begging, since other dominant Christian traditions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy) don’t hold to perspicuity, but recognize the necessity of an authoritative biblical interpreter.
The individualism and presumption of perspicuity is also visible in the Baptists’ most famous (and self-identifying) doctrine—credobaptism, otherwise known as “Believer’s Baptism.” Only those who have made a public profession of faith in Christ should be baptized. “Reading the New Testament,” says Mohler, Baptists “concluded that infant baptism was no real baptism and that baptism, like the Lord’s Supper, was not a sacrament but an ordinance.” Moreover, Bible verses including Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:4 “clearly indicated the full immersion of the new believer in water.” So much for the consensus on the baptism of infants among the Church Fathers (e.g. St. Irenaeus of Lyon, St. Hippolytus of Rome, St. Cyprian, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, etc.), or the curious lack of debate regarding baptizing infants in the early Church (one would think, if many early Christians disagreed with paedobaptism, there would be record of such disagreement).
“To the Baptists,” explains Mohler, “the practice of believers’ baptism was shorthand for their entire system of doctrine and ecclesial practice.” Mohler’s forthright acknowledgment of the centrality of credobaptism is further proof of its unparalleled level of individualism. This is because Baptist theology depends on a subjective, unauthoritative interpretation of a set of verses with little interpretive pedigree prior to the Reformation. It is further manifested in Baptists’ refusal to recognize the baptism of individual Christians baptized as infants. Of course, this is internally coherent—if paedobaptism is illegitimate, “rebaptism” would be necessary. Yet this also means most other Christians, including Protestants who share significant theological overlap with Baptists (e.g. Anglicans, Presbyterians), lack perhaps the most essential external markers of the Christian faith, per the Church fathers and historical ecclesial traditions.
This radical individualism is also visible in Baptist theology’s prioritization of the singular, definitive moment of personal conversion. Individuals are born in original sin and are thus inherently directed towards sin (so far, so good), but that spiritual renovation occurs not through baptism, but through a decision made by individuals possessing sufficient moral agency. “The definition of Christ’s church as wholly regenerate is perhaps the most radical of all Baptist doctrines,” observes Mohler. Indeed. Here again we see the question-begging premises of perspicuity: “the concept of a regenerate church… was evident to the early Baptists as they read the Bible.” And, one might add, as they neglected the teachings of pre-Reformation Christianity.
The early English Baptist Thomas Helwys—approvingly cited by Mohler—is paradigmatic of this hyper-individualism: “man’s religion to God is between God and themselves.” There is some inconsistency in this, given that Baptist parents catechize their unbaptized children in the peculiarities of Baptist doctrine. That aside, Mohler himself affirms an extreme form of religious liberty: “Helwys had the clearness of mind to discern that as a matter of justice the ruling authorities must grant liberty of conscience no matter what faith people held.” No matter what? What if said faith is destructive to the human person, contrary to the most fundamental of natural laws, or inimical to the preservation or flourishing of the polis? Baptist theology thus elevates the conscience of the individual above the very survival of the community.
Mohler laments the “acids of modernity,” “increasingly aggressive secularism,” and “secular liberation.” Yet it is precisely the philosophical premises underlying Baptist theology that have contributed to these broader socio-cultural trends. Baptist theology’s hyper-individualism is modernity in action. It only takes a little skepticism and creativity for individual persons who see the irrationality of Protestantism to dispense with the Bible altogether and try to create a new system of ontology, epistemology, and ethics totally severed from the remnants of their own philosophical inheritance, as did Descartes, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Sartre.
Mohler defends those, who, like himself “hold to traditional forms of Christianity, revealed religion, and religious authority.” Yet this is an ersatz, ad hoc tradition, because Baptist doctrine encourages its adherents to embrace only those traditions that they individually determine to be in conformity with Scripture, while rejecting the broad, early Church consensus on many matters. These include not only infant baptism but also Eucharistic rites, Lenten fasts, rules for the election and consecration of bishops, the sign of the cross, and prayers for the dead. Baptists are thus ecclesial deists, believing God began the church and then left it to its own devices. Again, Baptists possess an ersatz, ad hoc authority, rejecting the apostolic episcopacy in favor of individual persons who form communities with like-minded interpretations of the Bible.
I often employ these arguments with Baptist interlocutors. The most common response is to cite Bible verses at me, as if the passages are themselves capable of making the argument, even if I interpret those verses differently than the Baptist. The Baptist approach is emblematic of a theological system predicated on that pesky doctrine of perspicuity—the Bible verses are clear; their theological adversaries just haven’t interpreted them properly. Indeed, Mohler’s article presumes Scripture is clear in reference to the nature of Christian conversion, the form and application of baptism, ecclesiology, sacramentology (again, there are no sacraments, Baptists believe in “ordinances”), the content of the gospel, and church discipline (a new mark of the church, according to Baptist teaching). And if the non-Baptist doesn’t rightly see those clear, pro-Baptist doctrines in the Bible, well, that must necessarily reflect some deficiency on his part!
At its heart, Baptist theology is defined by a hyper-individualistic, anti-traditionalist, and ecclesial deist paradigm that has far more in common with Enlightenment, modernist thinking than it does with historical, orthodox Christianity and its familial, traditionalist, and episcopal qualities. For the Baptist, the answers to the questions of who decides the contents of the Bible, the Bible’s meaning, and its relationship to a systemized Christian theology are found not in an apostolically-derived ecclesial authority, but in the atomized, self-assured Christian. Every time Mohler refers to “New Testament principles,” what he really means is his personal principles of New Testament interpretation, masquerading as objective and orthodox. He ends by declaring his intention to die “faithfully Baptist.” For his and all Baptists’ sake, I plead that he reconsider.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!