Historical Perspectives

According to Baptist historians there are, generally speaking, three views of the origins of the Baptist tradition. An older and marginal perspective, often referred to as the "successionist" view, claims that it is possible to trace an unbroken lineage of Baptist Christianity back to earliest Christianity, namely Jesus Christ himself, his apostles, and John the Baptist. A modified version of this view distinguishes between the Baptist tradition as an organized church-based phenomenon, originating in the 17th century, and Baptist beliefs or viewpoints, dating from the time of the New Testament apostles. A second perspective locates the origins of the Baptist tradition in its links to Anabaptist movements of the 16th century.

A third view, more recently proposed and widely held, emphasizes English Puritanism and Separatism as the primary contexts from which the Baptist tradition emerged. ("Separatists," also known as "Dissenters," were Christians who chose to withdraw from and create alternative ecclesiastical structures to the state-authorized church, the Church of England.) This England-based view of the origins of the Baptist tradition is also informed by a recognition of the influence of 16th-century Protestant reform movements on the European Continent, both Magisterial (that is, Lutheran and Reformed) and Radical/Anabaptist (predominantly Mennonite). It is this Puritan-Separatist approach that is, with variations, most widely held today, and that informs the narrative of Baptist history presented here.

Beyond the matter of origins, questions related to the interpretation of the Baptist tradition tend to reflect various sub-traditions within the larger tradition, and thus tend to touch on matters of Baptist identity. Two examples of this are on-going discussions on the respective roles of two distinct theological traditions--Arminian and Calvinist--within the Baptist tradition, and the precise nature and function of extra-biblical resources for theology (including "denominations," confessional/doctrinal statements, and culture) in relationship to the supreme Baptist authority, the Bible.

Study Questions:
     1.     What does the “successionist” view of the Baptist tradition center upon?
     2.     What does the Separatist view of Baptist history offer?
     3.     Why are questions of Baptist identity larger than lineage?

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