Book Review: Orthodox Radicals, by Matthew Bingham
Matthew Bingham, Orthodox Radicals: Baptist Identity in the English Reformation. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Were there any Baptists in England in the middle of the 17th century?
Matthew Bingham wants you to think twice before you answer that question, and then think again about your answer. Bingham’s recent book Orthodox Radicals: Baptist Identity in the English Reformation seeks to overturn the conventional way that Baptists, ever since the 18th century, have thought about and labeled their—as a Baptist, I could say “our”—17th-century English roots.
Bingham served as a pastor for several years before writing a PhD thesis at Queen’s University Belfast, of which this book is the published version, and is now the second Baptist whom the Anglican Oak Hill Theological College in north London has hired to teach systematics and church history in the past decade. We live in interesting times. As a revised PhD thesis appearing in an academic monograph series, the book is a work only of historical description, not theological or ecclesiological prescription. Far from what you would expect in a book of this genre, the writing is elegant and concise. Apart from endnotes, it weighs in at a mere 155 pages. This is an excellent, engaging, illuminating book. I warmly commend it to all who are in any way interested in who Baptists are and where they came from.
What is the standard account that Bingham seeks to overthrow? He chiefly opposes the use of two labels: “Particular Baptist” for the Calvinistic sort, who had close ties to Congregationalists, and “Regular Baptist” for the Arminian sort, who rooted in the soil of English Separatism. Bingham points out several problems with these traditional labels and the narrative they imply. For one thing, in the mid-17th century, the period these labels purport to describe, neither group called themselves “Baptists.” For another, interaction between these two groups was scant. If they worked together for any common causes, provided any mutual aid, or did anything to indicate that they viewed themselves as two species of a common “Baptist” genus, Bingham has not discovered any historical evidence for it. “The evidence does not reflect any sustained, meaningful interaction between seventeenth-century General and Particular Baptists, nor does it suggest that baptistic separatists during this time would have understood the exclusive practice of believer’s baptism to be a sufficient basis upon which to build a common ‘Baptist’ identity’” (18).
Bingham’s historical narrative tells two stories, both focusing on those whom historians have hitherto called “Particular Baptists.” The first, in chapters 1 to 3, deconstructs this historical paradigm, argues that we should instead regard these Christians as “baptistic congregationalists,” and answers the question of why so many congregationalists began to reject infant baptism in the late 1630s and early 1640s. The second story, in chapters 4 and 5, moves ahead to the 1640s and 1650s, and considers how these baptistic congregationalists were understood by others, and how they understood themselves. The first part of that story, in chapter 4, includes a fascinating account of a reversal of fortune for baptistic congregationalists under Cromwell’s regime, being widely persecuted to enjoying a striking degree of privilege and protection.
What does Bingham mean by labeling—I dare not say “christening”—Particular Baptists as “baptistic congregationalists”? He means not only that they emerged from a congregational milieu, but that they were driven by the logic of their commitment to congregational ecclesiology to reject paedobaptism. Regarding the congregational milieu, Bingham points out that early baptistic congregationalists such as Hanserd Knollys and Henry Jessey not only had close ties to paedobaptist congregationalists such as Thomas Goodwin, but that, when the three of them “met in 1645 to discuss matters of mutual interest, they did so not as representatives of ‘the Baptists’ and ‘the Independents,’ but instead as three practitioners of the Congregational Way, each with his own vision for how that common commitment to congregational principles might be most consistently and faithfully expressed” (40). In other words, their mutual commitment to congregational polity bore more weight in how they conceived of their ecclesiology than did their disagreement over infant baptism. Many of these baptistic congregationalists held believers’ baptism as a requirement for church membership. Yet, even when they did, they did not refer to themselves or their churches as “Baptist.”
CONGREGATIONALISM: THE GATEWAY TO BAPTISTIC CONVICTIONS
Regarding how the logic of congregationalism led them to reject infant baptism, Bingham aptly discusses two defining features of congregational ecclesiology: “First, the individual congregation is taken to be the exclusive Net Testament expression of the institutionalized ‘visible church.’” And, “Second, the members of each congregation are, in turn, to be ‘visible saints’—that is, men and women assembled ‘by common and joynt consent’ whose lives and professions of faith were taken to withstand the spiritual scrutiny of their fellow church members” (73–74).
Bingham rightly points out that “both of these central principles had the unintended consequence of eroding the logic upon which paedobaptism rested” (74). These “twin pillars” of congregationalism call into question the distinction between internal and (merely) external members of the covenant community, a distinction on which a Reformed rationale for paedobaptism depends. Thus it is both significant and unsurprising that “the theological current seems to have almost always carried congregationalists, rather than Presbyterians, into baptistic churches” (65). So, Bingham offers a historically plausible and theologically persuasive case for why so many congregationalists rejected paedobaptism. If you gather a covenanted congregation of professing believers only, then it becomes exceedingly difficult to continue to extend baptism to those who do not and cannot profess faith, since both sides of the baptistic divide agreed that baptism was, as William Rathband put it, “a Christians formall matriculation or inrollment amongst the members of the visible church” (67).
SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BAPTIST COOPERATION
In chapter 5, Bingham provides a nuanced account of the spectrum of ways in which baptistic congregationalists related to Christians and churches who shared their theology but not their practice of baptism. Bingham very helpfully resists a widespread tendency to reduce the issue to whether such churches admitted those they considered unbaptized to the Lord’s Supper. As Bingham points out, some baptistic congregationalists who maintained this position, such as William Kiffin, had “wide-ranging associations, mainstream respectability, and willingness to work with the state church” (128) that strikingly contrasted with the much stricter, more separatist tendencies of some pastors and churches. For instance:
By May 1657, some churches within the [Abingdon] association were advocating for an even stricter approach, going so far as to wonder whether a “baptized Gospell preacher” who had previously practiced “mixt communion of beleevers baptized and unbaptized” might “upon a hearty returne from this errour, be received into full communion with a true church of Christ without renewing their baptisme; or whether they ought to be baptized againe before they be so received.” (127)
You read that correctly. This association entertained, though they ultimately decided against, requiring pastors who had previously practiced “mixed communion” to be baptized upon renouncing said error. It is always some relief to discover that there are—or at least were—people far to one’s right. Bingham’s fine-tuned analysis of these different postures toward disagreeing Christians can serve as a useful mirror in which contemporary Baptists can reflect on whom they partner with, whom they separate from, to what extent, and why.
While Bingham’s baptistic congregationalists of the mid-17th century became the former because they were the latter, reading this book could prompt some contemporary Baptists to do the reverse. Many pastors and churches today who are committed Baptists are, at most, nominally congregational. Yes, I mean multi-site churches. A church with multiple congregations is, by definition, not a congregational church. Again, writing as an academic historian, Bingham does not argue for what anyone today should believe or practice. And, strictly speaking, the two positions are not mutually entailing. It is logically easier to be baptistic without being congregational than to be congregational without being baptistic. Yet the two convictions fit together snugly. Maybe our earliest English ecclesiological ancestors were on to something.