Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll Results

Although I had planned to run the poll for an entire year, I have discovered that Blogger's poll feature began to lose votes after it passed 100. It seemed to work fine, in fact, until it got up to 114 votes, after which votes began to disappear and the number began to fluctuate up and down. Since I or my wife checked it every day, we are certain that the last update was accurate (at that time consisting of 109 votes), but cannot be certain of the exact figures after that date.

So, I am closing the poll and listing the results after running it for approximately six months.

Well over half of those responding (62%) did not think strict adherence to the Baptist Confession of 1689 is necessary to being a Reformed Baptist. Here is the breakdown of the poll as the Blogger poll feature listed it on January 17:
20% thought that one only had to be a Baptist who held to Calvinistic soteriology.

34% thought that one must be a Baptist who holds to Calvinism and Covenant Theology.

38% thought that one must be a Baptist who holds to the 1689 Confession.

6% thought that one must hold to the 1689 Confession for the most part, but thought that this should not have to include adherence to the Sabbath requirement.
You may have noticed that the figures actually add up to a total of 98% rather than 100%, but this appears to be due to Blogger's having rounded numbers up or down rather than having given more precise results. So these numbers will have to do. But they reflect pretty well what the trend was for the poll as I watched it over a six month period, with roughly 60% of the votes consistently falling into one of the categories that does not regard strict adherence to the Baptist Confession of 1689 as necessary to regard oneself a Reformed Baptist.

The two most common responses ran roughly neck and neck over the six months of the poll. The predominant response was that a Reformed Baptist is one who holds to the 1689 Confession (38%), with a pretty close second being that a Reformed Baptist must at least hold to Calvinism and Covenant Theology (34%). Together these constitute a significant majority of those who responded (72%).

This result really doesn't surprise me given my own experience in Reformed Baptist circles. I am not surprised that most thought that a Covenantal perspective was necessary, thus ruling out those Calvinist Baptists who are Dispensational. Nor am I surprised that, among those who would define the term Reformed Baptist more narrowly, there was a pretty even split among those who did not see a close adherence to the Baptist Confession of 1689 as necessary. This of course reflects the historical fact that not all of those who have called themselves Reformed over the centuries would necessarily adhere to the English confessions written in the 17th century. For example, there are many Reformed of a Presbyterian stripe that would not adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith (the many Dutch Reformed and those springing more directly from this background come to mind). So it should not be surprising that many Reformed Baptists should similarly regard the 1689 Confession, which so closely reflects the Westminster standard, as being too narrow a definition of the term Reformed as applied to them.

In other words, the poll results for the most part are well within the limits of what one should expect, at least if one has a fair knowledge of Reformed history as well as the modern development of what has become the Reformed Baptist movement. The former indicates more flexibility in the use of the term Reformed than with reference strictly to the Westminster tradition, and the latter indicates more flexibility in the use of the term Reformed Baptist than with reference strictly to the 1689 Confession.

With regard to the modern term Reformed Baptist, Jim Savastio has summarized well the (sometimes frustrating) diversity of its usage. Here are his remarks from a paper entitled What is a Reformed Baptist Church?:
The answer to the question, “What is a Reformed Baptist church?” is difficult for two reasons. In the first place, it is difficult to answer because the terms Reformed and Baptists are often seen to be at odds with one another. Many theologians, both Reformed and Baptist, would say that such a title is a misnomer. Some claim that it is not possible to be both Reformed and baptistic! Though Baptists have been and can be Calvinistic, it is said, they are not and cannot be Reformed. The reason for this charge is simple: Reformed theology is almost always associated with paedo-baptism (infant sprinkling). Many who are Reformed in their theology view this perspective as the sine qua non of the Reformed Faith.

Secondly, the subject is difficult because there exists an ever-widening gulf between churches that call themselves Reformed Baptists. The term has not been copyrighted and, thus, there exists no definitive statement regarding who can lay claim to the title. You will find that no two Reformed Baptist churches walk in lock-step. Some churches call themselves “Reformed Baptists” when all they mean by that is that they hold to the so-called "Five points of Calvinism" and that they immerse believers. Other “Reformed Baptists” hold to the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 in its entirety, while yet a third group of “Reformed Baptists” hold to but a few of the articles. And although most Reformed Baptists hold to a Biblical and Puritan view of the Lord’s Day Sabbath, there are some who reject the doctrine as legalistic. In addition, Reformed Baptists churches differ in regard to their understanding of the exact application of the Regulative Principle of worship (the conviction that the Bible alone dictates the worship and life of the church), in regard to who is invited to the Lord’s table, to Bible translations, hymnals, the structure of prayer meetings, ministerial training, the nature of the pastoral office, denominations, and associations, etc., etc. [Note: The copy of the paper linked above is from the site of The Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville, where Jim Savastio is a pastor, but there is also a copy at the website of Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church.]
As I see it, there has been a movement under way for some time among many Baptists to get back to their Biblical - i.e. Calvinistic - roots. This seems to have been going on for about thirty years at least. During this time, there have obviously been many for whom the term Reformed Baptist quite naturally suggested itself as a good description of their views. For example, I have a recollection of the way I and a few of my friends at Columbia Bible College began to call ourselves Reformed Baptists about eighteen or twenty years ago, and we actually thought we were coining the term. I have since discovered that there were others using the term even before that time.

The term thus arose with varied connotations among a variety of people and churches, who until recently were relatively unaware of each other's existence. But, especially since the advent of the internet and its increasingly common usage, these men and groups have begun to find one another and to discover both what they share in common and where they differ. As the smoke clears, however, there seems to be a pretty strong majority who would think that a Reformed Baptist must at a minimum hold to a Calvinistic and Covenantal perspective. At least this is what both my experience and the poll results would seem to indicate.

As always, I welcome comments from the blog's readers.


  1. Thanks for an interesting post. Wish I had known about it!! I'm late to the blog.

    Have a great weekend!

  2. I'm glad you conducted your poll. I think there has definetely been a trend in history to regard adherence to the "five points" as a reason to call oneself "reformed". This is somewhat bafalling to me especially since the points were developed as a response to the Remonstrance- they were in no way considered by the Reformed of the time to be a declaration of the scope of their theology. This is one reason why I think adherence to the great Reformed Confessions is so important when applying a definition of "reformed". Yes, paedo baptism has often been a big element in traditional reformed theology, but there is so much more involved than the sacrament of baptism and the soteriological points reflected in the "five". I fear that many people may miss out on the depths of what reformed theology has to offer if they do not adhere to the points of the 1689 Confession, Covenant Theology, etc. Still, THANK GOD there has been a resurgence in "Calvinistic" understanding of the gospel !