Were the General Baptists Biblicists?

The history of the English General Baptists of the seventeenth century is often reduced to a story of devolution into heterodoxy owing to strict biblicism. This interpretation almost always originates from writers who are very critical of Arminianism, seeing in it a slippery slope to a host of evils. This is seen, for example in a popular book that describes early Arminianism as “allied with liberalizing tendencies, including Socinianism, rationalism, and universalism,” a “decidedly Pelagian view of man,” and “Latitudinarianism.”[1]

This popular narrative usually fails to distinguish adequately between the orthodox Reformed teachings of Arminius and the problems of later Arminianism. It also usually leaves out the degree to which heterodoxy made an incursion into Presbyterianism and the Church of England (and even the Particular Baptist movement via Thomas Collier).

The fact that Christological heresy cropped up among the General Baptists of the late seventeenth century, eventuating in a schism in their General Assembly, dovetails nicely with this narrative. However, the General Assembly always affirmed orthodox Christology and even required all their members to affirm it in 1691. Even Matthew Caffyn and others accused of Hoffmanite Christology or anti-Trinitarianism publicly affirmed orthodoxy, claiming to have questions about some “abstruse” explanations of the person of Christ and the Trinity found in the creeds and councils and fathers of the church.[2]

A group within the General Assembly that coalesced around figures such as Joseph Wright, Thomas Monck, and the signatories of the Orthodox Creed left the General Assembly in 1696 to form the General Association of General Baptists. They did not believe the General Assembly had done enough to root out Christological heresy in their midst (and, in hindsight, it appears they were correct).[3] Yet the leaders of the General Assembly always insisted that the accusations of false teaching were based on innuendo and rumor and could not be documented. Furthermore, Caffyn and his followers always publicly affirmed orthodox statements when they were propounded by the General Assembly.[4]

Some historians who have studied this controversy have argued that biblicism is the reason Caffyn and his cohorts embraced heterodoxy. Clint Bass has been the one to do this most directly, even asserting that General Baptists as a whole “were driven by biblicist impulses.”[5]

What Is Biblicism?

Often people use the term “biblicism” to describe simply being biblical or prioritizing the study and citation of Holy Scripture in the formulation of Christian doctrine and practice. However, scholars usually define biblicism as an aversion to any appeal to the Christian tradition for the formulation of doctrine and an antipathy to creeds and confessions of faith.[6]

Scholars such as Timothy George have characterized this approach, not as the sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) of the Reformation but rather as nuda Scriptura. Thus, biblicism is not simply a privileging of biblical exegesis in the formation of doctrine but a shunning of tradition, including an aversion to the creeds, councils, and fathers of the church. It is also usually characterized by an anti-confessionalism. Rather than requiring church leaders and congregations to subscribe to confessions of faith, biblicists often abide by the slogan “No Creed but the Bible.”[7]

Baptist Catholicity

Scholars have widely lauded the General Baptists, especially their most influential leader and theologian Thomas Grantham, for “Baptist catholicity”—an identification with and respect for the Christian tradition together with a strong adherence to the sola Scriptura principle.[8] I have argued at length for this approach, affirming that Grantham and the English General Baptists were, in the main, characterized by an approach to tradition close to the Magisterial Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin and the Radical Reformer Balthasar Hubmaier.[9] Bass diverges from this approach, implying that the General Baptists were, by and large, biblicists and that Joseph Wright, Thomas Monck, the Orthodox Creed, and the General Association were creedal-confessional exceptions to the biblicist rule among the General Baptists. This perspective, however, is mistaken.

Four Types of General Baptists

Based on the available evidence, there appear to have been four groups of General Baptists in the late seventeenth century: (1) a few ministers who held heterodox views but would not own up to them; (2) a minority of orthodox ministers who had misgivings about using extrabiblical language from church fathers, creeds, and councils to formulate confessions of faith but still supported it by vote in the General Assembly when orthodoxy was under threat; (3) the mainstream majority (e.g., Grantham) who themselves affirmed creedal language but did not want to instigate schism with those who had misgivings; and (4) a minority of ministers (e.g., Thomas Monck, Joseph Wright) who wanted to use pervasive creedal language in confessions of faith.

However, it is difficult to produce clear examples of biblicism outside the group of general-redemptionist Baptists in London surrounding the ministry of Thomas Lambe. But Lambe is simply a general-redemptionist Baptist who disavowed the principles later espoused by the General Assembly in the 1660 Standard Confession with its Arminianism and affirmation of confirmation (imposition of hands). Lambe’s views, however, are in the extreme minority of the general-redemptionist Baptist movement as we know it in the seventeenth century.[10]

Biblicism Different from Being Biblical

It is important not to conflate being biblical with being biblicist. Just because most General Baptist tracts are simple and biblical and do not themselves appeal to tradition does not indicate that their authors were biblicists. Just because an individual does not refer to the church fathers or tradition in a given sermon or tract does not mean that individual is against doing so. Most of the General Baptists who issued tracts and sermons were tradesmen, mechanics, or farmers with little education. Baptists who were more educated naturally tended to quote church fathers and traditional sources more.

Many modern sermons and pamphlets by evangelical authors contain no references to the Christian tradition, but one cannot presume that their authors are biblicists simply because in popular works they cite only Holy Scripture and not traditional sources. The same goes for the writings of contemporary Baptist Catholicity advocates. A perusal of popular articles by leading advocates of Baptist Catholicity shows that many of those articles contain no appeal to tradition but only to the Bible.

Thomas Lambe and Henry Denne

Even among the general-redemptionist Baptists associated with Lambe, one sees this dynamic. Lambe himself was an uneducated tradesman, a soapboiler who never quoted the church fathers, creeds, or councils. However, his close general-redemptionist (but not Arminian) friend Henry Denne was a university-educated former churchman who, though mostly citing Scripture, occasionally quoted from recent authors such as Luther, Latimer, Erasmus, and Bellarmine; church fathers such as Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, and Tertullian; and medieval authors such as Robert Gallus. No doubt the reason Denne utilized the church fathers, and Lambe did not, owed itself to differences in their education. Yet being uneducated, or not widely read enough to quote the church fathers, does not make one a biblicist.[11]

The issue of biblicism with Hoffmanites and anti-Trinitarians was not that they primarily argued for their views from Scripture. Instead it was that they refused to use creedal or conciliar or patristic words such as “Trinity” in their theological formulations and tended to be averse to requiring subscription to confessions of faith.

 John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and John Murton

This approach is clearly not in evidence, for example, with either the proto-Baptist John Smyth or the first Baptists Thomas Helwys and John Murton. Yes, all three argued primarily from Scripture. Yet in this they were no different from many others in the Puritan and Reformed communities. While the theologically educated Smyth pointed out what he considered the inconsistency and unbiblical teaching of many of the church fathers, he was clearly no strict biblicist. He explicitly affirmed the language of and classical Christian teaching on the Trinity, arguing against Arian Christology and using certain church fathers in his arguments against infant baptism.[12]

The style of the lawyer Helwys is plainer, and he does not tend to quote the fathers (or anyone else, for that matter). However, his subject matter does not lend itself to it. Still, he uses explicit patristic and creedal language in his affirmation of the Trinity in his “Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam.” Interestingly, John Murton, about whose education nothing is known, spent nearly thirty pages in his An Humble Supplication interacting heavily with the church fathers.[13]

Being biblical and being biblicist are two different things. Certain authors’ not being as vigorous in citing patristic, creedal, or conciliar sources as others does not make them biblicists.

Neither Biblical Literalism nor Primitivism Constitute Biblicism

It is also important not to confuse either biblical literalism or primitivism (the desire to emulate primitive, apostolic faith and practice) with biblicism. Even if one thinks a given Protestant was a biblical literalist, that does not necessarily mean that individual was a biblicist. One could be a biblical literalist and still value the tradition and the church fathers, creeds, councils, and so forth. Likewise, one could be a hearty primitivist and still value the Christian tradition. Many Protestants—Baptists and paedobaptists alike—utilized the sources of the Christian tradition, eschewing biblicism and being robust confessionalists, but still bearing marks of primitivism and even biblical literalism. It is a mistake to conflate either primitivism or literalism with biblicism.

Thomas Grantham Was Never a Biblicist

Did General Baptists like Thomas Grantham reject biblicism only after the rise of Caffynism and Christological heresy? No. Grantham stated plainly in 1670 that he had never heard of a single General Baptist who had taught Christological heresy. Yet the first book he ever wrote, in 1662, The Prisoner against the Prelate, strongly appealed to tradition, citing the fathers, the creeds, the ecumenical councils, and utilizing extrabiblical creedal and conciliar language. His second book, The Baptist against the Papist, which he wrote as early as 1663, was the book that probably more than any other appealed to the church fathers, creeds, councils, and other traditional sources.[14]

Thus, long before the Caffynite controversy or any question of Christological heresy surfaced among the General Baptists, Grantham was affirmative of a sort of “Baptist catholicity” approach to the interplay between sola Scriptura and respect for the Christian tradition. He advocated for this approach in print eight years before he ever heard about the tiny minority of heterodox voices among the General Baptists who never would publicly own up to their views (at least until Daniel Allen’s The Moderate Trinitarian was published in 1699).[15]

The 1691 Edition of the Standard Confession

Additionally, the notion that most General Baptists were biblicists is contradicted by the fact that the General Assembly voted unanimously in 1691 to print Grantham’s “Explication” (which had been printed in 1662 in poetic form in The Prisoner Against the Prelate and again in 1678 in prose form in Christianismus Primitivus) along with article 3 in the Standard Confession from that point forward. Furthermore, the Assembly unanimously ordered that no member of the General Assembly could disclaim that explication, and the Assembly would have no communion at the Lord’s table with anyone who did. That “Explication,” which even Caffyn himself (dishonestly?) publicly subscribed, directly quotes orthodox Christological language from Augustine’s City of God. This unanimous approval of the printing of a patristic quotation in a confession of faith, and allowing “no man” to “disalow” it, and not communing with anyone who did disallow it, means that the General Baptists, in session, cannot be said to be biblicists.[16]

Was Caffyn Himself a Biblicist?

Even Matthew Caffyn himself was not consistently biblicist. Not only did he publicly subscribe the above confession in 1691, thereby confessing explicitly patristic trinitarian language. He also publicly acknowledged (even though, in hindsight, it appears he was lying) to believe in “the good old Apostolical Trinity” (even Joseph Wright acknowledged that Caffyn stated this).[17]

“The Unity of the Churches”

Furthermore, contra the notion that most General Baptists espoused biblicism is the 1704 publication, “The Unity of the Churches.” That year all the General Baptists—the General Assembly and the more rigorously creedal General Association—came back together and agreed, unanimously, to enforce that document, which contained explicitly creedal trinitarian language. The following year, the newly reunited General Assembly approved an “Expedient” that said that “no Person shall be admitted a Member of the General Assembly, that refuseth to assent to, and subscribe the whole” of “The Unity of the Churches.”[18]

Conclusion

One might argue that, despite their public votes, some General Baptists, deep inside, were biblicists—disavowing appeals to the Christian tradition and to the fathers, creeds, and councils of early Christianity—but that there is no way of knowing how many of these there were. No historian would disagree with that argument. Yet saying, as Bass does, that “the General Baptists were driven by biblicist impulses” is unsustainable based on the currently available evidence.

That assertion is based on innuendo and has no clear evidence for it, and the evidence discussed in the arguments above militates against it. This evidence includes the following: (1) Many General Baptists appealed to creeds, councils, and fathers and used conciliar language long before the Caffynite controversy. (2) The 1691 edition of the Standard Confession, which required subscription of every member of the General Assembly, appealed to extrabiblical language in patristic sources. (3) Caffyn himself publicly subscribed the 1691 edition of the Standard Confession and himself used extrabiblical language, claiming to believe in “the good old Apostolical Trinity.” (4) The 1704 “Unity of the Churches” and 1705 “Expedient” used explicitly creedal trinitarian language and required subscription by all members of the General Assembly.

Furthermore, it is a mistake to conflate being biblical, or being a primitivist, or even being a biblical literalist, for biblicism. One can espouse any of those approaches and still strongly value the Christian tradition, including the appeal to creedal and conciliar formulations and language as well as to that of the church fathers, and require subscription to confessions of faith, even ones that contain such traditional, but strictly extrabiblical, language.


[1]M. James Sawyer, The Survivor’s Guide to Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 351.

[2]“Abstruse” is the word of Adam Taylor in The History of the English General Baptists, vol. 1 (London: T. Bore, 1818), 1:364–76, 463–80. Hoffmanite Christology is the belief of the Mennonite Melchior Hoffman that Christ’s flesh was not from Mary but was “celestial.”

[3]A group of General Baptists in the American colonies who identified with the more creedal General Association later became known as Free Will Baptists and formed the nucleus of the present-day movement of the same name.

[4]See J. Matthew Pinson, “Confessional, Baptist, and Arminian: The General-Free Will Baptist Tradition and the Nicene Faith,” in Timothy George, ed., Evangelicals and Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 100–15, repr. as chapter 7 of Pinson, Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Nashville: Randall House, 2015).

[5]Clint C. Bass, The Caffynite Controversy (Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2020), 106. In earlier things he wrote in 2013, Bass is more nuanced, not differing qualitatively from my argument in “Confessional, Baptist, and Arminian” in 2011 that Grantham was much like many others in Reformed and Lutheran circles in the way he viewed Scripture and tradition. See his “The Catholic Spirit of Thomas Grantham,” American Baptist Quarterly 32 (2013) 238–57; and Thomas Grantham (1633-1692) and General Baptist Theology (Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2013). William Brackney also asserts that the General Baptists were biblicists but, like Bass, does not make an argument for it. See William H. Brackney, “Thomas Grantham, Systematic Theology, and the Baptist Tradition” in From Biblical Criticism to Biblical Faith: Essays in Honor of Lee Martin McDonald ed. William H. Brackney and Craig A. Evans (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007), 215. Yet Brackney sees, not just the General Baptists, but all Baptists, as being biblicists. See, e.g., William H. Brackney, The Baptists (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994), passim.

[6]A helpful, succinct definition of biblicism is found in Matthew Barrett, Reformation and Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2023), 21.

[7]See Timothy George, “An Evangelical Reflection on Scripture and Tradition,” Pro Ecclesia 9 (2000), 184–207.

[8]See, e.g., Matthew Y. Emerson, Christian W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps eds., Baptists and the Christian Tradition: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2020), especially the chapter by Rhyne Putman, “Baptists, Sola Scriptura, and the Place of the Christian Tradition.” Other such authors include Timothy George, Philip E. Thompson, Curtis Freeman, and Steven Harmon.

[9]See Pinson, “Confessional, Baptist, and Arminian.”

[10]See J. Matthew Pinson, “General Baptists and Arminianism during the Civil War and Interregnum: A Reinterpretation,” unpublished paper revised from a presentation to the Southern Conference on British Studies, Birmingham, Alabama, November 12–14, 1998. By using “general-redemptionist Baptist” rather than “General Baptist” to speak of the Lambe group, I am distinguishing that group, which was generally Calvinist while still holding that Christ died for everyone, from the General Baptists who formed the General Assembly and articulated their Arminianism in the Standard Confession of 1660. Thus, the General Baptists, as Arminians, were a subset of a slightly larger group of general-redemptionist Baptists.

[11]See, e.g., Henry Denne, Antichrist Unmasked in Three Treatises. . . . (London, 1646), 25, 42, 66–71.

[12]W. T. Whitley, ed., The Works of John Smyth, Fellow of Christ’s College, 1594–1598, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915); 2:617–18, 623–24, 737, 742; “Short Confession of Faith in XX Articles by John Smyth,” arts. 6–7, in William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1959), 100.

[13]Joe Early, Jr., The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys, Early English Baptist Texts (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 70; John Murton, An Humble Supplication of Many of the King’s Majesties Loyal Subjects. . . . (London, 1620), in E. B. Underhill, ed., Tracts on Liberty of Conscience and Persecution, 1614–1661 (London: J. Hudson, 1846), 192–220.

[14]Thomas Grantham, The Prisoner against the Prelate (n.p. [1662]); Grantham, The Baptist against the Papist: Or, The Scripture and Rome in Contention about the Supream Seat of Judgment, in Controversies of Religion. . . . (London, 1663).

[15]Daniel Allen The Moderate Trinitarian, Containing a Description of the Holy Trinity. . . . (London, 1699); cf. Christopher Cooper, The Vail Turn’d Aside: Or, Heresie Unmask’d, Being a Reply to a Book Entituled The Moderate Trinitarian (London: J. Marshal, 1701), 116-20. See Pinson, “Confessional, Baptist, and Arminian.”

[16]W. T. Whitley, Minutes of the General Assembly of the General Baptist Churches in England: with Kindred Records (London: Kingsgate, 1909), 30–31. See Grantham, Christianismus Primitivus, Or the Ancient Chrsitian Religion. . . . (London, 1678), Book 2, 59–61.

[17]This statement from Caffyn was directly quoted by his nemesis Joseph Wright in the latter’s Speculum Haereticis: Or, A Looking-Glass for Hereticks (London, 1691).

[18]“The Unity of the Churches,” repr. in Bass, Caffynite Controversy, 191. Bass correctly argues (68, 119–20) that this is the time when one sees the explicit beginnings—what he terms the “dawn”—of anti-confessionalism among the General Baptists. This anti-confessionalism was promoted by some General Baptists who reacted against the strong confessionalism of The Unity of the Churches.

Author

  • J. Matthew Pinson

    J. Matthew Pinson has been president and professor of theology at Welch College for 21 years. He holds a master’s degree from Yale and a doctorate from Vanderbilt and is author or editor of ten books, most recently 40 Questions About Arminianism (Kregel). He is under contract with the University of Tennessee Press for his latest book, a new history of Free Will Baptists in America.

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