What Baptists Can Learn From Calvin
The year 2009 marks two important anniversaries in the history of the Christian church: the birth of John Calvin at Noyon in France in 1509, and the birth of the modern Baptist movement at Amsterdam in 1609. Both events are being celebrated with numerous symposia, publications, and conferences, but few people are asking what these two events, separated by the century of the Reformation, have in common. Baptists are fiercely independent and refuse to recognize any human figure as a standard of faith. Today's Baptists would agree with what the nonconformist Samuel Hieron said in the 17th century:
We do not hang on Calvin's sleeve
Nor yet on Zwingli's we believe:
And Puritans we do defy,
If right the name you do apply.
Are Baptists Calvinists? If a Calvinist is a person who follows strictly the teachings of John Calvin, then in three important respects Baptists are not, and have never been, Calvinists. Calvin was a pedobaptist (practicing infant baptism); Baptists are credobaptists (believers' baptism only). Calvin believed in a presbyterian form of church government; Baptists are congregationalists. Calvin believed that the civil magistrate should enforce both tables of the law (moral responsibilities towards God and towards one's neighbor), suppressing heresy and blasphemy by force if necessary. Baptists believe in religious liberty for all persons.
For all that, Calvin remains the most formative theological influence in the development of the Baptist tradition. Unfortunately, many Baptists today know only the ungenerous stereotype of Calvin that depicts him as "the dictator of Geneva wielding the whip of logic and driving a chariot named the sovereignty of God harnessed to mean-spirited steeds called predestination ...