Dr. Scott Culpepper is Assistant Professor of History at Louisiana College and he is the author of Francis Johnson and the English Separatist Influence. He is married to Ginger and the father of 3. His education includes:
Ph.D., Baylor University
M.A., Northwestern State University
M. Div., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
B.A., Louisiana College
Why did John Smyth take such a drastic turn away from Reformed theology in 1608/09? Three influences have generally been proposed as the possible determining factors.[i] The first of these was the influence of Cambridge Arminian teaching propagated by Peter Baro (1534-1599), a professor of French origin who argued that humanity could reject the grace of God. Baro had preached a sermon on January 12, 1595/96 against the Calvinistic elements of the Thirty-Nine Articles and engaged in a debate with Archbishop John Whitgift. Baro was brought up on charges but escaped prosecution, thanks to the clemency of Whitgift and Baro’s death in 1599.[ii] The Baro controversy took place while Smyth was a Fellow at Christ’s College at Cambridge and could have influenced him, but the problem with that theory is that there was no noticeable effect of any Arminian influence on Smyth in his ministry until 1609/10. While Baro’s ideas provided an initial impetus for Smyth to reflect on the possibility of human free will and general atonement, there is no evidence that such reflection yielded any fruit until long afterwards.
The second possible influence on Smyth was the teachings of Jacob Arminius and the Remonstrant Party in the Netherlands. Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was a professor at the University of Leiden who had begun to question some of the tenets of Calvinistic orthodoxy embraced in the Swiss, French, and Dutch Reformed Churches.[iii] He had debated more conservative Reformed theologians on the faculty at Leiden, including Franciscus Junius, the Ancient Church’s correspondent. Junius was concerned about increasingly rebellious tendencies that he saw developing in the younger generation of Dutch Reformed theologians. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, had made concerted attempts to strengthen the influence of the Swiss Reformed churches over the Dutch Reformed Church due to these concerns. Junius perceived the ideas of Arminius as youthful rebellion against the authority of Geneva which threatened to lead to all manner of aberrant theological speculation.[iv] The exchange between the two men occurred in 1597 and was described as a “friendly discussion,” the only type that one would expect from a person with Junius’ tolerant disposition. The subject of this friendly discussion was the doctrine of predestination. Arminius indicated that he had serious doubts regarding the doctrine of predestination and its corollary, the concept of original sin. Arminius wrote to Junius:
For there is no place for punitive justice except in reference to the sinner; there can be no act of that mercy, of which we treat except towards the miserable. But man, considered in his natural condition is neither sinful nor miserable, therefore that justice and mercy have no place in reference to him. Hence, you, my brother will see that the object of predestination, made according to those attributes, cannot be man, considered in general, since it requires of its object, the circumstance of sin and misery, by which circumstance man is restricted to a determinate condition, and is separated from a general consideration. I know, indeed, that, if the general consideration is admitted, no one of those particular considerations is excluded, but you also know that if any particular relation is precisely laid down, that universal relation is excluded.[v]
After Junius died in 1602, Arminius was appointed to his chair in theology at the University of Leiden the following year. From Leiden, Arminius continued to expound his views and attract followers to his cause. Franciscus Gomarus (1563-1641), a Flemish refugee and also a professor at Leiden, began to defend Calvinistic Reformed principles when he heard that Arminius had been propounding alternative views to his students. The conflict between them, initially an internal matter, soon involved the city of Leiden and spread throughout the Netherlands.[vi] After Arminius’ death in 1609, his followers, calling themselves Remonstrants, issued a series of five statements that challenged traditional Reformed theology and attacked the basic tenets of the theological interpretation now popularly called Calvinism.[vii]
When the label “Arminian” is used in reference to Smyth and his contemporaries, it denotes the seminal thought of Arminius himself and his early Remonstrant followers, not the more developed “Arminian” theological views characteristic of the Wesleyan and Pentecostal/Holiness traditions. It is significant that John Smyth’s decision to assert a more “Arminian” view of original sin and atonement coincided with these events. While Smyth was not in Amsterdam long before he left the Separatist fold, he surely must have been aware of the debate raging in Reformed circles regarding the matter of predestination, election, and atonement. The Remonstrant Petition of 1610 was released at the same time that Smyth and his followers were petitioning the Mennonites.
The final option was Smyth’s association with the Mennonites. Smyth was definitely in close contact with the Mennonites and eager to join their fellowship by 1610. They certainly had adopted views of congregational polity, baptism, and church government that would have been amenable to Smyth.[viii] They were also abundantly present in the Netherlands and in the vicinity of Amsterdam. There can be little doubt that there was some Mennonite influence on Smyth and that Helwys was not completely opposed to them in principle, though he felt need to join them in light of his concern over their controversial Melchiorite Christology, a view that greatly diminished the humanity of Christ.[ix] Helwys was so concerned about the influence of Melchiorite Christology that he ultimately parted ways with Smyth. Helwys’ group split from the Smyth faction and returned to England where they founded the first Baptist church on English soil in 1612.
Two interesting elements worthy of note should be applied to the discussion of Anabaptist influence on the early Baptists. First, while Baptists shared much in common with the Anabaptists, they were also quite different in some ways. At least part of the first Baptist group, the faction led by Helwys, viewed Melchiorite Christology as a definite theological problem. Particular Baptists would later adopt the practice of immersion in imitation of Anabaptist examples on the continent, but their Reformed theology and willingness to inset themselves in public affairs ran counter to convictions held by all Anabaptists. Secondly, the earliest Baptist themselves expressed some ambiguity over the relationship of their movement to the local Anabaptist traditions. Smyth baptized himself seemingly because he could not identify another communion at the time that he held to be legitimate. It was only after his separation from the separatists and his act of self-baptism that he recognized the Mennonites as a viable communion with which he could join. The body of Baptists which actually constituted the continuing stream of Baptist life, the group led by Helwys that founded the first Baptist congregation at London in 1612, rejected formal association with the Mennonites. In fact, it could be said that Baptist battles over Anabaptist influence were born shortly after the Baptist traditions themselves.
It is difficult for any group to claim that they are “the Baptist” expression of anything given the rich diversity of Baptist traditions. This assertion is especially true when addressing the question of Baptist origins. Anyone who neglects the potential influence of any of the three traditions described above is not properly acknowledging the complexity of either the primary source materials available or the historical context in which they were forged. Were Baptists influenced by Anabaptists? Yes. Were Baptists influenced by English Separatism? Undoubtedly, yes. Is solving the question of our origins going to solve our current denominational controversies? Not a chance. Though recognizing that we have always been diverse in our composition may remind us that a diverse array of Baptists have served together under the big tent of Baptist identity for a while. Maybe it is time to look beyond the seventeenth century to remind ourselves that our true origins lie at the foot of a bloody cross and at the door of an empty tomb. At those sacred places we find that many of the categories that divide us become insignificant in light of the common salvation that all true believers in Jesus Christ share.
[i]Lee, Theology of John Smyth, 88-89.
[ii]C. S. Knighton, “Baro, Peter (1534–1599),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004), http: //www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1492 (accessed June 9, 2006).
[iii]Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1971), 252-316.
[iv]Bans, Arminius, 198-205. Johnathan Israel, The Dutch Republic, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 393.
[v]James Arminius, The Writings of James Arminius, Vol. 3, ed. W. R. Bagnall, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1956), 73.
[vi]Israel, Dutch Republic, 393. Samuel Miller, “Introductory Essay,” The Articles of the Synod of Dort, trans. Thomas Scott, (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1856), 5-55.
[vii]Samuel Miller, “Introductory Essay,” The Articles of the Synod of Dort, trans. Thomas Scott, (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1856), 5-55.
[viii]Franklin H. Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church, (Beacon Hill, MA: Starr King Press, 1958), 82-94. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, 387-401.
[ix]William H. Brackney, A Genetic History, 16. William H. Brackney, BaptistLife and Thought: A Sourcebook, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1998), 23-29. William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1969), 97-142.
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