Twelve months ago I began a poll on the blog. I asked those who identified themselves as Reformed Baptists to respond to the question, “What is a Reformed Baptist?” I ran the poll for one year, and I supplied four options for answers that I think basically sum up the various groups or individuals that I have found to be using the term. Here were the four possible answers:
To regard oneself as a Reformed Baptist, one must …
1) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology.
2) adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology.
3) adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility).
4) adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689.
More than three hundred people responded to the poll over the past year (306 to be exact), and here are the final results:
13% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.
25% say that one must adhere at a minimum to a Calvinistic soteriology and to Covenant Theology in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.
42% say that one must adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (e.g. modify regarding Impassibility) in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.
20% say that one must adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689 in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist.

As I explained when I first posted the poll, I have regarded “substantial adherence” to the Baptist Confession of 1689 as adherence to the theology contained in it, but not such strict adherence that modifications or refinements are not welcomed if deemed Scripturally appropriate. I recognize that there is a fair amount of debate as to what “substantial adherence” should mean, but I hoped I had phrased the question in such a way as to clarify what was intended for the purpose of this poll. The word substantial was taken primarily to mean being largely but not wholly that which is specified, but it was also intended to emphasize agreement concerning essential doctrinal matters while allowing differences on some matters deemed less essential to Scriptural orthodoxy. For example, I explained that one might be willing to modify the confession with regard to such things as the proper understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship, Divine Impassibility, or the proper nature of Sabbath observance. The term modify was used simply with the meaning make one or more partial changes to. I included the example of Divine Impassibility, in particular, since that is a current topic of debate in which some are arguing that a modification in the statement of the doctrine — not a rejection of it — should be allowed, and some are arguing against it. At any rate, with these points in mind, I would like to make several observations regarding the results of the poll.

First, the poll revealed that a strong majority (87%) of self-identified Reformed Baptists think that simply holding to Calvinistic soteriology, together with the Baptist distinctives that are presupposed in the respondents, is an insufficient basis for properly regarding oneself to be a Reformed Baptist. In fact, only 13% thought that this was sufficient. So, there is a strong consensus that a Calvinistic Baptist who holds, say, to Dispensational Theology, should not properly be regarded as a Reformed Baptist, a fact that should not come as a surprise.

Second, the poll revealed that a majority of self-identified Reformed Baptists think that one must hold to the Baptist Confession of 1689 (whether strictly or substantially) in order to properly be regarded as such. However, this majority was only a 62% majority, which means that well over a third of self-identified Reformed Baptists (38%) do not think that one must hold to the Baptist Confession of 1689 at all in order to properly be regarded as such. This, too, is not surprising. As I pointed out in response to a previous poll conducted back in 2008, this state of affairs 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 (such as the many Dutch Reformed and those springing more directly from this background). 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 in this regard are well within the limits of what one should expect, at least if one has a fair knowledge of the history of Reformed theology, together with a basic knowledge 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.

Third, the poll revealed that, among those who regard holding to the Baptist Confession of 1689 as essential to properly identifying oneself as a Reformed Baptist, a majority think that only substantial subscription should be required. In fact, more that twice as many held this view rather than the view that would require strict subscription. There were 42% of the respondents who would say that one must adhere substantially to the Baptist Confession of 1689 over against only 20% who would say that one must adhere strictly to the Baptist Confession of 1689 in order to be regarded a Reformed Baptist. These strict subscriptionists, then, apparently make up a rather small minority among self-identified Reformed Baptists. It is also noteworthy that, given that the example used to differentiate between substantial and strict subscriptionists was a willingness to modify the Confession with respect to the doctrine of Divine Impassibility, those who hold the strict view concerning this doctrine are also in the minority. To be sure, this poll is not at all scientific, and we do not settle doctrinal issues by taking a poll anyway, but it is nevertheless remarkable that a majority think that a modification in the statement of the doctrine — not a rejection of it — should be allowed. As with the other results of the poll, so also this result is not surprising, since there have been differences among Reformed theologians concerning this doctrine for some time. However, I don’t doubt that this result will come as a surprise to some, since those who hold the strict subscriptionist view have been so vocal of late and have perhaps left the impression that they are actually in the majority.

One thought on “2016 "What is a Reformed Baptist?" Poll Results

  1. This is interesting. A few observations:

    The poll asked for a definition of Reformed Baptist and was asked of those who considered themselves Reformed Baptists. I would expect the vast majority of respondents to give a definition that best suited their own convictions without an eye for people who are reformed and baptistic to some degree but may or may not yet be fully informed or thoroughly thought out on the matter. I would be inclined to look for a minimal answer. I someone reformed soteriologically but don't know much about covenant theology? I would encourage this person to investigate further. Given that there is a difference between denying covenant theology, for example, and not knowing what it is, I may concede that this person could be a minimaly reformed Baptist. Knowing what covenant theology is and denying it outright may exclude such a one.

    On a personal note: As a member of an SBC church fellowshipping with people who are decidedly not reformed and many who are reformed to some degree, I'm perhaps sensitive to identifying what degree is required for someone to be reformed. I have tell you that I'm happy if someone in my church is wrestling with reformed soteriology, excited if they are committed to all five points, and ecstatic if they know anything of covenant theology or the Baptist Confession of 1689. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to be ecstatic with several members of my church. On the other end, I have dearly beloved friends within my church who have some antipathy towards reformed theology. We'll keep working on those brothers and sisters.

    Another interesting thing is that none of the possibilities in the poll are ecclesiologically founded. That is, knowing that there are Reformed Baptist Churches proper, none of the answers included membership in a Reformed Baptist Church. There may be some who would consider the reference to Reformed Baptist to apply to church membership.

    Given that, one last observation is that covenant theology in the options isn't noted with the possibility of being of a modified form where the Baptist Confession of 1689 is. To be sure, Presbyterians would argue that we don't hold fully to covenant theology since we are necessarily credobaptistic. So there are differences in the tangential areas of covenant theology that could be considered modified.

    Like

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