Off-the-peg Theology

In 2008 a Presbyterian minister, speaking at the Banner of Truth ministers’ Conference in Leicester, offended some Baptists by referring to “Reformed Baptists” and then adding, “If there is such a thing.” Was he justified in making this remark? Were Baptists justified in taking offence at it?
Before the advent of television there used to be a radio programme entitled ‘The Brains Trust’. In this popular programme a team of experts fielded questions sent in by listeners. A regular member of the panel was the late Professor C. E. M. Joad, who, when a question was put to him, frequently prefaced his answer by saying, “Well, it all depends what you mean by …” He was very wise. If only Christians were as discriminating.
Many Baptists claim the adjective ‘Reformed’ without defining what they mean by it, and often without even thinking what they mean by it. By the term ‘Baptists’ I mean all who hold that the church consists only of true believers, and therefore baptize only believers by immersion, whether they use the term ‘Baptist’ or not. So this would include many independent evangelical churches. Such churches would generally hold to the autonomy of the local church and also the separation of church and state, which the Reformed usually do not.
In 1986 Dr. Kenneth H. Good, a Baptist scholar, published a book with the intriguing title, “Are Baptists Reformed?” (Loraine, Ohio: Regular Baptist Heritage Fellowship, 394 pages). He carefully distinguished between General (Arminian) Baptists and Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists, and then pointed out those areas in which the latter differed from the Reformed. In a nutshell, while such Baptists are Reformed in soteriology, they are not Reformed in ecclesiology. In other words, they believe in election, predestination and particular redemption, but not in the “mixed multitude” membership of Episcopal and (most) Presbyterian churches. They reject infant baptism and hold to the autonomy of the local church and the separation of church and state. Dr Good spends some time in discussing the American Baptist scene, especially the difficulty in choosing a title for a church or grouping that accurately defines what the church, or churches within the group, believe. Much of what he says on this subject is not particularly relevant outside the USA. The bulk of the book is taken up with demonstrating that Baptists differ from the Reformed in their views of the Word of God, in their views of the church considered as an organism, in their views of the church considered as an organization, and in their philosophy of history. With regard to the first of these Dr. Good acknowledges that the Reformed Confessions have excellent statements on the inspiration and authority of Scripture, but argues that, like the Roman Catholic church, the Reformed often place more weight upon what the Confessions say rather than what the Scriptures teach.

Lest that statement should be doubted, let me give a recent example. A Baptist minister was talking to a Reformed minister about the latter’s view that all infants who die in infancy, whatever their background, are automatically saved (I am not at this point discussing the truth or otherwise of that view). The Baptist then said, “So you believe in universalism, so long as they are young enough?” When the Reformed minister blenched, the Baptist asked him, “What Scriptures do you base your views on?” The Reformed minister replied, “I do not base my view on Scripture but on the Westminster Confession.
The trouble is many young men go to theological college and accept without question the ready-made theology that is handed down to them. That is what I call “off-the-peg theology”. By that designation I do not mean to suggest for one moment that we should all have a custom made theology to suit our own preferences or personality. Rather I use the term to highlight the fact that so often statements of theology are accepted without question as long as they come from within out own circle. Unlike the Bereans, we do not search the Scriptures to see whether those things are so (Acts 17:11).

Obviously we cannot all re-write the massive theology that has been handed down to us; we cannot re-invent the wheel, but we can at least examine our wheels to make sure they are round and not square! Perhaps “hand-me-down theology” would be a better description. It is only too easy to accept, and even vigorously defend, a theology which we have never carefully compared with Scripture. If, as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” perhaps the unexamined theology may not be worth holding.
In 1957, the first year of my pastoral ministry, I went with a friend to hear the distinguished minister, Rev. William Dodgson-Sykes, give an address at the Church-on-the Wall in Bristol. Mr. Sykes was rector of a strongly evangelical, Protestant and Calvinistic church. He was also president of the Sovereign Grace Union, a strongly Calvinistic organization. As it is so long ago that I heard him speak I cannot recall the main topic of the address, but one of his remarks so surprised me that it became etched upon my memory. He said: “I have never read Calvin’s Institutes.”
In these days we have become rather careless in our use of such terms as ‘Reformed’ and ‘Calvinistic’. The word ‘Reformed’ is bandied about almost as though it were a synonym of ‘orthodox’, or a shorthand term for “really, really sound.” Perhaps Dr. Kenneth Good was right in asking the question, “Are Baptists Reformed?” If you can ignore the irrelevant bits, and put up with the wordiness and occasional repetition of some points, you may find Dr. Good’s book worth its weight in gold dust. Unfortunately the book is out of print, so, like gold dust, it is not only valuable, but rare.


3 Responses to “Off-the-peg Theology”

  1. Elizabeth Kenworthy Says:

    Great post! I was thinking about pegs and how if you take your clothes ‘off the peg’ from the washing line, they still have the creases in and don’t look as nice. If you care for your clothes, you take them off the line and then iron them, getting rid of the creases (bad theology).

  2. Dave Says:

    I agree with you that beliefs are typically handed down to us, by our parents, pastors, teachers, etc, and that we don’t always test them against what the Bible says. However, the bigger issue is how do we decide what is correct when different people interpret the Bible in different ways. For example, despite what some may, both calvinists and arminians believe that their approach is Biblical, and can do anything from quote proof-texts to write huge theological volumes in support of their mutually-exclusive positions. Is there any way we will ever know what is right this side of heaven?

    • stanleyjebb Says:

      This is certainly a problem. We are all fallible human beings, and our interpretations are somewhat influenced by our background, our experiences, our friends, our education, etc. However, I believe that true evangelicals have much more in common than the things over which they disagree. One thing I have noticed is that many Christians have Scripture verses they wish were not in the Bible because they tend to undermine their position. For example, some Arminians would like to avoid the plain meaning of such verses as Ephesians 1:4, 5, 11 and Romans 8:29, 30. On the other hand some Calvinists are embarrassed by such verses as John 1:29 and I John 2:2. Moreover, the very terms “Arminian” and Calvinist” are capable of a wide variety of interpretations. For example, John Calvin frequently asserted that Christ died for the whole world, though of course he believed that only the elect would be saved. In other words, the death of Christ was sufficient for the whole world, but efficient for only the elect. It all depends on how you define “died for” the world. Later “Calvinists” would deny that Christ died for all and ignore what Calvin wrote on this topic.

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