The Beginning of Baptist Ecclesiology

The Foundational Contributions of Thomas Helwys

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Marvin Jones
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , June
     174 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For too long Thomas Helwys has merely been seen for his political contributions to freedom of conscience and separation of church and state. Yet these ideas have not been appreciated within the context of the ecclesial reflection that produced them. Attempting to correct this, Marvin Jones offers the first full treatment on Helwys’s understanding of the English Baptist church.

He does so by carefully reading the central arguments of Helwys’s principal work, The Mystery of Iniquity, in its cultural and historical context. In summary, Helwys depended on a very specific understanding of the Book of Revelation and then developed his ecclesiology in contrast to Roman Catholicism, the English Reformation, the Puritan movement in the Anglican church, and the Separatists.

Jones notes that these polemics imply a developing Baptist ecclesiology. When Helwys distinguished his church from the hierarchies of Rome and England, he asserted the autonomous local church. In contradistinction from the Church of England (whose head was the king) and the Mennonites (who withdrew from government participation), Helwys offered the foundations of separation of church and state, where Baptist churches would not have their beliefs policed by the state, but neither would its members  be barred from participating in good governance. In contradistinction from the Puritans, Helwys argued that the church is ruled by King Jesus, making the English monarch an unnecessary and illegitimate authority over the church. Thus, a church fully under the rule of Christ would be fully autonomous to implement the true order of the church in practices like baptism, something the Puritans could not do. Also, against the Separatists, who wanted to retain their baptism from the Church of England, Helwys asserted that a true church would be marked by believer baptism.

Jones does an excellent job of situating Helwys in his historical and cultural milieu. However, as he draws his implications for Baptist ecclesiology, this is where this reviewer found more questions raised than answered.

The first chapter, where Jones notes that Helwys was driven by a strong literalistic reading of Revelation—where he saw himself as living in the end of days, and also that the Beasts of Revelation were the churches of Rome and England—Jones offers no reflections on the implications of this reading for Baptist ecclesiology despite how pivotal it is to Helwys’s thinking. Modern research into the nature of apocalyptic literature has yielded the somewhat obvious conclusion that this way of reading this type of literature is highly problematic. What does this mean for Baptist ecclesiology? Was the identity founded on an apocalyptic fanaticism that modern day readers can only see as an exegetical folly? Can responsible Baptists today say in good ecumenical conscience (or even with a straight face) that the church of England or Roman Catholicism are the Beasts of Revelation?

Next, the title of this book, The Beginning of Baptist Ecclesiology creates a historiographic misnomer. This is the beginning of English General Baptist ecclesiology, but not “Baptist” as such. The continental Anabaptists (as we call them now) referred to themselves as “Baptists” (among other names). Were the English Baptists descendants of the Anabaptists or did they merely have a kinship of convictions with irreconcilable differences that prevented their full association? This is an old debate, but its ramifications for historiography are important in an ecumenical age of a fragmented church. Those that advocate little connection tend to define the Baptist identity closely to a set of confessional convictions and denominational institutions that in some way exist to the present day. The problem with this approach is that it chooses a point in which the identity appeared as the arrival of a pristine ecclesiological paradigm amidst totally lapsed forms, a point that is based on the historian’s present theological convictions. This allows the historian to dismiss all previous and parallel groups (like the Anabaptists or Quakers) as dissimilar, though differences between them may be slight. Such historiography sometimes becomes an exercise in well-intended boundary keeping, when Christian identifies are in actuality far more porous. It tends to recycle an implicit successionism (the idea that the Baptist church is the true clandestine church traceable back to the Apostles) that Helwys presupposed with his reading of Revelation, but which Baptist historians have long since debunked—though many Baptist theologians still presuppose.

Those that advocate “Baptist” as an identity coinciding with Anabaptism (or just one of many movements of free churches) do so with models of identity that have less tangible points of connection, admitting that identity is inherently diverse and divided, polymorphous and polygenetic. Why is that preferable? Because a more accurate account of the history of Christian groups admits intertwined origins and porous convictions. This is important for ecclesial reflection today. The Baptist identity—an identity much like most other Christian identities—today is in actuality more diverse and divided than the differences between who historians identity as Anabaptists and Baptists in the 1600s. With this reality is the awareness that there are legitimate churches which Baptists have failed to have fellowship with. What holds the Baptist identity together? What holds all Christian identities together? What keeps them separate? These are the implications this reviewer was looking for.

Jones’s study does a great scholarly service in situating Helwys’s thought in its actual intellectual and cultural context. However, in doing so, this reviewer’s impression is that this context is vastly different than the current milieu that churches face today. This book intends to show the implications for present day Baptist ecclesiology, but fails to do so as it does not include (1) a historiography that takes into account the diverse and porous origins of the Baptist identity; and (2) an ecclesiology that takes the ecumenical imperative responsibly in an age of a fragmented church. Just as history and theology are connected, these two concerns are one and the same.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Spencer Boersma is part-faculty at Thorneloe University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marvin Jones is the chair of the Christian studies division at Louisiana College in Pineville, LA. He is also the author of Basil of Caesarea (2014).

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