Baptists and the Neo-Calvinist Tradition

Baptists and the Neo-Calvinist Tradition

The following is a lightly edited transcript of a panel presentation delivered at the Kuyper Conference 2023 on the occasion of awarding Albert Wolters the Reformation Legacy Award. This presentation was delivered by Dr. Dennis Greeson on 10 May 2023 at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada.

Dr. Dennis Greeson with Dr. WoltersI am honored to have been invited to share some reflections on Dr. Wolters’ legacy. I have been asked to share some thoughts on what his work, and the Neo-Calvinist tradition more broadly, has meant to Baptists. 

The irony of speaking for all Baptists is not lost on me, for to be Baptist is to hold that no one person or confession represents the convictions of every local church. So, I will not speak for all Baptists. Rather, I want to speak about how Dr. Wolters has influenced a particular group of Baptists—and I hope both you and he will be surprised at how extensive this has been.

To accomplish this, I want to offer four things. First, I want to offer a brief anecdote that involves Dr. Wolters, and I think will go far in beginning to connect the dots. Second, I want to touch briefly on who Baptists are and what we believe. This will help highlight why Dr. Wolters’ legacy, and Dutch Neo-Calvinism more broadly, is so relevant for many of us Baptists.

Third, I want to offer an oral history of sorts. I want to connect some dots that explain what many of you may have already noticed: that several of us Baptists are quite eager to resource the Neo-Calvinist tradition because we have long lacked a rich, home-grown theology of public life ourselves. But as I tell this story, know that I realize that I am describing only a slice of Baptist life. My experience and the context of what I’m going to share today is limited to American Southern Baptists, and I make no pretense to either speak for other Baptist groups or to flatten the global Baptist experience to this small group.

Finally, I want to briefly look to the future: why is it so important for Baptists to continue to come to this table? And why might it be so important for Neo-Calvinism that we do so? 


Table of Contents


A Brief Anecdote

In the spring of 2012, a delegation of Southern Baptist theologians, ethicists, missiologists, and their entourage of PhD students drove up from Wake Forest, NC, through a blizzard, to Ontario to spend a weekend with Redeemer University faculty at a Catholic retreat center.

As I have heard it told, the purpose of the gathering was cross-pollination of two very different traditions on the topic of cultural engagement. A good time was had by all—except that a few of the Baptists present struggled with the lack of focus on the Great Commission throughout the weekend. Concerned with only talk of the cultural mandate and Christ’s Kingdom implications for vocation, they led the effort to share the gospel with a waitress at dinner one night.

Upon hearing of this, the neo-Calvinists were cut to the heart. I believe it was Dr. Wolters himself who said they would have never done such a thing as publicly proselytize in this way! 

For many of the Baptists present, this admission was all that they needed to realize that not only was the neo-Calvinist tradition full of rich resources to be mined, but also a tradition perhaps in need of a little bit of Baptist perspective. 

As the story goes, the American sojourners to the frozen North came back from that trip and set about the work of teaching students and recruiting PhD students, which has begun to bear fruit as the emerging movement we now witness of so many of us drawing upon neo-Calvinism.

Thus, for many of us, we can tie a direct line back to Dr. Wolters. But before I reflect more on his legacy, let us turn and answer an important question: who are the Baptists and what are we doing at this table in fellowship with Neo-Calvinism?


The Baptists – Who Are We and Why are We Here?

Baptists are a theologically diverse group of people, often with very little in common. You might say that what unifies our identity has more to do with our insistence on independence from one another than any firm beliefs we share together. 

I remember when I first saw a chart mapping out all of the various church divisions within the Dutch Reformed tradition in the Netherlands and North America. I said to myself, “Here is a people like my people!”

But in all seriousness, we do have a history of shared confessions. Where Baptists have come together has been in an effort to cooperate for the sake of local and international ministry, especially evangelism and church planting. Our confessions of faith have served to unify churches around this common work for the Gospel.

Why might this be the case? It has to do directly with our theological distinctives. We are more than just people who refuse to baptize infants. We are a people who are keenly attuned to the place of the church in the world. Our identity is rooted deeply in being able to draw clear lines between who is and who isn’t in the church. 

We are a people who are keenly attuned to the place of the church in the world. Our identity is rooted deeply in being able to draw clear lines between who is and who isn’t in the church.

This is not just for the sake of mission, being able to identify to whom we should preach the Gospel, but also for the sake of the body, being able to organize the inner life of the church around our confession of the faith.

For Baptists, what a church is, is a group of people united in a common confession that salvation comes by faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and who have made such confession by being baptized in his name. Additionally, because such confession should be free and uncoerced, Baptists have historically resisted involvement in the life of the church by civil authorities.

These two things have tended to frame for us the church-and-world relationship: confession of one’s own conversion as the vitality of church’s inner life, and proclamation of the confession and securing the freedom to do so as the vision of the church’s public life.

But the irony in this is that while the church-and-world relationship is so central to us, we have neglected the development of any robust articulation of the mode of the church’s life in the world beyond evangelism and church planting.

So let me briefly articulate what Baptists tend to believe about what makes us Baptist, and then I will spend a moment highlighting what we tend to lack.


Baptist Distinctives

As you may know, Baptists do not merely trace our heritage from 16th century Swiss Anabaptists. Formally, the Baptist tradition emerged out of the context of English Separatism in the 17th century, and in our beginnings the church-and-world relationship was a prominent issue for early Baptist churches. 

We can see this at play in the nature and function of credobaptism (as opposed to pedobaptism)—our defining characteristic—in these churches. 

For Baptists then, as well as for many today, baptism of professing Christians by immersion is not merely followed as something seen as the pattern of the New Testament, but is an extension of what the church is in its very nature.

For in baptism, a Christian professes faith in Christ and publicly identifies him or herself with Christ as having experienced death, burial, and resurrection in Christ by the Spirit—a confession affirmed by the local church who performs the baptizing. Local churches, therefore, are comprised of converted believers who are united around a common confession of having experienced new birth in Christ. Such confession forms not only the essence of a local church, but also provides the demarcation between a repentant church and an unrepentant world.

Because Baptists believe that such a confession should be uncoerced in both the fact of confessing and what is being confessed, Baptists have been consistent champions of religious liberty. 

From Thomas Helwys, in 17th century, through today, Baptists have insisted that civil authorities refrain from interference with the life of a church because when they so interfere, they impose upon the common confession of faith which makes a church a church, and intermediate between an individual and the Lord Jesus when individuals are accountable only to Christ for their repentance and salvation. 

This is why Roger Williams fought so hard for religious freedom in 17th century Rhode Island. It is also why we Baptists so cherish Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, which provides the interpretation of the free exercise clause of America’s Bill of Rights that there be “a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Baptists in the World

So, given our theological distinctives, what is a typical Baptist vision of life in the world? 

Predictably—and I think this is a good thing—we are passionate about the Great Commission as a call of proclamation. We feel called to tell the world about who Christ is and what he is done, so that individuals might repent, believe, and be baptized.

However, beyond this, we tend to lack a theological vision of public life any more inclusive of human activities than this—at least in the sense of it being home-grown from within our own tradition’s resources.

Why might this be? Perhaps one reason is that because our distinctives so orient us to conversion, we have been left with an anemic understanding of the rest of God’s economy with creation as it unfolds throughout the biblical narrative.

To risk being overly simplistic, regarding the four-part plot of the cannon, Baptists have tended to isolate “the Fall” and “Salvation” as the story itself, without much regard to “Creation” and “New Creation” except as accessories of those more central parts of the story.

Baptists have tended to isolate “the Fall” and “Salvation” as the story itself, without much regard to “Creation” and “New Creation” except as accessories of those more central parts of the story.

Here is where for many of us, neo-Calvinism and Dr. Wolter’s legacy in particular comes in.


Baptists and Neo-Calvinism

Why have so many Baptists been turning in recent years to Dutch neo-Calvinism?

Here are the reasons I suspect: first, neo-Calvinism offers a compelling apologetic of the orthodox Christian faith to modernity. This is not necessarily in the propositional, “this is why to believe” sense. Rather, it is more in the “this is how the faith is actually inhabitable here and now” sense. 

This is because, second, it offers a broad vista of God’s mission in the world which is rooted in his relationship to and economy with his creation, his meaning for history, and a spiritual diagnosis of humanity’s condition which is always manifest culturally. Thus, it provides the theological resources to integrate all of life into the faith, and then reform or recreate all of life until Christ throughout various cultures.

This therefore offers a mode of how to live Christianly in the world, which is the third reason. For many of us, this has come directly through the work of Dr. Wolters, especially in his little book Creation Regained. As we well know, the theological legacy of Kuyper, Bavinck, and others has been largely inaccessible to anglophones for decades, and therefore we have often dealt in caricature of their ideas communicated through secondary sources.

But Dr. Wolters’ book for many of us served as an on-ramp to a more accurate understanding of what is on offer in the neo-Calvinist tradition, and it served to wet our appetite just as the large translation project of so many of these resources really kicked into gear.

What did Dr. Wolters provide to us that was so compelling? His Creation Regained offers a vision of God’s work in history which hitches eschatology to protology. It frames the doctrine of creation not as an apologetic cudgel to be wielded in debates about the age of the earth, but rather an actual theology of what creation is and is for: that is, a teleology of the whole cosmos.

Creation Regained offers a vision of God’s work in history which hitches eschatology to protology.

Even further, Dr. Wolters has given us a way to speak of the Fall which does not lead to personal salvation eclipsing everything else God is up to in the story he is telling throughout the history of his creation. The categories of structure and direction have helped us better understand the effects of sin and to develop a redemptive theology of public life and Christian cultural calling in response.


Creation Regained by Albert Wolters


Tracing the Lineage

So, back to the story. Why am I here? My story is the product of several waves—or “generations”—of Baptists who have come to see in the neo-Calvinist tradition a vision for life in the modern world that we desperately need.

In the first wave, beginning about fifteen years ago, several Baptist theologians and biblical studies scholars began reading in earnest primary sources like Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism, Vos’ Biblical Theology, and Bavinck’s Our Reasonable Faith, as well as secondary sources like Gordon Spykman’s Reformational Theology, Craig Bartholomew’s many musings and doctrine and philosophy, and especially Dr. Wolters’ Creation Regained. 

The second wave came through many of the first-wave scholar’s PhD students engaging in issues related neo-Calvinism or actively drawing upon neo-Calvinist-adjacent sources such as Francis Schaeffer and Lesslie Newbigin. This coincided with graduate students beginning to have neo-Calvinist primary sources taught in our courses and neo-Calvinists like Craig Bartholomew and Vincent Bacote speaking on campus.

This in turn has led to the third wave of several of us Baptists conducting doctoral research and publishing directly on theology of Kuyper, Bavinck, Schilder, and J. H. Bavinck—and doing so as Baptists.


The Future

So, I have offered some insight into why many Baptists are resourcing neo-Calvinism to strengthen our own tradition. Let us look now to the future to consider why this will continue to be so important.

As I have mentioned, Baptists’ default self-disciplined engagement with public life tends towards public proclamation of the gospel or political mobilization for the sake of religious liberty. Sometimes we supplement this with engagement on issues of ethics. 

But this is far from a comprehensive vision of the church’s place in the world. So, if we are not actively articulating a distinctly Christian vision of life in the world, we will trend towards appropriating unchristian visions of life in the world to fill in the gaps.

We see this happening now with some Baptists playing the identarian game and lauding the benefits of ethnonationalism. We also see it happening in the duplicity of calling for renewal of public sexual ethics in issues of gender identity, and yet failing challenge the fundamentally unchristian practice of sexual ethics of our leaders—and I’m not talking primarily about political leaders, but rather our church leaders.

But now, let us consider the future from the other side: why might it be so important for neo-Calvinism that Baptists continue to come to this table to fellowship and encourage one another? I suspect you already know where I am going with this: Baptists might be a one-trick pony, but let’s admit it: it is a really important trick. Our consistent refrain is the primacy of proclamational mission.

Our consistent refrain is the primacy of proclamational mission.

As I heard the story of the fateful retreat told, our insistence on the primacy of proclamational mission was something Dr. Wolters found both convicting and inspiring. Certainly, the mode of our proclamation in the public square matters. But let’s not substitute social activism for proclamational mission. 

Rather, if there is anything that Kuyper, Bavinck, Schilder, and J. H. Bavinck’s legacy teaches us, it is that these must be fundamentally integrated—for both the life of the church as well as the life of the world.


Dr. Dennis Greeson is Dean of the BibleMesh Institute and Research Fellow in Public Theology for The Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He is also a PhD Research supervisor at Union Theological College, Belfast, and teaches and writes on theology, culture, and public square issues.