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 Issues | Church History | Richard Baxter


Great Churchmen (No 12)

Richard Baxter

by C Sydney Carter

Published by Church Book Room Press

Baxter’s Ecclesiastical Position

It has sometimes been asserted that Baxter was a typical or representative Nonconformist; but although his exact ecclesiastical position is not always easy to define with precision, he is far nearer to the Catholic churchman than to the narrow sectarian. Sir James Stephen asserted that he was “opposed to every sect and belonged to none.” It would be more correct to describe him as by force of adverse circumstances numbered with the nonconformists, but by his main convictions a definite and in some points a strong churchman. Baxter’s declaration that “all the Christian World is one Catholic Church, as headed by Jesus Christ” is practically identical with the Bidding Prayer's definition of the “holy Catholic Church” as “the whole Congregation of Christian people dispersed throughout the whole World.” But he explains that the Church is “not a mere company of Christians anyhow related to each other, but a Society consisting of an ecclesiastical head and body”; and “the glorified Church” is “the noblest part of the body of Christ.” In addition, Baxter stresses the need for our communion “with the holy souls departed and now with Christ,” which he declares will benefit the Church on earth.

His doctrinal views were not purely Calvinistic or Arminian. He quarrelled with the orthodox Puritan teaching of the imputed righteousness of Christ, holding that Christ's righteousness is not imputed to us immediately in itself, but “in the effect and fruits” - just “as a ransom is said to be given to a captive because it is given /or him.”

His Eucharistic views were certainly not “low.” He advocates fasting on “just occasions” of heinous sin. As the ancient Churches always used the terms “sacrifice”, “altar”, and “priest”, and “the bread is justly called Christ's body, as signifying it”, so Baxter says, “the action described of old was called a ‘sacrifice’ as representing and commemorating it.” And he declares that “it is no more impropet than calling our bodies and our alms and our prayers, sacrifices.” “And naming the table an altar, as related to this representative sacrifice, is not improper.”

Again, Baxter was certainly less careful than our Reformers about adhering closely to New Testament terminology when he pleads that “as the word priest is used of all Christians that offer praise to God, it may surely as well be used of those whose office is to be sub-intercessors between the people and God.”  In fact Baxter did not accept fully the priesthood of all believers, and in this he was certainly not a typical Nonconformist. He denies the right of laymen, even in cases of emergency, to baptize, administer the Lord's Supper, absolve or excommunicate, and is not very keen on their preaching. They must wait and secure for these offices an ordained minister as soon as possible.

In dealing with the Lord's Supper Baxter declares that the Church offers the elements to be accepted of God as the representative body and blood of Christ and that Christ is in the Sacrament “in effigy” - “still crucified before the Church's eyes.” Further, he asserts that by consecration the bread and wine cease to be common bread and wine and are made “sacramentally by signification and representation the sacrificed body and blood of Christ.” Consequently in the Liturgy which he offered at the Savoy Conference, the rubric directs the Minister to say, “Behold the sacrificial Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world.”  “Take ye, eat ye. This is the Body of Christ which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of Him.”

Baxter also held very definite views on Baptism. He so denied the validity of lay Baptism that he himself would be re-baptized lest “that which was done in Christ's name by one that notoriously had no authority from Him to do it, is not owned by Christ as His deed, and so is a nullity.”  “All,” he declares, “that the Minister warrantably baptizeth are sacramentally regenerate and are, in foro ecclesia, members of Christ, children of God and heirs of heaven”; although he admits that “it is only those that are sincerely delivered up in covenant to God in Christ, that are spiritually and really regenerate and are such as shall be owned for members of Christ and children of God in foro coeli.”

 For a time Baxter doubted the legitimacy of Infant Baptism and ceased to baptize children ; but in 1645 he was convinced that the right of the children of believers “to the pardon of Original Sin and to Adoption and to heaven is sealed and delivered to them by Baptism.”  “Most plainly,” he asserts, “Christ says when He institutes baptism, ‘Go disciple me all nations, baptizing them,’ which fully shows that He would have ministers endeavour to disciple and baptize nations, of all which infants are a part.” “But,” he adds, “we must, like the Ancient Church, leave men their liberty to be baptized only when they please and compel none for themselves or their children.” Baxter strongly opposed the strict, censorious Baptists who refused fellowship with others. In 1650 he had a public debate on this subject with an intolerant Baptist which lasted a whole day and which thousands attended. Baxter achieved a popular triumph and his opponent was forced to leave the town. But at this date he himself was most intemperate and uncharitable in his denunciations, a controversial fault of which he repented later. Thus in his dedicatory epistle to The Saints’ Everlasting Rest he declares that “Anabaptists play the Devil's part in accusing their own children and disputing them out of the Church and Covenant of Christ, and affirming them to be no servants of God, nor holy as separated to Him.” “Where,” he asks, “had there ever been a known society of Anabaptists since the world knew them that had not proved wicked?”

 Baxter fully admits the Apostolic foundation of the Church. “All the Christian World,” he declares, “is one Catholic Church as headed by Jesus Christ.” But he denies that Christ has any “viceregent under Him on earth.” “The Holy Ghost,” he adds, “was given to the Apostles to perfect universal legislation, as Christ's agents and advocates; but " in this they had no successors.” “The Church is one body of Christ, having one God and one head or Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Spirit, one hope of glory.”

 “The Roman sect is,” he says, “a spurious Church as it is headed by a human incapable sovereign.” And Baxter published Three Disputations for the Reformed Catholic Relidon against Popery to prove that Popery is “against Scripture and the unity of the Catholic Church and the consent of the Ancient Doctors,” although he admits that the multitude of Protestant sects makes many Papists.

 It is not surprising to find that Baxter stresses the necessity of an ordered Church and Ministry, since he regards them as “God's instituted and settled way by which He will convert and save the world.” He admitted the lawfulness of the ancient episcopal ministry. “The Scriptures and the faith, sacraments and worship would never have been brought to us, as they are, without a stated ministry,” he said. And again: “None have sufficient leisure for such great work ‘as it must be done,’ but those that are by office wholly separated thereto.”  And his searching qualifying gifts and abilities for the Ministry might well be adopted by our present day “Selection Boards” for Ordinands. “The approving judgment . . . of other senior and superior ministers” is, he declares, “ordinarily necessary for ordination; for men are not to be the only judges themselves where public interest is concerned, and the investing ordination of such by the bishop is the ordinary solemnization of their entrance and of the delivery of Christ's commission into their hands.” “This is not done,” he adds, “by election of the people. It is not their work to choose ministers to the general office, or men to call and convert the world.” Consequently he thought the Independents' democratic method of ordination defective, and he disliked the people's vote for Church officers as “nourishing divisions, heresies and sects.” Moreover he thought the “democratic principle of Independency” encouraged a Separatist tendency.


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