The Church of England becomes Protestant

In 1534, King Henry VIII denounced the Pope, thereby separating the Church of England from the Catholic church. He did not have sympathy for the Protestant theology; he resented the Pope for not sanctioning the divorce from his wife.

Henry’s successor, the “boy king” Edward VI, was sympathetic to Protestantism, and adopted it; then, Queen “Bloody” Mary turned back to Protestantism; finally, Queen Elizabeth I declared England Protestant again. Eventually, the English church adopted the Thirty-Nine Articles as an official, Protestant statement of faith.

An important figure in this development was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who edited the Book of Common Prayer. This book prescribes the liturgy of the English church, including order of worship, prayers, readings, and forms for various occasions. While keeping much of the older Roman rites, the Book of Common Prayer has a distinctly Calvinist theology. This prayer book became (and still is) the definition of the Anglican tradition.

The King James Bible

In the 1500s, several English Bible translations had been made, such as the Protestant Tyndale Bible and Geneva Bible. Because they were translated directly from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, rather than from the Latin, the Roman church had not approved.

In the early 1600s, King James I commissioned a new, official Bible version. Even though he was decidedly Protestant, he did not appreciate the notes in the Geneva Bible that relativized the authority of the king.

In 1611 the Authorized Version, or King James Version (KJV) of the Bible was published. Over time it displaced the older English versions, and remained the dominant English translation until recently.

Puritans and Presbyterians

The so-called Puritans wanted the English Reformation to go further. They lobbied for reform of social moral values, objected to the “high-church” ceremonies in the Anglican liturgy, and disliked the top-down church government. They were not able to persuade the monarchs to implement their views.

Around 1600s, some of the Puritans became Separatists. Usually they left England for places with more freedom of religion, such as the Netherlands and the United States.

In the 1640s, the political climate was more favorable to the various Puritan groups. They called together the Westminster Assembly (1643-49) to draft documents that would shape England in a more consistent Calvinist direction. Shortly afterward, however, the restored English monarchy returned to the older Anglican model with the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.

But there remained several Nonconformist groups. The Presbyterians, for instance, adopted the Westminster documents as their standards. Today several Presbyterian denominations can be found in the United States, such as the more liberal PCUSA, and the more conservative PCA and the OPC. The theology of these churches is clearly Calvinistic or “Reformed”.

The Anglican tradition

The tradition of the Church of England is known as Anglican or Episcopalian (referring to the system of church government through bishops). Anglican churches are found worldwide. They are united especially in their liturgical practice, as defined in the Book of Common Prayer.

The Anglican tradition may be characterized as a via media, a “middle way” between Catholicism and Protestantism. To be precise, the liturgy is similar to the Catholic tradition but the doctrine is more (Calvinistic) Protestant.

The Baptist tradition

In 1609, Rev John Smyth started the first Baptist church. He rejected various customs of the Church of England, including infant baptism. This made him a Separatist. To avoid conflict with the Church of England, he had moved to the Netherlands. There he rebaptized himself and others.

Smyth and other Baptist shared several tenets with the earlier Anabapists. Apart from the rejection of infant baptism, Baptists also reject “high-church” ceremonies and top-down church government, and prefer simple worship and the rule of local elders.

In the early decades, a difference arose between general Baptists and particular Baptists. This distinction had to do with the question of the “extent of the atonement”: did Jesus die in principle for all of mankind (general), or only for God’s elect (particular)?

Baptists emphasize simple obedience to the Bible and are often critical of theologizing. But they cannot escape the need of making statements of faith. A historically important statement is the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689), a particular Baptist document based on the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Soon after the first Baptist church in England, the movement spread to America (Rhode Island, 1639). The Baptist churches spread along with the expansion to the West. In the 1840s, a conflict over slavery divided the Baptists into a northern and a southern federation. Today, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest Baptist “denomination” in the United States.

The baptism debate

Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals insist on believers baptism by immersion. They reject the older practice of baptizing infant children of believers, as well as baptism by sprinkling or pouring.

Typical arguments in the debate include:

  • Against infant baptism:
    • “He that believes and is baptized, will be saved” (Mark 16:16).
    • Infant baptism is not prescribed in Scripture.
  • For infant baptism:
    • “The promise is for you and for your children” (Acts 2:39).
    • The book of Acts reports several “household baptisms”.
    • Adult-alone baptism is not prescribed in Scripture.
    • Baptism is the covenant sign in the New Testament, just as circumcision was in the Old Testament; this sign was always applied to children of believers.

In spite of this disagreement, the practice of Christians is more similar. Baptists may not baptize their infants, but they usually have a ritual of child dedication. On the other hand, churches that baptize infants typically have a ceremony by which teens or young adults are accepted as full members of the church (confirmation or profession of faith).

As for the mode of baptism, Baptists often argue that the word baptize means “to dip in”, and that baptism is a ritual depicting “burial with Christ”. The counterargument is that baptize refers more generally to ritual cleansing, and that the key symbolism in baptism is that of washing or cleansing.

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