Tipson, Baird. Inward Baptism: The Theological Origins of Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020, hardcover, $79.
It is safe to say that within the conservative Protestantism of the last hundred years, there has been no common understanding of the relation in which the modern movement stands to earlier Protestantism. In the Victorian era, conservative Protestants saw things differently. With a sense of urgency provided by a resurgent Papacy bent on re-exerting international influence and by movements within Protestantism, such as the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement – which aimed at the re-Romanization of Anglicanism, Protestant historians tended to maximize the continuity of Protestant movements from one era to the next. Born in the age of Reformation, Protestantism was understood to have been reinvigorated in the age of Puritans and Pietists and enlivened in the era of transatlantic awakenings, but still been a constant.
This broad-brush approach was in need of refinement and it has come about, beginning with the 1988 release of David W. Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. While chiefly about developments within the United Kingdom, Bebbington’s work suggested elements of discontinuity between the transatlantic and trans-denominational evangelical movements arising in the 1730’s and what had gone before. Meanwhile, a modern resurgence of evangelical Calvinism has had the unforeseen effect of pitting various streams of that movement at odds with one another—some extolling the Reformation age, some the Puritan era, some the period of eighteenth-century awakening as definitive. By any of these analyses, we are very far from the Victorian view of an almost-seamless Protestant heritage. To add further to the mix, we now witness the over-association of the very term “evangelical” with right-wing religious and political causes so that the term has fallen into discredit.
It is the very great strength of Baird Tipson’s Inward Baptism that—while fully allowing that momentous developments occurred disrupting the flow of a common Protestant history (none more so than the English Civil Wars, followed by an Interregnum, Restoration of Monarchy and re-imposition of religious unity)—he maintains that there have also been constant themes and commonalities bridging the eras of upheaval. Tipson has adroitly demonstrated this commonality by tracing—across five hundred years—pastoral attempts to ensure that the balm of the gospel was both appropriated and suitably internalized by persons ready to confess their sins. Of course, the half-millennium he surveys (pre-Reformation Europe through the eighteenth century) shows upheavals and discontinuities. But throughout, there was an unvarying pastoral quest to lead those hoping for forgiveness through Christ’s passion into some confidence that what they sought had indeed become theirs.
The pre-Reformation penitential system, (chap. I) presupposed confession of sin to a priest, who—if satisfied as to the penitent’s sincerity—would pronounce an absolution of guilt. But the absolution of guilt presupposed that the one confessing would be ready to carry out a prescribed penitential activity (a pilgrimage, a donation) which would demonstrate change of heart. To have done this, was to do “what was within one’s power” (implying exertion). But all sins were not necessarily confessed and all prescribed penitential acts were not carried out. Purgatory loomed for those passing from this life with unfinished business. But indulgences, available for purchase, assured those who purchased them that through the application of the surplus merits of deceased saints, their own imperfect acts of penitence would be properly augmented. On this plan, the certainty of salvation applied to the individual was contingent on the gestures and imperfect aspirations of that person.
Martin Luther upended this apple cart (chap. II) through his preaching of salvation by faith in Christ alone. Not the aspirations of the sinner after holiness, not the auricular confession of the individual, certainly not the lent merits of departed saints, but faith in Christ was now determinative of who could be counted among the ranks of the redeemed. If those confessing their sin with a trust in Christ doubted their standing in grace, the Lutheran reformation directed such persons to the solace of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as seals of Christ’s provision for them. Lutheran sacraments while not directly communicating grace in the Roman Catholic sense, were still understood to be essential in the appropriation of salvation. The penitent who leaned on these had the assurance he needed.
Not quite so with the Reformed (chap. III). As articulated by Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, at the Colloquy of Montebeliard (1586), an acceptance of divine election qualified the ability of the two sacraments to certify the possession of salvation. The genuineness of a saving faith anchored in the eternal divine purpose could only be displayed by a subsequent pursuit of holiness. This development, carried forward in the Puritanism of William Perkins (chap. IV), emphasized that the reality of regeneration, the “inward baptism”, could only be corroborated by subsequent conscientious obedience to the moral law. But an acceptance of this same divine election led others into antinomian reactions in both Old and New England; the Puritan emphasis on conscientious holy living as corroboration of rebirth was denigrated in light of claimed an immediate divine communication certifying acceptance.
A reaction to this excess in both Old and New England (chap V), i.e., moralism, maintained the older Puritan emphasis on the necessity of holy living while downplaying the necessity of spiritual rebirth. All of this leads Tipson to a fresh appraisal of the transatlantic awakening (chap.VI) in which appear both alarming emphases found in the antinomianism of the preceding century (against which Jonathan Edwards warned) and that theologian’s more careful exposition of what constitutes a saving work of the Spirit in a human life.
The reviewer has already typified this work as “adroit”. Written at a scholarly distance from today’s evangelical movements, its sensitive assessment is nevertheless full of implications for an evangelical Protestantism currently struggling to identify what is its own mainstream and what are its backwaters. It represents a masterful combination of the author’s own researches and the best modern scholarship.
Kenneth J. Stewart
Emeritus Professor of Theological Studies, Covenant College