William Tyndale, translator and promulgator (with Coverdale and Rodgers) of the immensely influential Tyndale Bible, held Baptist views on baptism. He described the ordinance as “the sign of repentance (or, if they will so have it called, penance), washing and new birth.”[i] As Baptists would, “Tyndale identified baptism primarily with repentance: ‘baptism is a sign of repentance signifying that I must repent of evil, and believe to be saved there from by the blood of Christ.’”[ii] He denied the necessity of baptism for salvation. “Tyndale . . . deduced that ‘the infants that die unbaptized of us Christians are in as good case as those that die baptized.’ He could also allow that adults who believed in Christ and lived a Christian life might well be saved even without the sacrament.[iii] . . . Tyndale . . . pointed out that the main function of [baptism] is that of ‘testifying and exhibiting to our senses the promises signified.’[iv] [v] . . . The Holy Spirit does not work in the water, but ‘accompanieth the preaching of faith, and with the word of faith, entereth the heart and purgeth it.’[vi]”[vii] He also “described dipping or plunging [not pouring or sprinkling] as the true sign.”[viii] It is possible, but not certain, that Tyndale was a member of a Baptist church. J. T. Christian comments:
Davis (History of the Welsh Baptists, 21) claims that William Tyndale (A. D. 1484-1536) was a Baptist. He was born near the line between England and Wales, but lived most of the time in Gloustershire. “Llewellyn Tyndale and Hezekiah Tyndale were members of the Baptist church at Abergaverney, South Wales.” There is much mystery around the life of Tyndale. Bale calls him “the apostle of the English.” “He was learned, a godly, and a good-natured man” (Fuller, Church History of Britain, II. 91). It is certain he shared many views held by the Baptists; but that he was a member of a Baptist church is nowhere proved. He always translated the word ecclesia by the word congregation, and held to a local conception of a church (Tyndale, Works II. 13. London, 1831). There were only two offices in the church, pastor and deacons (1.400). The elders or bishops should be married men (I. 265). Upon the subject of baptism he is very full. He is confident that baptism does not wash away sin. “It is impossible,” says he, “that the waters of the river should wash our hearts” (Ibid, 30). Baptism was a plunging into the water (Ibid, 287). Baptism to avail must include repentance, faith and confession (III. 179). The church must, therefore, consist of believers (Ibid, 25). His book in a wonderful manner states accurately the position of the Baptists.
The involvement of Baptists, or at least those with Baptistic views, in Bible translation is in accord with Scriptural promises of the responsibility of the saints and the church for the propagation of Scripture (Matthew 28:19-20; John 17:8, etc.). Furthermore, the diligent study of Scripture evident in and required for the production of the historic, Christ-honoring, anti-Papist English Bibles[ix] would tend to move translators toward the Baptist baptismal doctrine[x] taught in the Word of God.
In stark theological contrast to the mainline Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed positions, but in closer continuity with at least some of those involved in the translation of the English Bible, Baptists maintained the Biblical position on the ordinance of baptism and opposed a connection between the ordinance and the receipt of salvation, infant baptism, and other corruptions of the ordinance by the old Catholic and the new protesting Catholic movements. “Anabaptism . . . insisted that baptism is merely a sign of individual conversion and the new birth.[xi] . . . The Anabaptists . . . envisaged the external rite [of baptism] purely as a sign, and that it was not in any way, except the psychological, a means of spiritual grace.[xii] . . . The contribution made by . . . the Anabaptists was on the whole the negative one of attacking the prevailing notion that the external element could itself accomplish an internal cleansing.[xiii] . . . [T]hey maintained with truth that it is the blood of Christ which cleanses from sin,[xiv] they did not think of baptism as in any way a means of grace, but only as a sign of grace, and more especially as a sign of individual conversion.[xv] . . . The main bulwark of the Anabaptists was that infants cannot have faith, and therefore lack the essential qualification for the [ordinance of baptism].”[xvi] The Schleitheim Confession of 1527 stated well the Anabaptist position:
Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death, so that they may be resurrected with him, and to all those who with this significance request it [baptism] of us and demand it for themselves. This excludes all infant baptism, the highest and chief abominations of the pope.[xvii]
If baptism is given only to those who, having repented, know that their sins “are” taken away already by Christ, the ordinance cannot have saving efficacy, for conversion and justification are prerequisites to being “buried” with Christ in baptism. Since infant baptism is an abomination, indeed, “the highest and chief” of popish abominations, it must not be in any wise countenanced; the view of the early Zwingli, that infant baptism is unscriptural but “on account of the possibility of offence I omit preaching this; it is better not to preach it until the world is ready to take it,”[xviii] is entirely unacceptable. Protestantism may maintain that the practice of or opposition to infant baptism is a non-separating, secondary issue or a non-issue; but Baptists, who recognize infant baptism as an abomination, cannot trivialize its practice.
The rejection of infant baptism had as its corollary a rejection of the universal State-church concept of the Catholics and the Reformers; indeed, many Baptists, following the New Testament definition of ekklesia as solely a local, visible body, entirely rejected the concept of a universal church. The ancient Donatists and the medieval Anabaptists that succeeded them denied the existence of a universal or catholic church.[xix] The Reformation Anabaptists affirmed that the body of Christ was the local, visible assembly, entered by believer’s baptism,[xx] not a universal entity composed of the entirety of the elect.
The Baptists also held to what became known as the Regulative Principle,[xxi] namely, that whatever God did not explicitly command in His worship was forbidden. In this they were joined by the generality of the Reformed, who used the Principle to attack the patently extrabiblical ceremonies of the Papists and the Lutherans and their corollary affirmation that whatever was not explicitly forbidden in worship was permitted. In England, the Puritans endorsed the Regulative Principle, while the Anglicans opposed it. The Baptists, however, were the only ones able to consistently implement this Scriptural (Leviticus 10:1-3) teaching, since the rest maintained the practice of the infant baptism the New Testament was, at the very best, entirely silent about.[xxii] In Zurich, “Zwingli took steps to purge the office [of the state church] of all its non-scriptural elements. In this matter he was in full agreement with the Anabaptists, who were clamoring that all ceremonies which had no sanction in the New Testament ought ruthlessly to be discarded. . . . Calvin called for the complete destruction of . . . added ceremonies . . . and he did not retain a single one of them in the Genevan liturgies. His disciples vied with one another in their attempts to heap scorn and ridicule upon the ancient customs.”[xxiii] The Regulative Principle was an important component of the Baptist doctrine of baptism.
[i] Pg. 11, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Tyndale, British Reformers Series, pg. 407.
[ii] Pg. 25, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Tyndale, Parker Society Series, III, pg. 171.
[iii] Pg. 56, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Tyndale, Parker Society Series, I, pg. 350-351.
[iv] Tyndale, Parker Society Series, I, p. 357.
[v] Pg. 179, Baptism, Bromiley.
[vi] Tyndale, Parker Society Series, I, pg, 423-424.
[vii] Pg. 192, Baptism, Bromiley.
[viii] Pg. 140, Baptism, Bromiley.
[ix] It has been estimated that the readings in the Authorized Version are well over 90% the work of Tyndale (Tyndale did not complete the OT/NT).
[x] It is possible that Baptist doctrine influenced other translators of the English Bible; for example, Coverdale said, “In baptism we have an undoubted true token and evidence of the grace of God” (Pg. 18, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Coverdale, Parker Society Series, II, pg. 86), a declaration consistent with the Baptist position on the ordinance.
[xi] Pg. xiv, Baptism, Bromiley.
[xii] Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica, pg. 188, II, pg. 280, cited on pg. 188, Baptism, Bromiley.
[xiii] Corpus Reformatorum, IV, pg. 215, 627.
[xiv] Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandia, II, pg. 280, IV, pg. 44.
[xv] Pg. 173, Baptism, Bromiley.
[xvi] Pg. 113-114, Baptism, Bromiley.
[xvii] Article 1 of the Schleitheim Confession, pg. 25, Baptist Confessions of Faith, William L. Lumpkin. Valley Forge,
PA: Judson Press, 1969.
[xviii] Pg. 199, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Verduin.
[xix] Pg. 34-35, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Verduin.
[xx] Articles 2 + 3 of the Schleitheim Confession, pg. 25, Baptist Confessions of Faith, William L. Lumpkin.
[xxi] A Biblical and historical analysis is found in “Biblical Authority and the Proof of the Regulative Principle of Worship in The Westminster Confession,” John Allen Delivuk, Westminster Theological Journal 58:2 (Fall 96) pgs. 237-256.
[xxii] See “Infant Baptism and the Regulative Principle of Worship,” Fred Malone: http://www.gracesermons.com/robbeeee/regulative.html.
[xxiii] Corpus Reformatorum, IV, pg. 707, cited from pg. 149, Baptism, Bromiley.