Isaac Backus, Not a Magisterial Baptist

I’ve been following an interesting conversation on “Baptist Twitter” over the last week on the subject of Baptist political theology. There seems to be a growing movement of Baptists questioning whether a commitment to religious liberty is a fundamental Baptist distinctive. Some have even adopted the label “magisterial Baptist” to signify a commitment to credo-baptism coupled with the political theology of Calvin and other magisterial Protestants.

Personally, I think the notion of “magisterial Baptist” is oxymoronic. Commitment to religious liberty is based on the fundamental Baptist distinctive of regenerate church membership. Both of these commitments are rooted in Baptist covenant theology, which prioritizes the distinctiveness of the new covenant in Christ. Baptists have never looked to ancient Israel for political theology cues and have overwhelmingly fought to keep the state out of the church as the church has sought to pursue its mission.

Magisterial reformers like Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther, according to Alister McGrath, believed, “The magistrate had a right to authority within the church, just as the church could rely on the authority of the magistrate to enforce discipline, suppress heresy, or maintain order.” Baptists, often the persecuted minority, have historically rejected the right of the magistrate to interfere with the church’s worship and discipline. Baptists affirm the right of the state to govern with the sword in matters of societal justice and order. However, the church can only be governed with the Spiritual sword, the word of God.

Interestingly, Isaac Backus (1724-1806) has been co-opted into the cause and the label “magisterial Baptist” has been applied to him–a notion I’m quite sure he would have rejected. Backus scholar William McLoughlin listed several ways Backus was “far from having a clear-cut position on the precise line to be drawn between church and state.” Not only did he support test laws for public office, he also petitioned Congress to establish a federal commission to license the publication of Bibles, supported instruction from the Westminster Confession in public schools, and supported Puritan blue laws.

Interestingly, all of Backus’ positions went one way. He seemed to have no problem with the church influencing the state. He drew the line at allowing the state any authority over the church, and that allowance is fundamental in any definition of “magisterial” Protestant political philosophy. For Baptists like Backus, the church did not need the state’s support and Christ had not authorized the state to interfere in the church.

If we must choose a label for Backus’ political theology, I would opt for “missional.” While that word has fallen out of style, it captures the way Backus saw the relationship between church and state. Here’s McLoughlin: “He was also among those who thought the United States was and should be a Christian nation. That would be true as soon as all those outside the churches were persuaded to become members. Religious liberty would create an open marketplace for preaching the various forms of Christianity and, in his opinion, the United States would ultimately be a Baptist nation, for the Bible says that ‘the Truth is great and shall prevail.'”

Clearly, Backus believed in religious liberty and supported the notion of separation of church and state. The question being debated has to do with where Backus drew the line of separation. The debate is an important one, for the case of Backus shows that Baptists can maintain their core distinctives and yet differ on how they are to be applied.

What seems to be missing in the contemporary debate over Baptist political theology is the one thing Backus thought was essential: the church on mission. Backus’ notion of a Christian nation was not based on government coercion, but gospel persuasion. He wasn’t looking to the government to institute Christianity; he believed the churches would convert the nation and then the nation would truly be a Christian nation because its citizens would be regenerate. That’s a vision for political theology that any Baptist can get behind.

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