In the 1670s, a heated debate erupted between John Bunyan and a number of influential Baptists over the terms of communion. The debate spanned ten years (1671–1681) and resulted in ten publications from six different authors.
The dispute centered upon this question for those churches who baptize upon a credible profession of faith: Should they receive a paedobaptist (those who practice infant baptism) into the membership of a visible church and admit them to the Lord’s Supper?
Bunyan argued strongly in the affirmative; the Baptists argued just as strongly in the negative.
The communion controversy represents the eruption of tensions that had been building since the emergence of the Particular Baptist movement three decades earlier, and since that time, the issue has reemerged in every century of Baptist life.
An analysis of the communion controversy reveals that it was not merely a quarrel among fellow Baptists about a secondary matter of church practice, but a dispute over fundamentally different ecclesiologies. Underneath all of the polemics and prooftexting, Bunyan and his Baptist opponents were separated by seven irreconcilable ecclesiological convictions.
1. The nature of the church as visible and invisible.
Bunyan viewed the church in binary categories. The church is either invisible/universal or visible/particular.
He determined that baptism could not be the initiating ordinance into either one.
- To regard baptism as the initiating ordinance into the invisible/universal church would be to “unchristian” paedobaptists.
- To regard baptism as the initiating ordinance into the visible/particular would be to “unchurch” paedobaptist churches.
The Baptists viewed the church in three forms:
- the invisible, universal church comprised of all the elect of all ages;
- a visible, universal church of Baptists upon the earth or within a given region;
- a visible, particular church comprised of baptized believers bound together by covenant.
According to the Baptists, baptism was the initiating ordinance into the second of the three.
The necessary implication of the Baptist view is that while there may be true paedobaptist saints, there are no true paedobaptist churches.
2. The nature of baptism as symbol or sacrament.
For Bunyan, baptism in water was the outward sign of the baptism of the Spirit, but there was no essential relationship between the two. Throughout the communion controversy, Bunyan only spoke of baptism is symbolic terms, never as a means of grace. Water baptism and Spirit baptism could not only be distinguished, they could be severed—such that one could and often did possess the substance without the shadow.
This spiritualist strain in Bunyan further separated him from the Baptists, who were unwilling to sever the sign from the thing signified. Though water baptism could be distinguished from the baptism of the Spirit, they must never be divorced such that the church accepts one who possesses the first but neglects the second. In other words, though such a thing may be possible, that does not mean it is permissible. William Kiffin explicitly spoke of baptism as a means of grace, the sign and seal of salvation. If there is no sign, there is no seal. Without the seal, there can be no visible communion.
3. The application of the regulative principle to baptism.
The regulative principle holds that the elements of corporate worship must be grounded in the specific commands from God in Scripture.
Both sides in this debate appealed to the regulative principle as the basis of their argument, and both sides accused the other of violating that principle in favor of human inventions.
Bunyan repeatedly demanded of the Baptists “precept, precedent, or example” for making baptism the initiating ordinance of the church, as well as for excluding unbaptized saints from church communion.
The Baptists continually pointed to the dominical precept, apostolic precedent, and primitive church pattern of believers who were baptized and afterward brought into church communion. Kiffin, especially, argued from the definition of the regulative principle as including both explicit command and necessary inference.
4. Romans 14 and baptism as a matter of conscience or command.
Much of the communion debate revolved around the interpretation of Romans 14.
Bunyan insisted that this text, with its command that the church at Rome receive those who were weak in faith despite differences of opinion in non-essential, outward, circumstantial matters of conscience, applied to the present question of baptism. For Bunyan, Romans 14 established a clear and undeniable paradigm: the church must receive all whom God has received, on the same basis upon which God has received them.
The Baptists responded that baptism is not a matter of conscience but of command, admitting of no deviation from the Scriptural institution. Furthermore, the Baptists repeatedly denied that Romans 14 applied to baptism, since the “weak in faith” in Rome were already baptized members of the church.
5. Clarity about baptism and the need for “light.”
Bunyan had a category for the convictional paedobaptist, arguing that they refused believer’s baptism because they lacked sufficient “light”—i.e., the illumination of the Holy Spirit to understand the biblical administration of the ordinance. Therefore, since “whatever is not of faith is sin,” paedobaptism was no breach of obedience nor smear upon the sincerity of their faith, and should not exclude them from church communion.
The Baptists had no category for the convictional paedobaptist, insisting instead that baptism was as clear as any ordinance of Scripture, “written as with a Sun beam, that he that runs may read.” Therefore, a refusal to submit to baptism is not due to a want of light, but is either the result of a failure to “seriously enquire after it,” blatant disobedience, or worse, unbelief. The Baptists insisted that ignorance of a command does not absolve from sin.
6. The membership requirements of the visible church.
For Bunyan, the membership requirements of the visible, particular church must be identical to the membership requirements of the invisible, universal church.
As water baptism is not required for membership in the invisible, universal church, it must not be required for membership in a visible, particular church. The only membership requirement for entrance into the invisible, universal church is evangelical faith, which is made visible not by baptism but by evangelical holiness.
For the Baptists, the pattern for the visible church is not the invisible church, but the apostolic church. Therefore, the requirements for membership in the visible church must be identical to the membership requirements established in Scripture.
7. The controlling principle of evangelical unity or ecclesiological purity.
Bunyan’s conclusions were controlled by the fundamental desire for evangelical unity. A visible saint is one who possesses evangelical faith and holiness, and as such is a member of the invisible church and cannot be excluded from the visible church without provoking God to judgment for rejecting one whom He has accepted.
The Baptists were driven by the fundamental desire for ecclesiological purity. The truth must never be sacrificed for the sake of unity. The visible church must be ordered according to the rule of Scripture.
This is not to suggest that the Baptists were unconcerned about evangelical unity, nor that Bunyan was unconcerned about ecclesiological purity. But when those two principles came into conflict, a choice had to be made, and Bunyan and the Baptists found themselves standing on opposite sides.
Bunyan concluded A Confession of My Faith, and a Reason of My Practice, the treatise that ignited the controversy, with this irenic call to his separated brethren:
I return now to those that are visible saints by calling, that stand at a distance one from another, upon accounts before specified:
Brethren; CLOSE; CLOSE; be one, as the Father in Christ is one.
But they could not close. The gap between them simply could not be bridged without either side conceding essential ecclesiological convictions regarding
- the nature of the church,
- the nature of baptism, and
- the relationship between the two.
Examination of the communion controversy led to my recent dissertation, in which I provide a systematic analysis of Bunyan’s ecclesiology and reevaluation of his ecclesiological identity. I argue that the controlling principle of Bunyan’s ecclesiology was evangelical unity rooted in evangelical faith and holiness. This evangelical, ecumenical ecclesiology demanded open communion and brought Bunyan into irreconcilable conflict with contemporary Baptists, whose controlling principle of ecclesiological purity drove them to strict communion.
Bunyan’s evangelical, ecumenical ecclesiology represents a unique contribution to the seventeenth-century ecclesiological landscape. Neither Baptist nor Congregationalist, the best ecclesiological label for Bunyan is evangelical Independent.