By Shane Kastler
(NOTE: This is the first of several articles planned comparing the 1646 and 1689 London Baptist Confessions.)
Confessions of Faith can be very beneficial. They can also be very dangerous, depending upon how much stock you put in them. On the one hand they are a good way to summarize and systematize what you believe. On the other hand, if they are elevated to a level of Biblical authority, they have clearly usurped their intended use and could potentially lead one astray. The Bible, understood in context and translated correctly from the original languages; is to serve as our guide. The Bible is ultimately our only rule for faith and practice. A Confession of Faith might help us with this task, or it might get in the way of it.
The practice of summarizing one's faith has roots in Scripture itself. Several passages of New Testament scripture are thought to be early confessions of the church. While the New Testament canon was being penned churches had to have ways of learning and remembering doctrine. When Paul writes Timothy he says: “By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.” (1 Timothy 3:16 NASB) Here we see Paul laying out, in a brief systematic fashion, points of fact regarding Jesus Christ.
Historically this practice has been beneficial as well. What is commonly called the five points of Calvinism is in essence a confession of what Reformed Christians believe about salvation. The five points are certainly not an exhaustive explanation of all things theological; yet they do summarize one aspect of doctrine, namely soteriology (the doctrine of salvation).
Two of the great historical Baptist Confessions were the 1646 and the 1689 London Baptist Confessions of Faith. While they obviously share many similarities they also differ on some points of doctrine. The 1646 Confession was originally written in 1644, as an apologetic document to defend seven London Baptist churches against charges of being “Anabaptist.” The 1689 Confession, on the other hand, was essentially a carbon copy of the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith, with a few minor tweaks to make it “Baptist” in nature. In essence, the 1646 Confession was written to defend the faith, whereas the 1689 was copied and adhered to so the Baptists of the day could show uniformity and solidarity with other “non-conformist” churches of a Presbyterian and Congregationalist nature; who were jointly being persecuted by the Church of England.
By the mid 1640s, Baptist practice was growing in London and the potential for persecution was ripe. A popular pamphlet, entitled “A Warning for England, especially for London; in the famous History of the frantick Anabaptists, their wild Preachings and Practices in Germany” (sic) was being distributed at the time. It charged the Baptist churches with being a particular sect of “Anabaptism” that sought to sow seeds of governmental discord and perhaps even overthrow the government itself. Nothing could have been further from the truth, for in reality the Baptist churches of London wanted nothing do with governmental matters; they simply wanted to be free to worship as they pleased. James Renihan writes:
“The situation was potentially explosive. They knew that it was essential to demonstrate that they were not radicals, subversively undermining the fabric of society. To the contrary, they were law-abiding citizens, who were being misrepresented and misunderstood by many around them. They wanted and needed to demonstrate that they were quite orthodox in their theological beliefs, and that they had no agenda beyond a faithful and conscientious commitment to God and His Word. As the Baptists faced these circumstances, they decided that they needed to take action to relieve the fears and misinformation spreading. God had blessed their efforts thus far, and they did not want to see those efforts frustrated by the rumor and innuendo of their enemies. So they adopted a practice frequently used by others in the last 150 years—they issued a confession of faith so that anyone interested in them might be able to obtain an accurate understanding of their beliefs and practices. (Confessing the Faith in 1644 & 1689, accessed at www.reformedreader.com)
While we typically think of the Anabaptists as being more pacifistic in nature, there was a sect in Munster, Germany in the 1530s, who had sought to overthrow the local government. Having taken up arms, they took possession of the local court house and wanted to create their own civil authority. The uprising was squelched, but the fears sparked by this group continued for many years. It was the Anabaptists of Munster who inspired the pamphlet and flamed the fears of London in the 1640s.
The 1646 Confession was far from exhaustive in scope, nor was it intended to be. It was simply a putting forth and a defense of what these Baptist churches believed. Even in the preface to the Confession one sees the apologetic nature of the document: “A confession of faith of seven congregations or churches of Christ in London, which are commonly, but unjustly called Anabaptists; published for the vindication of the truth and information of the ignorant; likewise for the taking off those aspersions which are frequently, both in pulpit and print, unjustly cast upon them.”
The history of the 1689 London Baptist Confession is quite different, having its roots in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith. And so it was, that in the 1640s the “Westminster Standards” came into being as well. Consisting of the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. These documents were sought by members of parliament, on behalf of the Church of England who were more Puritan in nature and wanted to see the national church have more Biblical moorings. In addition to the statements themselves, parliament also required proof texts from Scripture to show each point lined up with Biblical teaching. While this desire is certainly laudable, the end result in some areas, failed to meet this goal, as verses were used to justify doctrines that the verses themselves did not teach. It was a source of theological tension in the 17th century; and it is a source of theological tension today.
As the 1600s marched on, “Westminster Standards” fell out of vogue within the Church of England; and not surprisingly those churches who refused to comply with the 1662 Act of Uniformity were facing potential persecution. These “Non-Conformist” churches came from both Baptist and Presbyterian circles, as well as Congregationalists. The desire on the part of many Non-Conformists was to show unity with one another against the Church of England. Indeed these various Calvinistic fellowships shared much in common doctrinally, while differing on other non-salvific issues. So it was that the Congregationalist churches adopted the Westminster Confession as their own with what was called the Savoy Declaration of 1658. Many of the Baptists followed suit with the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. To say the 1689 Confession was similar to the Westminster Confession would be a gross understatement. For the most part it was a word-for-word copy of it, with some obvious changes made in the area of baptism. From a political perspective, adoption of the 1689 Confession helped to unite the Non-Conformists against the attacks of the established religious power of the day, the Church of England. Yet the sometimes uncomfortable reality for those Baptists who hold to the 1689 Confession still stands: the document was largely adopted for political rather than theological purposes. And therein lies a potential foundational flaw in the philosophical core of the document itself.
From where do we get our doctrine? Those who adhere to all of the aforementioned Confessions would be in near unanimous agreement that we get our doctrine from the Scriptures themselves. Yet it must be stated that the 1689 Confession gets its doctrine from Scripture by way of the Westminster Confession. In other words, Scripture really is the indirect rather than the direct source of doctrine regarding the 1689 London Baptist Confession. So to the degree the Westminster Confession is faithful to Scripture the 1689 London Confession will be as well. And while on most points this has held true it is nevertheless a somewhat blurry way to arrive at a doctrinal position. Very much like English Bible translations that begin with another English translation rather than the original languages themselves, a “middle-man” type third party go-between exists. Even if Baptists of 1689 went over the Westminster with a fine-toothed comb and compared it to Scriptures (as many of them certainly did) their starting point is still not what it should be which is the Bible itself. While the 1646 Confession also relied on earlier extra-Biblical documents such as the True Confession of 1596 and The Marrow of Theology by William Ames, it's reliance upon these sources is nowhere near as prevalent as the 1689 Confession is to the Westminster. Baptists, both of today and from history, who hold to the 1689 Confession must admit (perhaps begrudgingly) that they have adopted a Presbyterian statement of faith that has merely been tweaked to become “Baptist” in nature. Perhaps they are perfectly fine in admitting this. But it should be noted nonetheless; and it should further be noted that while Baptists agree with their Presbyterian brethren on numerous issues; the differences boil down to much more than simply mode of baptism. Invariably certain aspects of Presbyterian doctrine weave their way into Baptist thought and life, and this can be clearly seen when contrasting the 1646 (a truly Baptist Confession) with the 1689 (a Baptist version of a Presbyterian Confession).
It is interesting to consider whether or not most Reformed Baptists are even aware of the historical differences between the 1646 and 1689 London Baptist Confessions. By virtue of the fact they are Reformed Baptist, they are a somewhat isolated (though growing) group. Holding to the “Doctrines of Grace” sets “the Reformed” apart from the majority of professing Christians to begin with. Then within the sub-category of Reformed, being “Baptist” sets one apart from their “paedobaptist” brethren. But an even deeper separation exists. Though it very much exists as an “in house” debate among the Reformed Baptists, it is a debate nonetheless, between those who would hold to a “Covenant Theology” type of system much more akin to the Presbyterian view. And those who hold to, what has come to be known as, a “New Covenant Theology” view which is much more Baptist (not to mention Biblical) in scope. One wonders if many of the 1689 Confessional Baptists are aware of the differences and if perhaps they occasionally entertain a nagging question in their mind about the Presbyterian underpinnings of the Confession they hold to. The title of a book by Gary Long very much summarizes the answer to this nagging question: “New Covenant Theology: Time For a More Accurate Way.” This “more accurate way” comes by examining the Scriptures and by examining and contrasting the 1646 and 1689 London Baptist Confessions. And in subsequent articles I hope to look at some of these issues in more detail, including the Sabbath, the Moral Law, and the overall spirit and direction of both confessions.