On the Baptist Confession of 1689

2LCThe Second London Confession is the most influential Baptist confession of faith ever written. The Second London Confession was drafted in 1677 for the Petty France Church in London, during a time when Baptists and other Dissenters were being persecuted under the Clarendon Code. When William and Mary ascended to the English throne and declared religious toleration in 1688, the door was open for Dissenters to once again meet freely. The Particular Baptists held a general assembly in London in 1689 and publicly adopted the Second London Confession. Since that time, it has often been called the 1689 Confession. This year marks the 325th anniversary of the public adoption of the 1689 Confession, so it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the confession’s history and legacy.

The 1689 Confession was a Baptist revision of the Savoy Declaration (1658), which itself was a Congregationalist revision of the famous Presbyterian standard the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). The 1689 Confession is characterized by a basically Reformed understanding of salvation and worship, a Baptist ecclesiology, a modified version of covenant theology and a “Puritan-ish” understanding of the Lord’s Day as a “Christian Sabbath.” It includes a stronger statement about the universal church than most Baptist confessions and it argues the pope is the antichrist. It is the only major Baptist confession of faith that is neutral on the question of open versus closed communion (a minority of Particular Baptist churches were open communion and even open membership—most famously, the Bedford Church pastored by John Bunyan).

Though most Particular Baptists never meticulously affirmed the document, it serves as an accurate summary of what most pastors in that tradition believed into the time when the Evangelical Awakening began affecting the Baptists in the 1770s. After that time, the influence of “Fullerism” led to a more moderate Calvinism that gradually downplayed covenant theology and allowed for wider latitude on the extent of the atonement. Charles Spurgeon, who was strongly influenced by the Puritans, published a slightly revised version of the 1689 Confession in 1855, though it did not catch on; by that time, British Baptists were focusing on downplaying the differences between Calvinists and Arminians, a trend that ultimately led to the (Calvinist) Baptist Union’s assimilation of the New Connection of General (Arminian) Baptists in 1891.

In America, a slightly revised version of the Second London Confession was published as the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742) and the Charleston Confession of Faith (1767). It became the baseline doctrinal standard for the Regular Baptist tradition. When the First Great Awakening birthed the Separate Baptists in the 1750s, they were initially hesitant about any confession of faith. But within a generation, Regulars and Separates were merging into a single movement. Versions of the 1689 Confession remained popular, though a growing number of churches adopted abstracts or summaries of the document. Much like Fullerism among British Baptists, many of the abstracts were neutral on the extent of the atonement while remaining broadly Calvinistic.

After 1830, the New Hampshire Confession became increasingly popular among Baptists in the North. It was an intentional modification of the Philadelphia Confession. In 1845, when the Southern Baptist Convention was formed, every delegate came from a church or association that had adopted the Philadelphia Confession or an abstract of the document. When the Abstract of Principles was drafted in 1858, it was an abstract of the 1689 Confession, though clearly in the same moderate vein as the New Hampshire Confession. It really wasn’t until the Baptist Faith and Message (1925) that you had a major non-Arminian Baptist confession in America that did not have the 1689 Confession in the immediate background; the BF&M was a modification of the New Hampshire Confession.

For the past hundred years, most non-Arminian Baptists in America who emphasize confessionalism have preferred some version of the Baptist Faith and Message or the New Hampshire Confession, though many churches have written their own confessions of faith. The 1689 Confession is appreciated for its historical import, but it is not a “living” confession that regularly influences contemporary doctrinal discussions. This is the case with most Southern Baptists, including many Calvinists in the SBC.

However, since the 1960s, some Baptists in the English-speaking world have overtly owned the theological emphases of the 1689 Confession—often more meticulously than their Particular Baptist forebears. These folks prefer the name “Reformed Baptists” and they see themselves as the theological heirs of the Particular and Regular Baptist traditions. Some Reformed Baptists are independent, some are part of Reformed Baptist associations and some are part of mainstream Baptist denominations. For Reformed Baptists, the 1689 Confession remains a living doctrine that regularly informs contemporary theological discussions.

In this 325th anniversary of the public adoption of the 1689 Confession, I believe that all Baptists can be thankful for the Second London Confession and its legacy—even those who are not Calvinists. Let me give some examples of highlights of the 1689 Confession that have nothing to do with Reformed theology and related topics.

The 1689 Confession has the most robust statement on the inspiration, authority and sufficiency of Scripture of any Baptist confession. This is helpful because battles over the Bible are far more pitched today than they were in the seventeenth century. Its sections “Of the Church” and “Of the Communion of Saints” offer an alternative to the sectarian emphasis on Baptist identity and local church independence that have frequently influenced Southern Baptist life. Most of the confession’s sections related to the gospel, especially those addressing justification, adoption, sanctification, saving faith, repentance and good works, would receive a hearty “amen” from any Southern Baptist who wants to counter the cheap grace being proclaimed among so many evangelicals. In an age when all evangelicals, including Baptists, are re-emphasizing the centrality of the Trinity, the 1689 Confession offers a great summary of this most foundational of Christian beliefs.

I hope you will take the time (about 30 minutes) to read through the 1689 Confession. Most of you won’t agree with everything in the confession, but that’s okay—I’m Calvinistic, and I demur on several points. Nevertheless, every Southern Baptist pastor, seminarian, missionary and denominational servant ought to be familiar with the most influential Baptist confession of faith ever written. Chances are, you’ll find much to agree with, no matter what you believe about predestination, the finer points of covenant theology, recreational pursuits on Sunday afternoon or the role of the papacy in the last days.

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Andrew Fuller on Confessions of Faith

One of the key differences between most Southern Baptist conservatives and most moderate Baptists in the South is the place of confessional statements. This difference was magnified during the years between 1998 and 2002 when Southern Baptists amended and then revised the Baptist Faith and Message and required denominational employees to affirm the confession of faith. It remains a sticking point: many conservatives accuse moderates of being theological pluralists, while many moderates accuse conservatives of being “creedal” and exalting man-made statements over the Bible. I believe both accusations are more political rhetoric than reality, but that’s par for the course in intra-Baptist squabbles.

Political exaggeration aside, it is true that moderate Baptists tend to be more suspicious of confessions. It is also true that conservative Southern Baptists are typically more favorable toward confessions. Both groups can find support for their position from Baptist history—we are too diverse a tradition for a cut-and-dry approach. That said, as a Southern Baptist who is comfortable with confessions of faith, I know that my position is not out of sorts with Baptist history. Over the course of 400 years, many Baptists have embraced confessionalism as a valid way to summarize biblical doctrine, commend those beliefs and hold Baptist Christians accountable to those convictions.

As in so many Baptist discussions, Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) offers wisdom on this topic. In his short essay “Creeds and Subscriptions,” Fuller makes a Baptist case for a robust confessionalism. Note the following excerpts:

It has been very common, among a certain class of writers, to exclaim against creeds and systems in religion as inconsistent with Christian liberty and the rights of conscience; but surely they must be understood as objecting to those creeds only which they dislike, and not to creeds in general; for no doubt, unless they be worse than the worst of beings, they have a creed of their own. The man who has no creed has no belief; which is the same thing as being an unbeliever; and he whose belief is not formed into a system has only a few loose, unconnected thoughts, without entering into the harmony and glory of the gospel. Every well-informed and consistent believer, therefore, must have a creed—a system which he supposes to contain the leading principles of Divine revelation.

It may be pleaded that the objection does not lie so much against our having creeds or systems as against our imposing them on others as the condition of Christian fellowship. If, indeed, a subscription to articles of faith were required without examination, or enforced by civil penalties, it would be an unwarrantable imposition on the rights of conscience; but if an explicit agreement in what may be deemed fundamental principles be judged essential to fellowship, this is only requiring that a man appear to be a Christian before he can have a right to be treated as such. Suppose it were required of a Jew or an infidel, before he is admitted to the Lord’s supper, (which either might be disposed to solicit for some worldly purpose,) that he must previously become a believer; should we thereby impose Christianity upon him? He might claim the right of private judgment, and deem such a requisition incompatible with its admission; but it is evident that he could not be entitled to Christian regard, and that, while he exclaimed against the imposition of creeds and systems, he himself would be guilty of an imposition of the grossest kind, utterly inconsistent with the rights of voluntary and social compact, as well as of Christian liberty….

The substance of the inquiry therefore would be, whether a body of Christians have a right to judge of the meaning of the doctrines and precepts of the gospel, and to act accordingly? That an individual has a right so to judge, and to form his connexions with those whose views are most congenial with his own, will not be disputed; but if so, why have not a society the same right? If Christ has given both doctrines and precepts, some of which are more immediately addressed to Christians in their social capacity, they must not only possess such a right, but are under obligation to exercise it. If the righteous nation which keep the truth be the only proper characters for entering into gospel fellowship, those who have the charge of their admission are obliged to form a judgment on what is truth, and what is righteousness; without which they must be wholly unqualified for their office.

It is a trite and frivolous objection which some have made against subscriptions and articles of faith—that it is setting bounds to the freedom of inquiry, and requiring a conformity of sentiment that is incompatible with the various opportunities and capacities of different persons. The same objection might be urged against the covenanting of the Israelites (Neh. 10:29) and all laws in society. If a religious community agree to specify some leading principles which they consider as derived from the word of God, and judge the belief of them to be necessary in order to any person’s becoming or continuing a member with them, it does not follow that those principles should be equally understood, or that all their brethren must have the same degree of knowledge, nor yet that they should understand and believe nothing else. The powers and capacities of different persons are various; one may comprehend more of the same truth than another, and have his views more enlarged by an exceedingly great variety of kindred ideas; and yet the substance of their belief may still be the same. The object of articles is to keep at a distance, not those who are weak in the faith, but such as are its avowed enemies. Supposing a church covenant to be so general as not to specify one principle or duty, but barely an engagement to adhere to the Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice, the objection would still apply; and it might be said, One man is capable of understanding much more of the Scriptures than another, and persons of more enlarged minds may discover a great deal of truth relating to science which the Scriptures do not pretend to teach: why, therefore, do we frame articles to limit the freedom of inquiry or which require a conformity of sentiment incompatible with the opportunities and capacities of persons so differently circumstanced? The objection, therefore, if admitted, would prove too much. The powers of the mind will probably vary in a future world; one will be capable of comprehending much more of truth than another; yet the redeemed will all be of one mind, and of one heart.

Every one feels the importance of articles, or laws, in civil society; and yet these are nothing less than expositions or particular applications of the great principle of universal equity. General or universal equity is that to civil laws which the Bible is to articles of faith; it is the source from which they are all professedly derived, and the standard to which they ought all to be submitted. The one are as liable to swerve from general equity as the other from the word of God; and where this is proved to be the case in either instance, such errors require to be corrected. But as no person of common sense would on this account inveigh against laws being made, and insist that we ought only to covenant in general to walk according to equity, without agreeing in any leading principles, or determining wherein that equity consists; neither ought he to inveigh against articles of faith and practice in religious matters, provided that they comport with the mind of God in his word. If the articles of faith be opposed to the authority of Scripture, or substituted in the place of such authority, they become objectionable and injurious; but if they simply express the united judgment of those who voluntarily subscribe them, they are incapable of any such kind of imputation.

For the complete essay, see Andrew Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, vol. III, ed. Joseph Belcher (1845; reprint, Sprinkle, 1988), 449–51.

Getting a Handle on the 2013 SBC Annual Meeting

SBC President Fred Luter

I know that this post will seem pedestrian for some of our readers who are seasoned Southern Baptists. Nevertheless, many of our readers are either students or folks from other ecclesial traditions. If the previous sentence describes you, then know that this post is written primarily with you in mind.

As you may know, the SBC Annual Meeting was held in Houston earlier this week. Every year, our network of churches meets in an annual Convention for two days. That meeting is part business meeting, part worship service, and part connecting with Southern Baptists from other parts of North America. At our Convention we hear reports from our denominational ministries, conduct necessary business (we are a quasi-democratic, non-hierarchical group), and pass resolutions on various topics.

If you want to learn more about the Houston Convention, I would refer you to several resources. Some of you may want to carve out some time to watch portions of the Convention. The Convention was live-streamed and archives of the sessions are available at the Annual Meeting website. You can also find this year’s program and a link to archived sessions from past SBC Annual Meetings. The video archives are the best place to get a handle on this year’s Annual Meeting because you can watch it for yourself.

Those of you who are connected to social media will probably find Twitter to be very helpful. The hashtag for this year’s Convention was #SBC13. While Twitter is by no means any sort of authoritative interpreter of the SBC Annual Meeting, it is probably the best place to get a “play-by-play” sense of the Convention. Many of our well-known pastors and denominational servants were active on Twitter during the SBC, alongside hundreds of “normal” pastors, students, and other observers.

If you like to read blogs, I would point you to a few that you might find helpful. Hopefully, you already known that we posted several video summaries here at Between the Times from Danny Akin, Bruce Ashford, Chuck Lawless, Ryan Hutchinson, and myself. (Look back over our earlier posts this week.) Also, come back next week to hear further reflections from Ed Stetzer, yours truly, and perhaps another guest contributor or two.

I would also point you to SBC Voices, a website that includes both its own blog (with a variety of contributors) and a “SBC Watchlist” that provides links to the “most influential” SBC blogs (including Between the Times). If you spend a few minutes perusing SBC Voices, you can find your way to other blogs that offer insights from every perspective under the sun. Dave Miller, the head honcho at SBC Voices and the immediate past Second Vice President of the SBC, also liveblogged the Convention at SBC Voices.

Outside the SBC realm, several other blogs offered perspectives on this year’s Convention. Christianity Today’s blog Gleanings offered some periodic updates from a centrist evangelical perspective. (By the way, read CT’s interview with Frank Page about his important new book Melissa: A Father’s Lessons from a Daughter’s Suicide.) CNN’s Belief Blog weighed in on some of our resolutions from a mainstream media perspective. World Magazine’s Daily Dispatches blog offered updates from a conservative evangelical perspective. The State of the Union blog at The American Conservative offered some thoughts from a traditionalist conservative perspective.

In terms of traditional journalism, the best place to look is Baptist Press, which always provides the most exhaustive coverage of the SBC. Of course, Baptist Press is our official denominational news organ, so it is “insider baseball.” Associated Baptist Press offers coverage from a moderate Baptist perspective. (As an aside, I found ABP somewhat less caustic in their coverage this year than in recent years.) Religion News Service covered the SBC from a non-sectarian, but generally informed perspective. The Associated Press published several SBC-related articles from a mainstream media perspective that were picked up by numerous other media outlets.

I’ve intentionally not addressed the Convention itself in this post. All I want to do here is point you to resources. Next week, after I’ve had a weekend to rest and reflect a bit, I’ll offer my personal thoughts on such topics as our resolutions, the transition at ERLC, the numeric decline in messengers, Danny Akin’s Convention sermon, and the Calvinism discussion.

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