Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Confessional Subscription in early Baptist History (Part 2)

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on December 15, 2009 at 4:09 am

The Second London Confession

Here I will discuss four points: The Confession in the General Assembly; The Confession in the Churches; The Confession in the Associations; and The Confession as a doctrinal tool.

1. In the General Assembly

When it was first published in 1677, our Confession included an interesting preface (as well as an appendix) both of which are sadly left out of most modern editions. In the preface, the subscribers explained their reasons for issuing the document. Their words are of great interest:

There is one thing more which we sincerely profess, and earnestly desire credence in, viz. That contention is most remote from our design in all that we have done in this matter: and we hope the liberty of an ingenuous unfolding our principles, and opening our hearts unto our Brethren, with the Scripture grounds on which our faith and practice leanes, will by none of them be either denyed to us, or taken ill from us. Our whole design is accomplished, if we may obtain that Justice, as to be measured in our principles, and practice, and the judgement of both by others, according to what we have now published, which the Lord (whose eyes are as a flame of fire) knoweth to be the doctrine, which with our hearts we most firmly believe, and sincerely indeavor to conform our lives to.[1]

For these men, the Confession was an “ingenuous” unfolding of their principles, i.e. it was open, frank, free from reserve, restraint or dissimulation. They were even willing to invoke the Lord as a witness that it was a true statement of the doctrine “most firmly believed” to which they “sincerely indeavored” to conform their lives.

At the 1689 General Assembly, the importance of the Confession was manifest. As many as 108 churches were represented or sent communications to the Assembly, and the Confession was endorsed in famous terms:

We the Ministers and Messengers of, and concerned for, upwards of one hundred Baptized Congregations in England and Wales (denying Arminianism) being met together in London from the 3d of the 7th Month to the 11th of the same, 1689, to consider of some things that might be for the Glory of God, and the good of these Congregations; have thought meet (for the satisfaction of all other Christians that differ from us in the point of Baptism) to recommend to their perusal the Confession of our Faith, Printed for, and sold by, Mr. John Harris at the Harrow in the Poultrey; Which Confession we own, as containing the Doctrine of our Faith and Practice; and do desire that the Members of our Churches respectively do furnish themselves therewith.[2]

They “own” the Confession, and insist that it is a plain statement of their belief and practice. For them, the Confession was an apologetic tool. Outsiders would be able to read its declarations and recognize that these churches were doctrinally orthodox. We have no reason to think that they meant anything different with regard to the Second Confession than was intended with the adoption of the First Confession. The second name subscribed, after Hanserd Knollys, was William Kiffin.

2. In the churches

Confessional subscription was considered to be a serious matter among many churches. It was “solemn owning and ratifying,” a commitment to a definitive theological system. So strongly were these men committed to the words contained in their Confession that they considered anyone “the grossest sort of Hypocrite, in professing the contrary by their Profession of Faith, and yet believing and practicing quite otherwise to what they solemnly professed as their Faith in that matter.”[3]

The first known literary reference to the Confession appears in the Petty France, London, Church book. On 26 August, 1677, this note was entered: “It was agreed that a Confession of faith, wth the Appendix thereto having bene read & considered by the Bre: should be published.”[4] Joseph Ivimey, the English Baptist historian of the early nineteenth century took this to imply that the Confession originated in the Petty France Church,[5] very likely an accurate supposition. Ivimey writes, “It should seem . . . that this confession was prepared for the purpose of expressing the faith of that particular church, but was adopted by upwards of one hundred churches at the General Assembly in 1689.”

As an example of the Confession’s role in the churches, we may consider one London church. When the Maze Pond church was constituted in Feb., 1694, it explicitly adopted the Confession in the first article of the church covenant. Their words are these: “We believe the holy Scriptures of the old & new Testament to be the word of God, and a soficient [sic] rule of all Saveing knowledge, Faith, and Obedience, further herein we agree with a Confession put forth by our brethren the Baptiss [sic] in the year 1688 and signed at a Generall assembly by thirty Seven of them.”[6] This document served to identify their theological convictions.

3. In the Associations

We find a similar emphasis among the various associations. After the separation of the General Assembly into two meetings in 1692, one at Bristol and the other at London, the meeting in the metropolis quickly died. In 1706, an attempt was made to renew the London Association. The Bagnio/Cripplegate Church[7] refused to participate. Their records state:

Some reasons why we did not send Messengers to ye Association yt mett at Joyners Hall ye 25th March last: nor to ye previous meeting at Mr Deerings Coffee House on ye 18 of ye same

Humbly offered to ye consideration of all those Baptized Churches wch have or can sign the confession of our Faith printed in ye year 1688 and recommended to ye churches by ye Generall Assembly that met at Broken Wharf in London 1689.[8]

Among their reasons for remaining aloof were the presence of a seventh-day Baptist church which the 1689 Assembly had refused to admit, the presence of “that well known Arminian Church meeting in Barbican,” and most importantly,

Because the solemn owning & ratifying of our so well attested & generall approved Confession of Faith, as transmitted to us in ye full evidence of yt word by our late pastors &c in ye general assembly seems to us as it did also to them a thing absolutely nessesary to ye just & regular constitution of all associations: but ye admitting of the above sd churches into Association renders this altogether impracticable.[9]

They then cite the importance that subscription to Confessions had for the 1644 and 1652 London Association, the 1656 Western Association, the first issuance of the Second London Confession in 1677, and at the 1689 General Assembly. Listen to their words as they apply to confessional subscription in associations of churches:

That it hath been the stated method of our Associations most religiously to own ye same confession of faith is evident, for we find that ye association in London in 1644 subscribed in ye name of the churches the confession then put forth & also that Association which met in 1652 did ye same. And moreover in ye year 1656 the churches in Somerset, Devon, Dorset, Wilts, Gloucester, & Bristol met in Association put forth a Confession of their faith agreeable with ye former, on purpose that they might declare their harmony in Faith and practice: Again in ye year 1677 the Elders & Brethren of many churches in London & the country unanimously put forth our present confession of faith, which was approved of & signed by ye generall assembly wch met 1689, which generall assembly thought fitt at ye same time to let all ye churches know that they denyed Arminianism & that they hold that good old Orthodox Doctrine of personal election & final perseverance. And we would particularly note one clause in their preface wherein it is said, “our whole design is accomplished if we may obtain yt justice as to be measured by our principles & practices & ye judgment of both by others, according to what we have now published, wch the Lord whose eyes are as a flame of fire knows to be the doctrine which wth our hearts we most firmly believe, & sincerely endeavor to conform our lives to.” Now it’s plain that this neither was nor indeed can be spoken of by an Assembly that shall admit [7th day] Sabbarians [sic] or Arminians among them.

They express fear that the admission of the seventh day church and the Arminian church was a direct attempt to undermine the influence of the Confession in the Associations, and incorporate letters from the Bristol Association and the Bridgenorth, Worcestershire Association in support of their position. Bristol advised them to remain aloof from this doctrinally compromised group, saying of the Confession, “we hope [it] ever shall have a very honorable esteem,” and the Worcestershire Association wrote “it is proper for ye members of ye Baptist associations to subscribe ye Baptist Confession of faith printed 1689 generally owned amongst us before their admission into ye said associations; and that ye neglect hereof is of dangerous consequence.”[10] For these associations and the church to which they wrote, a weakened doctrinal basis barred formal communion. They would not join with the revived association simply because it would not maintain the strict theological standard traditionally held among the Particular Baptists.

4. The Confession as a doctrinal tool

The use of the Confession as a doctrinal exemplar is demonstrated by an incident from the life of the Broadmead, Bristol church. In April 1682, they required Thomas Whinnell, a member of a General Baptist church who was attempting to join their assembly, to subscribe the Confession, in order to ensure that his views were consonant with their own.[11] The serious differences in the convictions of these theologically diverse groups were settled paradigmatically by means of this personal affirmation. Whinnell went on to become pastor of the Taunton, Somersetshire Particular Baptist church.

Benjamin Keach used the Confession as an apologetic tool in 1694. He was engaged in a debate over the validity of infant baptism, responding to a question on the status of infants. Asserting that “all infants are under the Guilt and stain of original sin . . . and that no infant can be saved but through the Blood and Imputation of Christs righteousness,” he refers to the “Article of our Faith,” and bluntly says “See our confession of Faith” (which, by the way, does in the original incorporate the word “elect” prior to the phrase “infants dying in infancy”). For Keach, the doctrine contained in the Confession was a handy means by which to refute the notion of “habitual [infant] faith” held by his opponent.[12]

In similar fashion, the Philadelphia Association made use of the Confession. The records state, “in the year 1724, a query, concerning the fourth commandment, whether changed, altered or diminished. We refer to the Confession of faith, set forth by the elders and brethren met in London, 1689, and owned by us, chap. 22, sect. 7 and 8.”[13] The Confessional Lord’s Day Sabbath position was sufficient to answer the question. In 1727, they responded to a question about marriage in the same way. The records tersely state “Answered, by referring to our Confession of faith, chapter 26th in our last edition.”[14]

In all of these cases, the Confession of Faith played an active and vital role in the lives of the churches and associations. Our brothers understood its importance and made use of it as a helpful resource in many circumstances. It did not fetter them; it truthfully described their common convictions.

Summary

In summary, I would like to quote from C.H. Spurgeon. I have not been able to refer yet to him and his courageous struggle in the Downgrade Controversy. Listen to some of his words in response to the Baptist Union censure:

To say that “a creed comes between a man and his God,” is to suppose that it is not true; for truth, however definitely stated, does not divide the believer from his Lord. So far as I am concerned, that which I believe I am not ashamed to state in the plainest possible language; and the truth I hold I embrace because I believe it to be the mind of God revealed in his infallible Word. How can it divide me from God who revealed it? It is one means of communion with my Lord, that I receive his words as well as himself, and submit my understanding to what I see to be taught by him. Say what he may, I accept it because he says it, and therein pay him the humble worship of my inmost soul.[15]

Spurgeon was correct, and this is why we must maintain the same kind of adherence to our Confession. We believe that it is true to the words of Scripture, and for that reason, it is not simply a general summary of our beliefs, but an explicit declaration of them. Anything less and we lose the very nature of what we are as Reformed Baptists.

James M. Renihan, Dean
The Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies
www.reformedbaptistinstitute.org

[1]A Confession of Faith (London: Printed in the Year, 1677), unnumbered pages 6-7 of preface.

[2]A Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly Of divers Pastors, Messengers and Ministring Brethren of the Baptized Churches, met together in London, from Septemb. 3. to 12. 1689, from divers parts of England and Wales: Owning the Doctrine of Personal Election, and final Perseverance (London: Printed in the Year, 1689) 18, emphasis mine. It is curious that though the document is commonly known as the 1689 Confession, I can find no bibliographic evidence that it was printed in that year. It was published in 1677, 1688, and 1699. See Donald Wing, Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and British America and of English Books Printed in Other Countries 1641-1700, 2d ed., (New York: The Index Committee of the Modern Language Association of America, 1972), 1:369.

[3]Kiffin, Steed, Barrett and Man, A Serious Answer, 18.

[4]Petty France Church Minute Book 1675-1727, The Guildhall Library, London, 5.

[5]Joseph Ivimey, A History of the English Baptists (London: B. J. Holdsworth, 1823), 3:332.

[6]Maze Pond Church Book 1691-1708, The Angus Library, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, 1.

[7]Formerly pastored by Hanserd Knollys and Robert Steed successively.

[8]Bagnio/Cripplegate CMB, 26. Broken Wharf was the location of this same church when Knollys’ was pastor. They were thus the host church of the 1689 General Assembly.

[9]Ibid., unnumbered page facing page 27.

[10]Ibid., 27, unnumbered page facing page 28, 28, emphasis mine.

[11]Roger Hayden, The Records of A Church of Christ in Bristol, 1640-1687 (Bristol: Bristol Record Society, 1974), 241. The records actually state that he “professed to believe ye principles contained in ye Baptist Confession of Faith, 1667.” The modern editor states “No Confession of Faith of this date is known. It is likely that Terrill [the author of the Records] is referring to the Particular Baptist Confession of Faith for 1677, which was a standard test of orthodoxy among Particular Baptist Churches of the time.”

[12]Benjamin Keach, A Counter Antidote to purge out the Malignant Effects of a Late Counterfiet, Prepared by Mr. Gyles Shute, an Unskilful Person in Polemical Cures (London: H. Bernard, 1694), 12. Habitual faith is “The God-given spiritual capacity of fallen human beings to have faith.” See Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 134. Shute seems to have argued that this habit of faith, apart from the actual act of faith, was sufficient to save infants, and was thus a basis for their baptism.

[13]Gillette, Minutes of the Philadelphia Association, 27.

[14]Ibid., 29. The reference to chapter 26 is an indication that the Philadelphia Association had already adopted the additional chapters on Singing and laying on of Hands.

[15]Cited in H. Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman, 1990), 202.

  1. Does anybody know if the 1688 publication of the LB Confession included the Appendix?
    Thanks

  2. I have a facsimile of the 1689 published by B&R Press and it does have the Appendix in the back.

    Thanks again JIm for this useful historical information, it comes just at the right time for my SS class this week.

  3. Does B&R say whether the Appendix was published in the 1688 publication? The reason I ask is that I had a long discussion with someone who disavowed the relevance of the Appendix for understanding the Confession.

  4. Dr Mike Renihan who is a good source in terms of this stuff writes in the preface to my facsimile

    ‘The first edition of this Confession was published in 1677 with a helpful introduction and appendix demonstrating the theological unanimity among the Westminster family of confessions and the Particular Baptist understanding of the Covenant of Grace…’

    I am happy to believe Dr Renihan and to say it has every relevance in understanding the Confession.

    Warmest regards

    RB

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