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The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith in its Historical and Theological Context

The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1677/89, along with its predecessor of 1644/46, are perhaps the two most influential Baptist Confessions in existence. In many ways, the more recent Confession eclipses the earlier in importance, for by 1689 copies of the First London Confession had become scarce, so much so that one of the key subscribers to the Second Confession, Benjamin Keach, stated in 1692 that he knew nothing of the earlier document until someone informed him of it earlier that year. It was the Second Confession which quickly became the standard of Calvinistic Baptist orthodoxy in England, North America, and today, in many parts of the world.

This Confession, influential as it is, may perhaps best be understood against its historical and theological backgrounds. It did not appear de novo, the product of a sudden burst of theological insight on the part of an author or authors, but in the tradition of good Confession making, it is largely dependent on the statements of earlier Reformed Confessions. A superficial reading will demonstrate that it is based, to a large degree, on that most Puritan of documents, the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647. A closer inspection will reveal that it is even more intimately related to the revision of the Westminster Confession made by John Owen and others in 1658, popularly known as the Savoy Declaration and Platform of Polity. In almost every case the editors of the Baptist Confession follow the revisions of the Savoy editors when they differ from the Westminster document. In addition, the editors make occasional use of phraseology from the First London Confession. When all of this material is accounted for, there is very little left that is new and original to the 1677/89 Confession.

This heavy dependence on previous sources was very much part of the purpose of the composition of the Confession. In the epistle “To the Judicious and Impartial Reader” attached to the first edition of the Confession, the editors state:

“And forasmuch as our method, and manner of expressing our sentiments, in this, doth vary from the former [i.e. the First London Confession] (although the substance of the matter is the same) we shall freely impart to you the reason and occasion thereof. One thing that greatly prevailed with us to undertake this work, was (not only to give a full account of ourselves, to those Christians that differ from us about the subject of Baptism, but also) the profit that might from thence arise, unto those that have any account of our labors, in their instruction, and establishment in the great truths of the Gospel; in the clear understanding, and steady belief of which, our comfortable walking with God, and fruitfulness before him, in all our ways, is most neerly concerned; and therefore we did conclude it necessary to expresse our selves the more fully, and distinctly; and also to fix on such a method as might be most comprehensive of those things which we designed to explain our sense, and belief of; and finding no defect, in this regard, in that fixed on by the assembly [i.e. the Westminster Assembly], and after them by those of the Congregational way [i.e. the Savoy Synod], we did readily conclude it best to retain the same order in our present confession: and also, when we observed that those last mentioned, did in their confession (for reasons which seemed of weight both to themselves and others) choose not only to express their mind in words concurrent with the former in sense, concerning all those articles wherein they were agreed, but also for the most part without any variation of the terms we did in like manner conclude it best to follow their example in making use of the very same words with them both, in these articles (which are very many) wherein our faith and doctrine is the same with theirs, and this we did, the more abundantly, to manifest our consent with both, in all fundamental articles of the Christian Religion, as also with many others, whose orthodox confessions have been published to the world; on the behalf of the Protestants in divers Nations and Cities: and also to convince all, that we have no itch to clogge Religion with new words, but do readily acquiesce in that form of sound words, which hath been, in consent with the holy Scriptures, used by others before us, hereby declaring before God, Angels, & Men. our hearty agreement with them, in that wholesome Protestant Doctrine, which with so clear evidence of Scriptures they have asserted: some things indeed, are in some places added, some terms omitted, and some few changed, but these alterations are of that nature, as that we need not doubt, any charge or suspition of unsoundness in the faith, from any of our brethren upon account of them”.

These words are of real importance, and need to be considered very carefully. The Baptists were concerned to demonstrate to all that their doctrinal convictions had been, from the very start, orthodox and to a large degree identical with the convictions of the Puritans around them. This was true of the First London Confession, published prior to the Westminster Standards, which was heavily dependent on the 1596 True Confession, and on the writings of William Ames. In both of their general Confessions, the Baptists purposely used existing documents in order to demonstrate their concurrence with the theological convictions of their Puritan contemporaries. In the quote above, they argue that the doctrines expressed in both Baptist Confessions are the same, but they have chosen to base the newer Confession upon the more recent and widely available documents of Westminster and Savoy. By doing this, they were declaring with some vigor their own desire to be placed in the broad stream of English Reformed Confessional Christianity.

This methodology provides us with some insight into understanding the Confession and its teaching. When it concurs with these other documents, it can be read as an endorsement of the views espoused by those Presbyterians and Independents who subscribed those documents, and of the theological works they published in defense of the Confessional statements. Thus, if one wonders how the Baptists understood the doctrine of the Decrees of God, or Justification, or the application of the Law to the conscience of man, or how they worked out the implications of the teaching on the Perseverance of the Saints, one may consult the writings of paedobaptist Puritans with much profit. Since both the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration are readily available, it is relatively easy to compare the documents in order to determine agreement. Of course, not every word of every author is necessarily a fair representation of their views, but in general, their method implies substantial theological agreement with the writings of their orthodox contemporaries.

When the Confession departs from either of these documents, we should take note. It is at these points that the Baptists express their distinctive contributions to Christian Theology. Sadly, few of their theological writings in defense of their views are available to us today, though it is hoped that this will soon change.

Their methodology also explains the reason why certain subjects are addressed in the Confession. In the troubled times of the second half of the Seventeenth Century, topics such as the relationship between church and state, the role of the magistrate, and even the Christian doctrine of marriage were important issues. Long and heated debates over these questions fired the furnace of controversy. Recognizing many of the problems inherent in a state church, especially when that church was ruled by a foreign power such as Rome, the Independents and the Baptists were very much concerned for liberty of conscience. The Presbyterian party, with an ecclesiology more conducive to a national church, had some within its ranks who argued strongly against toleration for any dissenters. One is reminded of John Milton’s famous phrase “New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large”. The attitude of many Presbyterians was the same as that of their Episcopalian predecessors: those in power make the rules, and everyone else must submit. During the Commonwealth era, and Cromwell’s Protectorate, a measure of liberty and toleration was given to many religious groups. The question at issue was: Should the civil ruler enforce the first table of God’s Law? For the modern reader, the question seems simple and straightforward, but it was not so clear in the 17th Century. Each of these English Reformed Confessions, Westminster, Savoy and the Second London speak to the issue, and each provides a different approach.

After the Restoration of 1660, and the enforcement of the Clarendon Code, non-conformists were subject to severe penal acts. It must also be remembered that the Protestants of England feared a return to Roman Catholicism throughout most of the century. Charles I and Charles II both married Roman Catholics, and James II was a professing Romanist. The old doctrines of the Reformation needed to be asserted in the face of this royal departure and its potential implications for church and society. From this mix came the pressing need to address these contemporary issues in a Confession, and accounts for the presence of topics which may seem less important at the beginning of the Twenty-first Century.

Compiled by

James M. Renihan

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