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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Toward a Confessional Basis for Cooperation in the SBC: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Southern Baptists are not as confessional as we claim we are, but we ought to be. This is my thesis. For some Southern Baptists, this will seem like common sense. For others, it will be provocative and perhaps even anathema. But the time has come to begin having this discussion. My prayer is that it will soon become a discussion before the Convention itself.

The following paragraphs are cited from my essay “Priorities for a Post-Resurgence Convention,” in Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future, ed. David S. Dockery (Crossway, 2009), pp. 273-74. This post should be understood as a “trial balloon” because it represents as second public mention of a topic that I hope to flesh out in greater detail in the coming months (the first mention was obviously in the essay itself).

A new paradigm for cooperation is necessary because Southern Baptists remain quite diverse, albeit not as diverse as we were prior to 1979. David Dockery argues that SBC conservatives are a loose-knit coalition of at least seven broad groups: fundamentalists, revivalists, traditionalists, orthodox evangelicals, Calvinists, contemporary church practitioners, and culture warriors.[1] I would add Landmarkers, Cooperative Program apologists, and miraculous gifts advocates to Dockery’s list. Tensions exist between some of these groups which can hinder our corporate ability to cooperate with each other. The question before post-Resurgence Southern Baptists is how to determine acceptable diversity within the SBC.

According to the Convention’s constitution and bylaws, any local church is free to cooperate with the SBC, provided that it financially supports the denomination and does not endorse the homosexual lifestyle. Cooperation at this level is defined as the right to send up to ten messengers to the denomination’s annual meeting, depending upon a church’s contributions and/or membership.[2] This minimalist approach means that a church can believe virtually anything, including pedobaptism, and at least in theory cooperate with the SBC! At this time, there is no confessional basis for denominational cooperation, which is probably a bit too close to the pragmatic cooperation of the pre-Resurgence era.

Post-Resurgence Southern Baptists need to embrace a confessional basis for cooperation, but it would probably not be a good idea to mandate complete adherence to the Baptist Faith and Message by all cooperating churches. To do such would demand a degree of doctrinal uniformity that would exclude too many conservative Southern Baptists who are uncomfortable with aspects of the Baptist Faith and Message. David Dockery helpfully suggests that Southern Baptists should not seek such uniformity, but should commit to the best of the Baptist confessional tradition.[3] Perhaps Jim Richards offers a helpful proposal to this end:

The future for the Southern Baptist Convention is to become a confessional fellowship. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 may be too restrictive. A minimal set of doctrinal statements is necessary for the expansion of the SBC. We cooperate not because of common geography, heritage, or goals. We cooperate because we believe the same essentials (Amos 3:3). At some point someone needs to move the SBC to adopt doctrinal affiliation requirements. Cooperation will be based on agreement regarding the nature of the Word of God and certain doctrines that define who we are. Preaching and teaching doctrine is the only way Baptists will retain their identity.[4]

This seems like a wise suggestion. I would propose that post-Resurgence Southern Baptists adopt a brief abstract of the Baptist Faith and Message that affirms a high view of Scripture, an orthodox statement of the Trinity and Christology, an evangelical understanding of salvation, and a basic Baptist understanding of ecclesiology. This would form an adequate confessional basis for churches cooperating with the SBC.

[1] David S. Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 11.

[2] The Convention’s constitution and bylaws are available online at http://www.sbc.net/PDF/SBC-CharterConstitutionByLaws.pdf.

[3] Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, 215.

[4] James W. [Jim] Richards, “Cooperation among Southern Baptist Churches as Set Forth in Article 14 of the Baptist Faith and Message,” in The Mission of Today’s Church: Baptist Leaders Look at Modern Faith Issues, ed. R. Stanton Norman (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 151.

On the Owning of Confessions of Faith

(Note: This is a lightly revised version of an essay I posted on my old personal blog a couple of years ago. Most of the confessions referenced below can be found online via a simple Google search.)

Baptists have always been a confessional people. John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, the founders of the General Baptist movement, each wrote personal confessions of faith that provide us with a glimpse into their convictions and probably the convictions of their churches. Seven Particular Baptist Churches in London produced the First London Confession in 1644, and that was after the Particular Baptist leader John Spilsbury had already written a personal confession of faith. Both General and Particular Baptists would continue to write confessions of faith later in the 17th century and beyond, though the practice is somewhat out of favor among most contemporary British Baptists.

Baptists in America also adopted confessions of faith from an early time. A slightly revised version of the Second London Confession was adopted by the Philadelphia, Charleston, and Warren associations, respectively. The Baptists in the Sandy Creek Association opted to write their own confession, albeit about sixty years after their founding. The New Hampshire Confession became widely used during the second half of the nineteenth century and was revised and expanded into the Baptist Faith and Message in 1925. Besides these widely known confessions, thousands of churches, associations, institutions, and smaller denominations and associations wrote their own confessions of faith.

Confession writing and confession adopting has become a frequent occurrence in the SBC over the past few years. The convention voted to embrace a revised version of the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000, and within a couple of years all of our denominational agencies had embraced that confession. Thousands of local churches and a number of state conventions and associations have also adopted the current BF&M. Other churches, associations, and state conventions have chosen to adopt or self-consciously reaffirm the 1963 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message because of theological differences between the two confessions.

Among Calvinistic Baptists, since at least the 1960s a number of churches in America (and in other places) have adopted the Second London Confession as their own. Within the SBC, many Calvinistic churches have embraced the New Hampshire Confession or the Abstract of Principles as their confession. Some Calvinistic Baptist churches that are skittish about Covenant Theology have adopted the First London Confession, claiming that the document is more definitively “Baptist” than the Second London Confession.

And let’s not forget that many Baptist churches of every theological stripe have chosen not to adopt an “established” confession of faith, choosing instead to write their own statement. Others have chosen to revise existing confessions to conform those documents with their particular church’s beliefs on debated matters like the terms of communion, eschatology, or the Lord’s Day.

We live in theologically confusing times, even within our various Baptist enclaves. Sometimes it is hard to know what a fellow Baptist believes, including potential pastors and other church staff. The phrase “I’m a Bible-believing Christian/Baptist” sounds pious, but communicates little in terms of content. The phrase “I’m a Southern Baptist” is not much more helpful, considering the variety of theological convictions present within the SBC tent. Phrases like “I’m a conservative” or “I’m a moderate” mean different things to different people because of the subjective nature of the labels, at least in some places. “I’m a historic Baptist” is used by Calvinists, Landmarkers, and the Baptist Identity guys (among others), and “I’m a traditional Baptist” is used by some conservatives and many moderates! Confusion reigns.

I think that every Baptist minister ought to “own” a particular confession of faith. If there is not an existing confession that you are comfortable with, then make some revisions to the one you like best or, if you prefer, write your own. The confession does not have to perfectly match your beliefs in every minute issue (unless you write it!), nor does it have to explain the totality of your beliefs. If it is an existing confession, it may even express some of your beliefs differently than you would express them in conversation. But owning a confession still marks a good starting point for understanding the basics of what you believe. And that is very helpful when you are candidating at a local church or applying to serve as a missionary or work for a denominational agency.

If you are currently studying for some type of vocational ministry, or if you believe it is possible you may be looking for a new ministry position in the near future, I would urge you to consider owning or writing a confession of faith. It can be as general or specific as you are comfortable with, but it needs to cover all the basic categories, including issues presently being debated in whatever context you find yourself (election, eschatology, the ordinances, spiritual gifts, etc.).

It will take time to read through confessions of faith and even more time to write one, should you opt for that approach. But the time spent will be worthwhile, and it could potentially save you quite a bit of trouble if the folks you wish to lead or the ministry for which you desire to work knows where you are coming from long before something controversial comes up in the pulpit, in the classroom, or on the mission field. So do something that is both ministerially prudent and profoundly Baptist by owning a confession of faith as your own.