Evangelicalism has often been criticized for its lack of creeds and confessions. Yet there has been a consistent assumption, and perhaps assertion, that since evangelicals share a common subjective commitment to the Bible they must share a common commitment to the objective deposit of doctrine and the pattern of sound words in the Bible.
In the recent controversy relating to the triunity of God, one wing of evangelicalism is now holding another wing doctrinally accountable, in brotherly love. But it is becoming clear that the common doctrinal foundation that was assumed to be shared, is not in fact shared. As a result, those being held accountable resent and oppose the accountability as an imposition of a foreign standard to which they have made no commitment. But the standard by which they are being measured is the faith of the church throughout the ages, and this on the doctrine of God. All is not well in evangelicalism, nor has it been.
What to do, then? The church, not the parachurch or the internet-church or even the university or seminary, ultimately needs to enforce orthodoxy. If there are no ecclesiological structures for doctrinal accountability, then there can be no orthodoxy, only ortho-personality. And if there can be no orthodoxy, there are no guards against heterodoxy, only hetero-personalities. A debate about the doctrine of God should not be about “Person vs Person” but “Truth vs Falsehood.”
Consequently, a church (or denomination or association of churches) needs a Confession of Faith defining the fundamental articles of religion, in other words, defining orthodoxy. And the church (or denomination or association of churches) needs to enforce that orthodoxy. Many may not know this, but the declaration of orthodoxy and the enforcement thereof is the context of the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith, published in 1677 but commonly known by the date 1689.
In 1677 the London Particular Baptists had to deal with one of their own, Thomas Collier, who had recently published heterodox views in a book. Collier resisted their attempts to correct and restore him, and persisted in publishing more falsehood, in quantity and quality. All the while, he was known as a Particular Baptist. The London Particular Baptists, who were already liable to slander, misrepresentation, persecution, and accusations of all kinds of heterodoxy, decided to clear their names of these charges in general and any association with Collier in particular.
In the process, they defined a Heretic and applied the definition to Collier. Give attention to the phrase “Fundamental Articles of the Christian Religion.”
We conceive that he is an Heretick that chooseth an Opinion by which some fundamental Article of the Christian Religion is subverted, which Religion before he profest, but now persisteth in this Opinion, contrary thereunto, notwithstanding proper means for his conviction hath been made use of; this description of an Heretick confirmed thus.
1. That it is the choosing of a new Opinion, the signification of the word Heresie doth evince, which is derived from a word that signifieth Election of Choice.
2. That it is not every new Opinion, but that only that is subversive of a fundamental Truth, will easily be granted, otherwise Men must be rejected for every mistake that they are not presently convinced of: which is contrary to the rule of Christ, and that love and forbearance Christians ought to exercise towards one another.
3. He only is properly termed an Heretick, that hath formerly profest the Christian Religion, because such a one is self-condemn’d, though perhaps not always in the present judgment of his Conscience, yet at least by his former Profession.
4. It is the persisting of such a Person in such an Heresie, after proper means hath been used for his conviction, that doth denominate a man to be an Heretick; for a weak Christian may possibly be surprised by Temptation, and the subtilty of Deceivers, into such an Opinion, as obstinately maintained, would destroy the faith of the Person, who yet flies from the Snare as soon as it is discovered to him.
It is somewhat interesting that one of the particular points of heresy the Particular Baptists identified in Collier’s theology was that “He asserts that Christ is the Son of God, only as considered in both Natures, which with other notions in Chap.1. of his Additional Word, doth subvert the Faith concerning the Person of Christ, with respect to his eternal subsisting in the Divine Nature, in the incommunicable property of a Son, as is more abundantly manifest in the answer all ready returned thereunto.” The doctrine of God, whether the doctrine of the triunity of God or the doctrine of the person of the Son, is not to be taken lightly, nor is it merely a matter of academia. It is a fundamental article of the Christian religion.
The above-quoted material was prepared on 2 August, 1677. Later that very month, the Particular Baptists published the Confession of Faith. This Confession followed, word for word in most chapters, the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration. The Particular Baptists explained in an epistle prefacing the Confession that they use the same words as those previous confessions “the more abundantly, to manifest our consent with both, in all the fundamental articles of the Christian Religion.” In other words, they wanted to declare their orthodoxy.
Similar to the prefatory epistle, the Particular Baptists stated in an appendix, “We have…endeavoured to manifest, That in the fundamental Articles of Christianity we mind the same things, and have therefore expressed our belief in the same words, that have on the like occasion been spoken by other societies of Christians before us.”
This was important because of Collier’s errors. The Confession was published so that anyone who wanted to know what the Particular Baptists believed could learn of it “from our selves (who jointly concur in this work) and may not be misguided, either by undue reports; or by the ignorance or errors of particular persons, who going under the same name with our selves, may give an occasion of scandalizing the truth we profess.”
If an evangelical union is going to exist, it needs to be a union of truth, and a union of churches, not persons. Evangelicals, as churches, therefore, need to confess their faith clearly and then see where their unity truly lies. As Nehemiah Coxe, a Particular Baptist minister, said in his refutation of Thomas Collier, “There can be no Gospel Peace without truth, nor Communion of Saints, without an agreement in fundamental principles of the Christian Religion. We must contend earnestly for the Faith once delivered to the Saints; and mark those that cause divisions among us by their new Doctrines contrary thereto, and avoid them.”