William Kiffen and the Poole Party

History is tricky, as is historical theology. We approach old texts and events with modern questions, modern categories, and modern modes of thinking. In the case of discussions about the relation of the Baptistic Congregationalists (i.e., early Particular Baptists) to the Reformed tradition, the same problems present themselves. Do we understand them in their own historical and ideological context? Are they subjects, teaching us who they were and how they thought, or are they objects on whom we impose our modern selves?

The modern age has its advantages, one of which is wide availability of older texts and sources, which means that more and more, we have the opportunity to become familiar with historical individuals or groups from their own literature. This blog has always been dedicated to putting original sources in the view of those interested in them.

This post focuses on a small publication from William Kiffen in 1645, entitled “A Briefe Remonstrance of the Reasons and Grounds of those People commonly called Anabaptists, for their Seperation, &c. Or Certain Queries Concerning Faith and Practice, propounded by Mr. Robert Poole; Answered and Resolved by William Kiffen.” I want to emphasize the timing of this discussion and how that affects our perception of the Baptistic Congregationalists and their relationship to Reformed churches and christians at that time. Specifically, consider that at this time the Baptistic Congregationalists had published their Confession of Faith, but the Westminster Confession did not yet exist. The Confession, and its related documents were in process, not only in process with regard to the Assembly itself, but also with regard to Parliament approving or disapproving said documents.

The setting of the discussion below is that Robert Poole’s (who appears to be a Presbyterian) daughter Elizabeth and at least one of his servants joined William Kiffen’s church. Robert was very displeased by this and wrote to Kiffen about “my deluded ones” demanding that Kiffen “discharge them, and leave them to the power of me, who have the charge of them.” Poole sent five queries to Kiffen, asking Kiffen to justify the practice of his church in separating from the established church.

My interest is in Kiffen’s response to the accusation made against him and his church of following “the Anabaptistical way” as opposed to the practice of “the Reformed Churches.” I have transcribed portions from this document which you can read below with updated spelling and some updated punctuation. [Bracketed portions are my own insertions for clarification.]

Poole’s First Query

“By what warrant of the word of God, do you separate from our congregations, where the word and sacraments are purely dispensed?”

Kiffen’s Response

“…For do you not daily admit and suffer to be amongst you such as do according to God’s word, leaven the whole lump, 1 Cor. 5:6, and do not purely dispense the word upon them for their healing? The Spirit of Christ saith, such glorying is not good, and the feast of the Lord ought not to be kept with them: and I pray you show me what gospel institution have you for the baptizing of children, which is one of your great sacraments amongst you; what can you find for your practice therein, more than the dirty puddle of man’s inventions affords. And therefore when your sacraments are purely administered according to the pure institution of the Lord Jesus; and when you have dispensed the Word and Power of Christ, for the cutting off all drunkards, fornicators, covetous, swearers, liars, and all abominable and filthy persons, and stand together in the faith, a pure lump of believers, gathered and united according to the institution of Christ, we (I hope,) shall join with you in the same congregation and fellowship, and nothing shall separate us but death.”

Analysis

Remember that Parliament called the Westminster Assembly to reform the national Church of England. Kiffen is responding to such a church, a church where everyone in the parish comes to bring their child for baptism, and everyone in the parish receives the Lord’s Supper. Kiffen denies the purity of the administration of the sacraments based on the impurity of the recipients and the lack of discipline against them.

Arguably, one’s experience would vary from parish church to parish church. Denying the Lord’s Supper to the “abominable and filthy” persons was one of the main issues in priests’ minds in the early decades of the seventeenth century. The “Puritan” movement clashed with the established church over issues such as this. However, Kiffen is correct that the national church as then established was set up in such a way as to receive everyone to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Westminster Assembly debated this issue and concluded that parishioners must make a profession of faith in order for their child to receive baptism.

The point at hand is that we see that the Baptistic Congregationalists would not mingle with the “Reformed” churches because at that point in time the nation of England and its Church were undergoing massive social, political, and religious changes. But it was still a national church filled with anyone and everyone.

Poole’s Second Query

“By what Scripture warrant do you take upon you to erect new framed congregations, separated to the disturbance of the great work of Reformation now in hand? [i.e., the Westminster Assembly and the reformation of the national church]”

Kiffen’s Response

“Answer: This query has in it these two parts: 1. That we erect new framed separate congregations. 2. We do, by this, disturb the great work of Reformation now in hand.

To the first, it is well known to many, especially to ourselves, that our Congregations were erected and framed as now they are, according to the rule of Christ, before we heard of any Reformation, even at that time when Episcopacy was in the height of its vanishing glory…even when they were plotting and threatening the ruin of all those which opposed it, and we hope you will not say we sinned in separating from them whose errors you now condemn, and yet if you shall still continue to brand us with the names of Anabaptists, Schismatics, Heretics, etc. for saving ourselves from such a generation (Acts 2:40) as you yourselves have cut off, and from such a superstitious [“superstitious” means doing religious things without scriptural warrant] worship as you say shall be reformed; we conceive it is your ignorance, or worse, and though you condemn us, Christ will justify us even by that word of his, which he hath given us, and we desire to practice, and have already commended to you in that conclusion of our answer to the first query.

And for the second part of your query, that we disturb the great work of reformation now in hand; I know not what you mean by this charge, unless it be to discover [reveal] your prejudice against us, in reforming ourselves before you. For as yet we have not in our understanding seen, neither can we conceive anything of that [which] we shall see reformed by you according to truth, but that through mercy, we enjoy the practice of the same already; ’tis strange this should be a disturbance, to the ingenious faithful Reformer; it should be (one would think) a furtherance rather than a disturbance

And whereas you tell us of the work of Reformation now in hand, no reasonable men will force us to desist from the practice of that which we are persuaded is according to the truth, and wait for that, which we know not what it will be; and in the meantime, practice that which you yourselves say must be reformed: but whereas you tell us of a great work of reformation, we should entreat you to show us wherein the greatness of it consists, for as yet we see no greatness, unless it be in the vast expense of money and time for what great thing is it to change Episcopacy into Presbytery, and a Book of Common Prayer into a Directory, and to exalt men from living of £100 a year to places of £400 per annum? For I pray you consider, is there not the same power, the same priests, the same people, the same worship, and in the same manner still continued, but when we shall see your great work of reformation to appear, that you have framed your congregations according to that true and unchangeable pattern, 1 Cor. 3.9-11 according to the command of our Savior, Matt. 28:19-20 and the Apostles’ practice, Acts 2:41; 5:13-14 and made all things suitable to the pattern, as Moses did, Exod. 25:40; Heb. 8:5 you will see, I hope, that we shall be so far from disturbing that work, as that we shall be one with it.”

Analysis

Kiffen argues that the Baptistic Congregationalists cannot be accused of separating from the work of reformation in England when they separated and formed their congregations during the time of Episcopacy. And if the Assembly and others are convinced that many features of the Church of England need to be abandoned and reformed, why should the Baptistic Congregationalists be criticized and called “Anabaptists, Schismatics, and Heretics” for already having done so?

It is very interesting that Kiffen points out that the Baptistic Congregationalists cannot be blamed for remaining separate from the national church during this time of Reformation when it is not clear what the end result will be. And if the Baptistic Congregationalists are already convinced that their churches are biblically grounded, and the Assembly acknowledges that the national church in its present form is in need of reform, why would the Baptistic Congregationalists not remain as they are and wait to see what happens?

In other words, the Baptistic Congregationalists were not rejecting the Reformed church in England. They were witnessing the development of something incomplete and, to them, unhopeful. Kiffen vows unity if the end result is acceptable. But he sees the direction that the Assembly is going and doesn’t see much difference with the Anglican establishment. National uniformity (the Directory) and nationally supported ministers (the tithe) in a national church that includes everyone (infant baptism) seems quite the same as it always had been. Kiffen was not the only one. Milton’s famous lines echoe here,

Untitled

Poole’s Fifth Query

“How can you vindicate by the word of God, your Anabaptistical way, from the sinful guile of notorious schisme, and dissection from all the Reformed Churches?” [Read “guile” in the sense of an accusation of treachery.]

Kiffen’s Response

“Answer: They that run may read what fire this pen and heart was inflamed withall in the writing and indicting this query; but first of all, if by Reformed Churches, you mean those churches planted by the Apostles in the Primitive times, which are the platform for all churches in all ages to look unto, to be guided by these apostolical rules left [for] them; then we shall vindicate by the word of God our Anabaptistical way, as you are pleased to call it, from that guile.

And first, although we confess ourselves ignorant of many things, which we ought to know and desire, to wait daily for further discoveries of light and truth, from him which is the only giver of it to his poor people, yet so far as we are come, we desire to walk by the same rule they did. And first of all, we baptize none into Christ Jesus, but such as profess faith in Christ Jesus, Rom. 6:3 by which faith they are made sons of God, and so having put on Christ, are baptized into Christ, Gal. 3:26-27 and that Christ has commanded this, and no other way of baptism, see Matt. 28:19; Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:7-8 and that this also was the practice of the Apostles, see Acts 2:41 and 8:12, 36-37; 10:47-48. And that being thus baptized upon profession of faith, they are then added to the church, Acts 2:41 and being added to the church, we conceive ourselves bound to watch over one another, and in case of sin, to deal faithfully one with another according to these Scriptures, Levit. 19:17-18; Matt 18:15 and if they remain obstinate, to cast them out, as those that are not fit to live in the church, according to that rule, 1 Cor 5:4-5; Matt 18:19-20 by all which, and many other particulars I might name, it appears through mercy, we can free ourselves from that guile.

And truly, if your eyes were opened to peruse your own practices and ways, you would then see we could better free ourselves from that notorious guile of schism from those Reformed Churches, then you can free yourselves from the notorious guile of schisming from Rome; For 1. You hold their baptism true, their ordination of ministers true, their maintenance by tithes and offerings true, their people all fit matter for a church, and so true, and yet you will separate from them for some corruptions. Now, for our parts, we deny all and every one of these amongst you to be true, and therefore do separate from you; so then, when you have made satisfaction for your notorious schism, and return as dutiful sons to their Mother, or else have cast off all your filthy rubbish of her abominations which are found amongst you, we will return to you, or show our just grounds to the contrary.”

Analysis

Kiffen argues that he is more concerned with framing his church according to the practice of the Apostles in the New Testament than to any church at any point in history. So, though not quite saying it clearly, he argues that the title “Reformed” can only ever truly apply to those that have reformed their doctrine and practice by the pattern and commands of the Apostles. Based on this foundation, Kiffen summarizes their practice, with Scripture proofs, which is essentially his way of saying, “We are reformed according to the word of God.”

But the “nitty gritty” (read in Nacho Libre’s voice) shows up when Kiffen points Poole back to the “Reformed Churches” and accuses them of containing remnants of Roman Catholic theology. According to Kiffen, the Baptistic Congregationalists regarded the following features of the “Reformed Churches” in England during this time of ongoing Reformation as false:

Infant baptism. It was administered to the wrong subjects, and with the wrong mode.

Ordination of ministers. They were ordained by presbyteries (or previously by bishops), but not congregations. Congregations had a right of refusal, but not ordination. On the Westminster Assembly’s involvement in stocking the pulpits of the national church, see this excellent book.

Tithes and offerings. Baptistic Congregationalists believed that believers were obligated by moral equity and positive command to give to the church for the support of the minister and the poor. But they denied that the tenth could be required, and they especially denied that it could be extracted from the nation.

The matter of the church [that of which it is comprised]. A national church is made up of a nation. The Baptistic Congregationalists, as Kiffen had expressed, only received professing believers as members. Yes, as mentioned above, the Assembly required a profession of faith for baptism and you can see exactly what kind of profession in that post. But remember the timing of this discussion. Such things were still in process in the Assembly. And even with such a profession at play, the vision of the church is still a national one, which Kiffen would have rejected.

Kiffen uses these points to say that the Baptistic Congregationalists should not be criticized for separating from “the Reformed Churches” when they regard such features of said churches as false, while “the Reformed Churches” separated from Rome despite regarding such features of the Roman church as true.

Conclusion

To sum up, we see several helpful historical contextualizing conclusions.

  • The Baptistic Congregationalists “separated” from the national church before it was ever in a process of “reformation” and were unwilling to reintegrate with it while its “reformation” was still in progress. They did not separate from the Reformed churches as Reformed churches.
  • Their refusal to reintegrate with the church while “reformation” was underway, their congregational independence (e.g., ordaining their own ministers), and their limitation of baptism to professing believers earned them the label “Anabaptists, schismatics, heretics, etc.” But they denied such terms and defended their beliefs and their practices here and elsewhere.
  • The theological identity of “the Reformed churches” in England was unsettled at that time. The minutes and papers of the assembly show that the Assembly included a wide variety of views on many different doctrines. Some of those differing views were antithetical to one another in practice, such as church polity or liberty of conscience in matters of religion. The end result could have looked very different, if the opposite competing voices had prevailed.
  • The Baptistic Congregationalists were not optimistic about the Assembly’s “work of reformation” because they saw it maintaining a national church without liberty of conscience in matters of religion.
  • At the time of this discussion, Kiffen saw serious flaws in the features of the national church. But they are all practical ecclesiological features: paedobaptism, ordination, tithes, and membership. This practical separation should not distract us from the substantial doctrinal agreement that yet remained. Consider the fact that Kiffen is taking a “wait and see” approach to the Assembly, and that Kiffen and others were more than willing to incorporate the vast majority of the Westminster Confession (inherited through the Savoy Declaration) into their Second Confession of Faith in 1677. He was not rejecting the theology of “the Reformed churches” wholesale. He simply could not, in practice, join with the church as it was then constituted, and according to the vision he saw it pursuing.

These conclusions and the preceding material shed historical light on the ideas and labels being used in the 1640s when the Baptistic Congregationalists were growing and establishing themselves. If we approach them with questions like “Were they Reformed churches” or “Did they reject the Reformed churches” or “How did the Reformed churches respond to them” or “Why did the Reformed churches call them Anabaptists” we will struggle to answer those questions accurately apart from attention to sources such as this coupled with historical and chronological sensitivity. Or, we might find that such questions simply don’t work.

John Owen, A Short and Plain Answer, 3

Our modern context and labels simply don’t map onto 1640s England. And we rarely think about them (or read them) properly.

We need to develop a more nuanced vocabulary that can describe, with as much accuracy as possible, a context as complex as England in the seventeenth century in general, or the 1640s in particular.*** Such an approach is modeled and developed in Matt Bingham’s book, Orthodox Radicals, an apt title for one such as Kiffen who was orthodox in his theology but appeared entirely radical and was therefore unwelcome at the Poole Party.

 

 

***Good luck.

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The Tree-fort

Oh, the internet. The social sphere and shopping mall of the modern world, where Christian brothers and sisters can go to…spew snark, sarcasm, snide comments, and condescension at each other. Isn’t it great? No, it isn’t, because our hearts are wicked. And from the wicked fullness of our hearts, our thumbs tweet. We are all guilty, to varying degrees.

John Clark, Phraseologia, 9

Permit me for a short while to express where I am coming from, and where I think many others are coming from, as a Particular Baptist (adherent to the 1677 2LCF), often called a Reformed Baptist, interacting regularly online with those in the Reformed denominations on various issues. I would like to appeal to my Presbyterian and Reformed brothers and sisters to acknowledge that 2LCF (1677) and those who confess it belong in the diversity of the Reformed Family Tree.

Accept, for the sake of reading this charitably, that the seventeenth-century Particular Baptists of 2LCF (1677) share a historical and theological heritage with the Reformed churches, and that their use of the Savoy Declaration and the Westminster Confession to edit/compose 2LCF was sincere. If you accept this, then those who embrace 2LCF in modern times will view the modern Independents as their elder brother (alas, I don’t know any), and the Presbyterians as their eldest brother.

If you accept the previous, how will modern Particular Baptists respond to Presbyterian and Reformed brethren who often (in my experience) dismiss and distance the 2LCF Baptists? To the Particular Baptist, it feels like condescension, ignorance, and unnecessary unkindness from our closest theological relatives. Oh no! Our feelings! Yes, our feelings. The internet may be a virtual reality, but it is a reality. It is the modern social sphere where real people interact with real people, where real Christians spend real time with real Christians through a virtual medium. So, these things do matter. And we should do everything, whether in word or deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17). The virtual nature of the internet doesn’t exempt us from guarding our words (which are actions).

Perhaps in this post we can gain some clarity and direction for better interacting with each other as Particular (Reformed) Baptists and Presbyterian and Reformed brothers and sisters in Christ.

What do Particular Baptists not want? If I may speak for myself, and perhaps others, 

  • We do not want all Presbyterian and Reformed persons to forfeit their views and convert to 2LCF 1677 views. When Particular Baptists want to be acknowledged as a branch of the Reformed family tree, it is not a desire to combine all the branches into one trunk. It is not a desire for the Presbyterian and Reformed brethren to say “You are exactly the same thing as we are.” We want our place among the diversity already present in their midst to be recognized.
  • We do not want all Presbyterian and Reformed persons to cease criticizing or challenging baptistic theology. Christian brotherhood should involve iron-sharpening and mutual edification. Addressing errors can be done charitably and winsomely.

What do we want?

  • We want Presbyterian and Reformed persons to realize who 2LCF Baptists are.
    • They are the modern confessors of 2LCF. That is painfully obvious, but what I mean is that many Baptist churches confess 2LCF without any changes from its original publication. You could walk into a Particular Baptist church in 1689 or 2019, 330 years later, and you should get the same theology.
    • This matters because one of the ways in which our Reformed brethren are dismissive of us is to lump 2LCF Baptists into the generic common criticisms of Baptists. It is unhelpful and misguided.
  • We want Presbyterian and Reformed persons to acknowledge the historical and theological roots of the Particular Baptists.
    • Historically, Particular Baptists emerged from the collision of Reformed theology with the Church of England in the early seventeenth century, the same as Ball, Burgess, or Marshall. It is historically and factually wrong to locate the Particular Baptists’ origins among the continental Anabaptists. See this post.
    • Theologically, the Particular Baptists intentionally and sincerely employed Reformed theology to edit/compose 1LCF (1644) and 2LCF (1677). See this work. Read this book.
    • Discussion:
      • P&R Response: 1LCF and 2LCF may incorporate Reformed theology, and that at a high percentage. But, the deviations are sufficient to invalidate the category “Reformed” being applied to the finished product.
      • Particular Baptist Response: But in the context of 1646 WCF and 1677 2LCF, let us consider the “deviations”: Church government, liberty of conscience, role of civil magistrate, subjects of baptism, and mode of baptism. To begin, the modern WCF reduces these differences down to church government, subjects of baptism, and mode of baptism. So, the P&R brethren must recognize that since 1646, they have moved closer to us (at least in the case of Westminster Presbyterians).
      • Now that the differences reside in ecclesiology and baptism, let it be remembered that the Dissenting Brethren and some Continental churches practiced Congregationalism, and are just as much a part of the Reformed Tradition by most judgments. See this book and its two reviewers.
      • So, now the boundaries of our shared Reformed heritage are only divided by the subjects and mode of baptism. But isn’t that precisely what the label “Reformed Baptist” implies?
      • Ultimately, what is desired here is to acknowledge roots, origin, and provenance. One may think that the Particular Baptists went too far (and again, the only criteria left for modern Presbyterians are the subjects and mode of baptism), but where they came from should be acknowledged.
  • We want Presbyterian and Reformed persons to acknowledge that the idea or version of “Reformed theology” that they promote, as a means of opposing Baptist theology, is not accurate. Specifically, modern P&R brethren need to realize that their Reformed heritage contradicts some of their common criticisms of Baptists, and that infant baptism has diverse views and justifications associated with it, views rarely believed today. Such as:
    • It is common for P&R Christians to argue that Baptism is God’s word to us, in opposition to the “Baptist” idea that it is our profession to God. This is convenient for upholding infant baptism. But it is not accurate, as far as historical theology is concerned. Baptism is not just God’s word to us, but also our word to God and the world (and I emphatically agree that it is both, and Baptists who limit it to one side are liable to criticism just as much as paedobaptists who limit it to the other side).
      • John Calvin: A sacrament is “a testimony of God’s favor towards us confirmed by an outward sign, with a mutual testifying of our godliness toward him.” [The Institvtion of Christian Religion, IV. 13. 1. Cf. also IV. 13. 13-14.] In fact, Calvin says that a sacrament is commonly known as a pledge sworn by a soldier to his captain, and therefore the burden of proof lies on showing that a sacrament is not just our word to our Superior, but a word from our Superior to us.
      • William Perkins: “Baptism serves to be a pledge unto us in respect of our weakness, of all the graces and mercies of God, and especially of our union with Christ, of remission of sins, and of mortification. Secondly, it serves to be a sign of Christian profession before the world, and therefore it is called ‘the stipulation or interrogation of a good conscience,’ 1 Pet. 3:21.” [A Commentarie or Exposition, upon the five first Chapters of the Epistle to the Galatians, 249.]
    • Infants of believers have the habit or seed of faith. (Cornelius Burgess and others)
    • That Jesus Christ died for a mixed or “inchoate” body – to explain why all infants of believers are of the covenant of grace, but only some persevere. (John Ball)
    • Owen and others believed that children have a right to the public profession of baptism by virtue of being the children of believers, but cannot join the church as members until they make their own profession of faith.
      • If Owen and the Independents are not cut out of the “Reformed” label for this, then it too must be jettisoned when dealing with Particular or Reformed Baptists.
    • The previous points are important because most modern-day Presbyterian and Reformed persons that I know (thinking of the OPC, PCA, and URC here) reject or neglect various of these diverse views.
      • This matters because the infant baptism they are left with affirms:
        • Their children are not necessarily regenerate by virtue of being the children of believers.
        • Their children need to be evangelized.
        • Their children are holy in a general sense, meaning simply that they belong to the church outwardly.
      • At that point, the only difference between the Reformed Baptist’s children, and the Presbyterian’s children is that the children of the one were baptized, and the children of the other were not. Both will be catechized and evangelized.
  • We want Presbyterian and Reformed persons to read charitably the literature of the Particular Baptist tradition and its historiography, not just John Gill and Charles Spurgeon.
    • I’ll be the first to say that there is a great deal of Baptist literature that is so overwhelmingly and obnoxiously Baptist that even I don’t want to read it. So, here I am not talking such books, but about serious scholarly thoughtful, and yet intentionally Baptist, literature.

What is the desired result?

  • Speaking for myself, because the internet is a social sphere I want to be able to “spend time” with P&R brethren, i.e., occupy the same digital spaces, without being told regularly, but wrongly, that I am something worlds apart from the P&R heritage, and being treated as such. You be you. I’ll be me. And we’ll be a happy Reformed family.
  • More importantly, I want to be able to defend and protect, mutually, our shared heritage.
    • Within the modern Reformed world, there are serious theological threats to the biblical, classical, confessional Reformed heritage–especially on the doctrine of God.
    • Personal connections, networking, and the dispersal of ideas through social media can be a useful tool (supplemental to scholarly work in seminaries and pastoral fidelity in pulpits and presbyteries) to lock arms and hold the line.

Make no mistake. Baptists themselves have their own part to play in this. For every instance of condescension on the part of a P&R Christian, there is an instance of some similar, or other, extreme on the part of a Baptist Christian. This is a two-sided, two-party, problem. We would do well to learn from the Appendix to the 2LCF.

2LCF Appendix

In closing, imagine a tree-fort, a really great and wonderful tree-fort. Imagine an elder brother, we’ll pick a random name for him–Presbyterian. Imagine a younger brother, we’ll pick a random name for him, too–Particular Baptist. Imagine that Presbyterian is playing in the family tree-fort and every time Particular Baptist wants to come up and play, Presbyterian pulls the ladder up. This isn’t kind. Presbyterian says, “Go away, you don’t belong here.” Particular Baptist says “It’s the family tree-fort! I want to play, too!” Presbyterian refuses to provide the ladder, so Particular Baptist goes looking for the middle brother, let’s call him…John Owen. But he’s nowhere to be found, so Particular Baptist just gets cranky and annoying, while Presbyterian smugly enjoys the tree-fort.

Mom comes out, we’ll call her Geneva Anglicana. She says, “Presbyterian, that tree-fort doesn’t belong to you. Drop the ladder for your younger brother! And Particular Baptist, stop being a pain in the neck to your older brother! Play nicely, both of you!”

Then Mom says, “And where’s John Owen?”

Particular Baptist replies with tears, “I don’t know, but I miss him.”

Then Presbyterian remarks, “Why? You know, he’s a paedobaptist.”

And Mom says, “Boys! Stop it!”

Lost Presbyterian Lenses

Lost Presbyterian Lenses

When contending that Reformed theology, in the context of early seventeenth-century Puritanism, is the most significant influence on Particular Baptist origins and theology, this question naturally arises: If the Particular Baptists were so similar to the Reformed tradition, why is it that those in the Reformed tradition viewed the early Particular Baptists as something so different?

Given that the Particular Baptists emerged just before and during the time of the Westminster Assembly, how did the Westminster divines view the Particular Baptists and what did they say about them? To answer these questions, we need to ensure that we understand as much as possible the context in which the Westminster divines were introduced to, and responded to, the Particular Baptists.

Particular Baptists Through Presbyterian Lenses

If you were a Presbyterian divine in the Westminster Assembly commissioned by the government (Parliament) to establish a government-backed national uniformity of religion, what would a Particular Baptist look like to you in the early 1640s? You would likely not know what a Particular Baptist was, at least not clearly. But several of their tenets would be highly repulsive. How so? Consider the following from the perspective of a Westminster divine:

First, you believe that in matters of religion, the civil magistrate has the right to compel the conscience.

They who upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power…whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. (WCF 20.4)

And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining such practices, as are contrary…to the known principles of Christianity…they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the church, and by the power of the civil magistrate. (WCF 20.4)

Second, you believe that the civil magistrate is responsible to enable the true church to exist and to disable all opposition.

It is [the civil magistrate’s] duty to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure, and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented, or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. (WCF 23.3)

Third, you believe that this national uniform church should include a form of hierarchical government.

Fourth, you have been commissioned by Parliament to begin this process.

A Particular Baptist (though you would not know him by that name) believes that the conscience cannot be forced in matters of religion, that the civil magistrate has no right whatsoever to establish, enable, or enforce a national church, and that all authority and power for the government of churches resides in the churches themselves, subject to no higher power as a church power. If the Particular Baptist is right about this, the Westminster Assembly’s very existence and purpose are invalidated.

If this were not enough, there are some in England who are apparently baptizing themselves, forming their own congregations, ordaining their own officers, and publishing literature advocating their positions while criticizing yours on these points. Their existence is antithetical to yours, to the church you envision, and to the mission your government has given to you. And now, some of the university men and clergy are joining them! This Anabaptism must be stopped.

The Westminster Assembly sent a recommendation to Parliament in Aug-Sep of 1644 advising legislation for the suppression of Anabaptism. The Assembly sent out a call for Anabaptists to submit their reasons against infant baptism to the Assembly. The next month, October, the Particular Baptists published their first Confession of Faith.

If you were one of those divines and you received a copy of the Baptists’ Confession, what would you think? The title of this Confession of Faith oddly claims that they are called Anabaptists falsely. And they, the falsely-called Anabaptists, address the Confession not only to their countrymen, but also to “those that think themselves much wronged, if they be not looked upon as the chief Worthies of the Church of God, and Watchmen of the City.”

So, apparently a group of Anabaptists that say that they are not Anabaptists, but also don’t mind telling us (the Westminster Assembly) that we are somewhat conceited, have published a Confession of Faith. What do they believe? Who are these people? Listen to the divines responding to the 1644 1LCF.

Stephen Marshall said,

I acknowledge it the most Orthodox of any Anabaptists confession that ever I read, (although there are sundry Heterodox opinions in it) and such an one as I believe thousands of our new Anabaptists will be far from owning.

So, in Stephen Marshall’s opinion most Anabaptists would never come close to calling this confession their own. To the contrary, it’s the most orthodox Baptist theology he’s read. But it has unorthodox opinions.

Robert Baillie said,

Tell the English Anabaptists now of the Doctrine and practice of their fathers in Munster and elsewhere, they are ready with passion to deny all affinity, all consanguinity with such monstrous Heretics…the furthest they will profess to maintain is but a simple antipaedobaptism…We wish that all our questions with that generation of men were come to so narrow an issue; we are [reluctant] to force upon any man the errors which he is willing to disallow.
We wish that all these who go under the name of Anabaptists in England, were resolved to stand to the Articles of that confession without any further progress in error.

In Baillie’s mind, the only connection to the Anabaptists that the Baptists of this Confession will acknowledge is that they both reject paedobaptism. And he wishes that the scope of their disagreement was so limited with all Baptists.

When credobaptism is placed within the context of 1640s England, one can appreciate the dilemma to which Baillie alludes. He says that they do not wish to attribute errors to those who deny them. He is looking at a Baptist confession full of Reformed theology, and yet coming from a group whose distinctives are antithetical to a Westminster Presbyterian. If they say that they aren’t Anabaptists, but they’re opposite to Presbyterians in key ways, what are they? It was easy to continue calling them Anabaptists. It was a lazy label, even a label that Marshall and Baillie acknowledged didn’t quite fit, but ultimately it was a convenient label for use by a government-backed ecclesiastical structure because it created instant marginalization and exclusion.

The Difficulties and Oddities of the Discussion in a Modern Context

We have seen several contextual historical and theological reasons for why the 1640s Presbyterians viewed the Particular Baptists as so different from themselves. What we must be careful to do is to read the Presbyterian reception of Particular Baptists through their own lenses. But the difficulty is that modern Presbyterians are so different today. Few of them hold the original views on liberty/compulsion of conscience and the role of the civil magistrate in the same.

Consequently, when you put the modern inheritors of WCF with the modern inheritors of 1LCF (who now confess 2LCF, 1677), several of the key pieces of Particular Baptist theology that were considered so dangerous and repugnant to the Presbyterians of the 1640s are now codified elements of revisions of the Westminster Confession itself. We could add to this the fact that though Presbyterians today still reject congregationalism, it must be perfectly acceptable within Reformed theology because everyone gives Owen and the Dissenting Brethren a pass into the “Reformed” world. The differences in doctrine between modern Particular Baptists and Presbyterians are therefore significantly narrowed by the Presbyterians’ confessional moves closer to the Baptists. The Baptists have not changed their confession since its original composition in 1677.*

Ironically, this means that many modern Presbyterians are at odds with key features of their own tradition because as noted above, if the state cannot and should not establish national religion, the Westminster Assembly should never have been called for the purpose that it was called. Strangely, the American Westminster Confession essentially invalidates the reasons for the existence of the original Westminster Confession.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the purpose of this post was to address the question: If the Particular Baptists were so similar to the Reformed tradition, why is it that those in the Reformed tradition viewed the early Particular Baptists as something so different?

We have seen Westminster divines remarking on the orthodoxy of 1LCF. We have also seen them dismissing it in the context of a uniform national state church which is utterly opposed to Baptist congregationalism. And we have noted that appropriating 1640s responses to the Particular Baptists in a modern context is strange and difficult given that the premises of the 1640s Presbyterians’ criticisms are no longer shared by modern Presbyterians. This should caution us all to make sure we understand the contextual motivation and argumentation of older sources, especially if we want to apply those sources to modern contexts.

Nathaniel Wyles, Comfort for Believers, 37

*Meaning not that there has never been an edited version of 2LCF, but that its modern inheritors confess it in its pristine originality.

The Westminster Assembly Debates Credopaedobaptism

The Westminster Assembly Debates Credopaedobaptism

In the seventeenth-century polemics of paedobaptism and credobaptism, one of the common arguments asserted by the English Particular Baptists was that their paedobaptist brothers agreed that a profession of faith was a necessary prerequisite for baptism. To make their point, Particular Baptists like Andrew Ritor, Benjamin Coxe, William Kiffin, Hanserd Knollys, and Thomas Patient appealed to the catechism of the Church of England, which was appended to the Book of Common Prayer. The catechism specifically required a profession of faith and repentance before admission to baptism.

Here is the portion to which they referred:Church of England Catechism in Book of Common Prayer

The Particular Baptists viewed this as inconsistent credobaptism, or perhaps we could call it “credopaedobaptism.” If actual repentance and faith were necessary, how could these be promised by parents or godparents? Given their strong Calvinism, the idea of promising actual faith and repentance (which could only be given by God) for another was an absurdity. To the Particular Baptists, this presupposed the election and thus salvation of children, many of which were not saved. If the children were presupposed as elect, then salvation could be lost. If the children were not presupposed as elect, then there could be no presupposition of God-given repentance and faith in them.

When the Westminster Assembly began its work reforming the Church of England  in order to impose national uniformity through a new Confession of Faith, Catechism, and Directory for Public Worship (with a few more documents), they inherited the unlucky task of wrestling with the question of a profession of faith in baptism. George Gillespie’s Notes of Debates and Proceedings of the Westminster Assembly give us a glimpse into how the Assembly handled it. Read below and decide for yourself if their conclusions about credopaedobaptism were satisfactory.

Gillespie, Notes of Debates and Proceedings, 89-90Gillespie, Notes of Debates and Proceedings, 90Gillespie, Notes of Debates and Proceedings, 91Gillespie, Notes of Debates and Proceedings, 91-1

A Few Thoughts for Consideration in the Modern Republication Debate

These thoughts are directed primarily at members in the OPC and PCA.

For those contra republication:

  1. The view that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of works is a view found among Reformed divines in the 17th and 16th centuries.
  2. The Westminster Confession of Faith is not the exclusive expression or boundary of Reformed orthodoxy.

For those pro republication:

  1. The fact that a given divine at the Westminster Assembly held to a given view does not mean that the Confession itself either reflects, includes, or accounts for their view. They debated many things. The conclusion of the debates was a majority vote in one direction, not a unanimous vote.
  2. A covenant of works and a covenant of grace are as different as wood and stone. They are different “substances.” If the Mosaic covenant is a formal covenant of works (not just containing a remembrance of Adam’s covenant) it cannot be the covenant grace. See John Ball, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (London: Printed by G. Miller, 1645), 93-95. Ball is discussing John Cameron’s view that the Mosaic covenant (the old covenant) is neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace but a legal covenant for the nation of Israel to live life in the land of Canaan. Ball concludes that this view makes the old covenant differ from the new in substance. See also John Owen, A Continuation of the Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (London: Printed for Nathaniel Ponder, 1680), 324-42. Owen considers the majority view as expressed in the WCF and rejects it because he views the Mosaic covenant as a works covenant for life in the land. This is the result of the simple logic of substance as applied to covenant theology.

For both groups:

  1. The Westminster Confession was originally intended to be used as a government-backed, fueled, and promoted public standard of teaching and preaching in England, a standard not to be contradicted. Its limited function means that divines could participate in its making, and even live with its final form, so long as they did not overturn the status quo. In England, the Confession of Faith never got off its feet. The Independent-controlled government edited its proposed form in key ways, and the restoration of Charles II neutered any force the confession would have had. Scotland was another story. See https://pettyfrance.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/confessional-subscription-and-the-westminster-assembly/ and https://pettyfrance.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/the-textual-history-of-the-westminster-confession-of-faith/
  2. How your church uses the Westminster Confession of Faith may be quite different from its original intent and design. Whereas its original function may have permitted the flavors of Reformed theology to coexist, the function that your church is assigning to it may not. You have to deal with that. If you are another “flavor” than the WCF but your view was found among the Westminster divines or Reformed theology in general, that still does not mean that your church’s use of the WCF permits you within its boundaries.
  3. You’re probably not using the term “administration” correctly or accurately.
  4. Vindiciae veritatis preface

 

 

Persons and Subsistences in the Confessions of Faith

A careful examination and comparison of the Second London Baptist Confession (LCF) and the Westminster Confession (WCF) yields a variety of differences and nuances, some more obvious than others. One such difference is found in the second chapter, “Of God and of the Holy Trinity.” The London Confession is considerably more detailed and technical in its formulation of the doctrine of God (which is not to imply any lack of orthodoxy on the part of the WCF). This technicality is seen in the LCF’s use of “subsistence” instead of “person.” Compare the following:
WCF 2.3
WCF 2.3
LCF 2.3
LCF 2.3

Why the change? Or what’s the difference between Person and Subsistence? The short answer is that while there is no doctrinal difference, the term “subsistence” is more technical and carries less linguistic baggage. John Owen shows the agreement of the two terms:
John Owen, Dr Owens Two Catechisms, 12

Richard Muller provides the following definition for “subsistentia”: An individual instance of a given essence. [Subsistence has other meanings as well, in fact it is used in a different way in paragraph one to describe God’s self-existence. His “subsistence is in and of himself” meaning that he derives his existence from himself. Or in another sense, his existence is not derived at all.]

Think about that for a moment. There is only one divine essence. Thus, three divine subsistences must all share one divine essence. How can one essence be distinguished into three subsistences but not divided? It is infinite. The essence of God is deity. The essence of man is humanity. Human nature is finite, thus no one else can subsist within my essence. I may share a common essence with humanity, but it is a divided, individual, and separated essence. A substance is an essence in existence, thus each human being is a different and separate substance sharing the common essence of humanity. But there is one divine essence and thus one divine substance, in which godhead the three persons of the trinity subsist.

This makes “subsistence” the perfect word for expressing the technical unity and trinity of God because it necessarily connects to a given essence, in this case the singular and unique essence of deity. “Person” carries with it the linguistic baggage of human personhood connected to human essence. Without proper definition, “person” can be easily misused. Trinitarian personhood is not human personhood. That being said, the WCF is in no way heterodox on the trinity. The term “person” is perfectly capable of carrying these theological distinctions. One must simply be careful. Consider the discussion of this anonymous writer. He begins by saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is practical to us because it helps us to know the one God that we love, worship, and serve.
Anon, Catechism Made Practical, 12

Next he warns us of the need for precision because the Socinians (in their Racovian Catechism, see end of post) claimed that God was one person. Their fundamental flaw was to equate human personhood with divine personhood.
Anon, Catechism Made Practical, 13

Persons are distinguished by personal relations and peculiar relative properties, as the LCF above made clear. Notice how in the midst of this he reminds the reader that “the divine nature is unchangeable and indivisible, and not multiplicable; therefore there is no proper action nor passion, as in nature, nor production of new being.” In other words, the eternal generation of the Son never “happened” because God is not bound by time, thus nothing can “happen” to him, i.e. no passion. He is pure being, no becoming. Thus the Son’s generation is eternal in the sense that it is atemporal. Were God bound by time, he would be changeable. Were the Son brought forth from the Father as we conceive of generation, then the nature of God would be both divisible, multiplicable, active, and passive in time (which it is not – he has no parts or passions).
Anon, Catechism Made Practical, 14-15

Next he explains where we get the term “person” from and why we use it, acknowledging that there may be better ways to express the concepts. Once again he reminds the reader to separate ideas of human personhood from divine personhood. God is altogether other than we are.
Anon, Catechism Made Practical, 15-16

The language we use is “improper,” that is, it does not fully describe, though it does truthfully describe, who and what God is.
Anon, Catechism Made Practical, 16-17

In light of all of these careful nuances and important distinctions, we can safely conclude that while there is no doctrinal disagreement or difference between the two confessions, the LCF displays a careful desire for further technicality and precision and thus employs the term “subsistence” rather than person.

***A judicious and impartial reader pointed out to me that 2LCF 8.2 employs “person” while referring to Christ as the “Second Person” of the Holy Trinity. This is corroborative evidence of the fact that “subsistence” is a technical, not a doctrinal choice of language.***

See also:
John Norton on Passivity and Suffering

John Norton on the Divine Names and Perfections of God

Here are relevant portions from the Racovian Catechism:
Racovian Catechism, 18-19

Racovian Catechism, 20-21

Form and Matter in Covenant Theology

To add a little more to the previous post on formal and material republication, let me fill out how the distinction between form and matter works on a larger scale.

When it comes to justification, the material basis of a covenant is either law or promise. Works/law and grace/promise do not intermingle.
If two parties are committed to each other based on a law, a covenant of works has been established. If two parties are committed to each other based on a promise, a covenant of grace has been established. The matter dictates the form.

In light of this distinction, just because the law is present in a given covenant, it does not mean that this covenant is the covenant of works. Conversely, just because the promise (the gospel) is present in a given covenant, it does not mean that this covenant is the covenant of grace.

James Durham demonstrates the difference between a law, and a law used to established a covenant of works.
James Durham, The Law Unsealed, 5-6

In this line of thinking, Obadiah Sedgwick argues that although the law was present in the Mosaic covenant, it was not a formal covenant of works. This is material republication (as was Durham above).
Obadiah Sedgwick, Bowels of Tender Mercy, 10

This also applies to believers. In the Marrow of Modern Divinity, Edward Fisher wanted to protect the idea that although the law came to believers, it did not come as a covenant of works. Legalism is inevitable if we are convinced that the law necessarily entails a covenant of works.
Fisher, Marrow, 1646, 7-8

Now, how did this play out in Particular Baptist theology? John Owen will be our theologian. Nehemiah Coxe considered Owen’s work on Hebrews to be representative of his own views on covenant theology.

First, Owen is operating within the same ideas and makes the same points made above, that we have to distinguish between the law on its own and the law as a covenant.
Owen, Hebrews 8 (6), 218

The same is true for the promise of the gospel. Just because the promise of the gospel is present from Genesis 3:15 onward, it does not follow that the covenants wherein it appears are the covenant of grace. Owen argues that the covenant of grace was only a promise until its formal establishment in the new covenant. The elect were saved by virtue of the covenant of grace (the promise of the gospel) in all the ages, but it was not formally established until Christ’s death.
Owen, Hebrews 8 (6), 227

The same point is made again, showing how the New Covenant could not be new if it had already been formally established.
Owen, Hebrews 8 (9), 256

The law and the gospel (the promise) are present in the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and new covenants.

Westminster paedobaptists will argue that all of these covenants were established on the promise of the gospel and thus were covenants of grace, or rather a twofold administration of the covenant of grace. The law played the same role in all of them, namely as a rule of righteousness (more burdensome in the OT). None of those covenants were covenants of works.

Particular Baptists will argue that although the promise of the gospel was present and revealed in all of the OT covenants, they were not the covenant of grace. The old covenant saved no one because it was a covenant of works for life in Canaan. Until the New Covenant was formally established in Christ’s blood, the covenant of grace existed in promise form only. The new covenant is truly new, the fulfillment of everything promised and hoped for in redemptive history. No covenant was formally established on the promise “I will remember your sins no more” until the blood of Christ inaugurated the new covenant.