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.

Formal and Material Republication in the Confessions of Faith

In debates concerning the republication of the covenant of works within the Mosaic covenant, anyone who holds to the Westminster Confession or the London Baptist Confession confesses that the same law that was given to Adam was delivered to Moses. At the very least, then, the confessions teach a republication of the law of the covenant of works. Where things get more complicated is when we discuss how that law functioned. Was the law given to Moses as a covenant of works? That is a much larger statement than simply that the same law given to Adam was given to Moses.

To help understand how this issue works, we need to understand how the distinction between form and matter was applied to covenant theology. The formal nature of a covenant depended on its material basis. Think of matter and form. If you make something from clay (a kind of matter), then you will get a clay object (a form). Likewise for wood or stone. Different materials produce different forms. A union of form and matter is a substance. In covenant theology, if a covenant was established on the basis of law, the covenant was a covenant of works. If a covenant was established on promise, the covenant was a covenant of grace. The covenant partner would respond accordingly, with obedience to the law and reception/belief of the promise. Nehemiah Coxe shows this difference.
Coxe, Discourse of the Covenants, 9

Law and promise are contradistinguished matters that produce contradistinguished forms. Because a union of form and matter is a substance, covenants that differ in substance are covenants that differ in form and matter. This is a complicated way of saying that a covenant of works and a covenant of grace are two different things. A covenant of works is built on law. A covenant of grace is built on promises. They differ in matter, form, and thus substance. Any formal covenant of works cannot be a covenant of grace.

In light of this, some have spoken of material republication and formal republication. Material republication indicates that the matter of the covenant of works, i.e. the law, was delivered to Moses. Both confessions confess this. Formal republication indicates that not only was the matter of the covenant of works delivered to Moses, but it was also the basis upon which Moses’ covenant was established. Thus the law was materially and formally republished, meaning that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of works.

With all of this in mind, there is a significant difference between the Westminster Confession and its sister documents, the Savoy Declaration and the London Baptist Confession.

Here is WCF 19.1-2
WCF 19.1-2

Notice the red text above: “as such.” This limits the nature of the function of the law as it was given to Moses. It was given to Moses “as a rule of righteousness“. Formal republication is of course built on material republication. But material republication, i.e. the presence of the law in the Mosaic covenant, does not necessarily entail formal republication. Just because the law is there, it doesn’t mean that the law is functioning as a covenant of works. The Westminster Confession does not go beyond material republication to formal republication. In fact, this clause “as such” specifically limits the role of the law delivered to Moses to a “rule of righteousness.” This is very consistent with the view that the Mosaic covenant is a covenant of grace (as WCF confesses). God redeemed Israel and gave them the law as the path for their grateful obedience.

The Savoy Divines and the Particular Baptists did not agree. Both confessions delete the phrase “as such.”

Savoy Declaration 19.1-2
Savoy 19.1-2

LBCF 19.1-2
LBCF 19.1-2

Why would they make such a deletion? Well, speaking only for the Particular Baptists, there are two fundamental reasons:

1. They believed that the old and new covenants differed in substance, not just administration. In other words, the old covenant is something other than the covenant of grace. Why did they believe that? They believed that the old covenant differed in substance because it was a covenant of works, contradistinguished from the covenant of grace. The covenant of works and the covenant of grace were materially and formally distinct, and thus substantially distinct. Andrew Ritor makes this point:
Andrew Ritor Covenant Substance

2. We already mentioned the second reason for the change in the confession, namely that the Particular Baptists believed that the law was delivered to Moses, not just as a material republication of the universal moral law of righteousness to which all men are obligated, but also as a the basis for a formal covenant of works. Clarification needs to be added here that different Particular Baptists took this in somewhat different directions. Some confined the Mosaic covenant of works to temporal life in Canaan, meaning that the Mosaic Covenant did not offer eternal life. Others, however, spoke of the Mosaic covenant as being the original covenant of works itself delivered to Israel.

Coxe is another helpful example of the former direction:
Coxe Republication

In conclusion, I want to make a few brief points.
1. Regarding the London Baptist Confession, the deletion of the phrase “as such” is not so much a positive affirmation of formal republication as it is an opening of the door wide open for it. Chapter 19 is not about the Mosaic covenant; it’s about the law. So the London Baptist Confession’s removal of the phrase “as such” is simply a refusal to restrict the giving of the law to Moses to a rule of righteousness.

2. Conversely, the WCF does not allow for formal republication. Why did so many Westminster Divines hold views beyond material republication, then? We have to remember the context of the Westminster Confession. It was a government-ordered project. It was designed to be a public standard of preaching and teaching, not to be contradicted. It was not designed for some of the subscriptional standards used by Presbyterian denominations today. To argue that since certain divines held to formal republication (or other variants thereof), the confession must allow for those views, is anachronistic. They held contradictory views, but were not to publicly contradict the confession. In an age of ever-shifting government and an ever-shifting state church, one must be careful to take the context into account. In England, the WCF as we know it did not have the impact that it had in Scotland because its final approved form had to please an Independent-controlled Parliament. The answer to the diversity of the views of the divines is not necessarily that “they must all fit within the confession because it was a consensus document.” This is especially true when many Westminster divines would gladly use the magistrate to punish those whom they deemed heretics (as they did). The London Baptist confession assigns the promotion of peace and justice as well as lawful war-waging to the civil magistrate. But the Westminster Confession assigned further powers of suppressing blasphemies, heresies, and reforming the worship of the church. Keep that in mind.

See also:
https://pettyfrance.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/confessional-subscription-and-the-westminster-assembly/
https://pettyfrance.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/the-textual-history-of-the-westminster-confession-of-faith/

3. Behind all of this is the Subservient Covenant, from John Cameron to Samuel Bolton to John Owen to the Particular Baptists. But that’s another story (and perhaps a dissertation…).

More on this here: http://contrast2.wordpress.com/2010/09/05/wcfsdflbc-19-12-and-republication/