Should you use the 1689 London Confession in your church?

Article
03.01.2010

Although the 1689 London Confession (also known as the Second London Confession [SLC] to distinguish it from the 1644, or First London Baptist Confession) is a wonderful statement of Calvinistic Baptist faith, it should not be used as a local church’s statement of faith. Three factors lead to this conclusion

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

First, like all historical documents, the SLC was written in a particular historical context. This context shows the need that Particular Baptists as a whole felt to issue the SLC. The SLC was intended to distance the Baptists from questionable groups and to show their orthodox Protestantism, vis-à-vis other Reformed Protestants. The “Puritan Revolution” in mid-17th century England had its religious expression in the Westminster Assembly. This Puritan group of divines was overwhelmingly Presbyterian in character (though there were a handful of Congregationalists in attendance), so the “standards” it produced —including the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF; issued in 1646)—were expressions of fundamental Puritan Presbyterianism.

The Puritan revolution failed. With the reign of King Charles II renewed persecution of Protestants began. Before toleration came with the “glorious revolution” of William and Mary in 1688 two other Protestant denominations issued very slightly-modified versions of the WCF. Their reasons for broadly reissuing the WCF were, first, to show their broad agreement with the WCF and, second, to distance themselves from emerging groups like the Quakers who were viewed by orthodox Protestants as holding aberrant doctrine. So the Congregationalists issued the Savoy Declaration in 1658 and the Particular Baptists composed the SLC in 1677. The SLC was issued anonymously in times of Protestant persecution and then with full denominational support after toleration came for Protestants in 1689. We must be aware of the SLC’s place in history, for this influenced its shape.

Of course, the SLC’s historical situation does not mean that the document itself is heretical or even useless for Christians today. That situation does help us, though, to understand the felt need of 17th century Particular Baptists to identify themselves doctrinally with other Protestants in the Reformed tradition. They succeeded from a denomination-perspective. But that does not mean that the SLC should be used as a local church statement of faith.

The SLC’s historical conditioning is also shown in its view of the Roman Catholic bishop of Rome, the pope. Pejorative references to the Catholic church were part and parcel of seventeenth-century Protestant polemic, but a local church would be wiser to restrain from using such violent language in our day. A church can—and should!—disagree with much Catholic theology without having to affirm that “the Pope of Rome” is “that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God; whom the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of his coming” (26.4).

PURPOSE OF LOCAL CHURCH STATEMENT’S OF FAITH

In the second place, churches must decide on the purpose of a local congregation’s statement of faith. Broadly, a local church’s confession needs to serve two functions. First, it must provide an outline of the church’s theology that will determine the contours of the church’s teaching and preaching ministries. In this way, it can serve as a teaching tool for the church members.

Second, it must also serve as a “hedge” that protects the congregation from false teachers and heresy. The confession therefore needs to be specific enough that it summarizes the doctrinal convictions of the congregation and protects them from error. The SLC certainly meets the second of these criteria, but it fails to meet the first because it is too specific, as we shall now see.

DOCTRINAL SPECIFICITY

The SLC is too doctrinally-specific in some places to serve as a local church’s statement of faith. Churches must decide how tightly to draw their theological boundaries, but I believe the SLC is too tight. The specifics of the following doctrines should not be something that stops believers from uniting with each other as members in a local church. 4.1 seems to require belief in a literal six-day creation. (God created “in the space of six days.”) Chapter 8 teaches that the death of Jesus Christ was specifically for the elect. (For example, 8.5: Christ purchased salvation “for all those whom the Father hath given unto him.”) Definite atonement seems to me to be both biblical and consistent with the other four major soteriological points of Calvinism, but it is also the most debated of the “five points.”

I do not think it is wise for a church to be specific in its statement of faith about a point of doctrine about which there has been much Reformed debate, historically and in the present. Better to have in your congregation those who vigorously adhere to the other four points of Calvinism but question the definiteness of Christ’s atonement than to limit membership to those who have concluded Christ’s death was only for the elect. Chapter 22 teaches a Sabbatarian view of the Lord’s Day, another point on which conservative Christians differ. (See 22.7-8.) Better, however, not to make such a debated point of practice a required belief for church membership (Col. 2:16).

The SLC, then, is a tremendous statement of historic Reformed (and, I think, biblical) doctrine. I recommend it highly as a guide for biblical doctrine. However, it was historically-conditioned in the seventeenth century and it contains too rigid a view of certain doctrines. For these reasons it should not be used as a local congregation’s statement of faith.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Richard P. Belcher and Anthony Mattia. A Discussion of the Seventeenth Century Particular Baptist Confessions of Faith. Southbridge, MA: Crowne Publications, 1990. Helpful discussion showing that the 1644 and 1689 Baptist Confessions of Faith agreed with each other theologically.

A. D. Gillette, ed. Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, 1707-1807. Springfield, MO: Particular Baptist Press, 2002. Many of the annual circular letters from the years 1774 to 1807 are expositions of various articles of the SLC.

W. Robert Godfrey. “Reformed Thought on the Extent of the Atonement.” Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1975): 133-71. Shows that many Reformed thinkers have questioned the “L” of the five points.

William L. Lumpkin. Baptist Confessions of Faith. Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1969. Contains historical background and the text of the SLC, as well as of numerous other Baptist confessions.

Samuel E. Waldron. A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press, 1989. A section by section exposition of the SLC from the pen of a very capable theologian.