Book Review: The Caffynite Controversy, by Clint Bass
You may have never heard of the “Caffynite Controversy,” but as Clint Bass shows in his recent book on the subject, this historical dispute has a great deal to teach modern pastors about the importance of confessionalism.
The Caffynite Controversy outlines the rise of anti-Trinitarianism among General Baptists in England from 1652 to 1740, focusing specifically on a Christological controversy in the Baptist General Assembly (an annual meeting of General Baptist congregations that bears some resemblance to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention). These Christological errors owe in large part to the influence of continental Anabaptists. A central figure in the controversy was Matthew Caffyn (1628–1714), whose doctrine of Christ and the Trinity pushed the boundaries, not only of Christian orthodoxy, but also of Baptist cooperation.
Caffyn argued that Christ did not receive his flesh, his human nature, from Mary. Rather, Christ’s human nature was “of heavenly origin” (92). This view, Bass shows, had much in common, and was perhaps owing in part to, the leading Anabaptist theologian, Menno Simons (1496–1561).
Caffyn’s heterodox views divided General Baptists, not only on the doctrinal question itself, but also on the need for a common confession. Increasingly, General Baptists were unwilling to use extra-biblical words to define their doctrine—a move that led to doctrinal minimalism and anti-confessionalism. General Baptists’ unwillingness to take a clear stance on Caffyn’s aberrant Christology led to disunity and an eventual breach in cooperation among many of the General Baptist congregations who rightly regarded Caffyn’s views as heretical. Their lack of confessional clarity was a sign of a waning orthodoxy that would prove fatal for General Baptists in the eighteenth century.
FOUR LESSONS FROM THE CAFFYNITE CONTROVERSY
One of the primary lessons of this controversy, which Bass makes clear in his book, is that confessionalism is critical to maintaining healthy churches. Bass demonstrates that confessionalism was an important aspect of early Baptist life. While Baptists have never thought that these statements of belief are infallible, they played an important function in the life of individual congregations and for broader association among churches. Confessions set the guardrails of belief, provided necessary theological unity to church membership and cooperation, and provided a means of affirming the truths they hold central to the Christian life. As the Caffynite controversy shows, confessions are crucial to having a thriving and gospel-confessing congregational church.
Second, confessional clarity is essential to the life of the church. Confessions provide Christians with a way to live honestly with one another. These confessions, or statements of faith, provide necessary doctrinal accountability, both in churches and other Christian institutions. As history has shown, anti-confessionalism is often paired with denials of central gospel truths. As Bass demonstrates in his book, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was often those who wanted to restrict doctrinal statements to biblical words only, or merely to Christian practices, who denied central affirmations of the faith. These Christians, whether they intended to or not, were able to conceal their heterodox beliefs in their refusal to affirm doctrinal confessions.
These attempts to be biblical, or more accurately biblicist, created doctrinal instability that eventually destroyed the gospel witness of the English General Baptists. Confessions thus allow Christians to explain what God has revealed in Scripture so that Christians can honestly confess to one another what they believe—or don’t believe—in order to worship and serve the Lord according to their consciences.
A third lesson from Bass’s book for churches is that the doctrine of the Trinity is central to Christian theology and to communion with God. As the Second London Baptist Confession (1677/89) declares, the Trinity is “the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him” (2.3).
Fourth, while the controversies change from age to age, the need for strong confessions of faith never does. At least in North America, the most urgent theological issues revolve around gender and sexuality. Our common confessions on these points prove vitally important.