Finding the Richest Confessional Treasure

Founders Journal · Summer 2005 · pp. 1-3

Finding the Richest Confessional Treasure

Tom J. Nettles

The Baptists that exist today have a heritage of defining themselves by confessions of faith. Not only has definition been at stake, but the beauty and purity of the local church. At times, some Baptists mistook the principle of religious authority, or formal principle, residing in sola scriptura, for the material principle of doctrinal definition. Definition arises from authority; authority remains a mere abstraction unless definition proceeds from it. Definition fritters away into vapor unless it reflects, fosters and fertilizes reality.

Notice that I said “Baptists that exist today” have the confessional heritage. “That is not so,” some would argue, and their statement would seem historically plausible. Numerous examples they would cite of those that sought to maintain Baptist life without confessions. I would counter, “Those groups ceased to exist and for the most part have no true historical heirs.” Each generation gives rise to reconstructed ideological heirs but they soon cease to be Baptist, or even Christian. They leave behind them only documents of dissent from truth but fail to perpetuate a viable Baptist witness into future generations.

Graveyards of non-confessionalists form a stern silhouette on the Baptist horizon. For example, a controversy over the Trinity and the deity of Christ in 1719 led to a meeting in Salters Hall in London. Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Baptists met together to give advice to the churches of Devonshire and Somerset over this controversy. Thirty-nine of the 110 ministers who met were Baptists. When one group suggested that a composite confessional statement serve as a test of orthodoxy, others objected. Among those advocating non-subscription to the confessional test were fourteen General Baptists and two Particular Baptists. The Baptists that advocated subscription included fourteen Particular Baptists and one General Baptist.

John Gale expressed the opinion of the non-subscribers when he preached, “Away then with all human forms and compositions, with all decrees and determinations of councils and synods, with all confessions and subscriptions; …let every pious Christian embrace and subscribe only that most valuable form of sound words contain’d in the scriptures.” No evangelical Christian disagrees with the desire to have every doctrine supported by the clear words of Scripture. To assert that desire accompanied by a denigration of the value of confessions, however, often cloaks a disbelief of vital doctrine more than it affirms a belief of Scripture.

Joseph Stennet, though not at the Salters Hall meeting, knew of the controversy and its outcome. In 1738, he spoke for the subscribers when he argued that Scripture warranted “us to make a public and explicite confession, as proper occasion offers of every doctrine which we believe to be contained in the word of God.” Without such a confession, separation from the ranks of heresy is impossible. He observed that the non-subscribers of twenty years earlier had degenerated to the point that they no longer held to the uniqueness of divine revelation but subjected it to the “light of nature.” By 1812, Joseph Ivimey observed that the churches of the non-subscribers at Salters Hall had all become either extinct or Socinian.

The authoritative revelation, therefore, invites, even requires, that its adherents confess their understanding of its teaching and their heartfelt joy in submission to its truths. The question naturally emerges as to what confession most clearly, fully, and accurately expresses the whole of this divine revelation. This issue of the Founders Journal investigates the usefulness of two highly influential confessions in Baptist history, the New Hampshire Confession (NHC) and the Second London Confession (SLC).

The viewpoints expressed here come from brethren that are like-minded on a large number of important issues concerning doctrine, preaching, holiness and church reform. Not only are they like-minded, they all are deeply involved in doing something about it. Likewise, this discussion does not call into question the confessional heritage of Baptists. All agree with both confessions discussed here and agree that the use of a confession is good for the churches. We are back, therefore, to the question proposed above: “What confession most clearly, fully and accurately expresses the whole of this divine revelation?” We also are dealing with a subsidiary question of a more pragmatic nature: “What confession serves the church in achieving the goals of spiritual unity and growth in the truth?”

This discussion was prompted by an article by Shawn Wright on the 9Marks website in which he advocated the NHC and argued that the SLC did not serve these purposes as well. Mark Dever, along with Wright a firm believer in the SLC, defends the position that Wright has taken. As many know, Dever has several years of meaningful church reform using the NHC. His experience illustrates the usefulness of a confessional approach and specifically the success with which the NHC can be employed. Likewise, Sam Waldron argues for the superior usefulness of the SLC and has both current and past experience to add strength to his position. Sam also has written a very helpful book entitled A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith published by Evangelical Press. As an illustration of the doctrinal power of the details of the SLC, Phil Newton provides an excellent doctrinal and pastorally sensitive exposition of three paragraphs of Chapter 8 “Of Christ the Mediator” from that confession. Tom Ascol adds his approval of the SLC by showing its usefulness in reforming an existing church in the SBC.

Sometimes a confession must be changed by enlargement, clarification, or deletion. Since the SLC was written (1677/89) before the hyper-Calvinist controversy (1707ff) and the beginning of the modern missions movement (1792), it has nothing that addresses directly those issues in Baptist thought. Chapter 20 “Of the Gospel, and of the extent of the Grace thereof” offers the greatest possibility for addressing the subject. As it is, it represents an original attempt on the part of the Particular Baptists to speak to the relation of gospel proclamation and God’s purpose for all the nations. The Westminster Confession contains no such chapter. We present, therefore, a suggested enlargement of that article along with the rationale and principles that governed the enlargements and other amendments.

The Second London Confession will be referred to from time to time as the SLC, the 1689 and the 2LC.

We pray that God will prompt each reader to embrace truth as his personal stewardship and in so doing will investigate how the responsible use of a historic confession can help fulfill the Bible’s mandate to “hold fast the form of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13).