Paul Helm Reviews On Being Reformed

Paul Helm has taught at the University of Liverpool (1964–93), was Professor of Kings College London (1993–2000), and held the J. I. Packer chair in theology at Regent College (2001–05). He was one of the first writers to critique the Calvin Versus the Calvinists approach to the history of Reformed theology (Calvin and the Calvinists, 1982) and is a distinguished writer in philosophy and theology. He has reviewed the new collaborative project organized by Crawford Gribben in which Darryl Hart, Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, and I also participated, On Being Reformed: Debates Over A Theological Identity. Read more about the book here. Here is an interview I did with Chris Gordon to discuss the book. Here is professor Helm’s review.

Five brief responses:

  1. He categorizes Clark and Hart as taking a “hard line” approach. This is the reviewer’s privilege but one cannot help but notice that he does not classify Gribben, Caughey, and Bingham as taking a “soft line” approach. Of course, being a so-called hard liner puts the confessionalist position at a rhetorical disavantage. It also illustrates the inadequacy of taxonomies like “conservative v. liberal.” They do not adequately describe or account for the participants in the debate. Gribben and Bingham belong to a distinct (Particular Baptist) confessional tradition. They are just as “hard line” about their tradition as Clark and Hart are about theirs. What we have are competing confessional positions and traditions.
  2. He laments that the “neo-Calvinism” of the Gospel Coalition, the Banner of Truth, and “Reformed Baptists” in the USA do not have a spokesman in the debate. Gribben and Bingham are familiar with the Particular Baptist churches and culture in North America and are fair representatives of that point of view. We might have invited a coalitional Calvinist to participate though the reader should be aware that “neo-Calvinist” and “New Calvinists” have different connotations. By etymology they are related by typically in Reformed circles “neo-Calvinist” refers to one of the schools of thought following Abraham Kuyper’s renewal and revision of Reformed theology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the Netherlands. “New Calvinism” describes the so-called “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement associated with the coalitional Calvinists.
  3. Helm’s claim that the Westminster Confession, the Savoy Declaration, and the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 “are substantially the same” is just what is at issue in the book. They are not and everyone in the 17th century knew it. That we have forgotten that fact says more about our grasp of what those churches were saying than it does about those churches and their confessions. The Westminster Standards and the Savoy are indeed substantially the same. They share the same covenant theology, the same reading of redemptive history, the same doctrinal convictions, and the same Reformed piety. However much the Particular Baptists of the period identified with aspects of the Reformed confession they simply did not accept substantial, even essential aspects of that confession. This is one reason why no one in the 17th century called Particular Baptists “Reformed.” Indeed, the plain fact is that even they did not call themselves Reformed. They knew better. They knew that they rejected the Reformed covenant theology, i.e., the Reformed reading of redemptive history. They did not see one covenant of grace with multiple administrations. Arguably, the leading Particular Baptists of the period, did not even see a covenant of grace in redemptive history until the New Covenant. That is no small matter. The Particular Baptists not only rejected the Reformed conclusions but they did not share the Reformed hermeneutic, i.e., the Reformed way of reading Scripture. This is an even more fundamental difference. Those who share the same basic approach to reading Scripture may differ in some points but they are likely to reach essentially the same conclusions because they are going at things the same way. Absent that shared method, there is no basis for unity. All that can be expected is some overlap (as in a Venn Diagram). Overlap does not a unity make.
  4. My third reply is closely related to the second. Helm writes, “I was reassured (but puzzled) by his [Clark’s] view that John Owen is regarded as a Reformed theologian.” I cannot see why this should puzzle anyone. The Reformed theologians during Owen’s life and after regarded him as a Reformed theologian. This is because he shared the Reformed hermeneutic (see above) and the Reformed reading of redemptive history. See volume 1 of his massive commentary on Hebrews. Particular Baptists can appeal to his comments on Hebrews 8 and elsewhere but removed from context of his introductory volume, those claims are misguided. Owen was (most of the time) a Congregationalist but so was Ames and no one doubts Ames’ Reformed credentials. Indeed, Ames, an English Congregationalist, is as responsible for Dutch Reformed theology, piety, and practice as any one else. Further, there were Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians at Dort and Westminster. They were all Reformed. Here I think it would really help readers to read Recovering the Reformed Confession before reading this volume, since the present volume is, in some ways, a response to or an argument resulting from RRC. All three polities at Dort and Westminster agreed on Reformed theology, piety (e.g., the principle of worship in the Directory), and practice even though they disagreed sharply on polity.
  5. Fourth, Helm seems to suggest that the “hardliners” are claiming that the confessions have never changed. This is puzzling since Hart and Clark freely admit that they have changed and for the better. What is at question is whether the rejection of the state-church by the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands, by American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, and by others—so it is grossly misleading to say, as Helm does, that the American constitution trumped the confessions—entails a substantial change in the confession. I argue that it does not. The 16th and 17th century Reformed churches might disagree with that revision but they would see the same hermeneutic, the same reading of redemptive history, the same doctrinal conclusions, the same piety, and practice confessed. It has to be shown and not just assumed that the revisions regarding the state church are of the essence of the confessions. The Reformed Churches have not seen it as a change in the substance of the Belgic Confession. On the revision of the Belgic see these articles. It has not been demonstrated.
  6. Finally, I am puzzled by Helm’s critique that the entire debate fails to “smell the coffee,” that in light of the state of the culture and the marginalization of Christianity, the participants are engaged in a less than useful debate. He writes, “At a time when the faith is increasingly under threat, and our family life as Christians is being undermined, and as there are various popular distortions as well as ancient heresies freely peddled, to have the strengthening of distinctive Christian fellowship is a traditional activity that should outweigh our marginal confessional differences.” The great difficulty of this complaint is that by this criteria, many of the Reformed confessions themselves should not have been written or published. The Spanish were seeking the murder Guy de Brès even as he was writing the Belgic Confession (1561) in hiding. The Westminster Confession was written during a bloody English Civil War, a war fueled by religion as much as anything else. This objection seems to me to be the definition of a non-starter. Let the reader be assured that the debate we are having is good-natured. Helm may not know that I worked and lived with Particular Baptist friends, students, colleagues for 20 years. They were warmly received by us and we by them. We can disagree and remain cordial and even pray together as I am off to do just now.

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  1. There is a connection between polity and covenant theology. Some Westminster Divines argued for presbyterian polity based on national Israel and covenantal continuity. To combat this argument, Congregationalists moved the covenant theology “needle” towards discontinuity. A Presbyterian response was that Congregationalists would lose paedo-baptism in that move. Particular Baptists indeed took that next step. I’d have to dig through the Westminster minutes but I remember reading an exchange to this effect. There is a sliding scale of polity from Presbyterian to Congregationalist to Baptist. Covenant theology follows that sliding scale. Thus I question the assertion that Westminster and Savoy have substantially the same covenant theology. A quick digital search in RRC for “savoy” turned up zero results. So by the “6 forms of unity” standard definition of Reformed, Owen is not Reformed. Just a suggestion as to where Helm is coming from.

    • Jordan,

      I didn’t do anything with the Savoy Declaration in RRC because, frankly, 1)-12 years ago it wasn’t on my radar. Further, I was aiming the book at the P&R world and none of them confess the Savoy. I teach in P&R seminary and we don’t confess the Savoy. Since that time, however, I’ve had opportunity to think about it a little more.

      The arguments at Westminster are interesting and illuminating about some potential differences but in terms of actual differences I should like to see some concrete evidence from Owen or from Savoy or from Ames or from any number of soundly Reformed congregationalists. There were Brownists, radical congregationalists whose eschatology was more realized and less realistic than, e.g., Ames’ eschatology. They were arguably on the way to becoming Baptists, since the Baptists did emerge from them (when they went to the NL and had contact with the Mennonites) but I don’t see anything in Owen or in the Savoy that isn’t substantially identical to what is in the WCF.

      Your penutlimate state is unsupported by your argument and, so far as I know now, difficult (if not impossible) to justify. Owen was with the Reformed on method, God, man, Christ, salvation, sacraments, eschatology (in which there was a range of views), on hermeneutics, on redemptive history, and on the sacraments. Where is the great dichotomy? How does one reasonably leap from possible outcomes, charges made during the most heated debates at the assembly, among some congregationalists to “Owen is not Reformed”? By what reasonable definition?

    • I don’t want to get into a polity debate on Dr. Clark’s website, but it’s key to recognize the difference between Brownists and Barrowists within Congregationalism of the 1600s.

      Barrowists held to a high doctrine of the eldership within the local church and a form of interchurch communion that would be recognizable to the Dutch Reformed views as being not that different from a “federation” — in fact, a fair number of English Congregationalists joined the “English Synod,” a classis of English-speaking churches in the Netherlands.

      By the time of the Westminster Assembly, and certainly by the time of the Savoy, Brownism had been thoroughly repudiated by Congregationalism. The Cambridge Platform of 1648 had already been written in New England and the Congregationalists of England showed no inclination toward the polity of Brown, who had years earlier rejoined the Church of England and was regarded as being an apostate.

      We can spend decades and even centuries debating whether the Congregationalists of the 1600s erred by the mid-1700s in raising the standards for the ruling eldership so high that the ruling elders died out until they began to reappear in the 1800s in local churches. Congregational historians of the late 1800s regarded the re-introduction of the ruling eldership in Congregationalism of their era as an unwarranted Presbyterian intrusion caused by the Plan of Union.

      But it’s beyond dispute that Congregationalists of the 1600s and the early 1700s had a form of government that included strong local elders, and in New England, had a level of connection between the churches that might be stronger than some of the looser bodies in modern American Presbyterianism.

    • Thank you, Dr. Clark.

      Back in the 1990s, I produced a critical edition of the 1648 Cambridge Platform which included a preface addressing the issue of the role of elders in local Congregational churches and the role of interchurch relations in Congregationalism among the expatriate English churches in the Netherlands and in New England during the 1600s, and how the practices changed in the 1700s, and then described how elders began to reappear in Congregational churches in the 1800s for several reasons, among them being that running a church via a congregational meeting simply doesn’t work. The Brownists found that out the hard way in the late 1500s and early 1600s — there were actually cases of people being excommunicated in a congregational meeting held after Sunday worship with little or no prior opportunity to prepare a defense, and no opportunity to appeal to a council of neighbor churches — but later Congregationalists forgot the lessons of the Brownist-Barrowist dispute until they had to re-learn the lessons all over again.

      I do not think it is unfair to say that much and perhaps most of what is called “congregational” describes modern Baptist churches and modern independent evangelical churches far better than it describes the form of government laid out in the Congregational confessions. You wouldn’t want to be blamed for what prevails in the Kirk of Scotland or the PC(USA) — if we want to understand a theological tradition, we need to look to its confessions and its history, not just current practice of the largest bodies that claim to have inherited a tradition they may have rejected in fact though not in name.

      Again, Dr. Clark, I know this is your page and I don’t mean to enter into a dispute on church government. I do want to say that you understand the importance of confessions, and just as you would (correctly) say that the Second London Baptist Confession needs to be evaluated based on its merits or demerits, the same applies to the Savoy Declaration with its appendix on church government, and more relevantly, to the Cambridge Platform which goes into far more detail than the Savoy on that topic.

      Confessions count, and much of what is called Congregationalism would be unrecognizable to the men who wrote the Congregational confessions.

      The same could be said of most modern Presbyterianism being unrecognizable to the Westminster Divines.

  2. One point of information. Mr Helm is wrong about the lack of presence of Lutherans in GB. There are two denominations. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of England which has 19 congregations and the Lutheran Church of Great Britian which has 11.

    I have not read this book but none the less i feel justified in asking the question.

    As i understand it your contention appears to me to be that the rejection of the state-church parts of the confessions does not entail a “substantial change in the confessions” that in fact the confessions after revision still maintain ” the same hermeneutic, the same reading of redemptive history, the same doctrinal conclusions, the same piety, and practice confessed” and that the state-church revisions “are not of the essence of the confession”.

    I can agree that the difference between 1788 and 1649 don’t affect the theology as you have laid out there but the difference in realities that these two documents espouse (imagine if the state-church parts were regularly appealed to and used by any government!!) is quite large such that to say there has been a “substantial change” is, if anything, an understatement.

    Surely it would be honest only to talk about confessing the reformed confessions of faith after 1788. To use the word reformed without qualification appears to me to be misleading.

    • John,

      I don’t quite understand your argument. Can you clarify by explaining concretely, from actual, historical or textual particulars how the revision (see linked articles) of Belgic art. 36 changes the substance of the confession?

      We confess the same view of Scripture, the same hermeneutic, the same doctrines of God, man, Christ, salvation, church, sacraments, the Christian life, and last things.

      We have never confessed that the confession is irreformable. Indeed, we confess sola scriptura. By revising our ethics vis a vis the state-church we are actually following our confession.

  3. In Andrew Thomson’s “The Life of Dr Owen” ( on page 76) he states in regards to Owen’s view of presbyterianism, “We do not attempt to measure the distance between these principles and the Presbyterianism of Owen’s day, or the diminished distance between them and the modified Presbyterianism of our own; but we state them, with one of Owen’s oldest biographers, as an evidence of his “healing temper in this matter;”

    Thomson is citing the anonymous author of Owen’s first memoir, “The same writer adds, in illustration of this healing temper, ‘I heard him say, before a person of quality and others, he could readily join with Presbytery as it was exercised in Scotland.'”

    How would you evaluate Thomson’s claim, and the alleged difference between English and Scottish Presbyterianism in Owen’s day?

    • Hi Cameron,

      Not sure how to evaluate this. Some (most?) of the English Presbyterians at Westminster later became Anglican, i.e., Episcopalian so the lines between them and Episcopacy seem to have been fluid. I know that Owen suffered a good deal for being a dissenter, which would have happened had he been Presbyterian. I would not be surprised were he amenable but I have not seen any evidence—which is not say that it does not exist—that he was open to Presbyterianism.

  4. At a very practical, personal level, I think that the problem with Baptists wanting to identify as Reformed is that it it is just so gosh, darn confusing, for ordinary lay people like myself.

    Some years ago the leadership of my Reformed church was taken over by proponents of the Federal Vision. They taught that we have all the benefits of being united to Christ in the ceremony of infant baptism and then it is up to us to maintain that relationship through doing our part, through faithfulness, so that we will be evaluated by God, at the final judgement, for our final salvation. This went on for years, and though it was eventually dealt with by our denomination issuing the nine points of pastoral advice against the Federal Vision, at the time I didn’t see any hope that this false teaching would be dealt with, so I left, and tried various Baptist churches. When I found a Baptist church that claimed to be Reformed, I thought I had found the perfect church, Reformed without the false teaching that we are saved through infant baptism, provided we do our part.

    One day, at a small group bible study, I made the comment that the covenant of grace unites all of Scripture, and that God has one people united by trusting in Christ, administered in types and shadows in the old covenant and administered without the types and shadows in the new covenant. I found out, in no uncertain terms, that that was not the correct, Baptist understanding of the Scripture, as far as the study leader was concerned. Yet I was sure that was how the Reformed confessions understand Scripture, so I started a study of my own, on covenant theology. In my Internet search, I stumbled across Dr. Clark’s series, I Will Be a God to You and to Your Children. What an eye opener that was for me. Baptists have a different understanding of how to understand the Scriptures because of a difference in understanding the covenants, of who the people of God are, and therefore they differ on who should be baptized. I felt that this was so different from the Reformed view, which I believe to be the correct understanding of Scripture, that in good conscience I could no longer agree with the Baptist understanding because it really was different from the Reformed understanding, and so now I identify as a member of my local Reformed church. I’m sure I am not the only one who has been confused by Baptists wanting to identify as Reformed. I’m baffled as to why they would want to.

    I still love the people of my former Baptist church as brothers and sisters in Christ, in so far as they trust in Christ alone for their right standing before God, but I think that as far as their understanding of Scripture, who the people of God are, and the sacrament of baptism they are just wrong and should stop identifying as Reformed because it is confusing people.

    • 1689 Federalism, as a recovery of the writings of contributors to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, is absolutely right to insist that the Baptist framers of their confessions posit an understanding of Scripture that is very different from the Reformed and Presbyterian understanding of one covenant of grace that unites all of Scripture. They insist that the covenant of grace only began with the fulfilment of the new covenant through the death and resurrection of Christ.

      In a revision of his book, Pascal Denault accuses the Reformed and Presbyterian understanding of one covenant of grace that unites all of Scripture. of leading to monocovenantalism and antinomianism through failing to see the proper law grace distinction! Whereas the Reformers saw the law grace distinction as two types of statements in Scripture, imperative statements of law that say, this is what Good requires, and indicative statements of grace that say, this is what God will do, or has done, for you to fulfill the requirements of the law, they see the Scriptures divided into an old covenant administration of law, with God’s people under an administration of law for earthly rewards, and only after the death and resurrection of Christ, a people under an administration of the covenant of grace in the new covenant. And they appeal to Jeremiah 31 as fully realized in the new covenant church, rather than the Abrahamic covenant, requiring regenerate membership only, which requires that only those who can provide a credible confession of faith may be initiated into the church.

      According to 1689 Federalism the law grace distinction is a division of the Scriptures into the old covenant\law administration up until the death and resurrection of Christ, which fulfilled the promise of the new covenant made between God the Father and God the Son in the eternal covenant of redemption, and not between Abraham and God, when God alone walked through the pieces promising to perform all the requirements of the broken covenant of works. They see the law\grace distinction as a division of the Scriptures with the covenant of grace not uniting Scripture, but only beginning after Christ fulfilled it by fulfilling His promise to the Father in the covenant of redemption, and not as the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham to make him the father of many nations, of those who share the faith of their father Abraham! That, in my understanding of the Reformed, is not what the Reformers taught nor what our Reformed confessions teach about how to understand the Scriptures. Yet these Baptists want to be called Reformed, claiming they are offering a theology which they believe is a better, more reformed, Reformed understanding of the Scriptures! Do they want to redefine the understanding of what it means to be Reformed?

  5. Bought a book titled Are Baptists Reformed? by Kenneth Goode. Himself a ‘Calvinist” Baptist, his answer is a clear no. Suggest finding it and reading it. According to Goode, three areas of disagreement are 1. disagreements in exegetical bibliology, 2. differences in ecclesiology, 3. differences in philosophy of history.

    • … not to mention other notable differences between the theology of the
      Classical Reformed and Particular Baptists such as …

      i Reformed use of Scripture ie good and necessary consequence, the Baptists
      Deny this, though if you read their writings you will see that what they do deny
      in theory they do put into practice in their writings! (Hermeneutics)

      ii the Baptists have a very different understanding of Covenant Theology with
      to much emphasis on the discontinuity of the Essence, form and administration
      (dare I say particulars) of the various Covenants, 1689 Federalism almost been
      akin to a type of proto-dispensationalism (or new covenant theology in the very
      least), and not enough on continuities.

      iii their use of and application of the law

      iv Ecclesiology as has been mentioned, including Worship.

      v their view of the State, Magistrate and its relationship to the Church.

      Just to name a few

  6. Thomas: How can one call himself a “Calvinist” and not be considered Reformed? I would say that Mr. Goode is neither or misunderstands Calvin or both.

  7. Thomas: Surely he doesn’t use parentheses when referring to himself as a Calvinist. Apparently he doesn’t grasp or accept the totality of Calvin’s theology.

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