1689 Vs. The Westminster Confession (2): Nature, Grace, and Revelation

Since I first indicated that I intended to do this series, I have been challenged repeatedly by Baptist correspondents to justify the legitimacy and necessity of the series. Some have insisted, nay, demanded that I abandon the project as worthless. More than one writer has suggested that the differences between the Baptists and the Reformed are insignificant. They are in good company. My friend Matt Barrett recently remarked, as part of his case for recovering the Great Christian Tradition and along with it doctrinal unity:

…unity must be planted within the life-giving soil of Nicene orthodoxy. Evangelicals will be relieved to learn that they may already exist within denominations that were originally embedded within that Nicene soil. Lutheran and Reformed confessions, for example, affirmed the Nicene Creed without nuance and without hesitation. Baptists are not without a heritage either: seventeenth-century Baptists assembled to adopt a confession that mimicked the Westminster Confession, taking exception to secondary loci such as baptism, as to be expected.

Barrett, who writes from within the Baptist tradition, speaks for a number of people when he characterizes baptism as a “secondary” topic but he does not speak for the Reformed churches when he writes thus. For us, the “pure administration” (Belgic Confession art. 29) is one of the three marks of the true church and our theology, piety, and practice of the sacraments are integrally related to our hermeneutic, our interpretation of the history of redemptive history (i.e., our covenant theology), our doctrine of the church, and our eschatology. Indeed, he was invoking the Nicene Creed relative to the doctrines of God and Christ but as William Duncan notes, the Nicene also confesses a doctrine of the visible church and sacraments. We believe a “holy catholic church” and “baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

Further, in Heidelberg 22 we confess that all the articles “of our undoubted holy catholic faith” are essential. The Reformed churches were still explaining those articles when (e.g., Heidelberg 65-80) they were confessing their doctrine of the church and sacraments.

I suspect that there are more than a few Baptists who would agree with me that Baptism is not a “secondary” locus since many of them would not accept me as a baptized person—which is sort of the point of being a Baptist, is it not? Had the 1644, 1677, and 1689 Baptists been content with the validity of infant baptism, we would not be having this conversation, would we? The question is how the two traditions arrived at their varying conclusions?

Some correspondents have taken the series as an insult to Baptists. I mean nothing of the sort. My project is to help my Baptist friends to recover their own unique heritage and identity. We might say that this project is aimed at MBGA: Making Baptists Great Again. That is to say, Baptists need not cloak themselves in the Reformed tradition to be legitimate. They are legitimate in their own right. Let the Baptists be Baptists and the Reformed be Reformed and let us, as Mike Horton has written (borrowing from C. S. Lewis) meet in the hallway or on the village green.

As we begin to compare and contrast the two confessions representing what I contend are two distinct—if related—traditions, we start where the respective confessions begin: with the doctrine of revelation.



1. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. 1. The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving Knowledge, Faith and Obedience; Although the light of Nature, and the works of Creation and Providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and His will, which is necessary unto Salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that His will unto his Church; and afterward for the better preserving, and propagating of the Truth, and for the more sure Establishment, and Comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the World, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of Gods revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

In Jim Renihan’s presentation of the 2LC and the WFC (and the Savoy), there is—in the Savoy and the 2LC—an obvious gap beneath where the WCF has its clauses about natural revelation. The 2LC begins with Holy Scripture. The WCF begins with natural revelation echoing the classical Reformed consensus that God has revealed himself in nature so that all humans are without excuse before God. Only then did the Westminster Divines turn to special revelation. The 2LC begins with special revelation. Following the Savoy, the 2LC postpones natural revelation until after special revelation. Both the 2LC and WCF say the same thing but they say them differently.

What does the reversal in the order of teaching tell us? Perhaps not much. After all, the Belgic Confession (1561) begins with the existence and nature of God. In art. 2, however, when it turns to revelation, it begins with natural revelation. In this the Belgic followed the French Confession (1559). Further, the Geneva Confession of 1536 has no article or section on natural revelation and there is no section or article on natural revelation in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566).

Still, to the degree that the Baptist divines who framed the 2LC were (following Savoy) revising the WCF we may wonder whether there is a message in the reversal of natural and special revelation. It may not be possible to know with certainty the significance of this revision. Were the Congregationalists in 1658 sending a message? Perhaps. One of the areas of tension between the Presbyterians and Anglicans, on the one side, and the Congregationalists on the other was the degree to which we may expect to achieve a pure congregation in this life. This gets to eschatology, broadly the relations between heaven and earth. The Congregationalists rejected the status quo in favor of “gathered churches.” They wanted Reformation and a pure church now. The Baptists continued that trajectory (and turned it up to 11, as it were) by rejecting the reading of redemptive history shared by the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and the Congregationalists. The Baptists sequestered the covenant of grace entirely to the New Covenant.

Nevertheless, for all their appeals to John Owen (who explored all three polities but who settled on the congregational way) as a precursor to the Baptists or a de facto Baptist, he was, in fact, Reformed in his reading of redemptive history as volume 1 of his Hebrews commentary shows. Baptist appeals to Owen’s Hebrews commentary (e.g., on Hebrews ch. 8) work only if we ignore the distinction he himself made between Moses and Abraham and pretend that he treated Abraham as though he were Moses. So, if it is true that the Congregationalists had a more realized eschatology than the Presbyterians and Anglicans, they did not arrive where the Baptists had got by 1644 et seq.

Behind eschatology or correlated to it are the relations of nature (e.g., creation) and grace (e.g., redemption). My thesis is that the Baptists share with the Anabaptists not only a similar approach to the reading of redemptive history (i.e., the denial of one covenant of grace, multiple administrations) and a more highly realized eschatology, but also a similar view of nature and grace. It may be that the Baptists followed the Congregationalists in this article but that they did it for different reasons. For the Anabaptists, according to the Reformed analysis, grace destroys nature. The classic Reformed view is that grace “perfects” nature. It is formally similar to Aquinas’ view, though materially different in some important respects. For the Reformed, nature per se is good (not concupiscent) and does not need to be “redeemed.” Of course, fallen human nature needs to be redeemed and perfected (sanctified and glorified) but it is not said to be destroyed by grace. As we continue our survey in future essays let us keep an eye out for the way the two traditions speak about nature and grace.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. The term “Reformed Baptist” really doesn’t make any sense because they were not “formed’ until the 17th century. They would be better described as Anti-Arminian Baptists. Also, I find it comical when a baptistic person calls baptism a second tier doctrine when the make baptism the primary distinction in the naming of their Churches. Barrett should probably not use the Nicene Creed as standard of orthodoxy and then in his very next breath claim one of its truths we confess to be secondary.

    • William,

      I appreciate esp. your point re the Nicene Creed. I suspect that Matt was thinking of the creed relative to its doctrines of God and Christ but it also has a doctrine of the church and sacraments. “Baptized for the forgiveness of sins” is just as essential as “I believe in one God…”.

  2. Dr Clark, I’ve wondering this for awhile and I’m not sure how to answer it. Are congregationalists like Edwards et al truly Reformed? Unlike the Reformed and Presbyterian denominations, they reject the use of synod’s and councils as binding on local churches as I understand it. Congregationalists do agree with us on baptism but they disagree with us with regards to church government alongside the Baptists. If baptism separates the Reformed and Baptist traditions, why not church government?

    • Great question and it’s one that I have as well. The Congregationalists intentionally changed the Savoy regarding the Covenant and Ecclesiology. Why did they do this? If the Particular Baptists are not ‘Reformed’ because of differences regarding the reading of redemptive history and ecclesiology, then should the Congregationalists (Owen, Goodwin, Nye, Cotton, etc.) be regarded as truly ‘Reformed’? They had their own unique reading of redemptive history that led to their distinctive ecclesiology (the Congregational way).

      • Spencer,

        The Congregationalists had a more highly realized eschatology than that other dissenting group, the Presbyterians and a more highly realized eschatology than the Anglicans/Episcopalians but the fact is that there were no Baptists at Dort (and even had there been Particular Baptists in 1618 they would not have been admitted to Synod) and there were no Particular Baptists at the Westminster Assembly but there were Congregationalists at Dort (as observers) and at Westminster.

        It has been argued that the URCNA polity (in which I am a minister) is quasi-Congregational. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate but we do say that a connectional polity is of the “well being” (bene esse) of the church and not of the being (esse) of the church. Many of our founding congregations were independent after they left the CRC and before they united to form the URCNA and I doubt that they had an over-realized or even highly realized eschatology.

        So, neither history nor logic sustains your attempt to bootstrap the Baptists to the Congregationalists and thereby squeeze them into the Westminster Assembly or into the Reformed tent.

        My explanation works better to explain what actually happened.

    • Ryan,

      See my response to Spencer.

      FWIW, Edwards is a hard case for a lot of reasons and probably not a good test for those reasons. E.g., he served a Presbyterian congregation in NY (where he introduced hymn singing; his doctrine of God is heterodox and his doctrine of justification is highly suspect).

    • Dr. Clark,

      I appreciate your response. I agree that Baptists are not properly ‘Reformed’ (if by that we mean subscription to the WCF or 3 Forms). My question is about why the Congregationalists are accepted as ‘Reformed’ when on important issues (for example, the definition of the visible church) they intentionally distinguished themselves from the Confession put forth by the Westminster Assembly? Can an Anglican who believes the 39 Articles, the Prayer Book, and the Homilies truly be considered ‘Reformed’? Since there were members from the Church of England at Dort, I am assuming they were considered ‘Reformed’ Christians. And yet, confessional Anglicanism has a different rule of worship from the Reformed tradition. Perhaps I am wrong, but I would argue that Anglicans are not properly part of the Reformed & Presbyterian tradition. Anglicanism is a distinct tradition from the P&R tradition. Similarly, I wonder whether or not Congregationalism is a distinct tradition from the P&R tradition?

      • Spencer,

        It’s true that most Anglicans, especially since the 17th century (but more than a few before and during) have not held the Reformed rule of worship BUT when the Assembly adopted the Directory for Public Worship (in 1644) the Anglicans presented agreed to it. I’ve argued that Anglican Articles present a challenge in re the rule of worship but Calvin seems to have regarded the sixteenth-century C of E as (at least broadly) Reformed. I think he hoped for a further Reformation (contra those Anglicans who want to remake Calvin into an Anglican).

        Are you assuming that the homilies and a prayerbook is a disqualification for being Reformed. Calvin published set prayers and the Reformed have long had written sermons on hand to be used by ruling elders in the absence of a minister. Neither of those practices is a disqualification.

        Rejecting the continuity of the covenant of grace (or even its presence in the types and shadows) is a rejection of a fundamental article of the Reformed confession. The continuity of the covenant the substance of the covenant of grace (in multiple administrations or accidents) is a sine qua non of the Reformed confession. Prayerbooks, homilies etc do not rise to the same level.

        No, Episcopalians are not Presbyterian but as I keep pointing out, Reformed and Presbyterian are not exact synonyms. Historical facts matter. When the English Reformed were confronted with the Particular Baptist churches in the 1640s, they denounced them as Anabaptist. Crawford Gribben argues that Owen softened toward them but he might be the exception that tests the rule.

    • Dr. Clark,

      I should have been clearer. Having the Prayer Book and Homilies is not a disqualification from being ‘Reformed’. My intention was to say that confessional Anglicanism is a distinct tradition from the P&R tradition. Though Anglicans agree with the Reformed tradition on the continuity of the covenant of grace and its presence during the OT, my argument is that they represent a distinct historical and theological tradition. Though they have historical (and theological) connections to the Reformed tradition, over time Anglicanism gradually developed into a distinct expression of broad Reformed Protestantism with a distinctive liturgy (not strictly RPW) and a retention of episcopal polity.

      Similarly, though Congregationalism shares many historical and theological similarities to the P&R tradition, the Congregationalists tradition developed a distinctive confession that changed the language regarding the covenant of grace and their own distinctive ecclesiology. If Particular Baptists shouldn’t claim John Owen as one of their own, then should the P&R tradition claim Owen as part of the ‘Reformed’ tradition? Could John Owen or Thomas Goodwin (with their distinctive ecclesiological commitments) be ordained in a confessional Presbyterian body? If not, then should be they properly be considered ‘Reformed’?

      Thanks for the discussion.

      • Spencer,

        The question Particular Baptists should ask themselves is this:

        Why weren’t any of the framers of the 1644 London Confession invited to the Westminster Assembly but Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians were?

        You can (implicitly) complain that their priorities were wrong but doesn’t that illustrate the dichotomy between, on the one side, those who hold to the continuity of the covenant of grace (and implicitly the continuity of the church since the time of the Apostles) and, on the other side, the Baptists who deny the continuity of the covenant of grace (and implicitly the continuity of the church since the Apostles)?

        These are just “theological similarities.” These are essential commitments.

        We’re not Baptists and the gulf between the one group and the other is greater than many of us realize.

        Hence the series.

    • Dr. Clark,

      That’s a valid point and question. The group that we now identify as Particular Baptists were relatively new (having origins in 1630s), numerically small, and theologically suspect because of their baptismal doctrine. Again, my argument is not that Baptists are properly ‘Reformed’ (or that they should have been allowed at the Westminster Assembly). Also, I likewise have concerns about the way that some Particular Baptists describe the covenant of grace and its presence in the Old Testament. My argument is about applying the same standard to the Congregationalists like Owen and Goodwin. Even Carl Trueman in the past has argued that Owen’s theology pushes in a Baptistic direction. This doesn’t mean that Owen was a Baptist or that he denied paedobaptism. But it might mean that its more precise to say that Owen was a theologian the Congregationalist tradition rather than the strictly Reformed or Presbyterian tradition.

      It’s true that during the Westminster Assembly the Particular Baptists were not invited. But it is also true that in the 1650s the Particular Baptists were not simply tolerated but welcomed into the ecclesiological and political life of the Cromwellian establishment. Parliament had resolved that ‘True Reformed, Protestant, Christian Religion… and no other, shall be asserted and maintained, as the publick Profession of these Nations.” And yet, baptistic men like Henry Jessey, Henry Lawrence, William Kiffin, and John Tombes were not regarded as outsiders to this establishment. Some served as triers and ejectors in the Cromwell church. So, while it is entirely appropriate to ask the question about why the Particular Baptists were not present at the Westminster Assembly. It is also appropriate to ask why they were welcomed into the established religious life under Cromwell in the 1650s. No doubt, part of this is due to Baptist involvement in the New Model Army. But it is interesting that for some reason the Particular Baptists were seen as within the broad pale of the “True Reformed, Protestant, Christian religion”.

      • Spencer,

        We need to distinguish between is/was and ought. The latter is not a historical category.

        I’m trying to help you understand the differences between the paedo-continuity group (if you will) and the Baptist group. The former read Scripture in a significantly different way. The 17th-century Reformed, in different polities, all saw that.

        You want to use polity as a lever to break apart the Reformed consensus. You’re entitled to your opinion that polity is so important that it makes unity on hermeneutics and the history of redemption less significant but the fact is that the Reformed have always disagreed.

        The polity in Heidelberg and Zurich were both mixed. The polity in Zurich was quasi-episcopal. They didn’t have a strong presbyterial system. Indeed, arguably, they didn’t adhere to the RPW (contrary to the typical story) the way the rest of the Reformed did. Who doubts that Zurich or Strasbourg were Reformed? Ditto for Basel. Buyer’s approach to the RPW was problematic but not widely accepted by the Reformed until the mid-20th century and after.

        In Heidelberg they had a “superintendent” of the churches which was a quasi-episcopal but one could hardly say that therefore Heidelberg wasn’t Reformed. Indeed, there are varieties within Reformed polity (e.g., the differences between the Europeans and the Scots Presbyterians). As I keep noting, most of the English Presbyterians at Westminster melted quietly back into the C of E after the Assembly, after 1662. Did that make them no longer Reformed? No one at the time thought so.

        Calvin treated Cranmer as Reformed. He was more aligned with Zurich than Geneva but the Articles of Religion are (imperfectly) Reformed. They aren’t Lutheran and they aren’t Roman and they aren’t Anabaptist.

        It’s not just that the Particular Baptists weren’t invited. They were denounced as Anabaptists. That’s a fact. It’s not a mystery as to why they weren’t invited, whatever their relations to Cromwell. I have Baptist friends. Were I forming an army I would probably invite some of the, to join me but our theological differences remain profound. After all, they regard all those of us who were baptized as infants as unbaptized and thus outside the visible church. The Belgic Confession denounced the Anabaptists for holding what we know as the Baptist view of Baptism. They don’t practice the pure administration of the sacraments, which is one of the three marks of the church.

        I don’t think you can use Cromwell to leverage the Baptists into the Reformed churches in the face of the clear testimony of the Reformed churches (as institutions) to the contrary.

        As to Owen, I disagree a little with Carl. I don’t think Owen was saying anything very deviant re the Mosaic covenant. All he was saying is that Moses works for Christ.

    • Dr. Clark, you wrote this: “It has been argued that the URCNA polity (in which I am a minister) is quasi-Congregational. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate but we do say that a connectional polity is of the “well being” (bene esse) of the church and not of the being (esse) of the church.”

      Something to consider: Abraham Kuyper was regarded, in my view correctly so, as a “small-c Congregationalist” or as a “crypto-Congregationalist.” That’s not a new position. It’s what I was taught at Calvin Seminary by people who said that’s a problem with Kuyper and was his improper overreaction to his abuse at the hands of the Hervormde Kerk (the state church). The Calvin Seminary professors who addressed Kuyper’s position typically said Kuyper had overcompensated and had failed to account for the fact that the Synod of Dordt, and the regional synods and classes, were willing to depose Remonstrants from the ministry, and that Kuyper had failed to take into account the position of the conservatives in the early days of Dutch Reformed ecclesiastical development.

      However, Kuyper was obviously welcomed into fellowship with the Princeton theologians, and gave his famous lecture series there, in the era when Princeton was the most prominent conservative Reformed seminary in the Northern Presbyterian mainline tradition. He was certainly regarded as a brother in the Reformed faith. But the founders of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church didn’t seek to join the Christian Reformed Church when they were thrown out by the Northern Presbyterians. Perhaps at first that could have been due to the presence of the group that later became the Bible Presbyterians who believed the Dutch were a “foreign influence” at Westminster Seminary, and also due to litigation over church property in which a change of confessions, given the legal standards in effect at that time, would have made it difficult if not impossible for the seceding Presbyterian churches to claim they were the legitimate heirs of the people who had paid to build the church buildings.

      But why, once it became clear by the mid-to-late 1940s that the OPC was going to remain a very small group, did the OPC not join the CRC? And why did (most) of the churches that left the CRC decide to create the URCNA and not join the OPC? It’s not as if many OPC men, including some of the most prominent men in the OPC with decades of history of close ties with the Dutch Reformed, had not extended invitations over and over and over again for those who seceded from the CRC to join the OPC.

      I sat listening to debates in the ARC and early URC days where things were said about Presbyterianism that go far beyond merely “unkind” or “misunderstandings.” There are real and serious differences in church government between the Dutch Reformed tradition and the Presbyterian tradition.

      I do not dispute that there are URC ministers who could subscribe to WCF 31:2, which reads as follows: “It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word.”

      At least among the people I knew who were the key movers in the 1990s in founding the URC, I do not think I am being unfair in saying that language would have been widely criticized as “synodocracy.”

      The Three Forms of Unity are largely silent on matters of church government beyond the local church elders. WCF 31:2 is not silent, but quite clear.

      Not only did I sit at ARC and early URC meetings, I sat at meeting of the Orthodox Presbyterian General Assembly when prominent OPC ministers were expressing serious concern that the CRC seceders were moving in a non-Reformed and Congregational direction. Other prominent URC men, among them GI Williamson who had spent years working among the Dutch Reformed, stood up and in response said, essentially, “These men are Reformed, they are merely returning to their own tradition, which is not the same as ours.”

      I think that sentiment is a fair expression of the older conservative Presbyterian attitude toward the Dutch Reformed — close to us, and brothers in the Reformed faith, but not the same.

    • This is a serious typo: “Other prominent URC men, among them GI Williamson who had spent years working among the Dutch Reformed…”

      I hope it is obvious that I know Rev. GI Williamson was attending the OPC General Assembly as an OPC minister, not a URC minister. The URC didn’t even yet exist when Rev. Williamson made the comments to which I am referring, and the churches that were seceding from the CRC were still generally known as “Independent Reformed” within the umbrella of the Alliance of Reformed Churches.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    I’ve enjoyed this discussion. You’ve given me lots to think about. I think I understand where you are coming from. The variety of polity found in the Reformed churches in the past is interesting.

    You mentioned that the gulf that separates the Baptists from the Reformed is greater than we might have imagined. Do you think that the gulf that separates the Savoy from the WCF (or 3 Forms) could be greater than imagined as well?

    Don’t hesitate to ask your Baptist friends to join your army. As long as you feed us and there is plenty of water!

  4. “I suspect that there are more than a few Baptists who would agree with me that Baptism is not a “secondary” locus since many of them would not accept me as a baptized person—which is sort of the point of being a Baptist, is it not?”

    A hearty Amen!!! From this Sovereign Grace Baptist…These Baptists you mention need to go back to school and take Baptist Theology 101.

  5. Having been raised a Baptist and baptized as a Baptist, I am sure that baptism is not a secondary issue. It is clear from the Second London Confession that it is not since it is an ordinance of the Lord Jesus. Any Baptist who considers it secondary needs to think again. As for the way the Second London Confession opens its treatment of Holy Scripture by noting the marks of Scripture, I believe they did so to address theological issues raised by Quakers and Rationalists in England in the mid-1600s. This is how I accounted for the difference approaches in Chapter 1 when I wrote my ThM thesis at WTS in 1980.

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