The discussion of the differences between Baptist and Reformed theology is a sensitive but important question. Thus, I think I should explain why I am writing this series. In my experience, some Baptists, especially those who identify with the Particular Baptist tradition, have something of a persecution complex. Why they should relate to the world this way is hard to explain since, in America, they are one of the dominant religious groups and they wield enormous social and religious influence. There are, after all, something on the order of 60 million evangelicals in North America, the vast majority of which are Baptistic in theology, piety, and practice. Of them, nominally about 14 million are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. In contrast, there are probably no more than 500,000 confessional Presbyterian and Reformed Christians in North America. Why would Baptists insist on identifying with a marginal minority in North America.
As a matter of history, if any tradition might be justified in having a persecution complex it would be the orthodox Reformed. No religious group, not even the Anabaptists, suffered as much as the Reformed. Under Philip II of Spain, more than 10,000 Reformed folk (including Arminius’ family) were murdered during the Spanish persecution of the Netherlands. The Huguenots were murdered by the tens of thousands in France during the week of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. The Baptists in England suffered no more than the rest of the dissenters so why the persecution complex? My theory is that they have an ambivalent relationship with the Anabaptists, who were persecuted—about 3,000 Anabaptists were murdered by Protestant and Roman civil authorities over about a century’s times from the early 16th century to the early 17th century. In the New World, the orthodox Reformed have been stripped of their institutions and their religious influence—the claims of some in the PCA notwithstanding.
Nevertheless, at once my Particular Baptist friends object vociferously that they bear no relation whatever to the Anabaptists, that they are descended from the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists—nevermind the rather obvious family resemblance between the Anabaptist reading of redemptive history (they both deny the Reformed doctrine of continuity of the covenant of grace) and the Anabaptist view and practice of the sacrament (they both deny the validity of infant baptism). From where did the General Baptists learn their view of redemptive history and the sacraments? From the Dutch Mennonites, who are Anabaptists. From where did the Particular Baptists learn their denial of the continuity of the covenant of grace? It was not from the Anglicans nor from the Congregationalists or Presbyterians. Yet, when I engage with the Baptists (especially the Particular Baptists) one of them inevitably complains that I am persecuting them just as the Reformed persecuted the Anabaptists as if reading and responding to Particular Baptist sources and writers is just like arresting and drowning the so-called Spiritual Brothers in Zürich.
The comparison and contrast which I am making in this series, which I began with a review of Hercules Collins’ revision (someone else might characterize it as an attempted hijacking) of the Heidelberg Catechism, needs to be done for a couple of reasons. First, historical facts matter. In order to understand ourselves and each other we need a clear view of our past. This is what historians do for a living: investigate and clarify the past. Second, definitions and identities matter. As much as conservative religious communities complain about the vicious effects of identity politics on modern life, we can hardly turn around and practice a form of identity politics ourselves. There is a certain relationship between signs (e.g., words) and the things they signify (res ipsa or res significata). The nominalist view is that the relation is entirely arbitrary, a construct as the deconstructionists have taught us all to say. The realist view is that there is a genuine relation between words and things. The traditional Christian view is closer to the realist view. Obviously the relations between some signs (e.g., an octagonal stop sign) and things (stopping) are social constructs. A stop sign could be orange and round but there is a real relation between the word male and the biological reality signified by that word. A nurse (as I heard yesterday) who encouraged parents of newborns not to “assign” a sex to their child at birth is quite insane and should be removed from the medical profession and hospitalized for examination.
So it is with the relationship between the sign Reformed and the thing signified. Does it refer simultaneously to the orthodox Reformed view, a view that sees the Abrahamic covenant as one of several administrations of the covenant of grace, and to a view of redemptive history, as is claimed by some Particular Baptists, wherein the Abrahamic covenant is regarded as a covenant of works? How could that be? Any Dispensationalist who announced, “I am Reformed and I hold that national, ethnic Israel is the center of God’s redemptive plan and there are seven distinct Dispensations in redemptive history with multiple ways of salvation” would be laughed out of court. Why? Because it would be immediately obvious that such a view is utterly incompatible with the historic and confessional understanding of the history of salvation. After all, the first move of the Reformed in Zürich in 1523–24 was to affirm, against the Anabaptists, the continuity of the covenant of grace in multiple administrations. The first Reformed monograph on covenant theology in the sixteenth century was a work by Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) arguing for one covenant of grace in multiple administrations. The contemporary argument between the Reformed and the Baptists on this point is identical to the argument that Zwingli, Bullinger, and later Calvin carried on against the Anabaptists.
Any view that regards the Abrahamic covenant as a covenant of works and not as a covenant of grace is just as antithetical to Reformed theology as anything any Dispensationalist ever taught. Indeed, Progressive Dispensationalism is arguably closer to Reformed theology than the view that treats Abraham (and the rest of the administrations of the covenant of grace) as a covenant of works.
Let us take a more difficult question: what about that Baptist position that holds that there is but one covenant of grace variously administered but that new covenant is quantitatively different from the previous administrations of the covenant of grace? This is more difficult because the differences are less obvious. Here the differences are more subterranean. In this view, the Abrahamic covenant is not openly discarded as a covenant of works but, as in every Baptist view with which I am familiar, the Abrahamic covenant is subsumed under the Mosaic so that when the Mosaic (Old) covenant is said to have expired, the Abrahamic is also said to have expired. This approach has a long history in the Particular Baptist movement. The view we saw in Hercules Collins might fit well under this heading. Still, this approach is incongruous with an and even at odds with the Reformed view because effectively or practically orphans the new covenant. In the first, which I have called the radical view, the covenant of grace does not exist until the new covenant. In the second, more moderate view, the covenant of grace is admitted to exist under the types and shadows but the new covenant is considered dramatically different.
Under some sort of realistic relationship between signs and things signified, the difference between the two Baptist views and the Reformed are significant. Baptists do not hesitate to call themselves Reformed but I am unaware of any confessional Reformed church or parachurch organization that identifies itself as Presbyterian Baptist or Dutch Reformed Baptist. Everyone with any sense would know immediately that such a monster cannot exist. My Baptist friends would be the first of object: “Hold on there. We practice believer’s baptism only. You do not. You may not baptize infants and call yourself a Baptist. Why that makes no sense.” Of course our Baptist objector would be perfectly correct.
The Two Documents In View
The Westminster Confession of Faith was drafted by the order of Parliament by an assembly of theologians from England and Scotland. The first project was to revise the Articles of Religion of the Church of England. When the Scots delegates arrived, however, that project collapsed and the Assembly set out to compose a new confession and catechisms. Together they are known as the Westminster Standards. The Assembly began its work in 1643 and the last sitting committee concluded its work in 1652. The Assembly was composed of Anglicans, i.e., Reformed theologians who held an Episcopal church polity, Presbyterians, i.e., those who favor the government of the church by elders, and Independents or Congregationalists, i.e., those who held to a fairly democratic idea of church government. Indeed, church government was one of the bigger and more lengthy debates conducted during the Assembly. Though it was the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland that actually adopted the Standards, in the end, the English Presbyterians mostly melted back into the Church of England. It was the Scots who were the de iure divino Presbyterians at Westminster. The Assembly presented to Parliament their first version of the Confession in 1646 and then added proof texts in 1647 and presented it to Parliament. The Confession was not actually approved by Parliament until 1648. Thus, one sees the Confession (hereafter WCF) dated variously in 1646, 1647, and 1648. It can be quite confusing.
The Second London Confession (hereafter 2LC) is called such because it first appear in 1677, 33 years after the London Baptist Confession (1644). That document is, frankly, interesting but odd. Remember, when it appeared the Westminster Assembly was in the midst of its work. The 2CL appeared in two editions, 1677 and 1689. The latter is the version to which most Particular Baptists subscribe. According to Jim Renihan, its historical roots are murky. He writes, “it is impossible to determine precisely the origins of the Second London Confession.” According to Renihan, the supposition that the 2LC originated at The Petty Church around August 26, 1677 is probably accurate. The two pastors of that congregation, in 1677, were Nehemiah Coxe (†1689) and William Collins (†1702).
As mentioned, as dissenters, the Baptists suffered under the Great Ejection of 1662. As Jim Dennison observes in his introduction to the London Baptist Confession (1677; vol. 4 of his 16th and 17th Century Reformed Confessions, 531), with the Act of Toleration (1689), after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Baptists were free to worship publicly again. In September, 1689 William Kiffin (†1701), Hanserd Knollys (†1691), Benjamin Keach (†c. 1704) et al. met to revise and affirm the 1677 version of the 2LC.
That Dennison, Presbyterian, includes the 2CL (and other Baptist documents) in his collection under the supposition that it was merely the WCF “baptized” (ibid., 531) and that Renihan, a Particular Baptist, includes the WCF, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the Heidelberg Catechism in his volume, True Confessions: Baptist Documents in the Reformed Family (Owensboro, KY: RBAP, 2004) further testifies to the need to achieve clarity on the relations between the Particular Baptist and Reformed confessions.
It is certainly true that the 2LC revised the WCF under the influence of the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration (1658), which itself was a revision of the WCF. What remains to be seen, however, is the nature of those revisions both on the surface and below it.
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