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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Inasmuch as words do convey real meaning, let me register one complaint with the terms employed above. As “mad” as sex-binary denial appears to be, maintaining such by an otherwise functioning adult is evidence of ideological dominance over one’s thinking rather than evidence of “insanity.”
OK, I realize also that the ability to recognize rhetorical flair is part of the duty of the receiver in a communication loop; but recommending institutionalization for ideologues is also page out of the totalitarian playbook. “Have the wrong ideology? We have places for people like you.” The mental hospital has been used, along with GULAG and reeducation camps, as “alternatives” to openly brutal suppression or criminalization of dissent. Seems like the therapeutic option, but it masks a mailed fist.
Why not just say plainly: that the medical profession and its clients are are dangerously served by people who view their job location as the ideal place for proselytizing? In which case, we can also criticize (and accept the same criticism as appropriate) those who mistake their workplace for a place to proselytize for Christianity. Whereas, we might reasonably protest those who suggest (even in jest) that pushy if sincere Christians are the ones who need locking up.
Just a thought.
I think that most LGBTQ folk suffer from mental illness to one degree or another. It may be madness brought on by ideology but typically these are folk who have suffered sexual abuse or some other serious trauma and their illness has been aided and abetted by cultural insanity. So, my use of those categories isn’t hyperbole. I may be wrong but my experience tells me that people who are mentally well don’t become LGBTQ, esp. B, T, & Q.
Is it correct to say that PB covenant theology employs a retroactive approach. My understanding of what they are saying is that Adam and all of the elect before the cross were saved by their faith in the “promise” of Christ and his future work. Those saved after Christ’s ascension of Christ are saved by faith in the “completion” of his work. Thus, they only see that work revealed in the New Covenant which they place under the heading of Covenant of Grace not in any other Covenant previously revealed. Therefor they might say that the New Covenant was revealed to Adam and received by faith but not Cain and so forth. and thus, both Reformed and PB can both say Adam was saved by the Covenant of Grace. Am I off the mark here?
Assuming that by PB you mean Particular Baptist I have argued that for them, the covenant of grace, is prospective from the perspective of the types and shadows. It isn’t really present in the types and shadows and so believers under the types and shadows are anticipating the covenant of grace (which they identify completely with the new covenant). They may be said, for the Baptist, to have the covenant of grace/new covenant by anticipation but it’s not really there.
This is a problem with the PB view, from the Reformed perspective. In either version of the PB view, the covenant of grace isn’t really present in the types and shadows. Some are clearer than others about that. The “radical” view, which is gaining traction among PBs, flatly denies the presence of the covenant of grace in the types and shadows. The moderate PB view wants to affirm it but it makes such a quantitative distinction it becomes practically a qualitative distinction between the New Covenant and the types and shadows. This is why PB moderates are becoming PB radicals.
This is why I’ve been using the Lutheran prepositions, “in, with, and under” to try to communicate the Reformed view. Check out the resources where we link to those essays.
The Reformed view is that there is always been one covenant of grace in multiple administrations. This is something that Baptists can’t say or at least not the way we say and intend it.
The PBs, such as Pascal Denault, are adamantly opposed to the Reformed view of continuity between the old and new covenant. They insist that only the new covenant is the covenant of grace and therefore didn’t exist before the crucifixion of Christ. So there was no administration of it in the religious practices of Israel. (They vaguely suggest that some people under the old covenant somehow anticipated a future salvation, but how they could do that with no administration of it is a perplexing mystery!) The new covenant, in their view, is so radically different, that baptism cannot be a continuation of the covenant sign that God made with Abraham. They see the bloody sacrifices and circumcision, not as sign of God’s grace that would be realized by the shedding of blood by the promised One, but of obligation to keep the law. Baptism, in their view, is the unique sign of the covenant of grace that only came into existence after the crucifixion of Christ. That allows them to insist that the sign of this covenant be completely different. It doesn’t apply to you and your children like the sign of circumcision given to Abraham, but only to those deemed to be true believers. One of the reasons they have made such an issue of this, is to preserve the distinctiveness of Baptist hermeneutics and practice.
Thank you Angela.
Would you please throw in a translation and definition for ‘ res ipsa or res significata’?
res ipsa = the thing itself.
res significata = the thing signified.
I read this with interest: “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 is redemptive history with multiple ways of salvation” would be laughed out of court.”
Dr. Clark, I don’t think I am the only person who will read that and be surprised. I know several people who fit that description, identify as five-pointers, and who say, “I’d probably call myself ‘Reformed’ if it weren’t for the fact that Reformed Baptists have a bad history of going into unsuspecting Baptist churches and sowing discord by not being honest and up front about their Calvinism.”
I also know several four-pointers who are quite emphatically dispensationalist, though in the case of the four-pointers, they understand they are not fully Reformed, don’t use that term, and because almost nobody in the modern evangelical world understands what an “Amyraldian” is, they identify as “four-pointers” and say things like this: “Calvin was right about most things except about Israel and about limited atonement.”
To be clear, I’m not agreeing about the claims of deception. I have never seen that kind of deception — the “Reformed” or “Particular” Baptists who I know are NOTHING if not quite strongly emphatic about what they believe — but there is a perception among non-Reformed people in the broadly evangelical world that the self-identified “Reformed Baptist” movement wins by not being clear up front about what they believe, getting calls to churches, and only then teaching the doctrines of grace. That “perception of deception” is the root of a lot of fights in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Furthermore, the “perception of deception” is causing a problem for Reformed people who are **NOT** Baptists — I have to deal with evangelicals not just locally but in important statewide political positions who know me as a conservative evangelical, don’t know where I attend church, and are surprised when they find out I am Reformed. Too often, they quickly launch into a tirade about how “Reformed people come into unsuspecting churches and cause splits and divisions by not being up-front about what they believe.” I have had to say numerous times things like this: “You like Francis Schaeffer, right? You like D. James Kennedy, right? Why are you blaming me for believing what they believed?” The usual response is something like this: “They were honest about being Calvinists. Everybody knew it. These Reformed Baptists are not.” But again, I just do not see the “deception” for which I hear self-identified Reformed Baptists being blamed. It doesn’t describe any of the self-identified Reformed Baptists I know — the people I know are the sort of people who wear T-shirts saying “Calvin is my homeboy” and put “Doctrines of Grace” memes all over their Facebook pages, and who are much more emphatic than me about their beliefs.
Dr. Clark, I understand your concern about precision in theological definition. I get it, as I learned decades ago in the CRC fights, that “he who defines, wins.”
But I really wonder if the battle has already been lost.
What I hear, at least in my (admittedly narrow) circles of the Bible Belt in the Ozarks, is that the phrase “I’m a Calvinist” or “I’m Reformed” means “I believe the five points of Calvinism.” Now granted, there almost no NAPARC churches in this entire region of Missouri, and virtually everyone who affirms any form of the doctrines of grace practices believers baptism rather than infant baptism. Maybe the word “Reformed” is used more carefully in places where there are a significant number of churches that affirm the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity.
But I just don’t see that around here. There aren’t a lot of people promoting “Calvinism” or “being Reformed” around here, but virtually all of those who are doing that are some type of Baptist, whether independent Baptist, Southern Baptist, or a nondenominational church thar doesn’t call itself Baptist but practices believers baptism.
You raise some scary points! That “virtually all of those” who “promote ‘Calvinism’ or ‘being Reformed’” in your area are some type of Baptist. It is as if the meaning of what it is to be Reformed has been supplanted by a Baptist view of redemptive history and practice, so that a hybrid is developing which has adopted the Reformed doctrines of grace as long as you confine them to a covenant of grace that only exists since the crucifixion of Christ, and maintain Baptist practice. The distinctive heart of what it means to be Reformed, that the covenant of grace begins with the good news delivered to Adam and exists under different administrations, throughout the history of God’s people, is being lost.
I think that’s a fair point, Angela.
I am not trying to attack faithful Reformed men in the PCA who are working hard to plant confessionally Reformed churches that are Reformed in actual faith and practice, not just the name on the church sign. Even less am I trying to attack faithful Reformed men in the more conservative Reformed denominations who are not only planting confessionally Reformed churches but have the backing of their denomination to keep the local church they are planting Reformed in both theory and actual fact. Many of those men are working in small churches with small budgets and trying to be faithful with very limited resources.
But I live in Missouri, and not in one of the bigger cities that the PCA likes (St. Louis, for example) but rural Missouri where confessional Presbyterianism, if it ever existed, has been virtually dead for well over a century. In my county, way back in the early 1800s when the county was first settled, one of the earliest major landowners and political leaders was a Southern Presbyterian, organized a church, got permission to meet in the county courthouse (at that time, one of the few public buildings in the county large enough to have a significant congregation), rode on horseback hundreds of miles all over the place trying to convince a Presbyterian minister to come to the church he had started and which he was leading as a lay elder, but couldn’t get any pastors to come except for Methodists, so finally the church agreed to become Methodist so they could have a pastor. That story could be repeated all over rural America.
Fast-forwarding to the modern day, the problems of the PCA’s Missouri Presbytery are well known, but they go far beyond Revoice. I have direct firsthand knowledge of problems the PCA has been causing that go back decades, and from what I’ve been learning of Southern Presbyterian history, the problems long predate the PCA. This part of the country was more fundamental than Reformed for a very, very, very long time even back in the PCUS era. There are reasons why, when the large majority of members of the PC(USA)’s John Calvin Presbytery, under the leadership of some large conservative churches in the Ozarks, finally left the PC(USA) a few years ago, they went into the ECO and not the PCA.
When confessionally Reformed denominations don’t do their jobs, I don’t think we should be surprised when “five point Baptists,” or “Particular Baptists,” or “Reformed Baptists,” or whatever other term gets used, step up to do the job that others don’t or won’t or can’t do.
I’m not going to get rebaptized and I drive well over an hour to church, right past churches pastored by several men I know and like who preach sovereign grace, because I can’t join their churches without being rebaptized. Before I moved to this community, I drove nearly two hours to an OPC until it closed, and then drove over two hours to a different OPC in a different state, despite the fact that I was within walking distance of a Southern Baptist church whose pastor preached sovereign grace and probably a ten minute drive away from a church whose pastor and elders were self-identified Reformed Baptists.
That’s the reality of living in large parts of rural America where the Reformed faith is unknown, or very unusual.
Most people won’t drive that kind of distance, and I understand that, and while I don’t agree with their decisions to attend Baptist or baptistic churches, it’s pretty hard to blame people for not driving an hour or more to church when there are no options closer to them that will accept their infant baptism.
WCF contains Presbyterian government and infant baptism.
Savoy contains Congragational government and infant baptism.
2 London contains Congragational government and credo baptism.
In the history of the church, what confession contains Presbyterian government and credo baptism?
There were Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians at Westminster. They argued about polity for months. Where did they confess Presbyterian polity?
After the Assembly most of the English Presbyterians returned to the C of E.
Dr. Clark, I don’t mean to be obtuse here, but I honestly don’t see how you can say that the Westminster Confession of Faith doesn’t make the core principles of Presbyterianism a confessional issue. That’s why the New England Congregationalists in the Cambridge Synod, which was called (among other things) to respond to the Westminster Assembly, took formal exceptions to a number of points of the WCF.
It’s also why I can’t subscribe to the Westminster Standards but had no problem working in a Three Forms of Unity context, and did so for many years, and twice subscribed via the Form of Subscription. The Congregationalists in the Netherlands in the Puritan era didn’t think the Dutch system of government they saw in the 1600s was ideal but didn’t have a serious problem with it, and more importantly, they recognized that the Belgic Confession’s statements on church government were broadly worded enough that a Congregationalist could subscribe in good conscience.
Presbyterians make some things a confessional matter which the Dutch Reformed standards leave open. As you know, Dr. Clark, most matters of church polity in the Dutch Reformed world are considered matters of church order, not confessional matters, and that has led, historically speaking, to a very wide variety of views on the relationship of the local consistory to classis and to synod.
Now if your point is that the details of Presbyterian polity are not in the WCF, we certainly agree. But it’s not possible to subscribe to the WCF and support Congregational views of church polity, at least not without taking exceptions that no presbytery would (or at least should) allow in a Presbyterian denomination that cares about confessional integrity.
FYI, I made that last point abundantly clear on a number of occasions when people in the OPC in the 1990s, and more recently in the PCA, were trying to get me to join their denomination, not as a private member but as a man they were trying to recruit to the ordained ministry to serve specific small churches that were struggling to survive. (Both OPC congregations are now dead and have been for decades; the PCA church eventually was able to call a pastor and still exists though it’s struggling.) The OPC leaders involved, when I explained the issues, immediately understood why I could not serve in office in the OPC and thanked me for my honesty. The PCA people didn’t understand at all, and I was in the strange situation of trying to explain to several local pastors and a pretty important PCA denominational official what their own confession said and why I should be barred not only from the pastorate but also from local eldership. Back then I was polite to the PCA people, and when they told me there were all kinds of people in the PCA who differed much more than me from the Westminster Standards, I told them I’m not going to say I subscribe to things I don’t believe. Today, in the wake of the Revoice debacle, I would be far less polite and far more blunt about what I think of the PCA’s willingness — or more properly, the willingness of certain problematic presbyteries — to ignore the plain text of their own denomination’s confessions.
There is no polity in the confession. During their deliberations the assembly did not reach a resolution. We know the points on which they reached a consensus because they confessed those points.
The Scots adopted the Confession and when they did so they expressed their understanding that it was Presbyterian but they had to do that because there is no affirmation of a particular polity in the document.
Dr. Clark, I think we’re using the word “polity” differently.
No Congregationalist should be subscribing to WCF 31:2, and for a Congregationalist to subscribe to WCF 31:1, it would have to be reinterpreted in ways that may be textually legitimate but are contrary to the original intent of the text’s authors.
While Congregationalists can and historically did convene extraordinary synods to deal with major problems that affected large numbers of churches, the last one was over a century and a half ago, and the last one that was called a “synod” rather than a “council” was in the 1700s. Congregationalists also continue to convene “ecclesiastical councils of the vicinage,” i.e., local councils of churches “in the vicinity” for specific matters such as examining candidates for ordination, organizing new churches, or resolving problems in churches. My licensure to preach back in the 1990s, for example, was granted by my local church following an examination by a council to which all the local conservative Congregational pastors were invited, along with several independent Reformed churches that had left the CRC or were in the process of doing so.
It’s probably not irrelevant that the examination procedure adopted by the Alliance of Reformed Churches a week after my examination looks very much like the procedure used at my examination, and some of the members of the committee that created that ARC examination procedure were at my examination. That’s fine under Dutch Reformed polity. It would not be fine under Presbyterian polity.
It’s important to note that the vicinage council didn’t make the decision to license me. The local church did, following advice of other churches, and that is a VERY important distinction. It also happens to be a distinction made even today in the URC with regard to licensure. Local churches license and may seek counsel of other churches, but are not required to do so.
None of those occasional assemblies of Congregational churches called for specific purposes have any authority, as WCF 31:2 states, “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.”
Other parts of the WCF are also problematic for those who affirm Congregational polity but these two sections are the most significant. They summarize important confessional principles underlying Presbyterian polity, and a Congregationalist who affirms them ought to have enough integrity to leave his Congregational church and join a presbytery. What has unfortunately happened, and happened way more times than I care to count, is that conservative Reformed men take calls to Congregational churches, claim not to have a problem with local elder rule in the local church (which is the norm in modern Reformed Congregational churches), but then complain about the church being “independent” and push the church toward joining a Presbyterian denomination. That simply lacks integrity. I’m not going to claim to believe things I don’t believe, and **DEFINITELY** will not subscribe to a confession with which I have fundamental disagreements.
The three main forms of church government — Congregational, Presbyterian and Episcopalian — all claim biblical support. To be fair, a case can be made from Scripture for all three, though I consider the case to be very weak that any presbytery or bishop/overseer was granted authority by Scripture over any church beyond the local church ruled by local elders.
The relevant WCF texts follow for those readers who may not have rapid access to them.
31:1. For the better government, and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called Synods or Councils; (Acts 15:2,4,6) and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies; (Acts 15) and to convene together in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church. (Acts 15:22–23,25)
31:2. 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. (Acts 15:15, 19, 24, 27–31, Acts 16:4, Matt. 18:17–20)
“Should” is not a historical word. The Congregational divines at Westminster were really and truly there. They had their say. Now, some of the divines at Savoy had been at Westminster and they were able to articulate their views with less compromise. See Robert S. Paul, The Assembly of the Lord: Poltiics and Religion in the Westminster Assembly and the ‘Grand Debate’” (1987) for an extensive survey of the polity debate at Westminster.
Fair enough, Dr. Clark — you’re pointing me to a book I have not read, and considering the 1987 date, I am quite surprised that nobody back in the 1990s pointed me to it when I was serving a Congregational church as a tentmaker while working at Christian Renewal, and was writing pretty extensively on church government, including editing and republishing a critical edition of the Cambridge Platform.
Here’s why I’m surprised. Back then, I was a member of the committee that ran the Congregational Studies Conference, whose members at the time included Dr. David Wells, author of “No Place for Truth; Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology,” and I was engaged in some pretty heated published polemics on polity with a number of OPC ministers. Not one mentioned the book you cite, though quite a few referred me to historic documents of the Westminster Assembly era, and I did read those documents. Not one OPC minister has ever made the claim to me that it’s possible to be a Congregationalist and subscribe to the Westminster Confession in good conscience, though a number of PCA ministers have tried to say that to me. Given what WCF 31:2 says, and the Cambridge Synod’s stated exceptions to it, it seems clear to me that the Dissenting Brethren at Westminster, and the New England Congregationalists, saw the WCF as being incompatible with their views on polity, though they did approve the Shorter Catechism.
Years ago, you told me on this blog that I need to read more and that’s a legitimate critique. You’re a seminary professor and reading books, writing books, and recommending books for others to read is a large part of your job. I will see if I can obtain a copy of the book you recommend, and if I can, I will put it on my list to read once I finish “The Divine Right of Church Government by Sundry Ministers of Christ within the City of London,” recently republished by Chris Coldwell’s Naphtali Press and Dr. Joel Beeke’s Reformation Heritage Books.
One thing I cannot be accused of doing is not taking Presbyterian polity claims seriously. I have a decades-long history on this issue. My life would be a lot easier if I could find biblical warrant for Presbyterian church government, but I just don’t see it. Dutch Reformed polity is a whole different issue, and I don’t have a problem with the principles of how URC polity operates.
I would like to find a denomination that embraces Presbyterian government and credo-baptism. My understanding of church history (at least in the West), these two doctrines do not exist together.
Dab: Why would you like to find that?
Dab, since you asked me, I’ll try to respond. I’m afraid I won’t be of any help if by “embraces Presbyterian government” you mean connectional polity above the level of the local elders. Perhaps there is a “Presbybaptist” denomination, but I’m not sure any such entity exists.
Granted, I’ve seen Baptist denominations act in some pretty highhanded ways that may exceed what a conservative Reformed or Presbyterian denomination would do to a local church the denominational leaders think is doing something wrong, but I am not aware that any denomination exists that is “Presbyterian,” as that term is traditionally understood, and also “embraces” (as opposed to tolerates) believer’s baptism. Most Presbyterian churches, and many though not all Dutch Reformed churches, will allow Baptists to join as private members, but they usually can’t teach or hold office. That is considerably more than most Baptist churches will do. While there are exceptions, the normal position of Baptist churches is that they won’t allow people to join unless they were baptized following profession of faith, and often they require not only baptism following profession but also baptism by full immersion as a condition of membership.
I’m hesitating a bit because I’ve learned from experience that sometimes what people mean by “Presbyterian” is not connectional church government and a gradated system of church courts (session-presbytery-synod/general assembly), but rather rule by elders in the local church.
If that’s what you mean by “Presbyterian,” it’s probably relevant that ruling elders were historically a part of not only the Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed understanding of church government, but it was also the Congregational and Particular Baptist understanding that local churches should be ruled by local elders. The 1648 Cambridge Platform is very clear that a Congregational church is to be ruled by elders, and specifies their qualifications and duties in great detail. I am less familiar with historical Baptist polity but my understanding is the same was historically true for most Baptists.
It is a peculiarity of the 1700s and 1800s that ruling elders died out in American Congregational and Baptist churches, leading to a wrongheaded view that the pastor should be a “single elder” with a board of deacons serving rather than ruling the church. That system is not biblical, and a matter of practicality, it simply doesn’t work.
The New England Puritans in the 1640s disliked the word “Independent,” which was commonly used by Puritans in England who didn’t support Presbyterian church government. They used the word “Congregational” instead, not to mean the church would be ruled by the congregation — that is **NOT** found in the Cambridge Platform — but that the local church elders didn’t answer to a presbytery or a bishop beyond the local congregation.
I’m guessing, Dab, that you already know all of this, but I know from experience that not everybody means the same thing by “Presbyterian,” and I also know that a significant number of Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed people do not know the history of elder rule in Congregational and Baptist churches. De facto “ruling deacons” have become so common in American evangelicalism that many people in the Reformed world are not aware of the older history of elder rule in a broader spectrum of churches.
Yes, I’m looking for a denomination that has Presbyterian form of government, as you describe: “connectional church government and a gradated system of church courts (session-presbytery-synod/general assembly).” I am well aware that “internal” Presbyterian government exists (i.e., rule by elders with no outside authority beyond the local congregation). And I want this polity coupled with credo-baptism. I believe the Presbyterian government is superior to Congregational, and I believe that credo-baptism is more in line with Scripture than infant baptism.
The funny thing for me is that in church history, what I have described doesn’t exist. As I said in an earlier post:
WCF contains Presbyterian government and infant baptism.
Savoy contains Congregational government and infant baptism.
2 London contains Congregational government and credo baptism.
In the history of the church, what confession contains Presbyterian government and credo baptism?
Thanks for your thoughts on historical Congregational government. Historically speaking, Congregational government covers are wide arrangement of polity (e.g., single pastor with deacons; no formal pastors; ruling elders; serving elders but majority rule by congregation; etc.) that is not Presbyterian, Episcopal, or Roman Catholic.
Once again, there is no explicit Presbyterian polity in the WCF. The Anglicans at Westminster weren’t Presbyterian. Most of the English Presbyterians at Westminster became Episcopalian after the Assembly. The Congregationalists at Westminster weren’t Presbyterian. The two non-Presby members didn’t agree to Presbyterian polity. Read Robert S. Paul, Assembly of the Lord.
Dab: The most ideal church polity can be and usually is corrupted by sinful men. Decisions based on what particular church polity a group has is bound to lead to disappointment.
Dr. Clark, will you also be addressing the appendix to the LBCF? I seem to remember they use Dr. lightfoot to explain away infant baptism, saying that Romans 4:11 is mistranslated or something. It’s been awhile, but that’s the gist of it.