Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Introduction
I was introduced to the Reformed faith and (more particularly) to the Westminster Standards in college. I learned in seminary, to my delight, that there was a “Baptist version”: namely, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. To make a long story short, I eventually moved to Grand Rapids where I joined a Reformed Baptist congregation and completed my seminary training under the mentorship of pastors who affirmed the 1689 to be “an excellent, though not inspired, expression of the teaching of the Word of God.”
I still share that perspective. I’m zealous for the truths contained in the Confession.1 I believe it’s possible, nonetheless, to make a good thing better. Over three hundred years have passed since the Confession was written. We live in another time and a different culture. The church of Christ faces new controversies and challenges. Other evangelical bodies have responded to some of these controversies and challenges at a creedal or confessional level. In doing so, those evangelical churches, denominations, or organizations are closer to the historic faith and practice of Christianity than what’s reflected in our Confession at those points. In my opinion, we should follow our non-1689 brothers in these areas.
I believe it’s time to update and improve our Puritan Confession. I’m using the term “Puritan” here in its broader usage, which is inclusive of the Particular Baptists. In this sense, it refers to English Protestants who identified themselves with the Reformed tradition and who dissented to varying degrees from the theology and practice of the Church of England. Sometimes the term “Puritan” is used in a more restricted sense to refer to those who remained officially part of or connected to the Church of England while also advocating reform. Some Independents and Baptists might be excluded from this narrower definition.)) Its language is outdated. It fails to address some important issues relevant to our day. And a few of its doctrinal formulations need refinement, to enhance clarity and remove unwarranted or inaccurate statements. I don’t advocate major changes. A revised confession should still reflect Reformed theology and Baptist polity. But the kind of revision I propose should result in greater intelligibility, relevancy, and precision.
Some may interpret any criticism of the 1689 as disrespect for or a lack of commitment to the Confession. I would urge my readers to think otherwise. I still affirm the 1689 to be an “excellent, though not inspired, expression of the teaching of the Word of God.” I’m zealous for the truths contained in the Confession. I’m simply proposing that we who love the 1689 take a good thing and make it even better.
I don’t understand how any subscriber to the 1689 could disagree in principle since that’s precisely what our Particular Baptist forefathers did with respect to the Savoy Declaration and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Moreover, a call for confessional revision need not be interpreted as un-Reformed since it’s simply an application of the Reformation principle of semper reformanda. R. Scott Clark, whose commitment to the Reformed faith is unquestioned, agrees. He observes,
From the perspective of classic Reformed orthodoxy, writing a new Reformed confession that is consistent with the spirit and intent of the earlier Reformed confession but that speaks to the issues that have arisen since the seventeenth century, issues to which the Reformed churches should properly speak, is the Reformed thing to do (emphasis added).2
Accordingly, this proposal is an attempt to do “the Reformed thing.” In part one, I’ll attempt to identify some areas where I think the 1689 Confession needs to be updated and revised.3 Along the way, I’ll identify some non-1689 doctrinal standards or confessional affirmations that address important issues that our Confession (as it presently stands) either fails to address at all or fails to addresses adequately.
Second, I’ll offer some reasons why I believe such revisions are important. I don’t believe a church’s confession should be revised unless there are good reasons for doing so.4
In the third place, I’ll address some potential obstacles to a revision of the Confession. I find it remarkable that Reformed Baptist churches are still using as their official confession a document over three hundred years old in light of the need to communicate God’s truth in modern English and in light of the Spirit’s ongoing work of illuminating the church. There are, however, certain factors that have contributed to a reluctant and/or resistant posture toward the prospect of updating and revising of the Confession.
Fourth, I’ll try to answer common objections to revising the Confession. A good number of Reformed Baptist pastors and theologians believe we should leave the Confession alone. And they frequently posit reasons against revision. While some of these objections may have a degree of merit, I haven’t found any of them sufficiently cogent to discredit the wisdom of revising our Confession.
I’ll end the series of posts with some concluding reflections.
For those who’d like to navigate to particular parts of the series, I’m including a “table of contents” with links below:
Part 1: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Introduction
Part 2: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Modern English
Part 3: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Adding Important Doctrinal Affirmations
Part 4: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Affirming Inerrancy
Part 5: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Affirming Marriage and the Roles of Men and Women
Part 6: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Affirming the Church’s Mission to the World
Part 7: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Affirming Common Grace and the Sincere Offer
Part 8: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Removing Unwarranted Teaching
Part 9: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Refining “God without Passions”
Part 10: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Refining the Regulative Principle of Worship
Part 11: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Refining Sabbath Observance
Part 12: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Applying Sola Scriptura
Part 13: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Reformed and Relevant
Part 14: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Toward a Humble Orthodoxy
Part 15: Obstacles to Updating and Refining the 1689 Confession: Strict Subscription
Part 16: Obstacles to Updating and Refining the 1689 Confession: Subtle Traditionalism
Part 17: Updating and Refining the 1689 Baptist Confession: Answers to Common Objections
- See my recent series on “The Validity & Value of Confessions.” [↩]
- Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008), 181. Clark is in agreement with R. B. Kuiper who eighty years earlier wrote: “When our Reformed forefathers wrote the Confessions, they intended that these documents should be revised from time to time with a view to heresies that might in the future arise, and in accordance with the additional light on the truths of Scripture which the Holy Spirit might be pleased to give the church. I believe that the time has come for us to do something along this line.” As to Being Reformed (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1926), 66, cited in Clark, 180-81. John Murray, Kuiper’s colleague, highly esteemed the Reformed creeds but also affirmed the need for occasional revision: “However, architectonic may be the systematic construction of any one generation or group of generations, there always remains the need for correction and reconstruction so that the structure may be brought into closer approximation to the Scripture and the reproduction be a more faithful transcript or reflection of the heavenly exemplar” The Covenant of Grace (1953; repr. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1988), 5. [↩]
- For an argument for the modernization of the English of the Confession, click here. For an introductory statement on the need for new doctrinal statements to address important issues in our day, click here. [↩]
- I agree with Robert Martin’s remarks: “Periodically it may be necessary to revise the great confessions of faith. We should not, however, revise them at every whim or with every change of theological fashion. These documents were not the productions of haste and they should not be revised in haste.” From his introductory essay in Samuel Waldron’s A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 2nd edition (Durham, U.K.: Evangelical Press, 1995), 21. [↩]