Introduction to the 1689 Baptist Confession


1689 Icon Rev 12.18.14

An Introduction to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith

The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith has a story that ought to be told; it is both interesting and necessary to understand its content.  As with all stories, they are best told from the beginning, and so let’s begin there.  From the earliest times, believers have used succinct summarized statements to explain what they believe God has spoken, and when such a statement is accepted by a community of believers, it can be especially helpful to promote and preserve the truths of God’s Word.  Such statements take various forms, but we will focus on creeds and confessions.

Creeds and Confessions

The word ‘creed’ comes from the Latin word ‘credo,’ which means, I believe.  A creed is a formalized, succinct statement about what its author believes the Bible teaches.  Creeds are used to help remember and teach biblical truth, serving as a standard of doctrine by which to judge error, and are useful in the church for liturgical purposes.

A ‘confession of faith’ is simply an expanded creed that addresses a wider breadth of biblical doctrine.  The ancient creeds tend to deal with foundational doctrines of the Godhead and the nature of Christ, whereas, a confession of faith addresses additional doctrinal topics such as soteriology (salvation), ecclesiology (the church), eschatology (last things).

There are those that reject creeds and confessions.  You may hear such a person say something like, “no creed but the Bible.”  While that sounds nice, it is a misnomer; such a statement is, ironically, its own creed of sorts.  It is itself a statement of belief (credo).  It is hardly possible to explain the meaning of the Bible by only citing its exact words.  To explain the Bible’s meaning one must use additional words.  This is essentially what a creed or confession is; it is an interpretive statement and summary about the Bible’s meaning in a formalized manner that is accepted as true by a community of believers.   We do, of course, recognize that creeds and confessions are merely human documents capable of error, and are not to be considered inerrant.

There are, however, inspired creedal statements in the Bible.  For example, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 ESV) Here is a succinct and formalized statement—the characteristics of a creed.  In fact, this same inspired creed was used by Christ himself.  In Mark, we see: Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength “’   (Mark 12:29-30 ESV).  Jesus answered the question citing the inspired creed verbatim.

The New Testament also contains other such examples of succinct, formal, and summarized statements.  Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:16: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (ESV).  It is believed that this may have been a stanza from a hymn or some other formalized statement of belief used very early in the first century church.  Did you notice the words, “we confess” in the passage?  These are only a small sampling of the creeds found in the Bible.  Surely, if the Bible itself has creedal formulas, then the church is well justified to also use them.  It is the succinctness, formalization and precision of a creed or confession that makes it especially useful as an enduring statement of truth.  And history has shown that such formal, carefully articulated statements have helped the church to depose and remove from her midst the worst of heretics.

One of the oldest creeds in the church is the Apostle’s Creed.[1]  It was finalized in its present form around A.D. 200.  As time went on, this creed was expanded to deal with various controversies and heresies that arose.  As a result, the Apostle’s Creed of 111 words (in English) was expanded by the churches over a period of a few hundred years into a creed of 223 words (in English) called the Nicene Creed.  There was a sense of reverence and respect for the Apostle’s Creed that caused the churches to build upon it rather than start afresh.  And as we look at the 1689 Baptist Confession, we see that it also built upon prior confessions of faith, such as the 1646 London Baptist Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, and the Savoy Declaration of 1658.[2]

The History of the 1689 Confession

Having set the stage, we fast forward it about a thousand years and look at the circumstances surrounding the 1689 Baptist Confession.[3]  A tremendous strain had developed in England between the King Charles I and Parliament, and from 1629 to 1640 Charles I ruled essentially without Parliament.  But in 1640, the King was forced to call Parliament into session so he could request funds from Parliament for the king’s wars.  Parliament took advantage of this call to session and made itself independent of King Charles.  This led to a civil war between the forces of the Charles I and Parliament.  Eventually in 1646, Parliament forces under Oliver Cromwell arrested Charles I.  Parliament imprisoned and executed King Charles’ advisers, abolished all illegal courts, took charge of the country’s finances, and abolished the Church of England’s polity.[4]  Charles I was put on trial and found guilty of tyranny, and in 1649 Parliament beheaded Charles I.  This Parliament became known as the Long Parliament because they met from 1640 to 1660 with no king.  In 1660, Charles II was placed on the throne, and that began a difficult time for the Puritans.

The Westminster Confession of Faith

As a result of all this, the Church of England needed to be reorganized.  Parliament determined to call an assembly of Puritan pastors, called ‘divines’ for the purpose of reorganizing the church governmentally, liturgically, and doctrinally. Those meetings are referred to as the Westminster Assembly.  On June 12, 1643, Parliament passed an Act entitled: “An Ordinance of the Lords and Commons in Parliament for the calling of an Assembly of Divines and others, to be consulted with by Parliament for the setting of the Government and Liturgy of the Church of England, and clearing of the Doctrine of said Church from false aspersion and interpretations.”  

The Assembly, made up of English and Scottish Puritans, first met on July 1, 1643.  On December 4, 1646, the Westminster Confession of Faith was completed, though interestingly, Parliament sent it back asking for Scriptural references to be cited stating the “Assembly should attach their marginal notes, to prove every part of it by Scripture.” This was completed April 29, 1647.

On November 5, 1647, the Shorter Catechism was completed and presented to Parliament, and on April 14, 1648, the Larger Catechism was completed and presented to Parliament.  On March 22, 1648, Parliament met to consider their response to the Westminster Confession of Faith. It was accepted with a few changes regarding discipline.  Ultimately, however, it was not permanently adopted by the Church of England.

When we reflect upon the fact that this was a great time of political and religious turmoil, it is remarkable that you cannot see evidence of this in the Westminster Confession.  This assembly met for five years, six months and twenty-two days; they held one thousand, one hundred and sixty-three sessions.[5]  The Westminster Confession of Faith has thirty-three detailed chapters of doctrine, and along with its Shorter and Larger Catechism, it is a marvelous work of Reformed Theology.  It is specifically Presbyterian in church polity, covenant theology, and baptism (i.e. paedobaptism).  But, despite differences, much of its content is believed by Reformed churches.

The Congregationalists and Baptists in England

In the 1630’s to the 1640’s, Congregationalists and Baptists began to emerge from the Reformation in England.  As a result, into the 1640’s and 1650’s we see confessions of faith by the Congregationalists and the Baptists.

The First London Baptist Confession of 1646

In 1644, the Particular Baptists produced the First London Confession which was produced in part to distinguish the doctrine of the Particular Baptists from the General Baptists and the Anabaptists.  In 1646 it was expanded.  It was prepared by seven Particular Baptist churches in London, and it contains 52 articles of Calvinistic faith.  The title of the Confession shows that part of its aim was to show that the Particular Baptists were distinct from the Anabaptists: “A confession of faith of seven congregations or churches of Christ in London, which are commonly, but unjustly called Anabaptists; published for the vindication of the truth and information of the ignorant; likewise for the taking off those aspersions which are frequently, both in pulpit and print, unjustly cast upon them.  Printed at London,  Anno 1646.” This Confession was an important source used by the 1689 Baptist Confession.

The Savoy Declaration of Faith of 1658

In 1658, the Congregationalists adapted the Westminster Confession and entitled it the Savoy Declaration.  Philip Schaff states, “They [Congregationalists] agree substantially with the Westminster Confession, or the Calvinistic system of doctrine, but differ from Presbyterianism by rejecting the legislative and judicial authority of presbyteries and synods, and by maintaining the independence of the local churches.”[6]  Schaff states elsewhere, “The Savoy Declaration is merely a modification of the Westminster Confession to suit the Congregational polity.”[7]  The 1689 Confession appears to have primarily used the Savoy Declaration more so than the Westminster Confession as a source.  However, the 1689 Baptist Confession still substantially differs from the Savoy Declaration in areas.[8]

The Clarendon Code

In 1665, the last of a series of laws called the Clarendon Code was passed in England which ended religious toleration for all but the Anglicans.  As a result, Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists all suffered persecution during this time.

The 1677 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith

In 1677, William Collins and Nehemiah Coxe[9]  framed the 1677 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith.  William Collins was the pastor at Petty Free Church in England; he passed away in 1702.  Nehemiah Coxe was the co-pastor at Petty Free Church in England.  He was highly regarded, and skilled in Latin, Hebrew and Greek; he was also a physician.  He passed away in 1688.[10]

While the 1677 Baptist Confession did build upon the work of the 1646 London Baptist Confession, the Westminster Confession, and the Savoy Declaration, there are many areas where it varies from these confessions.  Along these lines, Samuel Waldron states, “But while the admiration of the Baptists for the Savoy Declaration and the Westminster is patent, there is also sufficient evidence that there was no slavish dependence upon these documents.”[11]

Act of Toleration

As mentioned above, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith was completed in 1677, but it was not widely promoted and distributed due to the persecution of the non-Anglican churches—resulting from the Clarendon Code.  Fortunately, on May 24, 1689, the Act of Tolerance was passed.  This Act allowed those whose consciences demanded to be independent of the Anglican, Church of England without facing legal prosecution.  As a result, within months, a meeting of Particular Baptist pastors from London and Wales was called.  The London General Assembly of the Particular Baptists adopted the 1677 London Baptist Confession.[12]  Here is the closing statement of the signatories dated in the year 1689:

We the MINISTERS, and MESSENGERS of, and concerned for upwards of, one hundred BAPTIZED CHURCHES, in England and Wales (denying Arminianism), being met together in London, from the third of the seventh month to the eleventh of the same, 1689, to consider of some things that might be for the glory of God, and the good of these congregations, have thought meet (for the satisfaction of all other Christians that differ from us in the point of Baptism) to recommend to their perusal the confession of our faith, which confession we own, as containing the doctrine of our faith and practice, and do desire that the members of our churches respectively do furnish themselves therewith.”

Significance of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith

William Lumpkin states of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith: “Intended as an apologetic and educative instrument, the Confession became one of the most important of all Baptist confessions.[13]  It is the most popular confession for Calvinistic Baptists in English.  It has been slightly altered by differing groups who have adopted it.  Benjamin Keach and another minister added two short articles dealing with Laying on of Hands and the singing of Psalms.  Eventually the Keach edition was adopted in 1744 by the Calvinistic Baptist Churches of North America, and called the Philadelphia Confession of Faith—the name of the confession in the Northern states. In the Southern states it was called the Charleston Confession.  With essentially very little changes, the 1689 Baptist Confession was used throughout the Colonial and early United States period, with associations in Virginia in 1766, Rhode Island in 1767, South Carolina in 1767, Kentucky in 1785, and Tennessee in 1788.  It became known in America as The Baptist Confession.

In 1855, Charles Spurgeon promoted the 1689 London Baptist Confession upon his taking the pastorate at New Park Street Chapel in London.  He did so to strengthen the doctrinal foundations of New Park Street Chapel.

Familiarity with the 1689 Baptist Confession declined from the 1850’s to the 1950’s.  But interest has since resurged.   Reprints of the 1689 Baptist Confession began to increase in the 1950’s, a trend that continues to the present; there are Reformed Baptist churches in many areas of the world today who have adopted the 1689 Baptist Confession.

Those who hold to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith cherish its rich history—its story—but the reason they hold to it is that they believe it accurately summarizes the Word of God.  Perhaps the best way to conclude our introduction to the Confession is with the words of Charles Spurgeon who said of the 1689 Baptist Confession, “Cleave fast to the Word of God which is here mapped out for you.”

_______________________________________________________

[1] It was not written by the apostles, but contains apostolic teaching.

[2] It appears that the primary source of the 1689 Confession was the Savoy Declaration, however, since the Savoy Declaration was an adaptation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, by default much of the Westminster Confession wording is found in the 1689 Confession.

[3] It might be helpful to mention up front that there is not one “official” title of the Confession.  The reader will note that I use many different titles in this introduction because it is known by many titles.  I tend to use the 1689 Baptist Confession in this introduction, but when I vary from this I am still referring to the same confession.  As the commentary proceeds, I use only the title “1689 Confession, or sometimes just the “Confession.”

[4] ‘Polity’ refers to church government.

[5] The minutes from the meetings of the Assembly have recently been published in two large volumes.  These minutes were discovered a few years ago tucked behind other books in a library in England.

[6] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Baker Book House), Vol. 1, pg. 829. Brackets mine.  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds1.x.iii.html.  Schaff writes in 1931, “In the course of time the rigor of old Calvinism has relaxed, both in England and America.  ‘New England theology,’ as it is called, attempts to find a via media between Calvinism and Arminianism in anthropology and soteriology. But the old standards still remain unrepealed.  The first and fundamental Congregational confession of faith and platform of polity is the Savoy Declaration, so called from the place where it was composed and adopted.”

[7] Ibid, Vol. III, pg. 718.

[8] The 1689 Confession is distinct from the Savoy Declaration; especially in regards to covenant theology and baptism.

[9] Nehemiah Coxe died several months before the 1689 adoption of the 1677 Confession, and thus his name is not on the list of those who adopted the Confession. My source for this information is James Renihan’s Baptist History class that I attended in 2011 at Grace Covenant Church, in Gilbert, Arizona.

[10] James Renihan’s Baptist History class: 2011, Grace Covenant Church, in Gilbert, Arizona.

[11] Samuel Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Evangelical Press: 1989), pg. 429.

[12] For whatever reason, the 1689 adoption date remains associated with the Confession, rather than its actual date of authorship.

[13] William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Judson Press: Revised Edition 1969), page 239.

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