A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689
Rewritten in Modern English
©1975, Carey Publications, Ltd., 75 Woodhill Road, Leeds, U.K., LS16 7BZ
Reprinted here by permission
A Faith to Confess is designed to present a clear outline of Biblical truth to all interested persons. Since the Bible, the fully inspired Word of God, does not change from one age to another, the truths contained in the Confession, wholly based as they are upon Scripture, are as relevant today as when ‘the Elders and Brethren of many congregations of Christians, baptized upon profession of their Faith’ stated them in 1677. Charles II was then upon the British throne. It was a time of persecution.
Between the years 1644 and 1648 an Assembly of Puritan Divines of England and Scotland had drawn up the Westminster Confession which was and is highly esteemed by believers. But its church Order was that of Presbyterianism, and Baptists differed from it on important matters such as the nature of the gathered church, baptism, the Lord’s supper and church government. Hence, when opportunity arose, they drew up their own Confession of Faith, accepting the fundamental doctrines of the Westminster Confession but making such adjustments to, and correction of, that Confession as seemed to their minds and consciences to be demanded by the pure Word of God. Thus a comparison of the two Confessions will reveal many word-for-word similarities but also sundry changes.
A dozen years after the Baptist Confession was drawn up by persecuted ministers a new era of liberty dawned, and in 1689 thirty-seven leading Baptist ministers re-issued the Confession. In England and Wales it became the definitive Confession of the Particular or Calvinistic churches and remained so for the next two centuries. Its alternative title was the Old London Confession. In 1744 it was adopted by the Calvinistic Baptists of North America, and called by them the Philadelphia Confession of Faith.
The youthful C. H. Spurgeon had been minister of the New Park Street Chapel, London, for a few months only when, in 1855, he determined to strengthen the doctrinal foundations of that and other churches by the re-issue of the 1689 Confession. In this way it was given a new lease of life. The twentieth century has also witnessed to its relevance and usefulness, for in 1958 it was again reprinted, with further editions in 1963, 1966, 1970 and 1974. Recent decades have seen a revival of the Reformed Faith, not least among Baptists. The revivifying of old churches and the planting of new churches in various parts of the world has given renewed emphasis to the need for a Confession which sets forth fundamentals of the Faith in clear and concise language.
Carey Publications Limited felt, however, that the Confession of 1689 in its original form presented certain difficulties. An essential of any doctrinal statement is that it should be capable of being clearly understood by those who are invited to use it. As far as possible its language must be that of the time of its issue; ambiguities must be avoided; clarity must be its hallmark. After nearly three hundred years the Confession of William III’s reign no longer meets these requirements, and Mr. S. M. Houghton of Charlbury, Oxford, was invited by the Publishers to rewrite the Confession in a modern style, retaining the exact sense of the original-this is guaranteed!-but transposing phrases and changing words, to render the meaning, as far as possible, crystal clear. It is believed that, in this new form, the Confession will have a still greater usefulness wherever the English language is spoken.
Baptist ministers need experience no hesitation in recommending the Confession to their members as a document that maintains doctrinal precision with a reasonable degree of fullness. It is not, of course, to be held as an infallible and authoritative rule. Believers are bound by Scripture, by the whole of Scripture, and by nothing but the Scripture. At the same time, however, it is highly necessary and undeniably useful to have a clear statement in modern language of the Faith we believe and practice and commend to all men.
Those newly converted to the Christian Faith are not expected at the outset either to know or understand all the great doctrines set out in the Confession. But acquaintance with all facts of the Faith is something to be pursued from the moment of conversion, and the more so because there are many winds of false doctrine in the modern world ready to blow young plants out of the ground. The modern idiom will aid young Christians, and the texts to which they are directed will be a guide for them in Bible study. We have not followed the method of inserting, after every other sentence or so, a figure to guide to a Biblical text, but have adopted the more modern practice of giving textual references at the end of the paragraphs. Those who use the Confession are requested to compare the statements made with the texts to which attention is called, but at the same time to remember-and this is a very important matter-that statements in the Confession do not hinge upon any one text, but are keyed to ‘the whole counsel of God’.
While it is hoped that all members of churches will steadfastly believe the doctrines of the Confession, it is unlikely that they will all become expert theologians. But the Reformed awakening of today has given renewed thrust to the Biblical teaching concerning Elders, who are, by definition, expected to possess an aptitude to teach and to be able by sound doctrine to exhort and to convince gainsayers (Titus 1:9). Here, then, is a Faith for churches to be founded upon, and a Faith for church officers to teach, defend, and hand on to future generations (1 Tim. 3:15, 16).
We call rightly claim that well-established believers of the Baptist persuasion will find little, if any, difficulty in giving assent to the great truths which are covered by the Confession. Such fundamental doctrines as those of the Trinity, Providence, the Fall of Man, the Atonement, Justification, and Repentance are the common heritage of all who worthily bear the name of Christian. Oil the other hand, there are matters to which the Confession makes reference which do not command such universal assent, and on which, indeed, opinions are divided. This very fact reminds us that the Confession is not acclaimed as an infallible statement on a par with Scripture. But certainly it expresses in up to date language the sum and substance of the ancient Gospel of martyrs, confessors, reformers and saints, and, as Spurgeon said of the Confession when he republished it in 1856, ‘it is the truth of God, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail’. At the same time, however, readers will find several interpretations which are admittedly disputed at the present day. We call attention to some of them.
(1) In chapter 26, paragraph 4, the Pope of Rome is declared to be ‘the antichrist’, ‘the man of sin’, ‘the son of perdition’.
This view, held by the Reformers and Puritans, is not universally held today, not because believers do not deplore the errors of Romanism (and of modern Protestantism for that matter), but on exegetical grounds. Some Christians are prepared to believe and say that the primary reference of ‘the little apocalypse’, as 2 Thessalonians 2:2-9 is called, is to the Pope; some speak and write otherwise. The various commentaries show that there are reason- able grounds for proposing alternative interpretations, and, in the absence of unanimity, no attempt can rightly be made to demand an obligatory belief of any one line of interpretation. In the area of prophecy (eschatology) it is particularly needful to be cautious, for only in the consummation of all things will the precise meaning of apocalyptic passages of the Word be made clear. In other words, we are not prepared to claim that the prophetical interpretations made by the Reformers of the sixteenth century and the Puritans of the seventeenth century stand on the same level as their doctrinal affirmations.
(2) Despite the close alignment of the 1689 Confession with the Westminster Confession, the substance of chapter 20 is not to be found in the Westminster Confession, but is, with scarcely any variation, taken from The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order, 1658, issued by the Congregational-Independents. Why did the compilers see fit to make this addition? Dr.Jack Milner of Derby has made a study of this question and writes as follows:
When we look at chapter twenty as a whole it seems as if the compilers recognized the need for a definition of the gospel as sent out into the world.
The first paragraph contains a statement of the necessity of God’s grace followed in the second paragraph by an affirmation of the absolute necessity of gospel preaching, designed to emphasize the fact that the gospel is revealed nowhere but in the Bible. Paragraph three shows that the actual sending of the gospel is in the hands of God. Although the precept of Scripture directs Christians to preach the gospel to every creature, the sovereign will and good pleasure of God alone determine the particular nations and individuals to whom the gospel actually comes. The final paragraph of chapter twenty is a re-affirmation of the doctrine of effectual calling with a reminder that the gospel preacher, in declaring the truth, is fulfilling his duty.
The force of the Great Commission was plainly felt by the compilers and they sought to draw attention to the absolute distinction between ‘the church’ and ‘the world’. Before the days of Constantine the Church could be seen to be a community of people called out of the world. Their separateness was their strength for they were saved from their sin and they called on their fellows to be partakers of the same salvation. In their zeal the believers fulfilled the Great Commission and the Lord added many to their number. Under Constantine, however, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, having the protection of the State. The distinction between the Church and the world disappeared and a ‘church’ consisted of everyone in a particular locality and not of a group of people called out of and spiritually separate from the world.
At the time of the Reformation, the conception of the Church which dated from the reign of Constantine and prevailed during the Middle Ages was inherited substantially by the Reformers, most of whom thought in terms of Christian countries, states or cities.
Anabaptists on the Continent saw clearly that the church must be a separate community taken out of the world and thus the Reformers became their bitter enemies, calling them ‘purists’ and ‘perfectionists’.
In the seventeenth century the Presbyterians who compiled the Westminster Confession still believed in Christianity in a territorial sense and so they still thought of the church as being supported by the magistrate. Only gradually did the Baptists begin to oppose the idea of a state church with its mixture of believers and unbelievers, and to see themselves as a gathered-out community. Gradually they began to have a view of themselves in their relationship with the world which led them to reject the whole idea of the church being linked in Presbyterian or Anglican fashion with the State. This progress towards a correct view of the church in the world is the distinctive feature of chapter twenty of the 1689 Confession of Faith.
(3) It has been suggested that the Confession is out of date and inadequate in respect of the inerrancy of Scripture.
Forces hostile to the gospel have attacked unceasingly the authority of the Word of God. Obviously the writers of the Confession could not anticipate the controversies of our day. The Confession declares the divine origin, the perfect nature, the absolute authority and the complete sufficiency of the holy Scriptures. In recent times the authority of Scripture has been undermined in a subtle way by what is termed ‘the new hermeneutic’, the idea that the Scriptures were relevant for the apostolic times but now require new principles of interpretation for our modern epoch. For instance, it is claimed that we are now in a more enlightened era concerning the question of the man/ woman relationship and therefore the prohibitions of 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 are no longer applicable. In many other ways the notion of irrelevance can be used to undermine the authority of Scripture. It Is important therefore to assert that the Scriptures are timeless in their relevance and application. For example, all the ramifications of the personal fall in time and space of our first parents, Adam and Eve, described in Genesis 3 apply equally now as in any previous age.
A further challenge to the supreme authority of Scripture is the claim that prophecies continue today, prophecies that are a mixture of good and bad and not on a par with the original Scripture. These claims are derogatory in two ways. Firstly to support the claim it is suggested that mixed type prophecy good and bad (only partially reliable) existed in the New Testament, that of Agabus being an example. [Victor Budgen writing in the magazine Reformation Today issues 101 and 102 defends the prophecy of Agabus.] Secondly the notion that further prophecy is needed implies the inadequacy of Scripture. It is necessary therefore to emphasize the divine origin of Scripture. All Scripture is God-breathed and therefore wholly free of error and infallible (incapable of teaching error). The divine inspiration of Scripture is plenary, that is it extends to all parts alike. Finally it is needful to assert the unique nature of Scripture as the source of truth and the means by which the Church is to be guided and fed to the end of time, no prophecies of any kind being required to ameliorate or assist the Scriptures in that unique function.
(4) In the interests of clarity the word ‘elect’ has been inserted at the opening of paragraph 3 in Chapter 10.
This is based on three considerations:
(a) Throughout the Confession it is axiomatic that none but ‘elect’ persons are saved or can be saved.
(b) Except for the word ‘elect’, paragraph 3 Chapter 10 is taken from the Westminster Confession of 1648, and obviously the addition of the word ‘elect’ makes no change whatsoever to the meaning of the paragraph.
(c) The use of the expression ‘all elect persons’ later in the paragraph simply carries further the meaning of the expression ‘elect infants’.