A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – The Reformed Confessions (Part I)

Read the first three posts here, here, and here.

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When discussing the idea of the Two Cities and Two Kingdoms paradigms for understanding public theology, many leave a tremendous gap between Luther and modern scholarship. We would be negligent to do so here, though. For a uniquely Reformed Baptist perspective on these issues to be well informed, one must be aware of the fact that there is more than just a Lutheran perspective of public theology to draw upon. There is also a Reformed tradition, which just so happens to be the tradition from which Baptists sprung.

Luther’s further development of Augustine’s paradigm certainly plays a large role in the development of Calvinistic, Reformed, and Reformed Baptist approaches to public theology. However, Calvin and his predecessors did not adopt Luther’s theology without some contributions of their own. Luther’s views on the subject evolved throughout the course of his life and the life of Saxony. The same could be said of Zwingli in Zurich, Calvin in Geneva, and the Dutch, British, French, German, and American Reformers that would follow in their footsteps.

According to Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood, Calvin intermingled aspects of the patristics, the scholastics, and Luther in the development of his public theology with ideas and methods he’d received from classical political philosophy as well as humanist literary, historical, and legal scholarship (O’Donovan and Lockwood, From Irenaeus to Grotius, 662). Calvin’s take on public theology took into account not only the collective wisdom of church history and Western Civilization, but it also brought several disciplines to bear on the matter. Thus, it would be highly inappropriate to attempt to transplant Luther’s theory into the Reformed tradition without any consideration of nuance or further development by Calvin and his theological predecessors.

Recognizing the willingness of the Reformers to shift understandings of these matters to meet the ever changing political structures of their times and cultures, it’s important that we as 21st century Westerners seek to discern as best we can the most universal elements of the Reformed take on Public Theology. Perhaps the best place to look to find these universal elements are in the development of the Reformed confessions of faith. For the purposes of this series, we will look at four such confessions that particularly pertain to the Reformed and Reformed Baptists: The Belgic Confession, The Baptist Confession (1644/1646), The Westminster Confession, and The Baptist Confession (1677/1689). As we examine these confessions, we will see how historical considerations over time forced the Reformed to continue to revisit the biblical texts most pertinent to the subject matter at hand and further Reform their views on public theology. Semper Reformanda!

Separation of Church and State

Some would take issue with there even being a chapter on magistrates in the confessions. They argue that there should be a complete separation of church and state neither where the state speaks with authority to the church nor where the church speaks with authority to the state. Sam Waldron has offered a response to such reasoning.

“Does it surprise you that the Confession contains a chapter on the subject ‘Of the Civil Magistrate’? Are you inclined to ask, ‘What does politics have to do with Christ?’ If that is something of your response, may I suggest that you are a victim of a religious background which has retreated from its social responsibilities under a wrong view of the separation of church and state? Such an attitude has virtually denied the sovereignty of God over all areas of life. To restrict Christianity to the ‘spiritual’ realm is, ultimately, to destroy it” (Waldron, A Modern Exposition, 284).

The concept of the separation of church and state was a concept unique with Baptists in England and America. It was framed as a larger concept in which to set the gemstone of liberty of conscience, yet another uniquely Baptist doctrine. This concept was never meant to be taken as a separation of God and state. It is important to note at this juncture that not all Reformed confessions championed these concepts. Of course, we’ll see that quick enough as we examine our first Reformed confession: The Belgic Confession.

The Belgic Confession (1619)

589Reformed confessions have always dealt with the subject of the civil magistrate. Specifically regarding this subject the Reformed confessions are in general agreement that the role of government is to wield the sword granted them by God for the punishment of evil and the promotion of good (cf. Romans 13:1-7). Also, shared among the confessions is the recognition that duty is owed by the governed subjects to their magistrates, those magistrates having been given their office by God. The Belgic Confession goes quite a bit further than this, though.

“And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word” (The Belgic Confession, Article 36).

Thus, the Confession most commonly held by the Dutch Reformed community promotes the use of the magistrate to enforce church discipline and promote the furtherance of the gospel. Without doubt this is seen, at least in seed form, in the practices of Zwingli and Calvin. In fact, it was over this issue that Zwingli’s disciples eventually separated from him birthing what would eventually come to be called the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland. Tellingly, The Belgic Confession takes a clear stance against the Anabaptists, anarchists, and revolutionists in its pronouncements.

“Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency.

And on this matter we reject the Anabaptists, anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings” (Ibid.).

This being the earliest of the Reformed confessions, the Westminster Assembly and the Particular Baptists developed much of their public theology upon it. While an argument can be made that it is the most Reformed position, in that it is most faithful to the views and conduct of Calvin and Zwingli, such an argument does not allow for the application of the Semper Reformanda (always reforming) principle. As circumstances changed in Luther’s and Calvin’s political and cultural situations, their understandings of these matters adapted. The Reformed tradition moving forward into the 17th century also adapted to the changing times, returning again and again to the Scriptures to determine the best approach to new considerations as they arose.

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In our next article, we will continue our discussion of public theology in the Reformed confessions by examining developments in some of the English confessions of the 17th century.

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36 thoughts on “A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – The Reformed Confessions (Part I)

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