In the last post, we examined the approach of the framers of The Belgic Confession to public theology, specifically as it regards civil government. In this article and the next, we will shift our attention from the Continental Reformation to the English Reformation. Without further introduction, let us begin with the earliest of the English confessions we will consider: The Baptist Confession (1644 / 1646).
The considerations that would lead to further development of the public theology laid out in The Belgic Confession came sooner for the early English Baptists than for others. In 1644, a group of Baptists came together in London to publish a new confession of faith. This Confession was meant to be a source of unity for the churches in question, but it also had a secondary purpose. On the European continent, Anabaptism had spread since the time of Zwingli. The early Anabaptists, especially those who were initially among Zwingli’s disciples, were very thoughtful, orthodox, and studious in their approach to theological systematization. However, as the years passed and persecution ensured that Anabaptists had less and less ecclesiastical resources at their disposal, they began to become more extreme in their stances against government and to develop heretical and heterodox views on key doctrines.
As persecution arose for Reformed pastors and theologians at different points of British history, the Reformed would often flee to the continent. Continental Europe, especially in Switzerland and the Dutch provinces, was understood to be more favorable toward the Reformation. In their sojourn on the continent, many Reformed pastors were made aware of the errors of these later Anabaptists. As a result, when Baptists began to emerge in England out of the Separatist movement, they were viewed with an eye of suspicion and slandered as Anabaptists. For this reason, they saw fit to entitle their first confession: London Baptist Confession of Faith, A.D. 1644: The CONFESSION OF FAITH, Of those CHURCHES which are commonly (though falsely) called ANABAPTISTS.
Liberty of Conscience
The General and Particular Baptists adopted none of the theological or practical errors of the Anabaptists, but they were somewhat innovative in their approach to public theology. Due to persecutions experienced at the hands of church-run magistrates, they searched the Scriptures and came away with a doctrine that would come to be known as liberty of conscience. Thomas Helwys, a General Baptist, was perhaps the first to write on this subject. Roger Williams, an English migrant to America and a Separatist-turned-Particular Baptist, expounded on Helwys’ earlier work. In his 1644 work entitled The Bloudy Tennent of Persecution, Williams called out civil magistrates for their persecution of the consciences of saints. Nevertheless, he called the saints to expect persecution if they truly be in Christ.
“WHILE I plead the cause of truth and innocence against the bloody doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience, I judge it not unfit to give alarm to myself, and to all men, to prepare to be persecuted or hunted for cause of conscience. Whether you stand charged with ten or but two talents, if you hunt any for cause of conscience, how can you say you follow the Lamb of God, who so abhorred that practice?” (ed. Joseph Early, Jr., Readings in Baptist History, pg. 21).
The Baptist Confession (1644 / 1646)
Liberty of conscience was a universally accepted distinctive of the early English and American Baptists. In The Baptist Confession (1644), the English Particular Baptists made many concessions to the public theology of the continental Reformers as laid out in the Belgic Confession. However, they nuanced it quite a bit. The Dutch Reformers would doubtless wholeheartedly affirm Article XLVIII in The Baptist Confession of 1644. It reads almost verbatim like the Belgic Confession in its insistence that Christians are subject to magistrates:
“That a civil Magistracy is an ordinance of God set up by God for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well; and that in all lawful things commanded by them, subjection ought to be given by us in the Lord: and that we are to make supplication and prayer for Kings, and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a peaceable and quiet life in all godliness and honesty.”
However, moving into the next article, there is a slight change of tone from the Belgic Confession to the Baptist Confession. Where The Belgic Confession offers no concession for liberty of conscience, The Baptist Confession highlights it.
“The supreme Magistracy of this Kingdom we believe to be the King and Parliament freely chosen by the Kingdom, and that in all those civil Laws which have been acted by them, or for the present is or shall be ordained, we are bound to yield subjection and obedience unto in the Lord, as conceiving ourselves bound to defend both the persons of those thus chosen, and all civil Laws made by them, with our persons, liberties, and estates, with all that is called ours, although we should suffer never so much from them in not actively submitting to some Ecclesiastical Laws, which might be conceived by them to be their duties to establish which we for the present could not see, nor our consciences could submit unto; yet are we bound to yield our persons to their pleasures” (Article XLIX).
It’s worth noting that, while Particular Baptists at this time saw no place for a civil magistrate to exercise ecclesiastical authority, they do not deny the right of the church described in The Belgic Confession to speak with prophetic authority to civil magistrates. In fact, in the next article, they themselves appeal directly to God for the hearts and the minds of the state to be bent toward them in mercy:
“And if God should provide such a mercy for us, as to incline the Magistrates’ hearts so far to tender our consciences, as that we might be protected by them from wrong, injury, oppression and molestation, which long we formerly have groaned under by the tyranny and oppression of the Prelatical Hierarchy, which God through mercy hath made this present King and Parliament wonderful honorable, as an instrument in his hand, to throw down; and we thereby have had some breathing time, we shall, we hope, look at it as a mercy beyond our expectation, and conceive ourselves further engaged forever to bless God for it” (Article L).
This was a clear appeal not only to God but also to the civil magistrates to show mercy and kindness to them for conscience sake. Yet the Particular Baptists went on to explain that, even if the magistrates did not show mercy but dealt treacherously with them, they were still to submit in all things lawful, yet without violating their consciences. The revision of this Confession in 1646 goes on to expound on this idea of liberty of conscience recognizing it as a duty the state owes to its citizenry. It even goes so far as to dictate to the magistrates what are their duties to men regarding liberty of conscience. As such, we see that the early Particular Baptists did view the use of the prophetic voice as a deterrent for governments that might otherwise violate their liberty of conscience. They did not concede to the notion that the church should not speak to matters of government, only that governments were not free to dictate terms to the church.
In our next article, we will conclude our discussion of public theology in the Reformed confessions by examining developments in The Westminster Confession and The Baptist Confession (1677 / 1689).