In our discussion of a Reformed Baptist perspective on public theology, we have recently been examining the Reformed confessions. In the last two posts, we examined two Reformed confessions’ assertions regarding the relationship of the civil government to the church: The Belgic Confession and The Baptist Confession (1644 / 1646). In today’s article, we will conclude our discussion of public theology in the Reformed confessions by examining two more confessions: The Westminster Confession and The Baptist Confession (1677 / 1689).
The Westminster Confession (1647)
In 1647, a year after the 1646 revision of The Baptist Confession, the Westminster Assembly published the second Reformed confession to be adopted in England: The Westminster Confession. In this Confession, they too addressed the topic of the civil magistrate. However, they returned to the language of the earlier Belgic Confession on the matter.
“The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God” (WCF 23.3).
The Westminster Confession then denied the right of the state to step in and administer the word and sacraments, but argued that it was the duty of the state to oversee and ensure “that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed.” In other words, the Westminster view of the state’s role was one of enforcing ecclesiastical order and discipline.
On this front, the Reformed began to see a clear divide in regard to public theology. Both credobaptists and paedobaptists among the Reformed agreed that the church had a duty to speak to the state. However, where English Particular Baptists argued for the state’s role to be one of ensuring liberty of conscience on matters of church practice, the paedobaptists in England as well as on the continent were arguing for more of an enforcer role for the state.
The Baptist Confession (1677 / 1689)
In the latter part of the 17th century, a new generation of Baptists convened to draft a new confession of faith. This Confession would be more robust than the first, but it would take a shape much closer to that of the Westminster Confession than that of the previous Baptist Confession. This change of shape is often mistaken for a change of substance, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Though things are stated differently in the Second London Baptist Confession, it represents the same basic theological framework on which the Particular Baptists operated in the early 17th century.
Notably, the 1689 Confession presents a much more streamlined doctrine of the civil magistrate. The emphasis on duties of the civil magistrate toward the church and regarding liberty of conscience is not as strong, but it is certainly still present. In particular, the laws of the state are put in subjection to a greater, more absolute law.
“Civil magistrates being set up by God for the ends aforesaid; subjection, in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us in the Lord, not only for wrath, but for conscience’ sake; and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty” (LBCF 1689, 24.3).
What is suggested in the language “in all lawful things” is the idea that there may be certain unlawful things commanded by the state that would force Christians to violate their consciences. If the question arises as to which to follow, man or our Spirit-led, Bible-informed consciences, we are to choose our conscience every time. As such, the Baptist Confessions are unanimous in promoting (even demanding) liberty of conscience and, when the state violates the conscience of the believer, civil disobedience along with the consequences that follow. There is a higher law to which we are called, so we are to subject ourselves in all things which do not violate that higher law. Even the confessional Presbyterian Americans eventually came to agree with their Baptist brothers on this view altering their own Westminster Confession to allow for liberty of conscience in their public theology.
From our study of the Reformed confessions, we see that there are certain universal principles that must be granted for any truly Reformed approach to public theology. First, God has given the sword to the civil magistrate for the purpose of punishing evil and promoting good. Second, in affirming this biblical truth, the Reformers confessed the duty of the church to speak directly to the state concerning its duties and responsibilities. Third, Christians are to subject themselves to all lawful ordinances of the state (meaning laws not requiring sin or disobedience toward God on the part of Christians). Fourth, Christians are to render respect and honor to all those who are in authority as men and women placed in authority by God to rule over us. Fifth, Christians are to pray for our magistrates in all matters as will lead to the comfort and prosperity of the state so that we might lead quiet and peaceful lives.
Where the confessions disagreed was in areas of ecclesiastical dealings and liberty of conscience. Where The Belgic Confession and the early Westminster Confession both argued that the state should have an enforcer role in the church and that it could force on the people a particular church’s views on the sacraments, the Baptist confessions endorsed a view that removed the state’s power to enforce church matters and promoted liberty of conscience. The Particular Baptists were careful to avoid intermingling of the Two Kingdoms, while not removing the prophetic voice from the church. Eventually, in America, the Particular Baptist perspective on public theology won out even for most paedobaptist churches. Thus, at least in the West, the Baptist view came to be the predominant view of the Reformed. Semper Reformanda!
Having laid a confessional foundation for our discussion, in the next article we will begin our discussion of some more recent developments regarding Reformed perspectives of Public Theology.