A Little Time With The 1689: Day 258

Day 258

Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.

Chapter 21, Paragraph 2.

“….So that to Believe such Doctrines, or obey such Commands out of Conscience, is to betray true liberty of Conscience; and the requiring of an implicit Faith, and absolute and blind Obedience, is to destroy Liberty of Conscience, and Reason also.”

Scripture Lookup

Colossians 2:20,22,23

1 Corinthians 3:5

2 Corinthians 1:24

Reflection

The modern evangelical woman is the target of so much “Biblical” advice. Just consider some popular topics: working vs. staying at home, having a great marriage, raising godly children, celebrating holidays (sometimes through embracing Lent or Advent), and various lifestyle choices (“essential oils! social media! sustainable, natural…whatever!”) There is an opinion to go with every part of a believer’s life.

Now seeking advice is not wrong: “Without consultation, plans are frustrated,
But with many counselors they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22) We see someone who seems to have something we want, whether it be a happy family, a successful career, or a nice pair of shoes. We look to them for advice, and they share it. But it is just the advice of men and women. Their “steps”, “guidelines”, or “how-tos” are not commands of God.

The subtle pressure to conform with whatever manifestation cultural Christianity takes on is nonetheless strong. You may grind your own grain to grow in godliness one year, only to find grain out of the diet altogether the next. When such advice is given, we have to ask ourselves: who is the Lawgiver? God alone determines how we are to obey Him. If anyone tells you that you should obey a certain doctrine, make sure that it is defended from Scripture. Don’t take famous so-and-so’s word for it – “to the law and to the testimony” (Isaiah 8:20)!

When we are in a position to  give instruction, we must not bind another’s conscience with our own commands. It’s always thrilling when someone asks for advice, for it implies they think you contain some wisdom. In our zeal, we may place a burden on someone, rather than persuading them from Scripture that this is so. We may even go so far as to require blind obedience to our traditions. Without making a case from Scripture, we deny the reasoning ability of our brother and sister in Christ. The Holy Spirit utilizes the Word to enable the believer to obey God’s commands. Let us not stand in the way of His work, but point our fellow believers to Scripture.

With all the pressure thrown upon Christian women to make every aspect of their lives “missional”, it is high time this doctrine of Christian liberty was once again proclaimed. Believer, you are free from the doctrines and commandments of mere humans. You are answerable to God alone. Pursue His commands diligently, and be settled in your own mind (Romans 14:5).

Questions to Consider

  • Are you searching the Scriptures to see what God has commanded? Are you pointing others to Scripture when they seek your advice?

A Little Time With The 1689: Day 257

Day 257

Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.

Chapter 21, Paragraph 2.

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or not contained in it….”

Scripture Lookup

James 4:12

Rom. 14:4

Acts 4:19,29

1 Corinthians 7:23

Matthew 15:9

Reflection

Who sets the standard? Who makes the rules that we are to follow? Whose commands ought we to obey?

God alone sets that standard we are to follow. Through Christ alone has our liberty been purchased, and it is to Him alone that we owe our allegiance. As our Savior, Judge, and Lawgiver, God has the prerogative to declare what laws we are to obey.

There is no obligation to obey any other command that is not found in Scripture, or that contradicts Scripture. This is freedom of conscience. Such a freedom should be held most dearly especially by those who align themselves with the Particular Baptists of the past. Such brothers and sisters were persecuted for refusing to observe certain practices, convicted that such practices were not commanded by God. Is it necessary to baptize the children of believers? Baptists do not find such a doctrine contained within Scripture, and may even argue that such a practice is contrary to Scripture. We are therefore freed from following a tradition of men. Other traditions and practices warrant examination as well: are we humbugs if we don’t celebrate Christmas? There are many traditions that upon second thought are not found in Scripture, and have no obligation upon the Christian.

However, such a freedom does not mean that we just flippantly tell others “You’re not the boss of me!” whenever we hear something we don’t like. We have a charge to know what is commanded in God’s word. Studying the Scriptures to see what is commanded should be a characteristic of every believer. Careful consideration should inform our consciences, so we may clearly say that we do not find such commands in Scripture.

Questions to Consider

  • Are there any traditions of men that you have felt obligated to obey?

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

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

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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.

Conclusion

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!

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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.

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

Read the first four posts here, herehere, and here.

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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).

Not Anabaptists

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

bloudy-tenetThe 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.

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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).

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.