The purpose of this post is to discuss an important matter in the growing reformed Baptist movement since there are three basic groups of Reformed Baptist in America and the varying definitions have likewise affected how other countries define a Reformed Baptist and what makes a church a Reformed Baptist Congregation. I will not cover all of the details in this post, but I will recommend 2 books that are essential for understanding the key issues:
- Renihan, James. Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English particular Baptists, 1675-1705 (Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2008)
- Chantry, Tom and Dykstra, David. Holding Communion Together: The Reformed Baptists: The First Fifty Years, Divided & United (Alabama: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2014).
*The first book is a publication of Dr. James Renihan’s doctoral thesis on the Ecclesiology of the 17th century particular Baptists and is an essential primary source for understanding their Ecclesiology.
*Chantry & Dykstra’s book gives a helpful overview of some of the key issues with the recent reformed Baptist movement in the last 50 years in America with issues faced in the past that still have important ramifications in the present. Regardless of what position you side with it is necessary reading to understand the key issues and distinctions among Reformed Baptist churches.
Probably the largest issue is the difference in definitions since many Christians use the adjective reformed to define different theological positions. For instance the New-Calvinism movement would argue that as long as you accept TULIP, affirming the doctrines of Grace, reformed soteriology, then you are reformed. Others would call this group Calvinists for example Bethel Baptist Church associated with John Piper defines its beliefs as Calvinistic, Baptistsic, and Charismatic, but not as reformed:
The two most well-known names associated with the Reformed Baptist Movement in America are FIRE and ARBCA. I have been a member of a FIRE church in the past and I am currently a member of an ARBCA church so I am aware of some of the differences between these two, but I am only going to give some basic differences. You can read Chantry & Dykstra’s book to understand some of the historical differences between FIRE and ARBCA, I am only briefly addressing the difference in views of confessional subscription below which clarifies the principle difference between FIRE and ARBCA.
FIRE, which stands for Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals, gives the following definition of its tenets, it can be summarized as a Cessationist Calvinistic Baptist Fellowship that holds to a loose view of Subscription to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. By loose subscription I mean that FIRE churches are not required to affirm all of the doctrines contained in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, for example one of the reasons FIRE started was because of a disagreement with ARBCA on the Lord’s Day and abiding validity of the 4th commandment for Christians. Degrees of subscription to the 1689 LBC vary amongst individual FIRE churches, for example some FIRE churches affirm the Lord’s Day while others don’t view the 4th commandment as abiding for believers. Here are the links from the FIRE website summarizing their doctrinal views:
A FIRE church could be a minimum of a Calvinistic Baptistic Dispensational congregation or a more confessional Calvinistic Baptist church that affirms covenant theology, the Lord’s Day, and the Regulative Principle of Worship. I am trying to briefly define the variety of views present in FIRE to avoid mischaracterizing their position.
ARBCA, the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, is an Association of Reformed Baptist Churches that holds to a full subscription/strict subscription view of the 1689 London Baptist Confession. You can view a summary of this view by Dr. James Renihan under Appendix#1 of the ARBCA Constitution:
Here is a brief definition by Dr. Jim Renihan from Appendix#1 defining what Full subscription does and does not affirm:
“One should note the language found in the agreement signed by the messengers of the founding churches in Mesa, Arizona in March, 1997; in the ARBCA constitution; and in the application for membership. The first states, “We declare that our primary rule of faith and practice is the inerrant Word of God, and adopt as our subordinate standards the excellent document commonly known as the London Baptist Confession of 1689, and the Constitution of this Association.” The second states, “While we hold tenaciously to the inerrant and infallible Word of God as found in the sixty-six books of the Bible (this being our final source of faith and practice), we embrace and adopt the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 as a faithful expression of the doctrine taught in the Scriptures. This Confession is the doctrinal standard of the Association,” and in the third the applying church signs this statement: “We accept the London Confession of Faith of 1689 as an accurate and reliable expression of what the Scriptures teach and the faith we confess.” In each case, the member churches commit themselves to the Confession as a whole. We maintain the primacy of the Scriptures, and “embrace and adopt” the Confession as a truthful expression of our convictions with regard to the details of Scripture.
Taken at face value, these words imply, even though they do not explicitly state, strict, or full subscription. This does not mean that we treat every doctrine in the Confession as if it were equally important, but we do commit ourselves to all of the doctrines of the Confession. In addition, as Dr. Smith says so well, “full subscription does not require the adoption of every word of the Confession or Catechisms, but positively believes that we are adopting every doctrine or teaching of the Confession or Catechisms.” This is an important distinction, and needs to be understood. It is possible for an individual, a church, or an association to be cautious about the wording used to express a specific doctrine without denying the doctrine that wording seeks to define. Full subscription honestly adopts all of the doctrines expressed in the confessional formulation. In the case of the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, this means that by subscribing to the document commonly known as the London Baptist Confession of 1689, we receive all of the doctrines contained in it as true, founded on the Word of God” (bold and italics are added by me for emphasis).
The full article on confessional subscription by Dr. James Renihan has been published in Appendix VI of Chantry, Tom and Dykstra, David. Holding Communion Together: The Reformed Baptists: The First Fifty Years, Divided & United (Alabama: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2014), 271-294 which you can read to get the full historical context and further details.
You can also listen to the Confessing Baptists’s podcast with Dr. James Renihan on Confessionalism that gives a useful overview of different views of Confessional Subscription amongst the reformed Community (Dr. Jim Renihan is not exclusively addressing Reformed Baptists in the podcast; he primarily mentions differences in subscription amongst Reformed Presbyterians primarily, but the same basic categories apply to Reformed Baptists also):
I also highly recommend the recent lecture by Pastor Arden Hodgins on Confessionalism at the 2016 ARBCA General Assembly, In Defense of Confessionalism, that gives a very useful outline of what Confessionalism is in contrast to a Biblicist position and why it is important for Churches to be Confessional (I will discuss this more in a later post since it is a crucial point):
As a result of the Full-subscription position of ARBCA churches, and ARBCA church would see the doctrines in the 1689 as interconnected and therefore modifying or removing a doctrine from the Confession will modify others as well. An illustration would be having a row of dominoes laid out in a column, by knocking down via modifying or explicitly denying a doctrine presented in the 1689 you will necessarily have to modify other doctrines. For example if someone takes exception to the Lord’s Day, chapter 22 in the 1689 LBC, that will also require modification of the doctrine of the Means of Grace and the Regulative Principle of Worship.
It is important in light of this brief overview that we carefully define our terms since a lot of the confusion over what constitutes a reformed Baptist is a result of different groups defining it in various ways which are not all compatible. We must understand our historic particular Baptist roots of the 1st and 2nd London Baptist Confession of faith to properly understand how they defined particular Baptist theology and confessional subscription rather than reading into the definition our preconceived biases of what we think it means to be a Reformed Baptist. We must go back to the original sources, ad fontes! Hopefully the 2 resources that I mentioned at the beginning of the post will help readers to go to some of the key primary resources.
I will conclude with a brief example of how differences of definitions for reformed have affected not only the reformed movement in the U.S. but also in other countries. For example this you-tube channel by two Calvinistic brasilians called, Dois Dedos de Teologia (Two fingers of Theology), they affirm a Calvinistic cessationist view and equate that as being “reformed” rather than subscribing to a historically reformed confession.
I hope that this post has shown some of the important issues that should be considered by those who consider themselves Reformed Baptists or those interested in better understanding what Reformed Baptists believe. I have attempted to do so carefully and to respectfully and accurately represent some different views. These issues are not unnecessarily splitting hairs, but rather required discussions that have crucial ramifications for the function of the local church, pastoral ministry, missions, and evangelism to name a few. I will attempt to more fully draw out some of these implications in further posts on this topic of Confessionalism as it relates to defining the Reformed Baptist Movement.