It is very common in our day for the average church attendee to look for new fads and trends which has also been adopted by many churches and theological trends. Looking to faithful pastors and theologians of the past has often been neglected in favor of novel ideas. A more widespread view of Biblicism that looks at the present and seeks novelty rather than using the past as a guide through creeds and confessions has dominated most churches. A valuable source of wisdom can be gained by studying not only the works of individual pastors and theologians of the past but also the confessions which were written by groups of pastors for the benefit of the local churches and the preservation of sound doctrine. Among Baptists, our confessional heritage has often been neglected in favor of Biblicism, “no creed but Christ or no creed but the Bible” mentality.
Before further entering into a discussion about Confessionalism we must first define what confessions are and pastor Arden Hodgins provides a useful distinction between scripture and confessions,
“One way in which my long-time pastor-friend, Tom Lyon, put it was this: “The difference between the Bible and the Confession is the difference between inspiration and illumination.” In other words, the Bible is what God has said; the confession is a summary statement of what we believe the Bible to mean” (Hodgins 2016, 48).
This careful distinction shows that confessions and creeds properly understood do not usurp the authority of scripture nor deny sola scriptura. Confessions and creeds benefit the church by helping pastors, churches, and believers to learn from our robust historical heritage of faithful pastors and teachers concerning biblical doctrine rather than starting with a tabula rasa when studying the Bible. Carl Trueman makes a very well stated observation regarding confessions because the true distinction is not between those churches who have confessions of faith while others do not, but rather between churches who have a public confession of faith that can be known and examined, such as the 1689 London Baptist of Faith, and churches who have a private confession of faith, e.g. some doctrinal points listed in a statement of faith where other doctrines are not publically known. This also shows the relation between sola scriptura and confessionalism because for a church to truly embrace sola scriptura its doctrine must be known publicly and is open for examination and comparison with scripture, therefore confessional churches can fully embrace and consistently practice sola scripture.
“I do want to make the point here that Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true” (Trueman 2012, 16).
As Carl Trueman observes an anticonfessional and anti-creedal perspective unexpectantly ends up going against sola scripture rather than upholding it. The historical reformed confessions were not written to give extra-biblical doctrine outside of the Bible, but rather to summarize the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, which serve as a doctrinal standard for both pastors and elders and as a guide to the congregation as believers seek to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18). A study of sola scripture’s historical origins reveals that it was not made in a vacuum and its historical context was confessional so that confessionalism and sola scripture have been a faithful pair upholding sound doctrine in churches. Sola scriptura was a response to the Catholic tradition of scripture that misunderstood the authority of Scripture among other doctrines. As Richard Mueller explains, the distinction between Protestants and Catholics during the reformation regarding their perspective views of scripture was not solo scriptura (the Bible alone) versus Catholic tradition, but a Biblical and historical tradition of scripture in comparison to a faulty tradition of scripture.
“The late medieval debate over tradition and the late medieval and Renaissance approach to the literal sense of the text of Scripture in its original languages had together raised questions over the relationships between Scripture and churchly theology, between the individual exegete and the text, and between the exegete and established doctrine that looked directly toward the issues and problems addressed by the early Reformers. It is, thus, entirely anachronistic to view the sola scriptura of Luther and his contemporaries as a declaration that all of theology ought to be constructed anew, without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation, by the lonely exegete confronting the naked text” (Mueller 2003, 63).
“In fact, tradition is not the issue; it is how one defines that tradition, and how one understands the way it connects to Scripture, which are really the points at issue. Indeed, this was the crux of the Reformation, which was not so much a struggle between Scripture and tradition as between different types of traditions” (Trueman 2012, 17).
The primary difference is that our reformed forefathers’ tradition was not on par with the authority of scripture as opposed to the Catholic view of scripture. The expressed written tradition of our reformed forefathers as formulated in creeds and confessions is subject to scripture and therefore does not threaten the authority of scripture, but acts as a guide, assisting Christians with a roadmap to biblical doctrine. If we were to examine the writings of the reformers we would observe how they cited early creeds and church fathers such as Augustine supporting their doctrinal formulations proving that they were not inventing novel doctrines, rather they were building on a foundation of faithful biblical doctrine that preceded them. The 1689 London Baptist Confession itself is a work which incorporates doctrinal formulations in other confessions and creeds showing its historical foundation rather than being an innovative doctrinal formulation made by a group of pastors disregarding previous historical doctrinal formulations. As Dr. Jim Renihan explains, the particular Baptists formulated their doctrinal tenets in a confession to show their continuity with historical Christian doctrines.
“The Baptists were concerned to demonstrate to all that their doctrinal convictions had been, from the very start, orthodox and in most ways identical with the convictions of the Puritans around them. In both of their general Confessions, the Baptists purposely used existing documents in order to demonstrate their concurrence with much of current theological thinking. In the quote above, they argue that the doctrines expressed in both Baptist Confessions (1st and 2nd London Baptist Confessions of faith) are the same, but they have chosen to base the newer Confession upon the more recent and widely available documents of the Westminister and Savoy. In doing this, they were declaring with some vigor their own desire to be placed in the broad stream of English Reformed Confessional Christianity” (Renihan 2008, 20).
In Conclusion, we have observed that Confessionalism is an important historical heritage not only for Presbyterian reformed traditions but also for Reformed Baptists. Confessionalism by no means denies sola scriptura since confessions were drafted as hermeneutical documents to aid with the proper biblical and historical interpretation of scripture. Everyone holds to a confession the distinction is between private and public confessions and holding to a public confession that has historical precedent such as the 1689 London Baptist Confession of faith provides an important guide for churches and allows churches to consistently apply sola scriptura in their doctrine and practice because all of their doctrinal formulations can be examined and compared with scripture. There are many ecclesiastical practical benefits of confessionalism for local churches. Confessionalism promotes stability in local churches by holding the pastor and elders to a consistent doctrinal standard and detour doctrinal errors from creeping into local churches. Second, it provides believers a doctrinal guide as they study the scriptures and grow in biblical doctrine. Third, confessionalism helps promote the advancement of the Gospel by giving a consistent doctrinal standard for like-minded churches, church planting, and missions, this doctrinal consistency helps to produce faithful pastors who preach Christ and do not waiver to new doctrinal fads as well as promoting collaboration among like-minded churches to advance God’s kingdom and build up Christ’s church.
In future posts I will further elaborate on this topic and discuss biblical support for confessionalism, confessional subscription, and associationalism and confessionalism to give a holistic perspective of confessionalism and how modern-day reformed Baptists can gain wisdom and rediscover their doctrinal heritage by looking to our Particular Baptist forefathers for doctrinal guidance as we seek to glorify God and advance Christ’s kingdom.
Hodgins, Arden, A Defense of Confessionalism: Biblical Foundations & Confessional Considerations, ed. Richard Barcellos and James Renihan (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2016)
Renihan, James, Studies in Baptist History and Thought: Edification and Beauty, The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008)
Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 2: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003)
Trueman, Carl, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012)