Results tagged “confessionalism” from Reformation21 Blog

Remembering Dr. Morton H. Smith

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Dr. Morton H. Smith, founding professor of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), founder of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (GPTS), first Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and one of the world's foremost authorities on American Presbyterian history and theology, passed into glory on Sunday, November 12, 2017. He was 93 years old.

He was the fourth of five sons born to James Brookes and Margaret Morton Smith of Roanoke, Virginia on December 11, 1923. His early childhood was characterized by a love for the mountains of western Virginia and a heartfelt commitment to Christ from a young age. The Smith family maintained an active membership in the Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church, where Mr. Smith served as a Ruling Elder until they moved to the Mt. Washington area of Baltimore, Maryland.

It was at the Mt. Washington Presbyterian Church that Dr. Smith publicly professed his faith in Jesus Christ. Later on in life, Dr. Smith would credit Pastor James E. Moore with having the greatest influence on his life outside of his parents. The elders received Dr. Smith as a communing member when he was eleven years old. During the membership interview, the senior elder of the session asked Dr. Smith, "What does Jesus mean to you?" The generally shy young man expressed his love for Christ when, choking up, he eked out an answer that communicated, "He means everything to me, and I trust Him as my Savior."

In the Spring of 1941, Dr. Smith graduated from the St. Paul's School for Boys in Baltimore. He enrolled at the University of Michigan that Fall to study Forestry. In his first year at Michigan, he met his future wife, Miss. Lois Knopf. They married on June 30, 1944 while Dr. Smith was serving as a military flight instructor during World War II. After graduating with a degree in Botany in 1947, he accepted a position as the office manager in the Registrar's office.

The Lord used teaching and preaching opportunities at Grace Bible Church (Miss. Lois' home church) to call Dr. Smith to the gospel ministry. He enrolled at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia in the Fall of 1949. While at Columbia, Dr. Smith gravitated to the last remaining confessional professor at the seminary, Dr. William Childs Robinson. Recognizing the entrenched theological liberalism of the institution as a whole, the Smiths decided to transfer to Westminster Theological Seminary in the Fall of 1950.

The Smiths spent one year at Westminster, and Dr. Smith later recalled it as the most intellectually stimulating year of his life. He particularly profited from time spent with Dr. Cornelius Van Til and Professor John Murray. Though their year in Philadelphia was a great blessing to the Smiths, Dr. John R. Richardson of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Atlanta convinced them to return to a denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) in order to prepare for ministry in that body. Dr. Smith completed his studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in December of 1952.

Like many students of Columbia Seminary at the time, Dr. Smith was active in pastoral and preaching ministry while pursuing his degree. In 1952, he was ministering to an unaffiliated core group of believers in Valdosta, GA who ultimately organized as a congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). After consulting with Dr. Van Til and PCUS missionary to Japan Dr. David McIlwaine, both of whom urged Dr. Smith to remain in the PCUS in order to maintain a confessional witness within the Southern Presbyterian church, he elected to pursue a call in the PCUS. In 1954, he accepted a call to a two-church field: Springfield-Roller, near Baltimore, MD.

That same year, however, he received a call to teach Bible at Belhaven Colleg in Jackson, MS. He would hold that position until 1963. It was during this time that the Smiths adopted Samuel and Suzanne in 1958 and 1962, respectively. In 1962, he completed his Doctor of Philosophy degree on a Fulbright Fellowship to the Free University of Amsterdam, under the tutelage of Professor G.C. Berkouwer. His doctoral dissertation is in publication under the title, Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology. In 1963, Westminster Theological Seminary invited Dr. Smith to join the faculty as a guest lecturer in practical theology.

In 1964, the Smiths moved to French Camp, MS to serve on the faculty of what would become Reformed Theological Seminary. Dr. Smith taught classes in several locations around the country, locations to which he would travel by plane in his own Cessna 150. He would fly his plane all over the continental United States as both a professor and a churchman for decades, finally selling his last aircraft in 1988.

Dr. Smith was on the original faculty in the Fall of 1966, when Reformed Theological Seminary commenced classes with 17 students. He taught there until 1978, at which point his role as Stated Clerk of the PCA grew into a full-time responsibility. The Steering Committee of the Continuing Presbyterian Church (what would become the PCA) commissioned Dr. Smith to produce a book outlining a rationale for separating from the PCUS. How is the Gold Become Dim was published shortly before the Continuing Church met in December of 1973. At that first meeting of the Continuing Church, the gathered elders elected Dr. Smith to serve as Clerk at the Convocation of Sessions and at the First General Assembly of the fledgling church. He would continue in this role until 1988, serving the new denomination which from its start devoted itself to three great aims: to be faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.

In 1978, once he began to work full-time as Stated Clerk. Toward the end of his tenure as Stated Clerk, Dr. Smith began working with a group of elders from Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC to establish an Old School Presbyterian Seminary in Upstate South Carolina. In the Fall of 1987, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary began classes to equip preachers, pastors, and churchmen for Christ's Kingdom.

After resigning as Stated Clerk of the PCA, Dr. Smith continued to serve on denominational committees, take an active part in the Western Carolina Presbytery of the PCA, and participate in the life of Cornerstone PCA in Brevard, NC. He also traveled extensively around the world to teach, preach, and train pastors in many different countries: South Africa, South Korea, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Russia, and New Zealand. In 2013, the Board of Trustees of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary named a Chair in Systematic Theology in honor of Dr. Smith.

Generations of his students will remember him as a godly, gentle, and quiet man of strong Christian character and conviction. As a scholar, he was committed to the depth and breadth of the Reformed tradition, founded upon the rock-solid foundation of God's Word. His was an exegetically grounded theology. Committed to preparing and equipping Reformed ministers, his academic work flowed out of the instruction which he provided to his students. As a true child of God, Dr. Smith had a humble, simple faith in Christ. For Dr. Morton Smith, all true doctrinal inquiry finds its ultimate terminus in Christ. He loved to talk about and preach Christ.

The PCA recognized his contribution as one of the founding fathers of the denomination when the 28th General Assembly (2000) elected him to serve as Moderator. To date, he appears to be the last bearded moderator of the PCA General Assembly.

In a festschrift published in honor of Dr. Smith's eightieth birthday in 2004, I described Dr. Smith's influence on the PCA in no uncertain terms: "no man has had a more profound impact on the early development of this denomination than he." Reformed Theological Seminary Chancellor and CEO Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III, who studied "The Theology of the Westminster Standards" under Dr. Smith at Covenant Theological Seminary, identified him as both a family friend and "one of the key figures in late twentieth-century North American Presbyterianism." Reformed Theological Seminary Professor Emeritus Dr. Douglas F. Kelly commended Dr. Smith as a man who has "stood for what he understands to be God's truth no matter how offensive it has been to the spirit of the age."

In the last few years of his life, Dr. Smith enjoyed receiving guests into his home, many of whom were students and colleagues from various seasons of his life. He also lovingly cared for his wife as her health declined more rapidly than his. It was only a severe stroke on Thursday, November 2, 2017 that caused him to pass more quickly into glory.

We thank God for the life and legacy of Dr. Morton Howison Smith, even as we mourn his death. Yet our loss is his gain. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches in Q. & A. 37, "The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united in Christ, do rest in their graves til the resurrection." Having passed into glory, Dr. Morton Smith is now perfect in holiness, beholding his beloved Christ.

A Vital Call for the Vitals of Religion

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In the denomination in which I serve as a minister--The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--we have confessional standards to which all our ministers voluntarily agree to submit, subscribe, and support. The language we use to describe this action is that of adoption. He must, our Book of Church Order requires, be "able in good faith sincerely to receive and adopt the Confession of Fatih and Catechisms" of the church as "containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures" (BCO 21.4).

That fact being stipulated, the adoption of the documents as containing the system does not mean a jot and tittle adoption of every "statement and/or proposition" (BCO 21.4). To put it another way, one is not automatically disqualified from being able to minister in the PCA because of a difference with the Standards. Instead, ministers and candidates for the ministry may take exceptions--at the discretion and permission of a Presbytery--to any differences or scruples they might have with the official doctrine of the church as contained in the standards. When this happens each exception is weighed and examined by the court of the church. Some exceptions are deemed acceptable and thus approved; others are not.

Of course, all of this raises the following questions: "By what standard is an exception deemed acceptable or not? Is there another repository of truth which may be mined and appealed to in order to determine whether or not an exception is acceptable?"

The answer to the latter question is "Yes!" The litmus test used to determine acceptance and approval of exceptions to the standards is this: "The exception(s) must not be the kind that is either hostile to the system or strikes at the vitals of religion" (BCO 21.4). In other words, all exceptions are acceptable as long as they don't strike at the vitals of religion. So far so good, right?

But this forces additional questions to surface. What are the vitals of religion? Where might one find the list of them? What types of exceptions are hostile to the system? Where might one find that list?

This is where things get quite interesting. The answers that I have heard to those questions, at least from my experience and in my opinion, is alarming. The vitals of religion evidently clearly exist. They are mentioned in the BCO, after all. But no one can seem to agree what they are or where they are codified. In the context of debate on the Presbytery floor, I've even asked for someone to articulate them! Many people seem to know what they are and where they are codified. But the problem is that often their particular lists differ from the list of their colleagues.

Evidently the vitals of religion are different for different people. And because different people make up different Presbyteries, they are, therefore, different for different Presbyteries. Furthermore, if history teaches us anything it's that the vitals actually change over time as well. What was once a vital and struck against the system in 1973 is no longer a vital today and therefore acceptable. And we should expect the same evolution and progression to continue. What is a vital today will not likely be a vital in 50 years from now.

This undefined language of the BCO is, at this point, highly subjective and allows for the acceptance of anything so long as it is agreed upon by the majority who determine that the exception is not threatening a vital.

From this we can conclude that a vital is what the contemporary majority at the time of examination determines a vital to be.

The only way to remedy this is to come up wth a list of vitals--that is, acceptable exceptions--or require strict subscription to the original documents. There are simply no other alternatives. And when the list of vitals is produced, no doubt, a sub-set of vitals-of-the-vitals will emerge, and then we are back to square one. Apart from strict subscription, all other solutions will allow for the contemporary majority to determine what is acceptable or not in the denomination.

At the end of the day, Even if we come up with a list of vitals for the entire denomination now it will reflect the contemporary opinion of the majority. So, really, the only option is full subscription to the old confessional standards. If this is rejected the PCA will be, in 50 years, what the PCUSA is today.

Borrowed Conviction

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It has happened a few times before. It happened again recently. Someone without a good church gets in touch, referred by a mutual friend. Or someone drops an email asking for advice. Or there is a conversation at a conference with someone who has come looking for help, counsel, refuge. Somewhere along the way, I ask about their convictions. I ask about their home church, if they have one. It helps me. It helps them. If I am to walk carefully, act wisely, tread on no toes, be of any assistance, it is useful to know what they actually believe and where they belong. And so I ask.

The answer, too often, involves a list of names. Top dogs. Big cheeses. In many instances, men who have earned their spurs. I understand that sometimes a name or names attach to systems or principles. I would understand if someone identified themselves in terms of an Augustinian soteriology, or a Calvinistic view of God, or a Puritan approach to holiness. I accept that it sometimes helps us and others to situate ourselves by locating ourselves in relation to others whose doctrinal or practical position is fairly firmly fixed, at least in some regard: "I love Spurgeon, or Owen, or Bunyan, or M'Cheyne."

I appreciate that we sometimes use shorthand. "I am a Calvinist." "I believe in the doctrines of grace." "I hold to the Reformation solas." "I am a Westminster/Savoy/1689 man." That helps. Even then, to be honest, I would usually say, "That's great. Let's talk about what that actually means." But it is not what I often hear.

What I hear is a list of names. "I like Beeke, Washer, MacArthur." Or, "I would love to sit under the preaching of Piper, Keller, Carson." Or, "I really appreciate Dever, Sproul, Grudem." Or, "I listen to guys like DeYoung, Mohler, Chandler."

And this from someone who is often saying that they are looking for a church home, somewhere to put down roots. What's the problem? The problem is that these men do not believe the same things. To be sure, most of them would share some or many fundamental convictions. They would all set out to preach the Gospel. But their understanding of the intricacies of the gospel, their hermeneutics and exegesis, their sense of how soteriology feeds into and shapes ecclesiology, their view of ordinances and sacraments, their notions of duty and discipleship, their expectations in terms of authority and structure, their priorities and pursuits--all of those things--will have often significant variation.

And so I find myself explaining to the person in question that they now have a problem. The convictions that would bring you into membership in some of the congregations to which those men belong, or in which they find their home, would necessarily exclude you from membership in the congregation in which another serves. You could ask them questions, and in some cases you would get contradictory answers. Some of those contradictory answers would be of lesser importance, but most would have a significant impact in terms of principles and practices in regular church life. You are in danger of living on borrowed conviction, and therefore remaining a spiritual and ecclesiastical roamer.

The men they mention are, to them, not so much reference points in an organized system, or recognizable markers along a clearly-discerned path, so much as they are random notes heard without arrangement. However clear and convinced the particular figureheads might be themselves, to the person who is hearing them they might be no more than a voice on the wind. That person might think of those men as pastors and disciplers (and in their own context they might be), but they are - to this roving and unrooted listener - merely floating heads, disembodied preachers, often nothing more than voices from the internet or passing personalities at a conference.

A list of gurus is not the same as a developed set of theological convictions. Neither is it the same as having a spiritual home with true shepherds caring for your soul. And yet to find a church and to find pastors is no easy task, for the person in question typically does not know what they are looking for. There may be an expectation of profile and gift in the man under whose ministry they will sit, the man who effortlessly hits a home run in every sermon and whose sermonic hit counter regularly goes stratospheric. They are looking for a big personality or a 'proper ministry'--you know, one with a logo, and a strapline, and a reputation, and a staff. Often, the notion of finding a faithful man faithfully feeding faithful members, investing in each one so as to bring each to their potential as a servant of the Lord, is alien. Not only do they have no experience of it, they have no expectation of it. And so I urge the person in question to find a church and pastors. Generally, I explain, the two go together! Find a community of believers among whom you can live and serve with a clear and biblically instructed conscience. Read the Scriptures and pray and study and pray and ask and listen and pray until you know what that means. If you are coming to me, I can tell you and show you what I believe and why I believe it. I will try to persuade you, because these things are important. If you want to check out these things with someone else, that is your call. But don't come to the conclusion that these things are not important, or you will end up living in a spiritual landscape without definition, in a house without the roof and walls that provide order and security. You will need to think about your soteriology, your ecclesiology, your eschatology, your missiology - you will need to figure out a few 'ologies' in order to know where you can put down roots. You will need to be ready and willing to listen and to learn. You need to find a man or men of God whom you can trust and love and receive and, in some ready measure, follow, not from an adoring distance, but up close and personal. You need to find a place to call your spiritual home. You need a faithful company of saints who have covenanted together to love the Lord and one another, among whom you can stand and with whom you can serve. You need to get convinced and get committed.

If you are already in such a situation, thank God for what may seem like mundane realities. They are no small blessings. Keep learning, but be careful not to keep shifting. Settle the basics of comprehensive Christian believing and living and then get on with the substance of that convinced life. Listen more - much more - to the undershepherds God has given you that to the ones he has given someone else (and steer clear of the men who claim to be shepherds but have given up on or been legitimately rejected by sheep).

If you need to be in such a situation, determine not to live on borrowed conviction. Do not be one of those who, in these respects, are "always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2Tim 3.7). Learn and embrace the fundamentals of Christian faith and living before God, among the saints, and under authority, and you will find--under God--that this is the place and this is the sphere to know and enjoy developing spiritual health and advancing biblical holiness and increasing Christian happiness.
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Richard Webster referred to five widely differing views regarding subscription in the colonial Presbyterian church as: "the Protesters, the excluded, the silent, those who were dissatisfied with both parties, and the absent." The modern church may find itself in a similar position. The subject of these essays has not always been agreed upon. Moreover, I am aware of no other volume or website which concentrates on this important subject with such candor and comprehensiveness.  I am grateful to the editors of Place for Truth for confirming the continuing usefulness of this important data collection. Even though over the years there has been much debate over the manner of adhering to the Confession of Faith, intelligent discussions are not always presented. Although Charles Hodge sought to give much of the history of this issue in his 1851 The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, he is sometimes accused of a partisan favoring of the Old School. Admittedly, liberals have also given their views of the correct manner of confessional subscription.

Continue reading on Place for Truth.

Text link -- http://info.alliancenet.org/placefortruth/an-introduction-to-confessional-subscription#.U3vGj5RdVDI

Confessors and confessions

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I wonder if I might draw your attention to a series of volumes that ought to be known to church historians and historical theologians, and those who are interested in the same? The series is published by Reformation Heritage Books, and each volume so far has been compiled and introduced by James T. Dennison, Jr. (Professor of Church History and Biblical Theology and Academic Dean at Northwest Theological Seminary). The series is entitled, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation. The volumes are not cheap, but serious historians and those interested in the confessional heritage of the church will certainly appreciate them.

Volume 1 (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster / RHB) covers the years 1525 to 1552. Several of the thirty-three texts included are here in English for the first time. Each is simply and clearly set out, preceded by a brief introduction. If nothing else, it gives a rich and encouraging sense of one's inheritance as a Christian confessor. This volume carries us from Zwingli's Sixty-Seven Articles of 1523 through to the Consensus Genevensis of 1552.

Volume 2 (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster / RHB), covering the years 1552 to 1566, provides a further 35 confessions, each with a lucid and brief introduction. This volumes includes both the Forty-Two and the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, the Heidelberg Catechism, and such lesser-known works as the Geneva Students' Confession (1559), Beza's Confession (1560), productions from Tarcal and Torda and Enyedi, and the delightfully named Synod of Gönc (1566). Particularly fascinating are those truths which our forefathers thought primary (and therefore worthy of confessing), and which today are often discounted as secondary (and vice versa). One of the values of such a study is to send us back to our Bibles to recalibrate our sensitivities, informed both by the necessities of the present and the instruction of the past.

Volume 3 (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster / RHB) surveys the years 1567 to 1599. Again, while the price of this volume cannot be denied, it is a worthwhile investment, especially for seminaries and scholars. Several features stand out here: one is catholicity, for here we are roaming through Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, Germany, Scotland, England and Holland, yet tracing patterns that are often familiar from the first volumes and which stretch across vast distances. At the same time, we see that unity and uniformity are not the same thing, for - while there is no doubting the common causes evident in this material - we can also see how they are adapted for and expressed in concrete situations. Here the introductions come into their own, showing the fires in which these documents were forged. Then we see the brilliant thoroughness of these various confessors. These are no lightweight constructs built of shoddy materials, but masterpieces of theological reflection and conviction. Such collections as this push us out of our own time and place and bring scriptural truth before us with a freshness and liveliness that belies the suggestion of dry and musty academia that might lurk around such volumes.

Volume 4 is just being published (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster / RHB) and completes the series. It brings us from 1600 to 1693. If I am able, once I set my eyes on it, I will add a few words here. I can suggest that, if it maintains the standard of scholarship as well as the quality of production of the previous volumes, it will be equally worthwhile. Dennison is doing those who love the Reformed heritage a rich service, and I hope it is being properly valued.

Confessional Baptist covenant theology

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You may be interested to know that a new site explaining and promoting Reformed/Particular/Covenantal/Confessional/Calvinistic Baptist covenant theology (choose whichever label least offends you) is alive and kicking. Catchily entitled 1689 Federalism, the key piece at present is a helpful video providing an introduction to covenant theology from a Baptist perspective, though there is plenty of other material (videos, charts, books) there as well. Do have a look.

Reformed and Baptist: the third wave

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Not long ago, the good Dr Trueman took up the question of why the label 'Reformed' is more often associated with Baptists than with Presbyterians.

I appreciated the irenic tone of Carl's answer (appreciably and appreciatedly different to the caustic and dismissive attitude of some others), and I share a number of his underlying convictions. My intention in this post is not to start a fight with the esteemed Trueman or anyone else, nor to try to put clear blue water between churches like the one I serve and everyone else in the whole wide world, nor indeed to enter a competition about who is the most Reformed. (Indeed, I admit to a sinking feeling whenever someone - usually with a self-satisfied tone - takes it upon themselves to inform me that not only are they Reformed, but that they consider themselves to be very Reformed - whatever that means.)

Carl concluded his piece by saying that "the eclipse of Presbyterians in the evangelical world's adoption of the term 'Reformed' is probably in large part a function of the transformation of the term's meaning by the contemporary evangelical scene. This is not something I myself will lose any sleep over." No more do I lose sleep over the strident demands of some Presbyterians that I relinquish any right to the label: I am happy to be a Reformed Baptist, a Particular Baptist, a confessional (or '1689') Baptist, an independent Baptist, or whatever particular label enables someone to fit me fairly accurately into a fairly appropriate pigeonhole.

Similarly, I think that there is a degree of common ground between Carl and those of my ilk, stamp and kidney: I agree that the word 'Reformed' should mean more than 'vaguely Calvinistic in its soteriology.' I agree that the word 'confessional' is bandied around with some carelessness and a great deal of vacuity as a kind of synonym for 'orthodox'. I further accept that real confessionalism - like any form of real conviction - enshrines certain proper distinctions (and, in degree, necessary divisions) over issues of the ordinances and ecclesiology (though it should be noted that soteriology raises its head here as well). Indeed, it is for these very reasons that when someone tells me that they are a Reformed Baptist, my response tends to be something like, "That's great! Would you mind telling me exactly what you mean by that?"

Furthermore, I accept (without agreement) that for some Presbyterians (I am not suggesting that this is true for Carl), the historical narrative for the Reformed and the legitimate application of the word stop short somewhere in or around Dordrecht in the early seventeenth century (others would, perhaps, like to turn a little further back and south toward Calvin's Geneva, some forward and west toward Westminster in the mid-seventeenth century). Indeed, I have seen one definition of 'Reformed' that included, as a fairly central element, the wearing of a Geneva gown in worship. Now if that isn't an oddity, kindly fax me an explanation of what is!

But in the midst of it all, I find that nowhere does the good doctor properly allow for the kind of Reformed Baptist that I am and that many of my friends are, and neither do many of the discussions of this issue. I guess I am, in part, picking up on this because of Carl's Anabaptist jibe of some moons ago, to which I responded with tongue equally firmly in cheek. But behind those friendly barbs and this post lies a more serious concern. In the discussion of what it means to be Reformed, and in the consideration of what it means to be a Reformed Baptist (or whatever else you wish to call us), I generally find that there is a gap on the spectrum that is overlooked or quickly dismissed, the gap that tends to be brushed over with the suggestion that there are Reformed Baptists who are not quite (or at all) Pipettes or a certain brand of Southern Baptists or Acts 29 types or SGM guys, but who actually - to use Carl's words - "hold to more traditional forms of worship and polity."

This post, after that long preamble, intends to introduce the small group of such men and churches more formally. And no, I do not presume to be any kind of appointed spokesman for all or part of that group. And no, I do not presume that relative smallness means that we have an innate claim to greater purity than anyone else (though it does have an effect on our visibility). Furthermore, we do not really have, as far as I know, any great gurus or monumental figureheads - I mean, we have enough personalities to start some miserable fights, but no name behind which we all line up. People might come to our churches and start throwing around the names of the evangelical and 'Reformed' celebrities and trying to figure out whether or not we are of Paul or Cephas or Apollos but - by and large - we do not neatly fit into such camps, although we have genuine and sometimes close affinities with several of them. It may be that part of the problem is that, historically, we did not have our roots in the US (although it is fair to say that the twentieth century resurgence - for the New Calvinists are not the first to use the word - among Reformed Baptists probably had a more American flavour than otherwise).

It was, indeed, the Anabaptists who provided the backdrop to some of the first public statements of those who would become known as Reformed Baptists, but not as some would imagine. The first Calvinistic or Particular Baptist churches in England had their origins in the 1630s when men like William Kiffin (and, later, Hanserd Knollys) sat under the umbrella of the Independent congregation usually known as the Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey church. By the mid-1640s both Kiffin and Knollys had left the Jessey church to form distinctively Baptist congregations.

Perhaps the definitive breaking of cover for the Particular Baptists was their 1644 Confession. This is an important document: seven churches produced it in order to make plain their distinctive beliefs while putting distance between themselves and the excesses and errors of the continental Anabaptist groups on the one hand, as well as the General (Arminian) Baptists on the other. At this time (and, my, haven't things changed!) the label 'Anabaptist' was a deliberate slur, designating the kind of people who could be relied upon to turn any society morally upside down within moments ("Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!"), and was readily slapped on people or groups which advocated the novel and dangerous notion that the church did not consist of everyone born into a particular nation-state under the auspices of its national church. Drawing on a couple of earlier documents, the 1644 was an important step at a point when an essentially Presbyterian Parliament was exercising unprecedented powers and the Westminster divines were recommending some fairly uncomfortable measures for those considered outside the fold. Revisions swiftly followed in 1646, several of which read as unnecessary attempts to appease the powers that be - this was not necessarily an advance, although the line was holding firm.

When Oliver Cromwell died and - after a period of confusion - Charles II assumed the throne, the Baptists were among those who faced severe persecutions. The full weight of a church and state, yoked together in oppression, came down on anyone outside the restored and vengeful Church of England (whether Baptist, Independent or Presbyterian, who were all now more or less beyond the pale). Persecution drove these groups more closely together than they could have been when some Presbyterians had been advocating the forcible sublimation of Baptists and their churches.

Out of this arose a desire on the part of the Baptist churches to demonstrate their common ground with their fellow pilgrims, while maintaining their own distinctive identity from the Paedobaptists on the one hand and the Anabaptists on the other (including the Constantinianism/Erastianism of the former and the wild political radicalism of many of the latter). The result was what is commonly called the 1689 (Second London) Baptist Confession of Faith. Some slight awkwardness arises from the fact that this confession was actually written in 1677, although it was not signed and published until 1689, the year of the Glorious Revolution, when there was a greater degree of freedom afforded to the men and churches responsible.

The 1689 (which I will call it for the sake of simplicity) takes a line from the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians through the Savoy Declaration of the Independents. Much water had passed under the bridge (and, indeed, over the Baptists) since 1644, and this document was the result of the mature thinking of the finest and godliest minds among the growing churches of the Particular Baptists. It is a great shame that many modern editions of the 1689 omit the introductory epistle "To the Judicious and Impartial Reader," and what is simply entitled, "An Appendix," both masterpieces of irenic polemicism, or polemic irenicism, depending on which side you like your bread buttered.

In the former, they explicitly link their work with the form and purpose of the 1644 Confession, while making plain that they wanted not only "to give a full account of our selves, to those Christians that differ from us about the subject of baptism" (I modernise the English slightly in this and the following quotes) but also a defence of the genuine godliness that the doctrine of the Particular Baptists was producing, a godliness that would have been recognised as essentially the same as that of other orthodox believers, tying it in with the work of the Westminster divines and the Savoy Conference. "We have no itch," they wrote, "to clog religion with new words, but do readily acquiesce in that form of sound words, which has been, in consent and the holy Scriptures, used by other before us." With a sincere spirit, they went on,
In those things wherein we differ from others, we have expressed our selves with all candour and plainness that none might entertain jealousy of aught secretly lodged in our breasts, that we would not the world should be acquainted with; yet we hope we have also observed those rules of modesty, and humility, as will render our freedom in this respect inoffensive, even to those whose sentiments are different from ours.
The Appendix is equally irenic and equally incisive. It begins:
Whosoever reads, and impartially considers what we have in our forgoing confession declared, may readily perceive, that we do not only concenter with all other true Christians on the Word of God (revealed in the Scriptures of truth) as the foundation and rule of our faith and worship. But that we have also industriously endeavoured to manifest, that in the fundamental articles of Christianity we mind the same things, and have therefore expressed our belief in the same words, that have on the like occasion been spoken by other societies of Christians before us.
What follows, having established this common ground, is a quite brilliant Baptist apologetic (and I do not say that simply because of my fundamental agreement with it), laudable for its clarity and brevity and simplicity, setting out key elements of the Baptist view of salvation, covenant, ordinances and church, concluding:
So may it be now as to many things relating to the service of God, which do retain the names proper to them in their first institution, but yet through inadvertency (where there is no sinister design) may vary in their circumstances, from their first institution. And if by means of any ancient defection, or of that general corruption of the service of God, and interruption of his true worship, and persecution of his servants by the Antichristian Bishop of Rome, for many generations; those who do consult the Word of God, cannot yet arrive at a full and mutual satisfaction among themselves, what was the practise of the primitive Christian Church, in some points relating to the Worship of God: yet inasmuch as these things are not of the essence of Christianity, but that we agree in the fundamental doctrines thereof, we do apprehend, there is sufficient ground to lay aside all bitterness and prejudice, and in the spirit of love and meekness to embrace and own each other therein; leaving each other at liberty to perform such other services, (wherein we cannot concur) apart unto God, according to the best of our understanding.
What needs to be understood is that these men were not trying to start a war, but neither would their consciences allow them to retreat. The Particular Baptists of the seventeenth century unashamedly considered themselves as the heirs and the advancers - the third wave, if you will - of the Reformation.

Such an awareness was not misplaced triumphalism or mere bombast. These men and churches appreciated where they had come from, but they had clear views as to where they needed to go. In espousing their distinctive convictions they realised that they were in disagreement not only with the Anglican Church but also with fellow Dissenters - Presbyterians like Richard Baxter and Independents such as John Owen. They understood that the magisterial Reformers had struck the first blows, being responsible for exposing the corruptions of Antichrist and bringing important doctrines such as justification by faith to light. The second wave they identified in men like William Ames and later John Owen, who argued that on the one hand a true gospel church was comprised of professing saints, but on the other hand that the children of believers were still to be baptized by sprinkling. They appreciated that many of the Puritans had gone (far) beyond the half-way Reformation of Anglicanism (which - despite some outstanding men, and because of circumstances peculiar to the United Kingdom - stalled in its application of the same foundational realities), and how the Puritans pressed the principles of the Reformation into additional spheres of faith and life, many paying for it with their expulsion. But with the third wave the error of infant baptism was exposed. Now the Particular Baptists, self-consciously a part of this progress, were pressing those Reformation principles more fully into further areas of faith and life, not least the doctrine of the church, especially with regard to its very nature and its role and purpose on the earth.

This central issue and their sense of their place is evident in the preface to Philip Carey's splendidly-titled A Solemn Call unto all that would be owned as Christ's Faithful Witnesses, speedily and seriously, to attend unto the Primitive Purity of the Gospel Doctrine and Worship: or a Discourse Concerning Baptism (London,1690). Five prominent London Particular Baptists - William Kiffin, John Harris, Richard Adams, Robert Steed and Benjamin Keach, theological leaders among their brothers - put their names to this piece, arguing that "the true gospel visible church is to consist only of such as are saints by profession, and who give themselves up to the Lord and to one another by solemn agreement to practice the ordinances of Christ." (For more on the doctrine of baptism these men held, see chapter 12 of Austin Walker's The Excellent Benjamin Keach [Dundas, Ontario: Joshua Press, 2004].)

For all their esteem of the magisterial Reformers and of their ground-breaking labours, and for all their (and our) respect for the often underestimated and undervalued principles and practices that those Reformers embraced, Reformed Baptists cannot regard Geneva as the sole and abiding high-water mark of the Reformation. While recognising the genuine continuity between the Old and New Covenants, our forefathers - with modern Reformed Baptists of the same stripe - also recognised the genuine discontinuity that the Scriptures themselves demand.

In that respect, the principle of a gathered church of baptised believers, conducting itself in the holiness of renewed lives, was something to which those pioneers believed their brothers-in-arms had not attained. A failure to embrace this principle allowed a potentially fatal rot to set in. Again, Benjamin Keach made their convictions and concerns plain when he wrote Light broke forth in Wales, expelling Darkness (London, 1696):
I look upon Infant-Baptism to be one of the chief Pillars of the Romish Church, and of all National Churches and Constitutions in the European World; this is that Christendom that is so cried up, and the way of making and continuing the pretended Christian-Name; in the Anti-christian Church, and World, all are made Christian in their Infant-Baptism: And thus the inhabitants of the Earth are cheated, and deluded with a Shadow and empty Name that signifies nothing; and certain I am, until Christendom (as it is called) is Unchristianed of this pretended Rite, or Christendom, there will never be a thorough Reformation:  I mean until they see that Christianity, or Christian-Name, which they received at their Infant-Baptism, signifies nothing, but throw it away as an Human Innovation, and labour after true Regeneration, or a likeness to Christ, and so believe and are baptized upon the profession of their Faith, according as in the Apostolical Primitive Church: 'Tis Infant-Baptism that tends to uphold all National Churches, and deceives poor People who think there were hereby made Christians. (234)
To those who follow these men, in terms of pursuing and applying the Biblical principles that have led and do lead to the reformation of the church, the Reformed or Particular Baptist activity of the seventeenth century was a further step in the right direction, and is an essentially healthy heritage. It is also a developing heritage, as the stream of Particular Baptist thought - with all its struggles and stands, its tensions and triumphs (in common with other traditions) - flows down through a host of gracious and godly men into the present day. (If you are interested in learning more about the men and the issues, you might begin with Robert Oliver's History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1791-1892 [Banner of Truth, 2006] or the volumes edited by Michael Haykin on The British Particular Baptists I, II and III [Particular Baptist Press].)

In speaking in this way, I am not trying to sneak in the assertion that we are 'very Reformed.' However, it ought to be recognised that these Particular Baptists, and those who follow them and take up in this sense the label of 'Reformed Baptists', were self-consciously advancing the cause of the Reformation by deliberately pressing its principles into every area of faith and life, even those which had been sacred cows beforehand. At the same time, they were concerned to emphasise their shared doctrinal and practical convictions with those who stood in the same stream of historic, orthodox, Reformed Christianity. (For a brief and popular treatment of both the common ground and the distinctive territory, I think one of the best documents that speaks to this definition of the Reformed Baptists remains the booklet, What is a Reformed Baptist Church? by Jim Savastio.)

And this is one of the particular blessings of a confessional inheritance with so much common ground. When I, as a confessional or 1689 Baptist, sit down with a Westminster Presbyterian or Savoy Congregationalist or Independent, I know just how much we hold in common, and I am able to enjoy fellowship with such a brother on a broad, deep, shared foundation. We also know, clearly and concisely, those issues on which we differ, and how and why we differ, and are therefore able to embrace one another as brothers who walk with a clear conscience before God.

But while we trace the spiritual history, let none of us forget the spiritual reality. Here faith and life must be joined or we will have nothing but painted fire. Surely the Reformed faith is far more than a particular historical connection, a certain theological tradition, or a series of dogmatic assertions. This grasp of things presumes a soul-conquering vision of the great God and Saviour lifted up; it embraces a soul-humbling conviction of one's own natural sinfulness and wretchedness before that great and holy God; it supposes a soul-enrapturing reception of the grace of that great God and Saviour; and, it issues in a soul-encompassing consecration of the entire redeemed humanity of a saved sinner to the glory of the Lord. It was described, in its essence, by B. B. Warfield in his essay on Calvinism, as lying "in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature. . . . when the sinful soul rests in humble, self-emptying trust purely on the God of grace" (Works [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991], 5:354-5).

Surely this is the core of the matter: being captured and captivated by the triune God, therefore seeing oneself in proper and humble perspective, both in terms of what we once were without grace, might still be apart from grace, and have now become because of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. What fools we would be to ignore the treasure and fight over the box! If our confessionalism of any genuine stripe - which provides what we are persuaded are Biblical boundaries and direction to the whole - does not involve and produce this vibrant spirituality, then surely it is missing the mark, a mere cipher, a pretty shell without any enduring substance. By this measure, perhaps we ought to ask whether or not we have quite so much scope for self-congratulation as we sometimes seem to imagine? For this view of God in Christ, with all its concomitants and consequences, ought to be what above all unites those who are Reformed, and what imposes those degrees of separation from those with differing views of God and of man.

So, when the issue of what it means to be Reformed gets discussed, we ask not to be lauded and applauded, so much as simply, accurately and fairly recognised as existing. It may be that you just did not realise that we exist. It may be that the kind of Baptist convictions - about soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, doxology and a whole bunch of other ologies - to which you have been exposed have left you with some serious and significant questions, and you have given up looking for the answers among Baptists. It may be that you have met some who take the name of Reformed Baptists who, through pride or ignorance, have left you with a sour taste in your mouth, for which I am sorry. It may be - and I say this in a spirit of straightforward inquiry and not backhanded accusation - that you would rather not acknowledge this part of the spectrum because it does not fit into your historical narrative, and rather upsets your carefully piled apple-cart. But please do not repeat the old saw about Anabaptism; if I might be so bold, it will not wash. Neither dismiss us with the vague assertion that there are some Baptists out there who are both Calvinistic in their soteriology and traditional or conservative in our doxology. That is not what we really are, certainly not all we are. An honest historiography surely requires that - if nothing else - those original Particular Baptists (discounting, of course, the apostles and the early church!) are at least considered on their own terms, and taken for what they believed themselves to be, even if you might disagree with them.

There are those who are still doing what our forefathers did (and, in fact, what their Reforming, Presbyterian and Congregational forefathers had begun to do): seeking to press the Word of God ever further and more firmly into the hearts and minds of the people of God, individually and corporately, so as to promote, under God, this full-orbed appreciation of and consecration to the Lord God. As such, the Particular Baptists are - or should be - not so much slipping back as stepping forward in reformation, finding the older paths and walking in them, and - in the spirit of fraternal encouragement - it would be remiss of me, even churlish, not to invite you to join us.