Confessions: What They Are and Why We Need Them

Free Will Baptist can sound a bit odd to those who have never heard the name before. When I announce that I’m a Free Will Baptist to Calvinist Baptists at Southern Seminary, I often receive questions such as, “What exactly is a Free Will Baptist?” or, “Do you all believe in Perfectionism like Wesleyans, or that Man’s will is totally free like Semi-Pelagians?” I do my best to quickly calm my classmates’ fears that a heretic, having escaped the admissions office’s notice, might have entered their midst.

Several dear friends have even been patient enough to hear my case that such a thing as “Reformed Arminianism” really exists, and that those who embrace the title are historically confessional and far more Reformed than they might’ve expected. Confessions such as the Standard Confession (1660), the Orthodox Creed, and the Free Will Baptist Treatise have certainly aided me in explaining this strand of Arminianism, as well as demonstrating that Reformed Arminianism has existed amongst Baptists for centuries (and still exists today).

As Western culture becomes more hostile to Christianity, I’m convinced that our churches must be firmly rooted in and regularly refer to precise, thorough confessions of faith as our expression of biblical doctrine.[1] Put another way, our churches must become increasingly “confessional” if we are going to remain faithful to Scripture and give a thoughtful response to those who might question or oppose our beliefs on issues such as human sexuality or other challenging issues. We must forsake the innovative and misplaced notion of “No creed but the Bible,” and see ourselves as heirs of a theological heritage, founded on a careful reading of the Bible, shared by our ancestors, and affirmed by us today.[2]

What Confessions Are

As a starting point for confessional Christianity, I want to explore briefly what confessions of faith are and how they might benefit local churches and denominations. To do so, I will trace the General/Free Will Baptist development and use of confessions of faith. My aim is to demonstrate that General/Free Will Baptists have been confessional from the beginning, and that confessionalism can aid us in our faith and practice today.

(a) Confessions Explain the Bible

So what are confessions of faith? Some might be concerned that they’re only for Anglicans and Roman Catholics. The fact of the matter is that Baptists have been writing confessions of faith for well over 400 years. Confessions are simply attempts at explaining and defending biblical truth. They are a way of saying, “Here’s what we believe the Bible teaches on this issue.” As an example, consider the words of the General Baptist Orthodox Creed (1679) on the doctrine of saving faith:

Faith is an Act of the Understanding, giving a firm Assent to the things contained in the Holy Scriptures. But Justifying Faith is a Grace, or Habit, wrought in the Soul, by the Holy Ghost, through preaching the Word of God, whereby we are enabled to believe, not only that the Messiah is offered to us, but also to take and receive him as a Lord and Savior, and wholly and only to rest upon Christ, for grace and Eternal Salvation.[3]

This is simply an explanation of how these General Baptists believe the Bible portrays saving faith.

Imagine preparing a lesson or sermon on what it means to be saved by faith—where faith comes from, in what context it arises, and what it consists of. Confessions like this would be a valuable resource. Confessions of faith have a way of bringing together a host of biblical texts that address a single biblical doctrine, and explaining them in a brief statement.[4] If the Bible matters, and doctrine (what the Bible teaches) matters, then churches (and pastors in particular) must be diligent in carefully crafting and affirming confessions of faith.

(b) Confessions Are Public Declarations of One’s Beliefs

Confessions also serve as public declarations of a group’s beliefs. When Charles II took the English throne in 1660, many Baptists feared that they might be further persecuted for their faith. The English General Baptists hand-delivered their confession of faith, the Standard Confession, to Charles in 1660. Their purpose was to “inform all Men (in these days of scandal and reproach) of our innocent Belief and Practice.” Because their opponents were falsely accusing them of being anarchists and revolutionaries, they publicly declared their beliefs and innocence.

Therefore, in the Standard Confession the English General Baptists detailed their interpretation of the Bible on key doctrines, but they also confessed their loyalty to the English crown. Interestingly, they also publicly declared and defined their willingness to directly oppose the King if he required them to go against their conscience. Notice their shocking bravery:

And in the belief and practice of these things, (it being the good old Apostolic way) our souls have found that rest, and soul peace, which the world knows not, and which they cannot take from us; of whom then should we be afraid? God is become our strength, our light, our salvation; therefore, we are resolved (through grace) to seal the truth of these things in way of suffering persecution, not only to the loss of our goods, freedoms, or liberties, but with our lives also (if called thereunto).[5]

As illustrated by the Standard Confession, confessions can and should serve as public declarations of groups’ beliefs, and when necessary, their willingness to suffer for those beliefs. As Western culture becomes increasingly hostile to historic Christianity, consider the value of being unified around a confession of biblical truth, and being corporately willing to suffer for that truth if necessary. Confessions are our way of saying, “Here’s what the Bible says. Here’s where we stand. And with God’s help, we’re not giving an inch of ground, even if it costs us dearly.”

(c) Confessions Give Us a Precise Vocabulary for Defining Biblical Doctrine

Nothing aids heresy more than a lack of precision in doctrine. Church history is riddled with those who held unbiblical views of key doctrines such as the Trinity, but disguised them by using biblical words and categories. In the late 1600s, a General Baptist by the name of Matthew Caffyn began to question Jesus’ full humanity, believing that His flesh must have been from heaven if He was free from the effects of sin. Caffyn was less than forthright about his erroneous views, keeping them private or disguising them by only using biblical language.

When a group of General Baptists in the area where Caffyn pastored became aware of his heresy, they crafted what became known as the Orthodox Creed. The Orthodox Creed, borrowing the language of the early church, which had faced similar heresies a millennium prior, defended the biblical teaching that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. They did so with the language of the Chalcedonian Creed, which gave them a vocabulary for defending the faith with marvelous precision.

Thomas Helwys took a similar approach in 1611 when his former colleague John Smyth began to permit the Mennonites’ heretical views concerning Jesus and the Incarnation. Furthermore, Smyth began to embrace unbiblical views on baptism, the Church, and original sin. Helwys and Smyth had fled to Amsterdam to escape persecution in England, but even after such a journey together, Helwys refused to associate with Smyth’s newfound, heterodox beliefs. In response to Smyth’s doctrinal changes, Helwys drew up A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam setting his views apart from Smyth’s. Helwys affirmed original sin, imputed righteousness, and the true humanity of Christ. For Helwys, this was the only way to be clear about where he and his fellow General Baptists stood on key doctrines.

Conclusion

Arminian Baptists have historically been a confessional people. The earliest Baptists in England (General Baptists) consistently set for their beliefs in confessions so that their churches and opponents might know them. When faced with heretical beliefs they often defended the faith with precise language that echoed the vocabulary and orthodoxy of the early Church, thereby demonstrating their unity with the universal church.

Confessions have always given Baptists an opportunity to define and defend their faith. Confessions boldly let the world know where we stand on important doctrines, and that we are willing to stand firm even when many tell us that our faith is at odds with our culture. Confessions can continue to act as able guides in helping us understand and teach Scripture.

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[1] Jeremy Craft has written a very helpful article on this issue: http://www.helwyssocietyforum.com/?p=1289

[2] By “misplaced” I mean that the motive behind the mantra “No creed but the Bible” is often sincere and good, but the idea itself is mistaken. Rarely has any heretical teacher or teaching not claimed to be based upon the Bible. Therefore, we must set forth what we believe the Bible means in precise language. By “innovative” I mean that the Church has always set forth its beliefs in confessions, creeds, statements of faith, etc. to explain what the Bible means. To act is if the Bible does not need explanation is a novel idea not associated with historic Christianity. Furthermore, the acts of interpretation and explanation for the sake of clarity are integral to the purpose of preaching.

[3] William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1959), 314.

[4] As many of our leading Free Will Baptist theologians are well advanced in years, there is a great need for others to follow in their footsteps.

[5] Lumpkin, 233–234 (italics in original).

Author: Jesse Owens

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  1. Is Grandpa Turning in His Grave? Exhortations for Free Will Baptists from Our Own Heritage | Helwys Society Forum - […] [10] The term for this communal affirmation of doctrine is referred to as Confessionalism. For more on this topic…
  2. Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition: A Book Review | Helwys Society Forum - […] One can be confessional, Baptist, and Arminian at the same time (for more, see articles by Jesse Owens and…
  3. Society of Evangelical Arminians | Two Book Reviews of Matt Pinson’s Arminian and Baptist at the Helwys Society Forum - […] One can be confessional, Baptist, and Arminian at the same time (for more, see articles by Jesse Owens and…

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