[NB: this article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of the Founders Journal]
The question of the ongoing and binding nature of the Moral Law of God, as particularly summarized in the Ten Commandments, is fiercely debated today.1 Some want to argue that Christians are, “not bound by the Ten Commandments.”2 Others want to argue that the Decalogue is still binding on believers today. Both sides, however, try to cite Baptist confessional history for evidence of their claims. The aim of this paper is to try and shed some light on this debate by tracing Baptist beliefs concerning the Moral Law of God, as articulated in Baptist confessions and American Baptist newspaper articles through the mid-1800s, and to draw some conclusions about the connection between the doctrine of the Moral Law and Baptist identity. Through this study, I will attempt to demonstrate: first, that Baptists have from their beginning believed in the perpetually binding nature of God’s moral commands (i.e., moral law); and second, that the pinnacle of clarity on the doctrine of God’s moral law was in the 17th Century.
A survey of the Anabaptist Confessions will show that the Anabaptists had begun to think through issues of the law of God and its relation to believers. However, not much was explicitly written concerning the Moral Law of God specifically. Even so, there is clearly evidence for a standard of morality to which all believers are held; it is this moral standard that concerns us here.
Eighteen Dissertations, 1524
Balthasar Hubmaier (Also known as Balthasar Freidberger) was the, “most scholarly and prolific literary exponent of early Anabaptism” (18). Being one of the earliest baptistic confessions, his Eighteen Dissertations Concerning the Entire Christian Life and of What it Consists understandably has only introductory statements regarding the moral standards of God. The most relevant of those statements is in the fourth article: “All works are good which God has commanded us. And all acts which he has forbidden are evil” (21). While he does not specifically mention the Moral Law of God, it is clear he believes (1) that God has spoken concerning moral matters, and (2) believers are bound to follow those commands.
The Schleitheim Confession, 1527
On February 24, 1527 the Swiss Brethren gathered at a general conference in Schleitheim. This conference resulted in a document entitled Brotherly Union of a number of Children of God Concerning Seven Articles, also know as the Schleitheim Confession. This was not an extensive statement of their doctrine; rather, the seven articles served as, “a defense against the teachings of… antinomianism [i.e., rejection of the law], and a guide for the congregations represented at the conference” (22).
Like the Eighteen Dissertations, the Schleitheim Confession contains no explicit reference to the Moral Law of God; however, like the above confession, it does have many references to a standard of morality. The second article discusses “the ban” (excommunication) and its use against those who have “given themselves to the Lord, to walk in His commandments” (26). The fourth article speaks of the “obedience of faith,” and claims that, “the command of the Lord is clear… be separate from the evil” (27). Finally, in the concluding section, the confession exhorts believers to, “Eliminate from you that which is evil,” and speaks of the grace of God that brings to all men a, “denying [of] ungodliness and worldly lusts” (31).
The Schleitheim Confession stands clearly in line with the Eighteen Dissertations and it’s clear use of moral standards as the guide for holiness and the benchmark for judging the use of “the ban.”
Discipline of the Church, How a Christian Ought to Live, 1527
With all the emphasis on a disciplined and regulated church (e.g., ‘the ban’), the Anabaptists drew up a sort of ‘manual’ of church order. This church order, or The Discipline, lists several practical articles that help describe how an Anabaptist church should be run.
The Discipline speaks only briefly about morality in the lives of believers. The third article describes the punishment of, “a brother or sister [who] leads a disorderly life.” The sixth article describes positively the same sentiments: “A decent conduct shall be kept among them before everyone and no one shall carelessly conduct himself before the brotherhood both with words or deeds, nor before those who are ‘outside’” (34).
While brief in its discussions of the ethics of the Christian life, The Discipline is clearly standing in the Anabaptist tradition that maintains a certain moral benchmark as the standard to which every believer should be judged.
Ridemann’s Rechenschaft, 1540
While being held in two different prisons in 1540, Peter Ridemann drew up a great doctrinal work titled Rechenschaft unserer Religion, Lehre, und Glaube, which “became ‘the central document’ of the Moravian Anabaptists (38). The first half of the 110-page work deals with the basic articles of their faith, while the latter half covers the practical regulations.
Because of the size of the work, both Lumpkin and McGlothlin simply summarize its contents. According to Franz Heimann’s brief doctrinal summary of the confession, the third article speaks of faith as, “a divine power which renews man and makes him like God in nature, ardent in love and in keeping His commandments” (41, emphasis added). In the second article, Ridemann also writes of God as the one who has cast out evil from our heart and therefore we are to “seek, love, hear and keep His Word.” These are the only two clear references to obedience that are found. This “most pretentious Anabaptist document,” despite its considerable size, does not add much to the earlier confessions regarding the Moral Law of God (41).
The Waterland Confession, 1580
Hans de Ries, a native of Flanders and pastor of the Waterlander Church at Middleburg, with the help of Lubbert Gerrits, wrote a, “Confession of faith of forty articles which long served the Waterland Churches” (44). This confession, officially titled A Brief Confession of the Principal Articles of the Christian Faith, is considered the second Mennonite Confession of Faith, with an earlier one supposedly having been drawn up in 1577.4 Of particular relevance to Baptist history, this confession was reprinted in 1610 at the request of John Smyth. It was also employed to test the agreement of the English and the Mennonites (45).
The confession stands as a significant development from the previous Anabaptist confessions, especially regarding the Law of God. The tenth article speaks of the, “Intolerable burden of the Mosaic Law… was brought to an end in Christ” (49). However, they did not believe that the end of the Law meant to moral constrains on believer. On the contrary, the author speaks of Christ as the “Lawgiver” (article 9) who has, “Demonstrated what the law of Christians is, what the rule and norm of life, and what sort of life and path leads to eternal life” (article 10, 49f.). In the twenty-third article, the author says that believers should live through love, “in all good works, according to the laws and precepts and customs enjoined on him by God through Christ” (54, emphasis added). Clearly, the Anabaptists at Waterlander understood that the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law did not remove moral restraints upon a believer, even if there is not clear delineation between the Moral Law and the ceremonial or civil.
The Dordrecht Confession, 1632
The “Most influential of all Mennonite Confessions,” the Dordrecht Confession was adopted on April 21, 1632, at a conference of Flemish and Frisian ministers (61). Its enduring influence can be seen even today as it is still owned by the “Mennonite Church” and other conservative Mennonite bodies in America (62).
The confession declares that, according to the New Testament, “all men without distinction, if they are obedient, through faith, follow, fulfill, and live according to the precepts of the same [New Testament], are His children” (66). Also, after baptism, believers are to “learn and observe all things whatsoever the Son of God taught, left on record, and commanded His followers to do” (article 7, 67).
Even though this confession gives clear primacy to the New Testament commands, it is clear that the Anabaptists drafting this confession believed that the Word of God was to the be ethical standard by which men should be judged, even if explicit articulation was not given regarding the Moral Law of God.
All of the early Anabaptist confessions explain that a believer’s life should be transformed and should be lived according to the Word of God. The major confessions discussed (Schleitheim, Waterland, and Dordrecht) all include sections defending and explaining the church’s role in excommunication. The inclusion of such articles implicitly describes the continuing moral standard that is found only in the Word of God. Despite the lack of clear explanation regarding the Moral Law of God, the trajectory toward greater confessional clarity has been set. This pattern toward greater clarity will begin to accelerate as the Baptist movement begins to grow.
Pioneer English Separatist-Baptist Confessions
A True Confession, 1596
After founding a separatist church in England, Francis Johnson, John Greenwood, and 56 other members were imprisoned in London between winter 1592 and spring 1593 (76). Thanks to a change in the English government’s policy, the church members were allowed to emigrate, though without the leadership of their elders. The newly released congregants moved to Holland, re-gathered the church, and elected Henry Ainsworth as pastor. In 1596, a new creed was drawn up and titled A True Confession.
Following in the tradition of the previously described confessions, A True Confession has no formal article describing the Moral Law of God. However, the confession does reveal several times the moral obligations, either implicit or explicit, found in scripture: Christ has revealed all that believers need for knowledge and obedience (Article 8); Christ has separated the church from unbelievers, idolatry, superstition, vanity, works of darkness… (Article 17); and believers are to strive to do the will of God and walk in the obedience of faith (Article 27).
A Short Confession of Faith in XX Articles, by John Smyth, 1609
A group of English Separatists, lead by John Smyth, fled to the Neatherlands in order to avoid persecution. After baptizing himself, Smyth began to regret his decision and sought membership in a Mennonite church. In order to show his doctrinal solidarity, “Smyth seems to have written… a twenty-article Confession of Faith for perusal by the Mennonites and probably sent it along with the application for admission to the Waterland Church of Amsterdam.” This confession is noteworthy among English Separatist confessions prior to 1610 for two reasons: it was anti-paedobaptist and anti-Calvinistic (93).
A Short Confession has twenty short articles, only three of which relate to the law directly. The fourth article speaks of the “law of life,” that is, man was to continue living by keeping the law of God (otherwise known as the Covenant of Works made between God and Adam). The fifth article denies original sin and defines all sin as, “actual and voluntary, viz., a word, a deed, or a design against the law of God” (94). The final reference to the ethical requirements of believers is in Article 11: “true and living faith is distinguished by good works” (95). The brevity and clearly Anabaptistic doctrinal nature does not hide the fact that Smyth certainly believed that man was to be held accountable to the ethical standards of God’s law.
A Short Confession of Faith, 1610
The Waterlanders sent a confession back to the Smyth group for their examination. The confession, “practically a reproduction of that of Gerits and de Ries of 1580, with articles XIX and XXII omitted,” was signed by forty-three of the English. Because of this confession’s similarity to the Waterland Confession described above, it will not be examined further.
English Declaration at Amsterdam, 1611
Another English pastor in Amsterdam, Thomas Helwys, disagreed with Smyth’s doctrinal turns and decided to write a confession of faith to defend the truth of God, to enlighten some of his own members, and to “clear those represented of unjust charges.” This confession renounces Arminian views of sin and the will, but is anti-Calvinistic on the doctrine of atonement (107).
The English Declaration is significant in this study because it makes the first explicit mention of the Moral Law of God: “That everie church ought… not labor in their callings according to the equitie off the moral law, which CHRIST came not to abolish, but to fulfill. Exod. 20.8, &c.” (Article 19, sic). This is the first confession that makes explicit the Moral Law category; furthermore, it seems to also imply the perpetually binding nature of that Moral Law.
Propositions and Conclusions, 1612
After the death of their leader and having been abandoned by the Helwys party, Smyth’s party continued to seek admission to the Waterlander church. Smyth’s followers responded to Helwys’ confession by issuing another confession. This confession, Propositions and Conclusions concerning True Christian Religion, containing a Confession of Faith of certain English people, living at Amsterdam, contained 102 articles.
This confession, like the ones immediately preceding it, speaks of Christ as the only “lawgiver” (Article 29). Relying on language from Romans 3, Article 63 states that, “the new creature although he be above the law and scriptures, yet he can do nothing against the law or scriptures, bur rather all his doings shall serve the confirming and establishing of the law” (124). Furthermore, Article 68 defines faith as, “knowledge in the mind of the doctrine of the law and gospel contained in… the Old and New Testament” (125, emphasis added). This is noteworthy because it links knowledge of the law as a necessary component of faith.
The early English Separatist confessions mark significant advancement in the clarity of articles concerning the Moral Law of God. In this group we see the first mention of the Moral Law (English Declaration) and the first positive link between knowledge of the Law and true faith (Propositions and Conclusions). As the Baptists are forced to more clearly delineate their beliefs, the articulation of the doctrine of the Moral Law of God increasingly more precise. With this growing doctrinal precision, we can begin to see how the confession writers saw a link between true faith and the Law of God.
Early English Baptist Associational Confessions
The London Confession, 1644
A group of seven Particular Baptist Churches decided to publish a confession of faith in order to distinguish themselves from both the General Baptists and the Anabaptists (132). This confession, The Confession of Faith, of those Churches which are commonly (though falsely) called Anabaptists, also known as the First London Confession, is the first Baptist confession to claim immersion as the preferred mode of baptism. It is clearly Calvinistic in doctrine, and “it largely anticipates the Westminster Confession, ‘but with more rhetorical expansion and greater tenderness of tone’” (134).
This confession follows the pattern of many before it by speaking in general terms regarding the ethics of believers: of “Christian duties” (Article 7); that believers can find all that is needful “to know, beleeve, and obey” in the in the “Prophesie of Christ” (Article 15, sic); that the power of conversion carries on “the soule still through all duties” (Article 16, sic); that believers “presseth after a heavenly and Evangelicall perfection, in obedience to all the Commands which Christ… has prescribed to him” (Article 29, sic).
One article of particular note claims that the offering of the gospel to sinners is “absolutely free, no way requiring… terrors of the Law, or preceding Ministry of the Law.” This appears to be contradicting the role of the law as necessary for faith that had previously been articulated (e.g., English Declaration, Article 19). However, because most of the represented churches that signed the First London Confession signed the Second London Confession (discussed below), it can be assumed that a denial of the necessity of the Moral Law of God is not being insinuated here.5 Rather, the drafters are refuting the notion of ‘terrors of the law,’ that is, physical or mental manifestations of contrition or remorse not commanded by scripture, in order for a sinner to be found truly penitent. According to one author, “modification of the strong preparationism of Thomas Hooker’s scheme of evangelism was more the concern than a rejection of any use of the Law in evangelism.”6 The way that the rest of this confession speaks of the use of the moral commands of God, combined with the doctrinal solidarity of both the London Confessions and the signers of both confessions make it clear that this First London Confession stands in the tradition of earlier and later Baptist confessions that affirm the ongoing necessity of the Moral Law of God in the lives of believers.
The Faith and Practice of Thirty Congregations, 1651
At a General Baptist associational meeting in 1651, probably held in Leicester, thirty churches, each represented by two delegates, adopted a confession called The Faith and Practice of Thirty Congregations, Gathered According to the Primitive Pattern (160). This confession is important “because it is the first General Baptist statement representing the view of more than one church.” The confession, shortened to Thirty Congregations, reveals “no consistently Arminian system… rather, some traditional emphases of Calvinism are set forth” (161). For example, the doctrine of free will is rejected in Article 25.
Regarding the moral commands of scripture, the confession makes many typical claims as well as a couple interesting ones. The typical references to Christ as lawmaker (Article 28) and the necessity of obedience to scriptures’ moral commands are both present (Articles 42, 45, and 52). Interesting additions are given as well: Article 12 speaks about the “Lawes [sic] or commands” that God gave to Adam and Article 28 claims that Christ is the, “Law giver to every man that liveth in the world, in that he giveth every man therein some measure of light.” These two claims mark a significant advancement in the doctrine of the moral law of God because they claim that, at least in some measure, Adam knew of the moral requirements of God and that the Moral Law of God is given to every man, saved or not. These are small steps toward the later confessional clarification given regarding the universality and perpetuity of the Moral Law of God.
The True Gospel-Faith, 1654
By the mid-1650s General Baptists in London grew increasingly concerned with the influence of Quakerism in Baptist circles. A result of their growing concern was The True Gospel-Faith Witnessed by the Prophets and Apostles, And Collected into Thirty Articles, Presented to the world as the present Faith and Practice of the Church of Christ. The confession is perhaps the “best picture of the reaction of Baptist to the first serious effort of the Quakers to win London” (176).
While the confession contains the usual references to the need for holiness (Article 15), excommunication (Article 21), and perseverance in the “Commandments of God” (Article 29), the most telling aspect of this confession regarding their views on the Moral Law is not actually in the confession itself. The main publisher of the confession, John Griffith, published a pamphlet against the Quakers that, among other things, accused them of “rejecting the Law of the Lord” (173). That antinomianism, or rejection of the Law of God, would be one of the heretical charges leveled against Quakers proves that the binding nature of the Moral Law of God was clearly an important part of the General Baptists’ doctrine.
The Somerset Confession, 1656
General Baptists were not the only ones to produce a confession refuting the influence of Quakerism. Penned primarily by hands of the “great Particular Baptist apostle to West of England,” Thomas Collier, A Confession of the Faith of Several Churches of Christ In the County of Somerset, and of some Churches in the Counties neer adjacent [sic] was the Particular Baptists’ response to this new invading heresy (184). This confession probably attempts to unite all Baptists, General and Particular, and resulted in the weakening of the Quaker influence among Baptists (187).
Keeping in mind the general charge of antinomianism leveled against the Quakers, Collier continued the pattern of describing Christ as “our Prophet [who]… hath given us the scriptures… as a rule and direction… for faith and practice,” and Christ as our “law-giver… [who] hath given rules unto us, by the which he ruleth over us.” Not only has he given us rules, Collier extends the usual language regarding obedience to include our affections: Believers should, “bow before him [Christ] submitting ourselves to him alone in all his commands with joy” (Article 18). This is the most significant contribution of the Somerset Confession to the Baptist clarification and articulation of the doctrine of the Moral Law of God: that the Law itself is not an impediment to true faith; rather, when viewed properly, the ethical commands of God can and should be an opportunity of joyful obedience (Articles 18 and 23).
English Baptist General Confessions
The Standard Confession, 1660
Against the backdrop of many heinous accusations being leveled against them (e.g., opposing the magistracy, countenancing with Quakers, and desiring to destroy those who differed from Baptists… ), the General Baptist assembly drew up a confession in 1660 to defend themselves from unjustified doctrinal and practical accusations (202). Being more of a true confession than a statement of practice, The Standard Confession eventually, after several revisions and expansions, become one of the most influential confessions in General Baptist life, even being used in American Baptist life (206).
The Standard Confession’s statement on Christ is “brief ” and “vague,” which allows the article to become, “a bone of future contention” (204). Brevity not withstanding, the article is clear that Christ “is most worthy their [believers’] constant affections and subjection to all his Commandments” (Article 6). Regardless of the confession’s strict us of scriptural language, which leaves the interpretation up to the reader and leaves much clarity to be desired, and the somewhat poor arrangement of the subjects, The Standard Confession still stands in line with the previous confessions that all assert the moral commands of scripture are still binding for believers.
The Assembly or Second London Confession, 1677 and 1688
By the end of the 1670’s, both General and Particular Baptists began to reach the pinnacle of clarity regarding their beliefs about the Moral Law of God and it’s perpetuity. The Particular Baptists, in the wake of much persecution, decided to “show their agreement with Presbyterians and Congregationalists by making the Westminster Confession the basis of a new confession of their own.” Agreement with the 1644 Confession was cited in the introductory note, “but scarcity of copies and general ignorance of that Confession offered, were given as reasons for preparing the new confession” (217). The original signers could hardly have ever imagined the influence of this new confession; the Second London Confession, as it came to be known, would eventually be amended and adopted as the Philadelphia Confession, one of the most influential confessions in the New World.
The confession itself represents the most significant advance in the articulation of Baptist beliefs regarding the doctrine of the Moral Law of God to date. An entire article is given specifically devoted to explanation, defense, and application of the Law. The usual references to required obedience to Christ’s commands are found (Articles 13, 14, and 16). The significant advances, however, are found in Article 19 entitled, “Of the Law of God.” The article begins with a reference to the “Law of universal obedience” that was written on Adam’s heart (Article 19.1).7 This, “same Law that was first written in the heart of man, continued to be a perfect rule of Righteousness after the fall; & was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in Ten Commandments and written in two Tablets” (19.2). These moral commands are not limited to the Old Covenant; rather, “The moral law doth for ever bind all… Neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolved, but much strengthen this obligation” (19.5). The confession does make clear that believers are not “under the Law, as a Covenant of Works, to be thereby Justified or condemned.” Believers are not bound to keep the law as a means of justification, but are called to follow the Moral Law as a path toward sanctification: “it [the Moral Law] directs and binds them, to walk accordingly discovering also the sinfull [sic] pollutions of their Natures, Hearts and Lives… [that] they may come to further Conviction of, Humiliation for, and Hatred against Sin… together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ and the perfection of his Obedience.” The Moral Law is not only used to expose sin and point to Christ. In the regenerate, the Law is also used, “to restrain their Corruptions” by forbidding sin and by the “Threatenings” made. Conversely, the promises made in it, “shew them [believers] Gods approbation of Obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon their performance thereof.” This is no prosperity gospel message, however, for the writers make clear that these blessings are “not due to them by the Law as a Covenant of Works” (19.6).
Finally, in order to refute those who may be tempted to call this whole scheme ‘legalism,’ the writers of the Second London Confession added two statements which both conclude this article and summarize it nicely: (1) “mans doing Good and refraining from Evil, because the Law incourageth to the one and deterreth from the other, is no Evidence of his boing under the Law and not under Grace” (19.6); and, “Neither are the forementioned uses of the Law contrary to the Grace of the Gospel; but do sweetly comply with it.” And to be sure, the drafters of this confession made sure to explain that this was no mere fleshly activity: “the Spirit of Christ subduing and inabling the Will of man to that freely and cheerfully, which the will of God revealed in the Law, requireth to be done.”
Clearly this confession significantly improves the clarity of articulation of Particular Baptists regarding the doctrine of the Moral Law of God. This standard would be used in countless churches and associations worldwide, either verbatim or with slight modifications, for centuries to come.
The Orthodox Creed, 1678
Not to be outdone, the General Baptists followed the Particular Baptist example and drew up another confession in 1678 titled An Orthodox Creed, or A Protestant Confession of Faith, Being an Essay to Unite and Confirm All Protestants in the Fundamental Articles of the Christian Religion, Against the Errors and Heresies of Rom (300). With particular focus to refuting Roman Catholic heresy, the drafters of the confession also sought to “refute the Hoffmanite Christology” that was being preached in England (298). The Orthodox Creed loosely follows the form of the Westminster Confession, but takes much more freedom than the Second London. The doctrine of the confession “approaches Calvinism more closely than any other General Baptist confession,” and has been praised as, “noteworthy as an early attempt at compromise between the two great systems of theology [Calvinism and Arminianism], thus anticipating the work of Andrew Fuller and others” (299).
The Orthodox Creed, much like the Second London, contains more about the Moral Law of God than any previous General Baptist Confession. It speaks of Adam “having the law written in his heart” (Article 11), and that Adam’s sin was essentially transgressing the Ten Commandments: “but he [Adam] sinning against the covenant, which consisted in two roots, viz. To love God above all things; and his neighbour as himself; it being the substance of that law which was afterwards written in two tablets of stone, and delivered upon mount Sinai” (Article 13). This fall, which resulted in “concupiscence” remaining even in the regenerate (Article 15), left man with ongoing need for instruction and correction. Article 26 on Sanctification and good works states that believers are to press toward heaven, “in evangelical obedience to all the commands that Christ, their king, and law-giver, hath commanded in his word.” How does man know which commands to follow? The article concluded with “The ten commandments, as handed forth by Christ the mediator, are a rule of life to a believer, and shew us our duty to God and man, as also our need of the grace of God, and merit of Christ” (Article 26).
This General Baptist confessional response to the Second London Confession, while differing in a few places related to soteriology, shows almost complete solidarity regarding the Moral Law of God. The agreement between these two contemporary expressions of Baptist thought on this doctrine shows that virtually all Baptists at this time agreed in the perpetually binding nature of the Moral Law of God.
A Short Confession or a Brief Narrative of Faith, 1691
A small group of Western England Particular Baptists, not wanting to join with the 1689 Assembly in London, decided to produce a confession to prove they were doctrinally aligned with Baptists and to remove themselves from suspicion of heresy. While their confession, A Short Confession or A Brief Narrative of Faith, is noteworthy because it tried to speak to both General and Particular Baptists, it did not find use beyond the west of England, and for that reason will only briefly be addressed here (349).
The confession adds little to the Baptist development of the doctrine of the Moral Law of God, but certainly is still in line with its predecessors. Using typical language of God as divine Law-maker (Article 4), the law as a gracious gift (Article 9), knowledge of the law as necessary for repentance (Article 11), and the law as necessary and binding for sanctification (Article 16), this confession is clearly standing in the tradition of the Particular and General Baptist confessions that came before it.
Articles of Religion in the New Connexion, 1770
“To Indicate their doctrinal position and to guard against the prevalent Socinianism,” the New Connexion of General Baptists, formed in 1770, drew up a brief six article statement of faith. This group, led by Daniel Taylor out of Wesleyanism, had has the design of the New Connexion to “revive experimental religion or primitive Christianity in faith and practice” (355).
Probably as a result of their emphasis on “experimental religion,” this group’s brief statement of faith includes a surprisingly thorough article titled “On the Nature and Perpetual Obligation of the Moral Law,” worth quoting in full:
“We believe, that the moral law not only extends to the outward actions of the life, but to all the powers and faculties of the mind, to every desire, temper and thought; that it demands the entire devotion of all the powers and faculties of both body and soul to God: or, in our Lord’s words, to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength: —that this law is of perpetual duration and obligation, to all men, at all times, and in all places or parts of the world. And, we suppose that this law was obligatory to Adam in his perfect state—was more clearly reveled in the ten commandments—and more fully explained in many other parts of the bible.”
This brief 6 article confession, remarkable for its comprehensive statement on Moral Law, shows complete solidarity with preceding General and Particular Baptist confessions regarding the Moral Law and its perpetually binding nature.
American Baptist Confessions
The Philadelphia Confession, 1742
The American Baptists had no Calvinistic confession when the first churches were being formed in New England. However, as the use of confessions grew in the 18th Century, Calvinistic Baptists led the way in terms of confessions and numbers of churches (363). The most famous American Baptist confession, commonly referred to as “the Baptist Confession” even into the 1800s (369), was the Philadelphia Confession.
Because the confession is essentially the same as the Second London confession, with the addition of articles on hymn-singing and the laying on of hands, discussion of it will be minimal. Carrying on the tradition of the Second London Confession, the Philadelphia Confession obviously held to a strong doctrine of the Moral Law of God and held that Law as binding for all believers for all time.
New Hampshire Confession, 1833
Seeking to “restate its Calvinism in very moderate tones,” the New Hampshire Baptist Convention prepared a statement of faith and practice now known as The New Hampshire Confession (376). This confession also found much use in Baptist churches subscribing to Landmarkism because of its silence on the doctrine of the universal church (378). The confession held a wide influence and was adopted by several associations and conventions.8
The Confession has an entire article devoted to a discussion of the subject of law and its relation to the Gospel. Entitled, “Of the Harmony of the Law and the Gospel,” Article 12 of the confession claims that the, “Law of God is the eternal and unchangeable rule of his moral government.” One of the “great end[s] of the Gospel,” this article claims, is to deliver fallen men from their love of sin, “and to restore them through a Mediator to unfeigned obedience to the holy law.” While not having the clarity of articulation of the doctrine as the Second London or Philadelphia Confessions, the New Hampshire clearly stands in line with the tradition and continues to see the Moral Law of God as perpetually binding in on believers.
Baptist Newspaper Articles
Another means of gauging Baptist beliefs on doctrine is to examine the Baptist state newspapers that began to grow in popularity as American Baptists began to grow in numbers and prominence. Many of these state papers were prompted to print articles by the presence of several heresies and controversies (e.g., Campbellism, revivalism, Landmarkism). In light of such attacks on biblical truth, the papers began explaining and defending historic Baptist doctrine to their readership; and among those articles were many explaining and defending the perpetually binding nature of the Moral Law of God, as summarized in the Ten Commandments. Because of the vast number articles from a vast number of papers and because of space limitations, only a few representative articles will be mentioned here.
The Western Baptist published an article entitled “The Law of God— No. 1,” which traces a number of, “errors in doctrine that prevail” specifically because of wrong teaching about the Law of God (i.e., the Ten Commandments).9 The author explains that the Law of God is spiritual, perfect, unlimited (“extend[s] to every creature in the universe”), immutable, and it brings punishment if broken.
Another Western Baptist article claims that the Decalogue is the, “epitome of divine laws by which human beings in every age are governed.”10 Addressing the problems present in Campbellite theology,11 specifically their rejection of the Moral Law of God, this author is clearly standing in the tradition of earlier Baptists that defended the ongoing and binding nature of God’s Law.
Another review and refutation of Campbellite theology was written by a Mr. Clopton in 1831.12 This Christian Index article, “Remarks on the Moral Law and the origin and nature of saving faith, in contradistinction to that taught in the Campbellite Creed,” is a multi-page review that confronts many of the errors of Campbellite theology. Among the errors listed and refuted is their denial of the perpetual binding nature of the Moral Law of God. Mr. Clopton lays out the traditional Baptist position that the Moral Law of God, as summarized by the Ten Commandments, is still binding on believers today.
Perhaps illustrating most decisively the link between mid-19th century Baptists and their English predecessors on the doctrine of the Moral Law of God, Jesse Mercer and the Christian Index of Georgia published a series of articles covering all 32 sections of the Second London Confession of 1689.13 The republishing and explaining of this confession, which contains probably the clearest articulation of the doctrine of the Moral Law of God out of any of the Baptist confessions, perhaps most vividly demonstrates that mid-18th century Baptists in America still believed that God’s Moral Law was still binding on believers.
That many Baptists felt the need to confront the many heresies of the day, specifically regarding the ongoing and binding nature of the Moral Law of God, further confirms the consensus among Baptists regarding the Law. As the number and variety of Baptist confessions continued to grow, the Baptist newspapers of the early 19th century describe almost universal agreement on the doctrine of God’s Moral Law.
In light of our survey of Baptist beliefs through the mid-19th century concerning the Moral Law of God, a few conclusions may be drawn regarding the Law and Baptist Identity. First, Baptists from the beginning not only had much to say regarding the Moral Law of God, but were also ardent defenders of its continued usefulness. Some today (e.g., Wells and Zaspel)14 want to argue that the Moral Law of God is no longer binding; some even go so far as to reject the moral/ceremonial/civil distinctions altogether as unbiblical and unhelpful.15 Their hermeneutic is that the Old Testament commands are only binding if they are explicitly repeated in the New Testament. However, as has been shown, this interpretive notion was not with Baptists from the beginning. Baptists have had a very high regard for the entire moral law of God from the beginning. Because this interpretive method is new and deviates from the path set before us in Baptist history, modern theologians should travel with extra caution and should be aware that they are implicitly saying that most Baptist theologians have been wrong on this point (or, as it has been shown, at least the first 200 years of Baptist theologians (and others, i.e., Reformed). Historical precedence does not mean that modern theologians are necessarily incorrect, but the undeniable burden of proof is on them to show that many generations of biblical interpreters were incorrect about the perpetuity of the moral law of God.
A second observation that can be seen is that Baptists’ clarity on the Moral Law of God seems to be tied to their ability (or desire) to comprehensively articulate their beliefs; that is, the more thorough confessions seem to most clearly articulate their beliefs concerning the Moral Law of God. Furthermore, there seems to be a highpoint (i.e., an apex in clarity of articulation) in Baptist life regarding the clarity of moral law articulation: during the 17th century (Second London and Orthodox Creed). This observation shows in both Particular and General Baptist traditions. There is complete agreement between the two very different parties on this point.
As the term Baptist becomes more inclusive (or elastic) the clear articulation of belief regarding the moral law of God has seemed to decline. The earliest Baptists seemed less clear regarding the Moral Law. This lack of clarity could have been because they were uncertain of their beliefs on the matter, which could be an area of further research, or because they were more concerned with articulating how they were and were not in line with other theological traditions, (e.g., soteriology and ecclesiology) and not as concerned with articulating doctrines in which they were in complete agreement with already established ecclesial traditions (e.g., Moral Law). After the apex of clarity, the confessions tended to slide further into ‘lack of clarity’ regarding the Moral Law. This results in most modern confessions completely lacking a statement about the Moral Law of God.16 Hopefully this is a trend that will reverse.17
1 I use the term “moral law” of God to refer to the moral standards revealed by God and placed upon man, most clearly summarized in the “Ten Commandments” (e.g., Exodus 20). By using such a term I am already assuming the traditional categories of the law divided into moral, civil, and ceremonial aspects. I am also assuming that the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Old Covenant law have been abolished. A full defense of the tri-fold division of the law, as well as the abrogation of the civil and ceremonial law, is outside the scope of this article.
2 Peter John Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: a Biblical-theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 513.
3 The subheadings of this paper and the confessions cited are drawn from William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 2nd rev. ed. / revised by Bill J. Leonard (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2011). All further references to Lumpkin will be made in parenthetical citations.
4 Lumpkin cites Horsch, Mennonite History, 1:246.
5 In researching the interpretation of this article I discovered an ongoing debate over the unity between the two London Confessions. Apparently, some try to argue that the First London is the ‘more Baptist’ confession. Many ‘New Covenant’ theologians want to try and claim the First London as their confessional heritage and reject the Second London, because of it’s clear articulation of the Moral Law’s perpetuity and it’s assumed Covenant Theology. For a persuasive list of arguments in favor of doctrinal unity between the two London Confessions, see: James Renihan, “Confessing the Faith in 1644 and 1689,” The Reformed Reader, http://www.reformedreader.org/ctf.htm (accessed April 15, 2013); or, Richard P. And Anthony Mattia Belcher, A Discussion of the Seventeenth Century Particular Baptist Confession of Faith (Southbridge, MA: Crowne Publications, Inc., 1990). For help with the interpretation of this article and the suggestion of sources, I am indebted to Dr. Tom Hicks, Pastor of Discipleship at Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL.
6 Tom Nettles, Baptists: Beginning in Britain, vol. 1 (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2005), 142.
7 See also the above discussion of Article 12 in Thirty Congregations.
8 E.g., General Association of Baptist Churches (now the American Baptist Association), General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, and the Southern Baptist Convention (who adopted a revised and amended version of the New Hampshire Confession) See Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 378.
9 “The Law of God—No. 1,” The Western Baptist, Vol. 1, No.6 (February, 1831), 44.
10 Western Baptist, Vol. 1, No. 5 (January 1831).
11 Regarding Campbellites and refuting their rejection of the Ten Commandments, see also: J. M. Peck, “Remarks,” The Western Recorder, Vol. 1, No. 2 (October 1830).
12 Clopton, “Remarks on the Moral Law and the origin and nature of saving faith, in contradistinction to that taught in the Campbellite Creed,” Christian Index, Vol. 4, No. 7 (February 12, 1831), 100.
13 The series began with: “Our Old Confession of Faith,” Christian Index, Vol. 45, No. 7 (November 7, 1839).
14 Tom Wells and Fred G Zaspel, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2002), 151.
15 Ibid. See also: Peter John Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: a Biblical-theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 355.
16 E.g., The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 of the Southern Baptist Convention, or the Identity Statement of the American Baptist Churches in the USA (510ff).
17 A few notable exceptions do exist. See in Lumpkin’s Baptist Confessions the Sweedish Confession of 1861 (426). See also, McGlothlin’s, Baptist Confessions (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1911): the German Baptist Confession of 1908 (330) and the Baptist Confessions of French Churches (360)