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January Symbolics Course

By admin | April 9, 2010

Pastor Doug Vandermeulen, from Community Baptist Church, Fargo, ND, reviews the recent Baptist Symbolics class:

In January 2010, I completed Dr. Jim Renihan’s course Baptist Symbolics, at the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, and it is very difficult not to speak too highly of it. The quality of the source material Dr. Renihan has put together excels in instructing students in a proper understanding of the First and Second London Baptist Confessions and the historical context in which they were written.

In both content and presentation, perhaps Dr. Renihan fulfills something of the desires which the Confession’s framers expressed in the introduction to our Confession when they wrote,

“One thing that greatly prevailed with us to undertake this work, was…the profit that might from thence arise, unto those that have any account of our labors, in their instruction, and establishment in the great truths of the Gospel; in the clear understanding, and steady belief of which, our comfortable walking with God, and fruitfulness before him, in all our ways, is most neerly (sic) concerned…”

Dr. Renihan’s understanding of Puritan history is informed by 17th Century primary sources. The class provides exposure to these materials and through them the broader political, social and historical context of the reformation in England and the role of Particular Baptists in it.

One of the most significant appreciations I gained from the class was just how well-read and theologically informed our 17th Century forefathers were and how deeply committed they were to covenantal theology. This is evident in the very structure of their confessions, especially the Second London Baptist Confession. Invariably, the careful reader is brought back to God’s plan in redemptive history through the Pactum Salutis, Historia Salutis, and the Ordo Salutis. Though these terms are not present in the text, the confession is replete with a commitment to their concepts. The stated intention of our forefathers was to identify themselves with the covenantal theology of the Westminster Divines and the Congregationalists through both the words and structure of our confession. They wrote,

“…we designed to explain our sense, and belief of; and finding no defect, in this regard, in that fixed on by the assembly [i.e. the Westminster Assembly], and after them by those of the Congregational way [i.e. the Savoy Synod], we did readily conclude it best to retain the same order in our present confession: and also, when we observed that those last mentioned, did in their confession (for reasons which seemed of weight both to themselves and others) choose not only to express their mind in words concurrent with the former in sense, concerning all those articles wherein they were agreed, but also for the most part without any variation of the terms we did in like manner conclude it best to follow their example in making use of the very same words with them both, in these articles (which are very many) wherein our faith and doctrine is the same with theirs, and this we did, the more abundantly, to manifest our consent with both, in all fundamental articles of the Christian Religion…”
Our Confession, therefore, did not come to us do novo but was written by some well-informed and nuanced-thinkers who understood covenant theology and their place in redemptive history.  In the writing of the two London Baptist Confessions the authors were making it clear that their intention was to stand without hesitation in solidarity with the Magisterial Reformers, the English Presbyterians and the Congregationalists.

Most of the errors our 17th Century Baptist forefathers had to fight against remain with us to this very day. How the errors are expressed may be different but we share in their battle. We may not have the same need to differentiate ourselves from the Anabaptists or the tragedy of Munster, but we still need to stand against Preparationism, Arminianism, Socinianism, Pelagianism, and all other heresies that undermine the gospel today. A sound understanding of our confession is a wonderful guard against such errors while giving us a clear expression of the hope of the gospel and the life that is built upon it. It also is an effective tool in training up a future generation of faithful believers who will be prepared to fight the good fight of faith without having to reinvent the wheel.

The warrant for a class on Baptist Symbolics is the general decline in our age of the Christian faith and of the Reformed faith in particular. Calvin warned us of the danger of corrupting religion to a privatized or personalized understanding of Christianity. He wrote, “Now we must also hold that all who corrupt pure religion – and this is sure to happen when each is given to his own opinion – separate themselves from the one and only God.” Dr. Renihan’s class is a constructive buffer for such danger. Today there is a growing easiness with defining the Christian faith and practice according to our own experiences and preferences. It is not a rare occurrence to discover a church or a minister claiming to be Reformed while holding to very little of what makes Reformational theology distinct. Some subscribing to a Reformed creed have a praxis that is more consistent with Arminianism or Preparationism. Others have a low view of the church and her offices, while some seek authority for the Christianity outside of the Scriptures in experiences or pragmatics. The problem is rarely an outright denial of covenant theology or the material and formal causes of the Reformation. More often than not, it is simply the neglect of principles that slowly erodes our foundation.

Before joining ARBCA, I labored for two decades in another Baptist association. I witnessed the spiritual decline of the association and the wreckage brought to local churches because there was no commonly held doctrinal confession of faith. I served in a church that suffered under a revolving-door of pastors, each with his own opinion on what was important to believe and how to do effective ministry. The lack of a fixed doctrinal standard led to complete breakdown in congregational unity and eroded confidence in the Bible.

We must remember that the Reformed Confessions express a recovery of the gospel in doctrine and piety that led to a revival which changed the face of the entire world. The divine power of the gospel recovered in the Reformation led to an evangelistic and missionary thrust that produced the transformation of cultures and societies. Our own Reformed Baptist tradition produced men like William Carey, the so-called father of modern missions. Think of the regions of the world that have had the benefit of the Reformed faith and you witness the highest development of society, education, health care, civil rights and the general welfare of mankind. Reformed confessional Christianity offers the most consistent expression of the gospel of Christ and has been used of God to transform nations.

Another benefit of a class on Baptist Symbolics is the strengthening of ARBCA. One of the beauties of baptistic confessionalism is its ability to promote a robust biblical unity while protecting congregational diversity. The stronger our commitment to a commonly understood confession the better we can work together and affirm areas in which our local congregations differ. A strong commitment to a commonly held confession does not limit our association but empowers it to work well together even as we differ in some of how we express our faith.

What a treasure we have in the Second London Baptist Confession and the other Reformed Baptist documents. What a blessing it has been to discover the rich truths contained in it with the aid of Dr. Renihan’s class on Baptist Symbolics.

God willing, in January 2011, we will offer Baptist History. Are you interested?

Topics: Baptist History, Church, Confessions, Ministerial Training, Pastoral Ministry, Preaching, Puritanism, Puritans, Reformed Theology, Scripture | Comments Off

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