Baptist History Spotlight: The Philadelphia Baptist Confession

Dr. Dan Nelson | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA

The Philadelphia Baptist Confession is the first written expression of the Baptist faith in America after an early struggle for religious liberty. Baptists were now able to declare their faith with a certain measure of freedom. It was formulated by the first Association in America of Baptists in 1707. It is identical to the London Baptist Confession of 1689. It has a reformed influence regarding the use of the term “elect” and the doctrines of grace. Free will is not denied but is minimized over God’s work in salvation.

Two articles are added to the confession on singing hymns and the laying on of hands. More attention and information is given to the Lord’s Supper than Baptism. Baptism is affirmed for believers only through the church by immersion. The confession has similar understandings of salvation being a work of God in which He calls and provides grace to be saved. It is orthodox in its Christology and Eschatology. It differentiates between paedobaptism and New Testament baptism by believers.

Some have felt the confession teaches a universal church on earth. However closer examination shows that it is referring to the believers of all ages that have been redeemed and will be together in heaven. The church is seen, as Baptist have primarily interpreted it throughout the ages, as a local gathered assembly of visible believers in Christ who have identified with Him through believer’s baptism by immersion for their public profession of faith and fellowship with that body of believers.

T.T. Eaton in explaining the difference between the church being the redeemed of the ages and a local body of believers explains an important point. He says:

It takes all the elect of all ages to make “the catholic or universal church.” Of course, then, the little fraction of them alive at any given time cannot be called the church. Of course, then, this church cannot exist in every age, because its material, except a part of it, and perhaps a very small part, had not come into existence when our Baptist fathers adopted that language. If the world shall continue ten thousand years longer, the last man saved will be part of the “universal church,” which this document declares to be composed of “the whole number of the elect that have been, are. shall be gathered into one.

This definition is an important distinction since it really is hard to call the church universal if all the believers of all ages have not been realized yet and are still to come. Baptist have never wrested the authority of the local church from the grip of the local congregation who they believe to be the functioning body of Christ on earth.

The more modern Baptist confessions of faith have similarly been more accommodating to the traditional Baptist view of free will, general atonement and personal response to Christ. The early confessions were more Calvinistic because of the predominance of the reformed writers and pastors influencing the early Baptist movement. Although Baptists were oppressed by some of those of the reformed movement, such as the Puritans, they were influenced greatly by their theology. Remember that people like Williams, Keach, and others came out of the Puritans and still retained their heavily influenced theology of Calvinism. So it is only natural that since the English Baptists were heavily influenced by the reformed movement that the American Baptists would be initially be influenced in this way.

Later as the General Baptist took root in through the Sandy Creek movement the emphasis changed some through the efforts of Sterns and Marshall. They were more concerned and involved in preaching the gospel, winning people to Christ and starting new churches that they would forego enunciating theology as accurately as the early Baptist confessions. Whatever the emphasis, it was good that associations, churches, and pastors cared enough to declare their faith and use it as a guide for their ministry and purpose for existence.