Baptist History Spotlight: The Philadelphia Baptist Confession

November 26, 2014

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.

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Dan Nelson

It is not wrong to call the church “the redeemed of all ages” which is what our Baptist Faith and Message affirms.. However, this is a secondary meaning if deference to the primary meaning of “a gathered assembly.” I feel one way of appropriately expressing this is the church in heaven is the redeemed of all ages but on earth is a gathered assembly as usage in the New Testament dictates.
The church is not the denomination, nor a governing body top down over the local body of believers as Baptist have resisted. The ecclessiology of the reformed movement and Calvinism is
flawed because the reformed movement never cleared up the matter of the universal church as espoused by Catholicism. It has always been a puzzle to see how many people want to hope aboard the reformed movement articulated through Calvinism since it has a flawed view of the church. To buy into this type of thinking is not historic/traditional Baptist in regard to what the Bible teaches the church is. The reformed (and Calvinistic) view of the church is not talked about enough in contrast the to the Baptist (New Testament) view of the church. This is especially important since those persecuting Baptist had the flawed view of the church and not the other way around.
Traditional Baptists must affirm the church as a gathered assembly as the primary and only functional teaching of the church for our day while resisting the flawed version purported by the reformed movement that is primary articulated in Calvinism.. Dan Nelson, Pastor First Baptist Church of Camarillo, CA

andy

So, assuming someone gets the idea of the universal church wrong, what difference does it really make?

If someone believes that they are a part of both their local church, and the universal church, why does it matter?

Dan Nelson

You would be assigning a wrong definition to the functional church on earth. Only 4 times in the NT is the church referred to anything else than local, a gathered assembly at a specific place. 3 of those times refer to as a institution. Only once in Heb. 12:23 when is referred to as the “assembly of the firstborn” in heaven. There is a preponderance of l evidence that the church is local on earth in scripture.
People are confused by saying they are in a church by saying the universal church and they are not. It becomes a cop out for not being the local one. They confuse the kingdom of God that everyone enters into by spiritual birth as the church. It is and invisible mass of people who know Christ by salvation. The church is a local body of believers that have demonstrated their salvation initially by baptism but also continually by gathering and participating in that local body of believers.
It does make a difference to have the right definition of the church. It counters the false-conception of Catholicism that one is in the universal church from cradle to grave entering in by baptism and keeping the sacraments. It also leaves people unconverted for the most part because of trusting in the wrong thing to get them to heaven: The fact that they are under a false allusion thinking they are in the universal church by sponsorship.
The right view of the church also made a difference to early Baptists who were persecuted by state churches using the universal church as their bases for militarily seeking to enforce conformity into their state church that was used synonymous with the terminology of the universal church. So it made a difference to Early Baptist and it ought to make a difference to us, many who have been deluded into believing in almost anything passing for the universal church which it is not. Dan Nelson (A strong believer in the eclessia)

    Andy

    But surely not everyone who accepts the reality of the universal church makes the errors you allude to. Many are very committed to the local church as the place one lives out their faith, but also see in scripture references to the church as a whole, ie, all believers. Such thinking seems to have a positive effect of preventing isolationist thinking (the too common tendency to think that we, at our church, at this time in history, are the ones who really get it, who really serve God, who really know how to worship…).

Dan Nelson

I applaud everyone who participates in a local assembly. They don’t have to believe exactly what I believe about the church only being local to serve in a local church. I am just saying it is a problem in CA where I have served as pastor for over 36 years. Many do cop out by saying they are in the universal or some have the audacity to say: “the true church” and not being in the local church. I refer to them as the as “Homeless Christians”. They are believers without a home in a local NT gathered assembly.
My view is not an isolationist view. I would say it is more distinctive to Baptist and even on the same par as believers baptism by immersion. If you check the New Hampshire and first Baptist Faith and Message of 1925 you will find no mention of a universal church. That generation and early Baptist knew what the church was from personal experience of persecution of those who viewed the church as a state controlled entity. Only in the 1963 version do we find confessions referring to the church as “the redeemed of all ages.” But again, this is a secondary definition in deference to that local functioning body that all believers should be a part of.
The statement: “I’m in the universal church” is also a convenient cop out for those who say, “I don’t do organized religion” which is a misnomer because Jesus and the early church were organized.
It is unfortunate that we have to define the church today when previous generations (those closer to Baptist’s inception as an organized group) knew exactly what the church was. Dan Nelson

    Andy

    Thanks for your replies. And I’ve really enjoyed your recent series on historical Baptists.

Ben Stratton

I appreciated the reference to T.T. Eaton. The Philadelphia Baptist Association also believed baptism was a church ordinance and could only be administered by New Testament (i.e. Baptist / Baptistic) churches.

– From the Philadelphia Baptist Association minutes:

In the year 1732, a question was moved:
Whether a person, not being baptized himself, and presuming, in private, to baptize another; whether such pretended baptism be valid or no, or whether it might not be adjudged a nullity?
Resolved. We judge such baptism as invalid, and no better than if it had not been done.

So much for the theory that J.R. Graves invented those ideas!

    andy

    Two throughts:

    1. How does this influence our thinking about the common practice of baptisms taking place at youth camps and conferecnes and evangelistic gathererings that are not necessarily run by any particular church?

    2. How Would those who agree with you view those early anabaptists in Switzerland, who came out from under Zwingli? There was no baptized person around to baptize them, so the first of them to be baptized, was baptized by an un-baptized individual, who was then baptized himself after the first one was baptized. Surely, in such cases,they would not view those baptisms as invalid?

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