Calvinism and the London Baptist Confession of 1644 (Part 1)

Baptist Roots
Where did Baptists come from and, historically, what are their beliefs?  The majority of historians agree that today’s Baptists were derived from three major sixteenth-century streams: Particular Baptists, General Baptists, and Seventh-day Baptists. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these denominations birthed a multitude. Separate Baptist, Primitive Baptist, American Baptist and Southern Baptist are just a few of today’s 100-plus Baptist denominations. Each of the three major Baptist groups claims a different line of descent. The Particular Baptists claim a heritage going back to the Protestant Reformers and Puritans of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The General Baptists trace their roots from the earlier Anabaptists of the fifteenth century, and the Seventh-Day Baptists came later, in the sixteenth century. All three major Baptist denominations started in England.

Other Seventeenth-Century Baptists
The Seventh-Day Baptists, known to follow the Judeo-Christian tradition of worshipping on the seventh day of the week, were never large in number, nor are they today. They number less than 50,000 worldwide. The General Baptists were named for their theological stance of having a general, and thoroughly Arminian, view of the atonement.  Lead by John Smyth, they were a noncreedal denomination. By the eighteenth century, English General Baptists had mostly moved into Unitarianism, while most of America’s General Baptists were overtaken by the diverse strands within the Regular Baptist denominations.

The Particular Baptists
Particular Baptists were also commonly called Strict Baptists because of their practice of closed communion, their theological stance on Christ’s definite atonement for His elect, and their two-office congregational polity. It was the Protestant forerunners, like the Reformers & Puritans, that brought about a strong confessional emphasis among Particular Baptists’ theology. The Particular Baptists first appeared in a London church organized by Henry Jacob following his exile from Holland. This church was founded on a basis of confession of individual faith and of a covenant, and it contained both Independent Puritans and radical Separatists. In 1633, the issue of who would administer baptism splintered the two camps. In 1638, the first Particular Baptist Church was established in London under the leadership of John Spilsbery.

The theology of these Baptists appealed to the nation’s prevalent Calvinism and offered no obstacle to the mass of Englishmen. With the rapid growth of the Particular Baptist came serious accusations, such as Pelagianism and Anarchy. This is important to note because both groups were part of the radical wing of Anabaptism; thus, Anabaptism cannot trace its historical roots to the Particular Baptist denomination.

By 1644, the seven Particular Baptist churches in London were quick to follow their Protestant forerunners’ confessional examples. To document their doctrinal differences from the General Baptists and Anabaptists, the seven closely associated and London-based Particular Baptist churches prepared to published their own confessional statement of theology.

The London Confession of 1644 served as an apologetic theology, defending Particular Baptist views against the Arminian General Baptists and other radical groups like the Anabaptists. Henry C. Vedder called it “one of the chief landmarks of Baptist history.” There were five key futures that made it different from the multitude of Protestant Reformed Confessions of its time:

  1. Two representatives from each of the six Particular churches and three from Spilsbery’s church were included in the signatories of the confession.
  2. It had a strong Christological focus.
  3. It was building a confessional theology that gave structure to the New Testament’s administration of the Covenants of Grace—not attempting to reform the National Church.
  4. It charged that the act of baptism was to be a complete immersion of the individual and gave an outline for conduct in case of civil persecution.

It gave the Particular Baptists of its time a distinctive Baptist theology of the church, all while affirming the Reformed view of salvation.

 


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Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Calvin?

The Southern Baptist Convention—full disclosure: I am a member of an SBC church, and proudly so—has debated “Calvinism” off and on for nearly the entire span of its existence. SBC leaders sometimes rail against “Calvinism” and sometimes embrace it.

When Calvinism is taken to task, however, the discomfort usually stems from people who either don’t understand Calvin and his authentic work or confuse Calvin with his more zealous and less theologically astute heirs (the so-called “hyper-Calvinists”).

Back in October of 2010, when yet another of the “pro- v. anti-Calvinist” debates was going on, John Revell wrote a very nice summary of the issues for SBC Life. In particular, his observation that

Article V [of the Baptist Faith and Message], “God’s Purpose of Grace,” . . . states:

Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.

All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.

This statement, reaching back to the original 1925 BF&M and to the New Hampshire Confession of Faith upon which it was based, accomplishes a significant feat: it accommodates the soteriological convictions of both Calvinists and non-Calvinists within the SBC family.

Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that Calvinism has long found a home in the SBC, it continues to be misunderstood and, in some quarters, demonized. Revell, in an examination of several books that discussed the topic, noted that the same misunderstandings keep arising:

• Calvinism is a threat to evangelism
• Calvinists are against invitations
• five-point Calvinism is hyper-Calvinism
• Calvinists deny free will
• Authentic Baptists are not Calvinists

I’ll be addressing these points—each of these misunderstandings—in posts, all as part of a miniseries on Baptists and Calvinism. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, Logos offers loads of resources for those researching Baptist history and its intersections with Calvinism:

Calvin 500 Collection (108 vols.)
Charles Spurgeon Collection (86 vols.)
A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage
The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness
A.T. Robertson Collection (15 vols.)
Expositions of Holy Scripture (33 vols.)
The Sacred Trust: Sketches of the Southern Baptist Convention Presidents
Systematic Theology (3 vols.)

++++

Jim West

Related Articles

The Dovetail—Calvinism and the Baptist Church

 

Predestination or free will? Irresistible Grace—or grace for all?

A perennial debate among Baptists heated up when a group of prominent Southern Baptist leaders signed and published “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” on May 31. The document addressed a major point of discord between Baptists who hold Calvinistic views and those who do not: Baptists who disagree, that is, on election.

Election, defined as “God choosing a person or people group for a specific purpose, mission, or salvation,” is historically connected to the concepts of predestination, foreknowledge, and free will.[1] The non-Calvinistic viewpoint (often associated with Arminianism) asserts that election is conditional and that any man can, by free will, choose to receive the grace of God. Calvinism, however, emphasizes the total depravity of man and the inability of the individual to receive the grace of God—and, thus, salvation—on his or her own.

Where is the intersection of Calvinism and Baptist history? What are the major differences between Arminianism and Calvinism? Within Baptist thought, where does Calvinism live today? What was the role of Calvinism in the Reformation? We want to weigh in on some of these issues, so we’ve asked two terrific writers to do just that. Contributing to this miniseries are Jim West and Michael DeWalt.

Jim West is an adjunct professor of biblical studies at the Quartz Hill School of Theology and the pastor of Petros Baptist Church in Petros, Tennessee. He has written numerous book reviews, articles, and books (one of which, Christ our Captain: An Introduction to Huldrych Zwingli, you can find within the Works of Zwingli).

Michael DeWalt is a tutor at Granite Classical and a graduate of Word of Life Bible Institute, Baptist Bible College, and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is a member of The Evangelical Theological Society and a regular contributor to Calvin500. See all his posts here.

Follow us on Calvin500.com for this short series. We’ll dig into the history of Calvinism and Arminianism within the Baptist Church—and, at the end of each post, feature a unique deal from Logos Bible Software so that you can follow along in the research for yourself. Do you have other questions? Want to know more? Leave us a comment!

 

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[1] Thornhill, A. C. (2012). “Election.” In Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

The Death of Calvin’s Beloved Wife

Below is the sobering account of the last hours of John Calvin’s wife, Idelette. What a mix of emotions I feel as a husband as I read of Calvin sharing the gospel with his wife one last time before she sees Jesus face to face.

Idelette saw the approach of death with calmness. Her soul was unshaken in the midst of her sufferings, which were accompanied by frequent faintings. When she could not speak, her look, her gestures, the expression of her face, revealed sufficiently the faith which strengthened her in her last hour. On the morning of April 6th, a pastor named Bourgoin addressed to her pious exhortation. She joined in broken exclamations, which seemed an anticipation of heaven: “O glorious resurrection! O God of Abraham and our fathers!… Hope of Christians for so many ages, in thee I hope.”

At 7 o’clock in the morning she fainted again; and, feeling that her voice was about to fail, “Pray,” said she, “O my friends, pray for me!” Calvin approaching her bedside, she showed her joy by her looks. With emotion he spoke to her of the grace that is in Christ; of the earthly pilgrimage; of the assurance of a blessed eternity; and closed by a fervent prayer. Idelette followed his words, listened attentively to the holy doctrine of salvation in Jesus crucified. About nine o’clock she breathed her last sigh, but so peacefully that it was for some moments impossible to discover if she ceased to live, or if she was asleep.

Such is the account Calvin gives to his colleagues of the death of his beloved wife.

Thomas Smyth, Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 178-79.

Calvin and Idelette Suffered Much Loss

It was far more common in John Calvin’s day than in our own for children to die at birth or in the early years of life. This, however, does not lessen the grief of loss. Three times in their short marriage, Calvin and Idelette experienced the pain of losing a child.

Bitter domestic afflictions came upon Calvin and his wife. The second year of their marriage, in the month of July, 1542, Idelette had a son. But, alas! this child, for whom they had devoutly returned thanks to God, and offered so many fervent prayers, was soon taken from them by death. The churches of Geneva and of Lausanne showed the parents marks of sympathy. Feeble mitigation of so heavy a trial! It is easier to imagine than to express the grief of a mother’s heart. Calvin lets us see his sorrow and that of his companion, in a letter addressed, the 10th of August, 1542, to Peter Viret: ‘Salute all our brethren,’ says he, ‘salute also your wife, to whom mine presents her thanks for her tender and pious consolations. . . . She would like to answer them with her own hand, but she has not even the strength to dictate a few words. The Lord has dealt us a grievous blow, in taking from us our son; but He is our Father, and knows what is meet for his children.’ Paternal affection and Christian resignation are both displayed in Calvin’s letters at this time. In 1544, a new trial of this kind afflicted the hearts of these parents. A daughter was born to them; she lived only a few days, as we see in a letter addressed in 1544 to the pastor Viret. Again a third child was taken from them. Idelette wept bitterly; and Calvin, so often tried, sought his strength from the Lord; and the thought occurred to him that he was destined only to have children according to the faith. So he said to one of his adversaries, who had been base enough to reproach him with his domestic losses: ‘Yes,’ replied Calvin, ‘the Lord has given me a son; he has taken him from me. Let my enemies, if they see proper, reproach me for this trial. Have not I thousands of children in the Christian world?’

Thomas Smyth, Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 176–77.

The Love of Calvin for His Wife

Some have considered Calvin to be a completely cool, collected, and compassionate individual, but from his letters one sees that his care and love for people often ran deep. For instance, when he heard that the plague had broken out in Strasburg where his wife Idelette was staying while he was away at the diet convened at Worms, Calvin wrote, “I try…to resist my grief—I resort to prayer and to holy meditations, that I may not lose all courage.”(1) Clearly, Calvin shows his great concern for his wife and her welfare, such that he fears losing all courage. Truly the words of a passionate man with deep love for his bride.

(1)Thomas Smyth, Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 172.

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A Wife Worthy of the Challange

One can only imagine the challenges of being married to someone with such a gift and call as John Calvin. On top of the enormous burden he carried for Geneva, the church, the reformation, and the Gospel, he was often ill from the labors he put himself through. Amidst it all, his loving wife was by his side.

Idelette de Bure devoted herself particularly to the care of her husband. Exhausted by his constant labours, Calvin was frequently ill; and treating his body roughly, after the example of Paul, he persisted amidst bodily sufferings to perform the multiplied duties of his office. Then his wife would come and tenderly recommend him to take a little repose, and watch at his pillow when his illness had assumed an alarming character. Besides, (and this will surprise the reader,) Calvin had at times, like ordinary men, desponding feelings; he was inclined to low spirits. “Sometimes,” he himself says, “although I am well in body, I am depressed with grief, which prevents me from doing anything, and I am ashamed to live so uselessly.” In these moments of dejection, when the heroic Reformer seemed, in spite of his energy and incomparable activity, to sink under the weight of our common infirmities, Idelette de Bure was at hand, with tender and encouraging words, which the heart of woman can alone find; and her hand, so feeble, yet so welcome and so affectionate, restored the giant of the Reformation, who made the Pope and kings tremble on their thrones! Oh, the precious support and the magic power of a religious, attentive and loving wife!

Thomas Smyth, Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 174-75.

The Woman Who Won John Calvin – Idelette de Bure

Very little is known or recorded about John Calvin’s wife, Idelette de Bure. Yet, Thomas Smith records this of her in Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life.

Externally, there was in this woman nothing very attractive. She was encumbered with several children of a first marriage; she had no fortune; she was dressed in mourning; her person was not particularly handsome. But for Calvin, she possessed the best of treasures, a living and tried faith, an upright conscience, and lovely as well as strong virtues. As he afterwards said of her, she would have had the courage to bear with him exile, poverty, death itself, in attestation of the truth. Such were the noble qualities which won the Reformer.

Thomas Smyth, Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 171.

What do you look for in a wife?

I’m currently 32 years old and have been married for 10 of those years. At age 30 John Calvin was still not married. While trying to find a suitable woman to marry, Calvin penned a letter to his good friend Farel who was trying to help him find a wife. In the letter Calvin describes the type of wife he desired.

In a letter addressed to Farel in May, 1539, (he was then thirty years old), Calvin sketches his ideal of a wife. “Remember,” he says to his friend, “what I especially desire to meet with in a wife. I am not, you know, of the number of those inconsiderate lovers who adore even the faults of the woman who charms them. I could only be pleased with a lady who is sweet, chaste, modest, economical, patient, and careful of her husband’s health. Has she of whom you have spoken to me these qualities? Come with her …, if not let us say no more.”

Thomas Smyth, Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 168-69.

What are you looking for in a spouse?

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And You Think You’re Busy?

I often feel like I’m busy and have a lot on my plate. A quick inquiry into all that John Calvin had on his plate (without a computer, email, or even a typewriter for that matter) make me truly appreciate the labors that he undertook on behalf of the Church (and makes me feel a little bit lazy).

Notwithstanding the relief which Calvin continually received from Farel and from Viret, it is not easy to conceive how he sustained his various labours; especially if we consider that he was the subject of several violent and continual disorders. During a fortnight in each month, he preached every day; gave three lectures in theology every week; assisted at all the deliberations of the Consistory, and at the meetings of the pastors; met the congregation every Friday; instructed the French churches by the frequent advices which they solicited from him; defended the reformation, against the attacks of its enemies, and particularly those of the French priests; was forced to repel his numerous antagonists, by various books which he composed for that purpose; and found time to publish several other works, which, by their solidity and depth, are calculated for the instruction of every age.

Theodore Beza and John Mackenzie, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of John Calvin (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 51-52.

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