Monday, November 02, 2015

Baptists and toleration

In the Baptist Confession of 1689 there is an explicit statement regarding ‘Christian liberty’, chapter XXI. The first three paragraphs are very similar to Chapter  XX  of the Westminster Confession, but it omits the fourth paragraph. The omission is significant. The Westminster Confession went on to say, in XX.IV.

IV And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another: they who upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation; or to the power of godliness; or such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing, or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church; they may be lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the church, and by the power of the civil magistrate.

That is quite a mouthful. Its effect is to snuff out the positive claims of the earlier sections of the chapter. It effectively takes away what was given in the previous three paragraphs. For the Westminster system outlined here makes it clear that the diktats of the church by law established and the power of the civil magistrate to enforce them mark the limits of toleration in religion. So for the London Baptist Confession to leave IV out in a document that otherwise so closely follows the wording of the Westminster Confession, was a significant act. To put it no higher, it implied that a person in good conscience may hold a view that the established church (were it to be established, which mercifully it never was) contradicted. By such an act the exclusive confessionalism of the established church (which at the Restoration was the episcopal Church of England as it turned out, taking the place of the failed Westminster establishment project) was denied.

The chapters of the Westminster Confession (Ch. XXIII) and the Baptist Confession (XXIV) are also significantly different respecting the scope of the Magistrate’s responsibility. These differences are a direct consequence of those differences we noticed respecting Christian liberty. Paragraph III of the Baptist Confession replaces paragraphs III and IV of Westminster. The Westminster paragraphs set out it view of the Westminster Confession that the duties of the magistrate have exclusive focus on the established church; including suppressing and heresies and corruptions and abuses, and upholding ‘all the ordinancies of God duly settled, administered, and observed’.

Such toleration, (modest in all conscience)  was an English business, arising initially from Independent disquiet over divine right presbyterianism. This strengthened during the Cromwellian era, as the Independents grew in influence, which marked the onset of a considerable relaxation of who could hold public worship and on what grounds, and over what they could publish. The Baptists came to be fellows of the Independents (including those with more radical views, such as John Milton), and continued to grow in the public mind up to 1688, when the limited toleration of orthodox dissent was enacted, and restrictions on Dissenters were gradually relaxed. However by modern standards the toleration was fairly minimal. Unitarians and Romanists were excluded as they were also in John Locke’s letters concerning toleration. The toleration was thus less root and branch than the proposals of Pierre Bayle the Huguenot, living in exile in Holland. Locke’s views were politically motivated, aimed at toleration of non-Anglican groups in England, provided they were loyal to the Protestant establishment, even though dissenting from the Act of Uniformity, thus outlawing radicals and Roman Catholics.

The beginnings of this are reflected in John Owen’s wordy, convoluted pamphlet Of Toleration; and the Duty of the Magistrate about Religion, published, he says…..  along with his sermon ‘Righteous Zeal encouraged by Divine Protection’ preached before the Commons in January 31, 1648, at a solemn fast. This was the day after Charles I‘s beheading. It's in vol.6 of his Works.

The pamphlet was what W.H.Goold its editor called ‘an earnest and able pleading for toleration’. Owen himself says that his ‘essay’ was prepared in a ‘hasty, tumultuary manner’ due, he suggests, to the way in which he was ‘enforced to express this essay’. (203). Who the enforcer was he does not say. Whatever the story behind his writing and publishing the piece,  the impact is rather lost in the author’s long, wordy preamble. No doubt Owen was trying to see ahead, as he always was when accepting the role of a Commons preacher, here (after a good while) becoming clear in envisaging a future in which Independent, and Presbyterian (and Baptist and Episcopalian one presumes) could live in harmony, ‘clear in all fundamentals’ as he puts it (199).   This was a plea for toleration in religion, not of the expression of opinions more generally, which by modern standards is no big deal, since the toleration of heresy and blasphemy was not pleaded for. Owen did not have in his sights the prospect, say, of allowing the public denial of Christ’s divinity, but rather issues about the sacraments and church order, the expressions of doctrine, and the like.

His proposal is potentially more far-reaching than this however. He argues for the policing of the preservation of orthodoxy should be exclusively in the hands of the churches, the magistrate having only the obligation to keep public order. about fundamentals are to be argued with, but not tortured by the magistrate. (205) But he seems to think that not much of any of this can be taken forward then and there because of the disordered state if the churches.(203)

Later Owen also published, with others,  ‘humble proposals’  to Parliament in 1652. They were preceded with these words:

‘They having had equall respects to all Persons fearing God, though of different Judgments, doe hope also will tend to union and peace, with Additonall Propositions humbly tendred to the Committee for propagating the Gospel, as easie and speedy means for supply of all Parishes in England with able, godly and Orthodox ministers; For Settling of right constituted Churches, and for preventing persons of corrupt Judgements from publishing dangerous Errours, and Blasphemies in Assemblies and Meetings, by other godly Persons, Ministers and others.’

(This document is not included nor mentioned in Goold’s edition of Owen’s Works. but the late Peter Toon published it in The Gospel Magazine, February 1969,  in ‘An Evangelical National Church’.)            

 As a Dissenter Owen took a leading part in the formulation of the Savoy Declaration (1658) which also lacked the above S. IV of Ch. XX of the Westminster Confession, and from which the Baptists took their lead. And similarly with the chapter on the magistrate.

Nevertheless, it may be said that such an outlook on toleration is significant. For in the years ahead the Presbyterians and Anglicans had to learn to tolerate even such limited toleration. In the case of the Baptists and Independents it was there from the beginning. No doubt there was considerable self-interest in thus subscribing to it. But the amount of discrimination that Dissenting groups endured at the hands of the Anglican Establishment throughout the 18th century and into the 19th (a witness now largely forgotten), contrasts markedly with the modern sensitivity to the least discriminatory infringement of one's manner of life. There was an admirable uprightness (I was going to write 'manliness', but you see what I mean about post-modernity) about the patient endurance of Dissenters during these years, sustained chiefly by their resolve not to agitate for any relaxation that would contribute to the disturbance of the Protestant character of the establishment.