Welcome to the 2023 Presbyterion
Welcome to the 2023 Presbyterion, the Spring Pastors’ Fraternal of the Reformed Baptist Fellowship of Virginia.
For our program today we decided to offer a selective review of James M. Renihan’s work, To the Judicious and Impartial Reader: A Contextual-Historical Exposition of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, Baptist Symbolics, Volume II (Cape Coral, Florida: Founders Press, 2022).
This work has already been welcomed and acknowledged as a landmark exposition of the Confession which will likely serve as an interpretive standard for decades to come among Reformed or Confessional Baptists.
Dr. Renihan serves as President of the International Reformed Baptist Seminary in Mansfield, Texas and previously directed the IRBS at Westminster Seminary in California.
Rather than attempt to review the entire book, four of us will today offer a brief review (c. 15 minutes, or as I like to call it, the time it takes to do a short introduction to the sermon!) of four different sections of the book, covering the exposition of five chapters in the Confession.
Jeff Riddle, Christ RBC: Confession ch. 1 on Scripture
Ryan Davidson, Grace Baptist Chapel: Confession ch. 22 on Worship and the Sabbath
Steve Clevenger, Covenant RBC: Confession 26 on Church Officers
Van Loomis, Redeeming Grace BC: Confession chs. 28-29 on Baptism
Before, we move to look at the exposition of chapter one, let me make a couple of observations on the Introduction (1-20):
Renihan begins by noting that though we call this the 1689 Confession, “there is no extant evidence that the Confession was published in 1689. It seems to have acquired this designation because it was subscribed at the 1689 London General Assembly” (2).
He declares that locating this confession “as a species within the genus of Reformed theology is straightforward” (4). So, Reformed Baptists are reformed.
Further on he states, “The aim of this book is not primarily polemic but rather explanatory.” For Renihan the “key question is what did the Confession mean to its readers in its own context” (7).
He also tells us, “There are times when I must express my enthusiasm” (7).
Finally, he suggests the confession bears an “internal structure” and can be divided into “four main units” (11). It is a “woven document” which must be read “back and forth” (11).
Unit 1: First Principles (chs. 1-6).
Unit 2: The Covenant (chs. 7-20).
Unit 3: God-Centered Living: Freedom and Boundaries (chs. 21-30).
Unit 4: The World to Come (chs. 31-32).
Finally, at the end of each chapter Renihan incorporates devotional material. So, there is an emphasis on piety and doxology in this exposition.
Chapter 1: Of the Holy Scriptures
After an explanation and presentation of the Epistle or Preface to the Confession whose beginning supplies the book’s title (“To the Judicious and Impartial Reader”) (21-26), Renihan begins his exposition of chapter one (Unit One) (29-78).
Time will not allow today for a thorough review of the chapter, so I will just offer seven observations about or highlights from the exposition in this opening chapter.
First: Renihan acknowledges that by addressing Scripture in this opening chapter the confession follows “the traditional method of expressing theological loci” in Puritan confessions by beginning with Scripture as “the principium cognoscendi, the principle of knowing” (epistemology) (29).
Second: Renihan notes that the opening sentence in paragraph one “is not found in the WCF or Savoy and had been added by Baptists” (30). That sentence reads: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience….” He gives three reasons why it was added: () polemics against Quakers; (2) polemics against RCC; and (3) polemics against paedobaptists.
Third: Renihan insists that the framers of the confession held a high view of the Scriptures as inerrant and infallible, contrary to interpretations of their Bibliology given by moderate SBC scholars of the past like William Lumpkin and James Leo Garrett, Jr. He even offers a quote from Keach in which Keach “advocates a dictation theory of inspiration,” as opposed to “the better concursive theory” (37).
Fourth: In his discussion of the confession’s emphasis on the insufficiency of natural (general) revelation in 1:1, Renihan notes that “this was a disputed point among seventeenth century Baptists” and offers an extended contrasting citation from the General Baptist Thomas Grantham’s work St. Paul’s Catechism (39-41). The wording of the Confession “refutes the doctrine of religious sincerity and the virtuous heathen. According to the Confession, there is no salvation apart from the grace of faith in Christ” (42).
Fifth: Renihan addresses the change of the wording in 1:6 from the WCF and the Savoy’s which affirms that the whole counsel of God is “either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from Scripture” to the Baptist Confession’s wording that this counsel “is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture.” Renihan argues that the Particular Baptists did not explicitly deny the general concept of “good and necessary consequences” being deduced from Scripture. He even cites a quotation from Nehemiah Coxe’s (in Vindiciae Veritatis) that appears explicitly to affirm it (55). The reason for the change, according to Renihan, was the Baptist framers' “logic in interpretation” as they made a distinction between necessary consequences and merely good consequences (55). He concludes, “They could accept necessary consequences as binding, but not good consequences” (56). So, they were trying to ground their theology more closely to Scripture and not to human reason alone (57).
Sixth: Also in his discussion of 1:6 Renihan draws on the distinctions made by Heiko Oberman between Tradition 1 (Scripture and its truths) and Tradition 2 (Scripture supplemented by church tradition) to suggests that the framers of the confession warmly affirmed sola Scriptura, and yet they were not “biblicists.” He writes, “They were not biblicists who required an explicit text for every doctrine; they were churchmen who viewed themselves as part of that long line of believers stretching back through the millennia” (60).
Seventh: Perhaps the most refreshing and insightful exposition of this chapter comes in Renihan’s treatment of 1:8. Under the influence of Richard Muller, he notes the distinction made by the framers between the autographs and the apographs. He approvingly cites Richard Brash’s observation that the framers saw a “‘practical univocity’ between the immediately inspired autographa and the providentially preserved apographa” (67). He paraphrases the view of William Bridge, a member of both the Westminster Assembly and the Savoy Synod, as saying, “We have the word of God in our texts. God has always preserved it” (69). With respect to translations, Renihan also draws upon Muller’s discussion of the Authoritas Divina Duplex, noting that the originals are authoritative in both matter (content) and form, while translations are authoritative only in matter (content) and not in form.
In closing, I think Renihan has provided our generation and ones to come an outstanding survey, analysis, and framework for understanding the Confession’s affirmation of Scripture as the preeminent authority for our doctrine and practice.