Some Objections Considered (Part 1)

When the previous material first appeared in pamphlet form, I received a response from a concerned pastor, objecting to my reading of the historical data. The following is an edited version of my reply to that objection, with personal names deleted.

The basic objection is founded on an examination of a series of statements made by leading 17th Century Independent writers on ecclesiology, namely John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, Thomas Hooker and John Cotton.  These men were chosen because their writings were foundational for the Savoy Platform of Polity, upon which the Second London Confession is based.  The argument takes something of this form: The phrases under consideration are taken verbatim by the Baptists from the Savoy document.  Since the Baptists themselves, in the preface to their document assert their extensive agreement with the perspectives of the Savoy divines, their use of the precise language of the Savoy divines necessitates an endorsement of the views of these theologians on the issue in question.

There are several considerations which need to be made in order to evaluate this proposal.  I will group them under the following heads: A Question of Methodology; A Question of the Baptist use of the Savoy Platform; Questions about the Historical Record.

A Question of Methodology

In developing the argument, it is asserted that it is fundamentally important, when considering the meaning of “communion” in the Baptist Confession, to ascertain the identity of the original authors of the precise language employed in the Confessional statement. There is no dispute over the fact that the “communion” terminology is derived directly from the Savoy Platform.  Since the authors of the latter document are well-known, among them Thomas Goodwin and John Owen, the writings of these men may be examined to determine their intention in using this language in their Platform.  It is said that these authors did not use the phrase “holding communion” as a synonym for associations,  but that it was simply broadly synonymous with the various notions of  interchurch fellowship.  In the light of this use by the “original authors” (i.e. the Savoy divines), the Baptists must have intended the same thing, and thus could not have been referring to the duty of association.

Proponents of this methodology in effect argue that the evidence from the Baptist usage of the term is irrelevant, and that priority must be given to the intention of the authors of the Savoy Platform.  It implies that the Baptists, when employing the same language as the Savoy document, of necessity must mean exactly the same thing in every case.  They could not adopt words or phrases, and invest them with a more technical meaning than may be implied in the original document.  But this is clearly a non sequitur.  If it can be demonstrated that the Baptists used the word in a more technical sense than did the Congregationalists[1] this does not in any way enervate their declarations of agreement with the Savoy divines.  It simply reflects the polysemous nature of words.  No one would deny that the semantic range of the word “communion” incorporates the sense(s) argued for by those who differ with us, nor that the connotation in the Confessional statement (in a secondary manner) bears these senses.  But the more technical usage consistently maintained in their associational documents, argues for a technical denotation in the Confession.  The evidence from the Baptist usage alone demonstrates that in their practice of the ecclesiology of these statements, association is implied.  It is not merely one of the means of holding communion, it was the quintessential means of doing so.  Whatever sense “communion” held for the Independents, for the Baptists, in contexts referring to inter-church relationships, the word had a technical sense.

Our method of determining the meaning of the statements in the Baptist Confession, or of the practical implementation of them, cannot be governed, first and foremost, by an appeal to the writings of Congregationalists. Undoubtedly, their contributions are of great importance.  Nevertheless, the Baptist explications must have priority.  Their statements in the preface to the Confession cannot be pressed to the point that they mean that every word or phrase taken verbatim from the Savoy document of necessity implies exactly the same for Independent and Baptist alike. To do so would be to ignore the synchronic use of words within the Baptist churches.

In the case in question, one must ask, if the well-established usage of a word among a group of churches carries a technical sense, why would that technical term be changed in a Confessional statement?  It must be remembered that while these words came from the Savoy document, they did not originate there, but had been in common use among the Baptists to designate the practice of formally associating for several decades.  Whatever sense they carried for the Independents, the sense intended by the Baptists is primary, and must be given priority. The term “holding communion” did not originate with the Savoy Independents in 1658.  Its use among the Baptists, with the technical denotation “formal association” predates the Savoy use, and permeates the Baptist literature on inter-church communion.  To drop the term, or to use some kind of circumlocution at this point would be to lose an important part of their ecclesiological terminology.

There is another matter that deserves brief mention.  It may be demonstrated that the word “communion” is often used by the Independent writers to describe profound spiritual fellowship.  This is undoubtedly correct.  But it has not been demonstrated conclusively that they never use the word to refer to formal organizations of any kind.  Several concerns and apparent objections may be cited in their writings, but anti-associational conclusions are based on a selective use of evidence.  In order to sustain this point, it must be demonstrated that the Independents never used the term “communion” in the sense of formal associations. As will be noted below, they did use the term in this sense.  The objection is a case of confusing apples and oranges.  There is a kind of communion present among different evangelical churches.  I do not argue that the word does not carry other connotations.  I simply argue that in the Confessional statement it is used as a technical term.  Would the proponents of the other position envision the Particular Baptists considering “matters of difference” (26:15) with representatives from any evangelical church, simply because, in a sense, they had communion with them?  I am sure that they would not.  Pressed to its logical conclusion, this notion introduces serious problems.

For these reasons, I believe that the above method is faulty.  While much help may be gleaned from the writings of the Independents, these writings are supplemental, and not primary in determining the meaning of the statements in the Baptist Confession.

[1]See the next posts for evidence that the Independents also invested the term with a technical sense. N.B.: I use Congregationalist and Independent to refer to the same men.