Some Objections Considered (Part 2)

A Question of the Baptist use of the Savoy Platform

In developing this argument based on the Baptists’ use of the Savoy Platform, it is easy to overlook two important factors that militate against this position.

In the first place, careful notice must be given to the Savoy Divines’ own explanation of  their method. It must be remembered that the Savoy documents were originally published in two parts: the Declaration, which is a Confession of Faith, and the Platform of Polity, or as it is entitled, Of the Institution of Churches, and the Order Appointed in them by Jesus Christ.  They are very plain in their reasons for separating these documents:

We have endeavored throughout, to hold to such Truths in this our Confession, as are more properly termed matters of Faith; and what is of Church-order, we dispose in certain Propositions by it self.  To this course we are led by the Example of the Honorable Houses of Parliament, observing what was established, and what omitted by them in that Confession the Assembly presented to them.  Who thought it not convenient to have matters of Discipline and Church-Government put into a Confession of Faith, especially such particulars thereof, as then were, and still are controverted and under dispute by men Orthodox and sound in Faith. . . . There being nothing that tends more to heighten dissentings among Brethren, then to determine and adopt the matter of their difference, under so high a title, as to be an Article of our Faith.[1]

The Independent  methodology is clear.  Many doctrines, held in common with the Presbyterians as expressed in the Westminster Confession, deserve to be regarded as matters of faith, and so to be included in the Confession.  But matters of ecclesiological polity, since they are to some degree debatable, are placed in a separate document so that no one will be offended by thinking that the Independents treat these things on the same level as the matters contained in the Declaration itself.

The Baptists did not follow this method when they published their Confession in 1677.  In Chapter 26, they used an editorial method that was different from that used in the rest of the Confession.  The redactors took some of the material placed by the Savoy divines in the Platform of Polity, incorporated it into Chapter 26 of their Confession, and in so doing, elevated these matters to Articles of Faith.  By this action, they consciously invested the statements of Chapter 26 with a greater authority than did the Independents who placed this material in a distinct Platform.  In this way, the statements of Chapter 26 which are taken from the Savoy Platform may, without any charge of ignorance or dissimulation, be understood in a peculiarly Baptist fashion.  No contemporaries would have missed this significant alteration in methodology.  We must recognize it as well.

In the second place, it should be noted that the Baptists did alter the statement of the Savoy Platform, in that they dropped the phrase “in a Synod or Councel.”[2] This alteration, though at first appearing to be minor, in fact takes on significance.  Since in some cases the Independent method of holding communion included the occasional convening of synods or councils, and this was not part of the Baptist practice, the deletion of this phrase argues for a peculiarly Baptistic understanding of the words “holding communion.”  In their recension of the Savoy material, they recast the statement to reflect the well-established polity already in place.  By adopting this language, they confess their commitment to the pattern existing among their churches.  The final portion of Chapter 26, paragraph 15 must be read carefully.  The Baptist polity, expressed in formal organizations, is the basis for the resolution of differences and the giving of advice.  The participle “holding communion” implies a present and established state of communion, and this established state provides the forum at which these issues may find resolution.  They did not need to hold occasional “synods or councels” because they already had in place the means by which to settle matters: association meetings.  The churches in association met on a regular schedule according to their custom, and handled these matters at their association meetings.  A glance at the printed records of these associations will demonstrate just how well suited the associations were for implementing the polity confessed in this paragraph.[3] Anything less formal simply cannot fit the doctrine or practice of the Seventeenth Century confessors.

[1]From the Preface to the Savoy Declaration, Williston Walker, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1991 reprint), 363.

[2]Ibid., 407; cf. A Confession of Faith: Put forth by the Elders and Brethren of many Congregations of Christians (baptized upon Profession of their faith) in London and the Country (London: Printed in the year, 1677), 93.

[3]Several of the records of these associations have been published. See for example, White, Association Records; Stephen L. Copson, ed., Association Life of the Particular Baptists of Northern England, 1699-1732 (London: The Baptist Historical Society, 1991). The re-publication of the records from the London General Assemblies 1689-92 is in process.