Friday, March 19, 2010

Suggested Changes to the Baptist Confession of 1689 - Chapter Two

I would like to continue my series of posts offering some suggestions for possible changes to the Confession. I will take up each of these chapters one at a time. Today I will focus my attention upon chapter 2, "Of God and Of the Holy Trinity." I would like to offer two suggestions for possible changes to this chapter.

First, I would suggest updating the language of paragraph 1 where it describes God as having no "passions." The paragraph currently reads:

The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions .... [Italics mine.]
To my mind, the term passions is problematic today, since it gives the impression to many that God experiences nothing like what we would call affections or emotions. But I agree with Wayne Grudem when he writes, "We can define the unchangeableness of God as follows: God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations" (Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p.163). Grudem then goes on to observe:
Of course, God does not have sinful passions or emotions. But the idea that God has no passions or emotions at all clearly conflicts with much of the rest of Scripture, and for that reason I have not affirmed God’s impassibility in this book. Instead, quite the opposite is true, for God, who is the origin of our emotions and who created our emotions, certainly does feel emotions: God rejoices (Isa. 62:5). He is grieved (Ps. 78:40; Eph. 4:30). His wrath burns hot against his enemies (Ex. 32:10). He pities his children (Ps. 103:13). He loves with everlasting love (Isa. 54:8; Ps. 103:17). He is a God whose passions we are to imitate for all eternity as we like our Creator hate sin and delight in righteousness. (p.166)
I think most Reformed Baptists would also essentially agree with this perspective, even if they might state it a bit differently. For example, James Renihan wrote an article back in 2008 entitled Are You Passionate?. In this article he argued:

And making matters even more confusing for serious minded believers, our Confession tells us that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” This is an important theological point, often misunderstood. While we speak somewhat simplistically of emotions, our tradition spoke more specifically, not about emotions, but about affections and passions. Affections are righteous attributes which have their source within God; passions are unrighteous attributes which have their source outside of God. Our Triune Lord has true affections, but he has no passions.
Now, whether or not one agrees completely with Renihan's assessment of the way the language was used in the 17th century*, it is clear that he does not think the writers of the Confession intended to rule out any and all affections (or emotions) in God. So, why leave the old language in the Confession when it might give the wrong impression? Why not change the language in order to make the true intention of the Confession clear to modern readers?

I think Stan Reeves has done a good job of clarifying the language in his modern version of the Baptist Confession of 1689. Here is how he suggests we reword the opening statement of 1.1:

The Lord our God is one, the only living and true God. He is self-existent and infinite in being and perfection. His essence cannot be understood by anyone but him. He is a perfectly pure spirit. He is invisible and has no body, parts, or changeable human emotions .... [Italics mine.]
I think Stan's offering solves the problem nicely, and so I second his proposal.

Second, I would suggest altering paragraph 3 in some way so as to at least explicitly allow people to take exception to the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, and perhaps the coinciding doctrine of the eternal procession of the Spirit as well. So, for example, at Immanuel Baptist Church we have decided to keep the original wording of the Confession out of deference to the longstanding tradition (going back at least to the Nicene era) while adding a footnote explicitly allowing an exception. Here is how the pertinent sentence reads, together with the corresponding footnote:
In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word (or Son), and the Holy Spirit,27 of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided;28 the Father is of none neither begotten nor proceeding, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father,29 ....
29 Jo. 1:14, 18. Note: The Elders at Immanuel recognize that the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is based upon an understanding of the Greek word monogenēs as meaning only begotten, whereas it is commonly understood to mean one and only by most modern scholars. In our judgment, then, a man may on such grounds see no need to affirm a doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son as the best way to describe the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, and we would not require an affirmation of this doctrine in such an instance.
Our suggestion, as indicated, is fully in keeping with a growing scholarly consensus regarding the meaning of the crucial term monogenēs. For example, modern translations are beginning to reflect the new understanding of the term as meaning one and only. This would include the New International Version, the English Standard Version, the Holman Christian Standard Bible and the NET Bible, which offers the following reasoning for its choice of the words one and only in John 1:14:
tn Or "of the unique one." Although this word is often translated "only begotten," such a translation is misleading, since in English it appears to express a metaphysical relationship. The word in Greek was used of an only child (a son [Luke 7:12; Luke 9:38] or a daughter [Luke 8:42]). It was also used of something unique (only one of its kind) such as the mythological Phoenix (1 Clem. 25:2). From here it passes easily to a description of Isaac (Heb 11:17 and Josephus, Ant., 1.13.1 [1.222]) who was not Abraham's only son, but was one-of-a-kind because he was the child of the promise. Thus the word means "one-of-a-kind" and is reserved for Jesus in the Johannine literature of the NT. While all Christians are children of God, Jesus is God's Son in a unique, one-of-a-kind sense. The word is used in this way in all its uses in the Gospel of John (1:14; 1:18; 3:16, and 3:18).
It is thus not unusual to find contemporary Reformed theologians who essentially agree with this assessment, including men such as Robert Reymond from the Presbyterian side (in A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p.324f.) and Wayne Grudem from the Baptist side (Systematic Theology, Appendix 6, "The Monogenēs Controversy: 'Only' or 'Only Begotten,'" pp.1233-1234). But I happen to like the brief treatment by J. Oliver Buswell who, in his Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, is careful to affirm the doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ while denying the doctrine of eternal generation (Vol.1, p.110f.):

Careful lexicographical studies prove beyond a question that the word monogenes is not derived from the root gennao, to beget or generate, but is derived from genos, kind or class. The word therefore means 'in a class by himself,' 'the only one of his kind,' or in other words 'unique.' The French Bible correctly reads 'son fils unique' for our English 'his only begotten Son.' The word 'unique' would not be euphonious in English in John 3:16, but that would be the correct reading.

We have above examined all the instances in which 'begotten' or 'born' or related words are applied to Christ, and we can say with confidence that the Bible has nothing whatsoever to say about 'begetting' as an eternal relationship between the Father and the Son.

The suggestion that we completely drop the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is somewhat revolutionary. We might be misunderstood. Some would not see that we should thus clarify the absolute essential equality of the Son with the Father. Yet, the only individuals who would understand the meaning are those who ought to understand the reason. I can personally accept the ancient creeds without equivocation, for when one says 'begotten but not created,' he is reducing the word begotten to absolute zero. Yet I do believe that the 'eternal generation' doctrine should be dropped.

If we drop eternal generation, what then shall we say of eternal Sonship? That is an entirely different matter. There can be no doubt -- and we have presented sufficient evidence above for the meaning of the phrase, 'Son of God' --; that the 'Father, Son, and Holy Spirit' are words intended by the writers of the Scriptures to indicate eternal relationships within the Triune Godhead. All that is necessary for us to retain the full richness of the meaning of Sonship without retaining the non-Scriptural doctrine of eternal generation, is for us to understand and assimilate what has been said above of the doctrine of Sonship. The Son is not presented as generated, as a subordinate, or an inferior in any sense. But when Jesus called Himself Son of God, and claimed that God was His own Father, this was, in the language in which it was understood, 'making himself equal with God' (John 5:18).
On the basis of such evidence, I suppose one could decide to simply remove from the Confession altogether the reference to the eternal generation of the Son and, perhaps, the reference to the eternal procession of the Spirit (which developed analogously to the doctrine of eternal generation). Frankly, I would have no problem with this option. However, as I have already indicated, at Immanuel we decided to keep the wording as is for at least two reasons: 1) out of humble deference to such a longstanding and important tradition and, more importantly, 2) due to the continued disagreement in some quarters concerning the true meaning of monogenēs. For it would be our contention that, if monogenēs does really mean only begotten, then a doctrine of eternal generation is indeed necessary, as our forefathers in the faith clearly understood, even if we cannot say with any clarity what such a doctrine actually means.

* For the exchange between James Renihan and Robert Gonzales on the meaning of passions see here. Dr. Gonzales has also written an interesting and helpful set of articles on Divine impassibility and passibility, about which I have previously reported here.


  1. Keith,

    I laud your labors in the spirit of semper reformanda. I appreciate the balance of deep respect for historical tradition while reserving the highest honor to sola Scriptura. May the Lord continue to help us in our effort to communicate timeless truths in ways that are accurate and intelligible to our generation.

    Your servant,
    Bob Gonzales

  2. Thanks for the encouraging word, Bob. I know from some of the things you have written that we share a reforming spirit. It is my hope that we will stand on the shoulders of the those who have gone before, appreciating what they have done, while continuing the the work of reforming ever more closely to the Scriptural standard.

    Thanks again for your kind words!


    P.S. Thanks also for Where Sin Abounds. I have been making my way through it slowly and have been enjoying it a lot. I am taking my time with it while I read other things, but I will eventually get through the whole work and hopefully digest it well.