What About Baptists & Classical Theism?

Let’s remember that classical theism used to be the theological norm, dare I say the orthodox standard. But, when we look around at contemporary evangelicalism, and more specifically the broad stream of Western Baptists, we are reminded that this rich theological tradition has been largely buried by the rise of fideism, the seeker-friendly movement, and the general demonization of rational discourse within Christian-religious circles.

In fact, over the last two centuries Baptists (along with charismatics) have perhaps led the charge in tearing down the historical relationship between faith and reason, between philosophy and theology. What I want to show in this article is how Baptists, especially the Particular Baptists, have understood their theology in classical theistic terms historically and––by virtue of doing so––urge a return to the classical way of talking about the doctrine of God.

What Is Classical Theism?

I think “classical theism” is becoming somewhat of a buzz-word for some. Because of various mischaracterizations, the designation “classical theism” may cause some to think of an Evangelical theology that is tending toward Roman Catholic dogma. It is, some think, a doorway to Romish sacramentology and soteriology. The connection is usually made in utilizing Thomas Aquinas, who was the meeting point between classical Christian theism and meritorious grace. But the two do not mutually entail one another as can be proved by the broader historical discussion found in men like Francis Turretin, Stephen Charnock, John Owen and––more contemporarily––Richard Muller, Paul Helm, James Dolezal, Carl Truman, J. V. Fesko, and others.

Classical theism, more often than not, refers to the doctrine of God. It’s foundational earmark is divine simplicity, which states that God is not composed of parts––corporeal or otherwise. Our very own Second London Confession states this by saying:

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, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto.[1]

Classical theism is also methodological, recognizing the unity of God prior to moving toward the plurality of subsistences in the Godhead. This is primarily evident in the 1689’s systematic order as seen in chapter 2. It moves from the doctrine of God stated in 2.1, then implications from who God is are drawn in 2.2, the Trinity not being discussed until 2.3.

Today, this order is largely reversed, as mentioned in this episode of the TBR podcast. The reason for this, I gather, flows from the notion that the articles of faith must serve as the epistemic starting point for articles of reason. So, that which can be known about God through nature by all men is made metaphysically subservient to that which must be apprehended by faith. The Trinity is not revealed in creation, but in special revelation alone. Thus, following from the church’s desire to get away from reason and trudge out a system of theology using the bare words of the Bible, people were led to begin with their doctrinal conclusions rather than a overarching metaphysic which governs the interpretation of Scripture.

The problem here, however, is that one cannot formulate doctrinal conclusions or even look at the text of Scripture without assuming certain metaphysical things beforehand. For instance, I must assume the existence and reliability of my sense perception and the validity of the laws of logic in order to make anything Scripture says intelligible. Without the laws of logic, for instance, anything Scripture says could mean the exact opposite of what we think it says. Reading Scripture prior to assuming what must be assumed in order to make sense of anything is impossible.

Classical theism, therefore, entails the beginning with a metaphysic (or doctrine of God) in order to understand and interpret the articles of faith correctly. Today, mainstream evangelicalism teaches we must build a metaphysic from Scripture, assuming its authority and our ability to apprehend it. But, this is disastrous, logically, since we make metaphysical assumptions before coming to the text of Scripture.

It’s incoherent to say we must derive metaphysical principles from Scripture alone while using metaphysics principle to derive those metaphysical principles! The point here boils down to classical theism being a metaphysical framework assumed by Scripture itself, and required in order for Scripture’s claims to be understood properly and accounted for. The doctrine of God is the crown jewel of the Scriptures and accounts for its status as the inspired Word of God.

Classical Theism in Baptist Theology

We have already covered, perhaps, the most obvious place classical theism may be found in Baptist theology. It is in the Second London Confession. Yet, based on the above discussion, some may choose to criticize, claiming that since the Scriptures are first in the confession, then the Particular Baptists must have thought them to be the foundation of our doctrine of God. The answer is two-fold: yes and no. First, we must notice that chapter 2 begins with a doctrine of God that could be known by anyone, even people without faith––in accordance with Romans 1:18-20. This is God as He is observed and discovered through an exercise in natural theology, or rational deduction from what has been made. It’s not until article 3 that the framers moved to an article of faith, that is, the doctrine of the Trinity, which is revealed by way of special revelation alone.

Second, Scripture is placed first in the confession because the confession is, first and fore-mostly, a recitation of things to be believed by believers. Of the Holy Scriptures, therefore, is at the start because it is God’s special revelation to His people concerning the things they ought to believe. It is God’s written Word to His people revealing salvation and a right way of worship for the elect church of God. The confession isn’t a book outlining a particular method for doing theology. It has a method, to be sure, but that method is consistent with its purpose––to outline what is to be believed by the faithful.

The Westminster Confession begins the same way. But if we are to understand these two documents as concrete instructions for how to approach metaphysics en toto, Scripture being the rational starting point without demonstration of its authority, then we would have to admit they contradict their most prominent supporters, such as Stephen Charnock or Nehemiah Coxe. In his response to a seventeenth century heretic, Thomas Collier, Coxe writes:

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What Coxe does here is identify one of the incommunicable attributes of God, His omnipresence, with the divine essence. God is His omnipresence such that to take away omnipresence is not to merely take away an attribute of God, but to take away God altogether! This is significant since Coxe was most certainly one of the framers of the Second London, along with William Collins. He goes on to write:

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Here, Coxe alludes to our necessary use of analogical language in our predication about God. If we do not understand that God has accommodated His revelation to human understanding by way of analogy, we are in danger of becoming like the Anthropomorphites, who ascribed actual human parts to the divine essence. Heaven, says Coxe, is that loftiest place beyond which we cannot comprehend and so, we, being finite, describe God as being “in heaven,” even though God––properly speaking––is not spatially present in any one place. For omnipresence is a removal (remotionis) of limitation, that is, spatial confinement.[4]

Thus, in concluding this section, classical theism can easily be seen in the Second London Confession as well as the literature surrounding that document, especially in Coxe’s response to Collier.

The Classical Method in the Baptist Catechisms

In Keach’s catechism the same methodology shows itself. Qq. 8-9 begin with the unity of God and move from there to the Trinity in Q. 10. The same can be said for the later edition of the catechism, probably drafted in the 1690s by William Collins, fellow elder at Petty France Church in London with Nehemiah Coxe.

Moreover, classical theology can be seen in the answers to these questions. Both catechisms ask, “What is God?” Rather than beginning with the personal identity of God in the plurality of relations––Father, Son, & Spirit––the catechisms ask what God is. This is a question of essence, or quiddity, which assumes a Thomistic understanding of essence and existence. Yet, in the answers to Qq. 7 & 8 respectively, the catechisms imply that God’s essence and existence are one in the same––a signature mark of classical theism.

The question of what God is results in the answer that God just is pure existence itself (i.e. infinite in being).

“God is infinite in His being,” is akin to saying, “all bachelors are unmarried men.” It’s an analytical truth, which is to say it’s true by definition. But it also says something else. God is infinite, which is an incommunicable attribute. Nothing else can be infinite––only God. Therefore, God alone is infinite and, because of this, it could be said that God just is infinity itself. But to be infinity, God’s essence and existence must be the same. God doesn’t exist because of infinity; God doesn’t partake of infinity; God is identified with His attribute of infinity. No God would equal no infinity; no infinity would equal no God. What God is, essentially, entails His existence––God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

At its very foundations, historical Reformed Baptist theology has assumed classical theism and developed its theology in accordance with it.

[1] The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689. 2.1.
[2] Nehemiah Coxe, Vindiciæ veritatis, or a Confutation of the heresies and gross errours asserted by Thomas Collier in his Additional Word to his Body of Divinity, 2.
[3] Ibid., 2.
[4] Thomas Aquinas, in discussing how we must talk about God in Summa Contra Gentiles, Vol. 1, used the term remotion, or removal of limits (describing what God is not), which is also commonly referred to as speaking about God apophatically.

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