Some Early Baptist Confessions of Faith
Explicitly Disowned the "Openness" View
by John Piper
April 23, 1999
The Second London Confession of Baptists in 1677 (reissued in 1689), in Chapter II, "Of God and the Holy Trinity," paragraph 2, says:
"In [God's] sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the Creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain."1
It is remarkable that three hundred years ago Baptists explicitly repudiated an essential tenet of contemporary "openness theology"; namely, that God's knowledge is indeed significantly "dependent upon the Creature." As Greg Boyd says, "God can't foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people He creates until He creates these people and they, in turn create their decisions."2 This "openness" view entails that for God many things are indeed "contingent or uncertain," which the Baptists of 1689 also reject in their statement of faith.
Why did a Baptist confession of faith in 1689 include such an explicit denial of these "openness" tenets? One reason is that "Socinian thought became predominant in many circles, both General Baptist and English Presbyterians being widely contaminated."3 But all orthodox branches of the church rejected this doctrinal aberration and affirmed God's exhaustive foreknowledge. Charles Hodge expresses this common knowledge, "The Church . . . in obedience to the Scriptures, has, almost with one voice, professed faith in God's foreknowledge of the free acts of his creatures."4 Greg Boyd acknowledges that "Until the time of the Socinians, the belief that God's omniscience included all future events was not generally questioned."5
But the Socinians, taking the name of Socinus (1539-1604), avowed a view of God's foreknowledge similar to the one being advanced by openness theology today.
The Socinians . . . unable to reconcile this foreknowledge with human liberty, deny that free acts can be foreknown. As the omnipotence of God is his ability to do whatever is possible, so his omniscience is his knowledge of everything knowable. But as free acts are in their nature uncertain, as they may or may not be, they cannot be known before they occur. Such is the argument of Socinus.6
Therefore, the Baptists in 1689, when confronted with the spreading of this false teaching about the foreknowledge of God, were moved to take an explicit stand against it in their affirmation of faith.
The issue remained important enough for the next 60 years, so that when the Baptists in America chose their first affirmation of faith, they chose this same 1689 London Confession. They made some small additions relevant to their situation, but justify the wording on foreknowledge exactly as it was in the 1689 Confession.
In 1707 the first Baptist association in America was organized at Philadelphia. As theological disputes arose among the Baptists of the New World, they appealed to "the Confession of Faith, set by the elders and brethren met in London in 1689, and owned by us," as their standard of doctrine. When the association gathered at Philadelphia on September 25, 1742, they ordered a new printing of this by then classic statement of faith which became known on this side of the Atlantic as the Philadelphia Confession of Faith.7
Thus, in this first American Baptist statement of faith, the explicit disavowal of limited foreknowledge was preserved in the same language. "In [God's] sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the Creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain."8 We may infer several lessons from these observations:
1. The view of God's foreknowledge espoused today by openness theology is similar to that espoused by Socinianism, even though not all of the unorthodox views of Socinianism are embraced by openness theology.9
2. The limited view of God's foreknowledge was rejected by all orthodox bodies in the history of the church including our Baptist forefathers.
3. This doctrinal issue was regarded by seventeenth-century Baptists as important enough in their day to repudiate explicitly in their affirmation of faith.
4. It is not unbaptistic or narrow to do the same today.
1 William L. Lumkin, ed., Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1959), p. 253 (emphasis added). The fact that these early Baptists were Calvinistic in their orientation does not mean that the issue of foreknowledge was a uniquely Calvinisitc concern. Arminius himself rejected the notion that his view demanded God's uncertainty about future human choices. He affirmed, for example, "The fourth decree, to save certain particular persons and to damn others . . . rests upon the foreknowledge of God, by which he has known from eternity which persons should believe according to such an administration of the means serving to repentance and faith through his preceding grace and which should persevere through subsequent grace, and also who should not believe and persevere." Quoted in Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1971), p. 352.
2Greg Boyd, Letters from A Skeptic (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1994), p. 30,
3 O. Ramond Johnston, "Socinianism," in: Everett Harrison, ed., Baker's Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), p. 490.
4 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989, orig. 1871-1873), p. 400.
5Gregory A. Boyd, Trinity and Process: A Critical Evaluation and Reconstruction of Hartshorne's Di-Polar Theism Towards a Trinitarian Metaphysics (New York: Peter Long Publishing, Inc., 1992), p. 296.
6 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1., pp. 400- 401.
7 Timothy and Denise George, eds., Baptist Confessions, Covenant, and Catechisms (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1996), p. 10.
8 Ibid., Baptist Confessions, p. 60.
9 Nevertheless, we should hear the warning of Robert Strimple in response to openness theology: "A Socinian view of God leads inevitably to a Socinian view of salvation, which is not the good news of salvation by God's free grace - by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone - but rather a message of salvation by one's own efforts, a false gospel that is not good news at all. It is the gospel that is at stake in this debate." "What Does God Know?" in: The Coming Evangelical Crisis, John Armstrong, ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), p. 150.
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