The Guides We’ve Been Waiting For

Confessing the Faith: Volumes 1 & 2

by Jonathan Woodrow

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Studying a confession is a fascinating and edifying exercise. It involves a bit of time travel. The document was written at a certain point in history for particular purposes. The Second London Confession comes out of the history of the Post-Reformation period (roughly 1565-1725). It is steeped in the theology and church struggles of the time, including the political struggles of the day. A deep study of the confession requires stepping into the world in which it was written. But the study also involves travelling further back in time. The pastors and theologians who wrote the Second London Confession didn’t start from scratch; they were passing on what they had received, not only from the confessions of the reformed faith that came in the 100 years before but also the creeds and councils of the faith throughout the centuries. Some of its vocabulary goes back to the early church fathers and their use of terms drawn from their context in Greco-Roman culture. They were passing on the faith once received. They were passing on the common notebook of the church. Therefore, we find in the confession ways of summarising biblical truth that date back to the early church fathers.

Jim Renihan’s Confessing the Faith volumes 1 and 2 are the works to help us travel in time and hear our forefathers confess the faith. Dr Renihan works through the confessions chapter by chapter and paragraph by paragraph, unearthing the sources from supporting literature and some of the controversies the church had to face, which informed some of the content. Additionally, where necessary, modifications were made in the Second London to the Westminster and Savoy renderings of common statements.

Confessions are the products of God's work in turning dead sinners who repressed the truth into a body of believers who confess it.

Broken Wharfe has been privileged to publish a UK edition of Dr James Renihan’s Confessing the Faith Volumes 1 and 2. We have released the first volume, a commentary on the First London Baptist Confession, as an ebook — a print version for the UK is forthcoming. The second volume is Renihan’s commentary on the Second London Confession of Faith, commonly known today as the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.

What is unique about Renhian’s commentaries on these confessions is his insistence on hearing them in their historical context. Jim is by no means a postmodern thinker who sees context as king over timeless truths. Instead, he sees the church, throughout history, as a body which confesses the timeless truths of scripture.

Even though they emerge in response to various historical forces, creeds and confessions are not, first and foremost, the products of the historical context. They are the products of God’s work in turning dead sinners who repressed the truth into a body of believers who confess it. John Webster, perhaps the greatest Anglican theologian writing in the English language of the last thirty years, said

“…creeds and confessional formulas properly emerge out of one of the primary and defining activities of the church, the act of confession. In that act, which is constantly to characterize the life of the church, the church binds itself to the gospel. Confession is the act of astonished, fearful, and grateful acknowledgement that the gospel is the one word by which to live and die; in making its confession, the church lifts up its voice to do what it must do — speak with amazement of the goodness and truth of the gospel and the gospel’s God. Creeds and confessional formulas exist to promote that act of confession: to goad the church toward it, to shape it, to tie it to the truth, and so to perpetuate the confessional life and activity of the Christian community. In this way, creeds and confessional formulas are the servants of the gospel in the church.⁠” [1]

Renihan’s work shows us the efforts of men to promote the act of confession, to tie the church to the gospel so that the church continued to confess the truth in a particular time and context. We hear our forefathers “speak with amazement of the goodness and truth of the gospel and the gospel’s God”.

In Renihan’s commentaries, on each chapter and the sources and issues that stand behind the confessions, we encounter the spirit and practice of a generous orthodoxy that was at work among the writers of the confessions, which came from a conviction that the central activity of the church is the confession of the truth.

The strong ear for the historical context of the First and Second London Confessions, the self-conscious dependence of the writers on the creeds of the past and the confessions and theological works of their context teach us how they sought to join their confession to that of the historic universal Christian community. Reading Jim’s work, you find yourself wanting to add your voice to theirs, to confess the truth.

[1] J. B. Webster, ‘Confession and Confessions’, in C. R. Seitz (ed.), Nicene Christianity: The Future for a New Ecumenism (Grand Rapids, 2001), 119.