The Doctrine of the Extent of the Atonement among the Early English Particular Baptists
Until 25th August, 2019, get free access to David H. Wenkel’s full article ‘The Doctrine of the Extent of the Atonement among the Early English Particular Baptists’ in Harvard Theological Review’s latest publication, Volume 112, Issue 3.
In this article, I address the theology of the earliest English Baptists and their understanding of Christ’s death on the cross. There were two family trees of Baptists in the seventeenth century, the General Baptists and the Particular Baptists. Both trees were considered “Baptist” because they only baptized those who were able to articulate their own personal faith in Jesus. This practice stood in contrast to the infant baptism that characterized much of Christendom at the time. In this paper, I examine the identity and definition of this second group, the Particular Baptists, by asking: What did it mean to be a Particular Baptist for the earliest Baptists in London who produced confessions in 1644 and 1646?
While it is easy to understand what a “Baptist” is, especially in contradistinction to the various denominations that baptize infants, it is not especially clear what it meant, in the seventeenth century, for some Baptists to be “Particular.” Is this word “Particular” a reference to “particular redemption” (limited atonement)? Or is it a reference to God’s sovereign election of individuals to salvation?
This essay challenges the view that the early English Baptists, who are often labelled as “Particular Baptists,” always held a doctrine of strict particularism or particular redemption—Christ’s death being intended for the elect and no one else, in both its objective accomplishment and its application.
The main argument asserted here is that the two earliest confessions of the English Particular Baptists supported a variety of positions on the doctrine of the atonement because they focus on the subjective application of Christ’s work rather than its objective accomplishment. The first two editions of the earliest London Baptist confession represent a unique voice that reflects an attempt to include a range of Calvinistic views on the atonement. Such careful ambiguity reflects the pattern of Reformed confessionalism in the seventeenth century. This paper goes on to argue that some individuals did indeed hold to “strict particularism” —which is compatible with, but not required by, the first two confessions.
The London Baptist Confessions of 1644 and especially that of 1646 are compatible with, but do not demand, a doctrine of strict particularism. These confessions were carefully worded to emphasize the application of Christ’s work on the cross to the elect through faith. As such, they emphasize the sovereign work of God in salvation. This paper examines several articles from the confessions to demonstrate that they reflect intentional ambiguity about the scope of Christ’s atoning work. Such nuanced ambiguity was likely an important factor in achieving unity amongst the various churches that used and supported these confessions.
David H. Wenkel, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School