Trinitarian Heresy In the London Baptist Confession of 1689

The London Baptist Confession of 1689 says in its second chapter:

“The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection…

In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.”

Here we see them begin their treatment of the Trinity by saying that the one God is a person “whose subsistence is in and of himself”. Subsistence is a philosophical term for person, when it refers to something of a rational nature, such as God, or an angel, or a man. What is more clear in identifying him as a single person is their explicit use of singular personal pronouns.

Had they stopped there and called this person who is the one God the Father of our Lord, there would have been no disagreement either with scripture or with the faith of the ancients. But we see further in the chapter that they expressly identify this person of the one God as being “three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit”. So they have explicitly declared the one God to be a single subsistence who is three subsistences, or put into common language, one person who is three persons.

If anyone doubts that this was the intention of those who framed the confession let them notice that later in the same paragraph quoted above they again use a singular personal pronoun in regard to all three together taken as one God, making again explicit their erroneous belief in that the one God is one person who is three, instead of being identical with the Father of our Lord as the scriptures teach (see: We Believe in One God, the Father Almighty).

And so this baptist plagiarism of the Westminster Confession of Faith is shown to be expressly semi-modalistic. The Westminster Confession maintains a better statement on these matters, being ambiguous enough to be taken either orthodoxly or otherwise, unlike the baptist modification that specifies an anti-trinitarian belief explicitly. 

Until this articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is recognized as being  problematic, there is little hope of seeing reform in this area among those who subscribe to this confession.

31 thoughts on “Trinitarian Heresy In the London Baptist Confession of 1689”

  1. Reading the section as a whole, alongside the section on Christ the Mediator, it seems perfectly clear that they are not saying what you are saying here. Maybe your definition of subsistence is not the same as theirs.

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  2. This is incorrect; the 2LBC is distinctly not semi-modalistic or self-contradictory. The definition you provide for subsistence is correct, but that is only the 2nd sense of the term (“an individual instance of a given essence… the Latin equivalent of hypostasis, and a more technical and philosophically adequate term than persona”). The 1st sense is “indicating a particular being or existent” (cf. Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin & Greek Theological Terms). The language in paragraph 1 referring to God as a singular subsistence is using the 1st sense of the term, and the reference to the three subsistences in God in paragraph 3 is using the 2nd sense of the term. The Particular Baptist authors were saying in the most technical terms nothing more or less than “one being in three persons.”

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  3. The two definitions you propose for ‘subsistence’ are just two ways of saying the same thing. “A particular being or existent” is an individual being; which in the case that said individual is rational, is by definition a person (defined as an individual being of a rational nature). “A particular being or existent” is distinguished from a nature, which one might call a general or generic being or existence. Its in confounding that nature/individual distinction that the 2LBC teaches contrary to Nicene trinitarianism.

    Let’s suppose, for sake of argument, there was a second meaning to the term ‘subsistence’ referring to a generic essence (which as I have already addressed, is not actually the case); Firstly, the 2LBC using the same exact term to refer to that essence, and to refer to the persons, is needlessly confusing. At the very least, the 2LBC must be convicted of needlessly leaving its definition of the Trinity ambiguous and needlessly confusing. It is, after all, accepted practice that when one is in doubt of how an author using a term in a given passage, to look at other places in the near context where the same term is used, and use that to shed light on how its being used in the passage in question. When one does that in this passage of the 2LBC, the result is a confounding of person and essence, a basic and necessary distinction for Nicene trinitarianism. If the first use of subsistence is understood by the aid of the second, it will be taken as a term for person (which it is). Or, if the latter use is clarified by means of the first, and the first is assumed to indicate an essence, then the latter use will be understood to deny the co-essentiality of the persons by teaching that just as much as there are three persons, there are three essences or natures as well.

    Secondly (if we grant for sake of argument that the term subsistence has two meanings, one being person, and the other, essence), then this still leaves its initial usage for the Trinity in the 2LBC an open question. If the term could mean ‘essence’, is that how the authors of the confession intended it, or how the confession itself, in context, presents it?

    The answer here seems to be ‘no’; the 2LBC says “The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection…”; in the same clause that the word ‘subsistence’ appears in, the subject its referring to is twice referred to by *singular* personal pronouns, clearly treating the subject in view as a single person. This also fits with calling the subject in question “the Lord our God” which is obviously a personal title as well, as a nature or essence is not a lord, and does not exercise authority over another, but rather persons exercise lordship. All the language in the immediate context then, indicates that the ‘subsistence’ is one of a person, an individual instantiation of a rational nature, according to scholastic vocabulary.

    Finally I would point out that while the 2LBC’s use of the term ‘subsistence’ seems to make its trinitarian heresy extra explicit, even if the term essence were used in its place in the beginning of the chapter under discussion, it still remains that the person who is the subject of the first paragraph is again referred to in the last as “This divine and infinite Being” in which there are said to be three subsistences: still clearly teaching that the Trinity is a person who is three persons. This again confirmed later in the third paragraph where this “Being” in whom there are three subsistences, who was the subject of the first paragraph, is again referred to by singular personal pronouns.

    “Being”, after all, is a vague term that can refer to essences or persons. For instance, a “human being” refers to a human person, not human nature, ordinarily. So when “Being” is used here, we have to ask ‘which use of the term does the context support?’. Due to the explicitly personal language (the pronouns) and its reference back to the personal subject of paragraph one, it is inescapably using “Being” in reference to a person.

    All that said, the sad fact is that the language of the 2nd London Baptist confession is quite clearly semi-modalistic.

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      1. No, I’ve approved every comment I’ve seen from you. I got 2 notifications for your original comment, but the content of the second notification is word-for-word the same as the one I approved. I figure its just an error that I got notified twice. There is no other comment I have seen from you that I have not approved.

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      2. Thanks for the explanation. I’m not sure what’s going then with my comment next comment. I’ll try it again right after this comment. Maybe it’s too long and I need to break it in two. I didn’t think it was any longer than your last one though.

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  4. I’m dividing my comment up…

    1. I’m not “proposing” two definitions; I’m telling you that Muller lists two non-synonymous senses in which subsistence can be used. I cited the reference. And no, the first sense listed is not the same as saying “person.” The second sense is. He points this out in the entry for “subsistence.” Your argument does not seem to be with me, but with the dictionary.

    The 2LBC is not needlessly confusing; you simply need to read it within the context of the usage of each word. The context and point of the first usage of subsistence in paragraph one is God’s aseity in His (singular) divine essence. The context and point of the second use of subsistence in paragraph three is the distinction of the persons. Nowhere in the confession or in historical theology have the Particular Baptists affirmed God is one person. If confession is so confusing on its use of subsistence how is it that orthodox trinitarianism has always been a staple of Reformed Baptist theology?

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    1. As I explained above, a “particular being” and “an individual instance of a given essence” are the same thing. I have gone into detail as to why I believe these must be read as synonymous above; you have not responded with any sort of meaningful arguments in response to my own. If something I said on that point needs further clarification, I’ll be happy to elaborate more.

      As to reading the 2LBC in context, I have addressed that in detail in my comment above as well. The personal pronouns in the first paragraph indicate that the subject in view is in fact a person, not an impersonal essence shared by three persons. Any unbiased reader, based on grammar alone, has good reason to take paragraph one, and its usage of “subsistence” to be personal. Here again you present your disagreement with me, but are not providing any counterargument to the argument I already presented as to why, based on context, paragraph one is most reasonably read as pertaining to a person.

      As for your last argument… it is quite a claim to say that Reformed Baptists have always had orthodox trinitarianism as a staple of their theology. The arguments I have presented for the 2LBC being semi-modalistic intimate otherwise, as does the affinity many Reformed Baptists have shown for Cornelius Van Til, who famously very openly taught that the Trinity, as a whole, is a person (see https://contramodalism.com/2018/01/15/van-tils-views-on-the-trinity/).

      I will be awaiting part 2 of your response, along with any further elaboration on part one you would like to provide.

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  5. 2. Even in Scripture the being of God is not exclusively spoken of as an “it,” and only the persons as a “who.” Your own standard of never using singular personal pronouns for anything other than one of the distinct persons of the Trinity would make even the Bible supposedly modalistic. This is obviously beyond absurd and shows how overly scrupulous such a standard is. There is no such thing as “semi-modalism.” It is either modalistic or it isn’t. History and volumes of additional works confirm the orthodox trinitarianism of the Particular Baptists that I am defending. That is simple history that cannot be denied.

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    1. Scripture never speaks of a shared essence or nature of the persons of the Trinity, and certainly never does so using personal pronouns. When scripture uses personal pronouns, its in reference to a person, excepting the obvious poetic instances of personification in various places.

      And call it what you like, but ‘semi-modalism’ is a sensible label for a view that makes all three persons of the Trinity out to be one person, while also treating Father, Son, and Spirit, as ontologically distinct from one another. Classical modalism denies any real sense in which there are three persons; semi-modalism says there is one person who is three persons. I think simply calling the latter view ‘modalism’ would be a bit disingenuous, given the fact that in that view Father, Son, and Spirit are in some sense ontologically distinct persons, not merely manifestations.

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      1. We who confess the LBCF don’t say that “there is one person who is three persons.” We say that there is one BEING who is three persons, distinguishing between the being which is God and persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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      2. Okay, but conceptually there is often no difference at all between “one person in three persons” and “one being in three persons”. “Being” after all is a somewhat vague term; it can refer to something’s abstract essence, a nature, or, it can just as easily refer to an individual, a person (for example, when we say “a human being”). Due to this vagueness, “one being in three persons” can really just as easily mean the Athanasian “one essence in three persons”, or the semi-modalistic “one person in three persons”. The use of personal pronouns for this being indicate the latter usage in the 2LBC. Using “being” in place of “person” doesn’t profit anything if they are being used as synonyms- it ends up just being equivocation.

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  6. 3. The confession was overly critiqued (often unfairly) by dissenting paedobaptists, yet even they did not make such a reckless accusation of “semi-modalism” against the confession. Likewise, there is no history whatsoever of Particular Baptists toying with or imbibing modalistic ideas. How could this be is if their very confession supposedly affirms God is one person and is “needlessly confusing” as you claim? Are we are to believe it confusedly confesses God is one person, yet we can find no evidence that it resulted in the promulgation of that very belief amongst the Particular Baptists? Seems beyond far-fetched.

    The historical fact remains and is undeniable that Reformed Baptists have always confessed God is one being with three persons. Try as you might to prove otherwise, it is silly to assert that their own confession inadvertently denies this.

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    1. The lack of historical criticism is not very surprising, given that semi-modalism is common well-beyond the bounds of the particular baptists. I might point you to places saying similar things in the Westminster Catechisms and Dutch Reformed Confessions. Its an inherited problem from Rome, which altered its trinitarian theology drastically from that of Nicea to semi-modalism at the Fourth Lateran Council. In changing the significance of homoousias from indicating a generic unity of substance to a numerical individual unity of substance, Rome passed down a semi-modalistic trinitarianism to most of Protestantism. The commonality of the problem, however, does not make it any less a real problem.

      And as I mentioned above, the fact that Cornelius Van Til generally receives a warm welcome among the Reformed Baptists is further indication of this problem. Rather than being censured as a trinitarian heretic, he is lauded for his apologetic framework. That is a very poor indicator for the state of Reformed Baptist trinitarianism.

      At any rate, the goal of this critique is not to insult Reformed Baptists. If problems are never pointed out, needed change will never take place. I hope you and others will be willing to seriously consider the points I have brought up; confessions can be updated. We do better to acknowledge flaws and seek to rectify them, than to try to justify them.

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  7. This is a literal copy & paste from the Muller’s dictionary on subsistence…
    subsistentia: subsistence or subsistent; indicating a particular being or existent, an individual instance of a given essence. In this latter sense, the Latin equivalent of hypostasis, and a more technical and philosophically adequate term than persona (q.v.) for indicating the Father, Son, and Spirit in the Trinity
    For clarity…
    1st sense: indicating a particular being or existent, i.e., being or essence
    2nd sense: an individual instance of a given essence, i.e., person, such as the persons of the Trinity
    Where it says “in this latter sense,” it is indicating that there is more than one sense in which subsistence can be used—one that is a particular being or essence & ANOTHER sense which is the same as person.
    Are you telling me that you read that dictionary definition & do not agree that subsistence can be used in two differing senses? Are you claiming that the 1st & 2nd sense are literally synonymous?

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    1. Yes, it appears they are synonymous. He distinguishes a “particular being” from a generic being, or nature, by the word “particular”. If he meant generic being, or nature, rather than an individual being, a person, then specifying a “particular being” is a quite unclear way to put it.

      All that said, as I’ve said above, lets say for sake of argument, he is unclear in the 1st definition, and he means generic being, nor a particular being. The 2LBC, by using explicitly personal language for the subject of paragraph 1 in the surrounding context, indicates that the 2nd (personal) meaning of the term is in view. So it seems like a moot point; if we will base or understanding of what is meant by ‘subsistence’ in paragraph one on the context, as you’ve suggested, then we are going to see it as referring to a person, even if the word could allow for another non-personal meaning.

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      1. So to be clear, you would only affirm the orthodoxy of the doctrine of God if it referred to God as “it” or “itself” but only used “He” or “Himself” for the persons specifically? Am I understanding you rightly? Can you reword the sentence in the confession in a manner that you find acceptable.

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      2. That would be consistent with the Athanasian/Nicene scheme, which says that the three persons of the Trinity share the same generic essence. A nature isn’t a person; you don’t call human nature a “he” for instance, rather you call human persons by personal pronouns, and speak of human nature as impersonal. So if there is a place where someone is trying to speak of the essence itself, then yes, it needs to be spoken of impersonally, or it is being at least implied that the essence itself is a person.

        I think an easier fix for the 2LBC would be to simply alter the third paragraph of Ch 2, and view the 1st in reference to the Father. Then the personal pronouns and language that the 1st paragraph is framed in could stay, as the subject would actually be a person- and the one God, biblically, is the Father in particular (1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6, Jn 17:3). If you’re aiming to be Nicene, that’s a very nicene way to go about confessing the Trinity, as even the Nicene Creed begins with “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty” and moves on to speak of the Son in the 2nd article and Spirit in the third.

        Right now, the third paragraph opens by saying the being- the person- spoken of in paragraphs one and two, is the Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit together. Changing that, and removing the other problematic language in paragraph 3, such as that which speaks of the Trinity as a person, would be a major improvement.

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  8. Also, you claim that the Three Forms of Unity are semi-modalistic; the Westminster Standards are semi-modalistic; the 1689 is semi-modalistic; & Rome is semi-modalistic… who then may I ask is fully Trinitarian? What historic confession do you see that states it properly? Or has semi-modalism simply overrun the entire church?

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    1. If you look in this site under Resources, under ‘Classical Trinitarian Creeds’ you will find more than a few confessions and creeds listed. And yes, a large portion of what would claim to be ‘the church’, at least, has fallen into trinitarian heresy.

      You are, I assume, Reformed Baptist; which means you would likely be familiar with the fact that most of the early reformed thought the Pope of Rome is the antichrist. Some of their confessions teach it plainly. Consider the following line of thinking then: if the Pope is the antichrist, would it not be far more remarkable than not, if he did not introduce or promote some trinitarian heresy? Or put another way, is it reasonable to trust that a man who is formally confessed to be the antichrist, the corrupter of churches, in government, in morals, in worship, and in respect to the gospel, preserved spotlessly theology proper and the doctrine of the Trinity? If he so successfully corrupted so many relatively more insignificant things, should we imagine that he preserved the most important points of doctrine intact? Certainly, he did not; and it is plain for anyone to see that learning one’s theology proper from the same person they confess to be the antichrist makes no sense.

      Yet, that is effectively what the Reformed did. For all their areas of disagreement with Rome, they will happily agree with them fully on theology proper and the Trinity. So if it will be acknowledged that it is even simply quite likely that the Pope corrupted Rome’s doctrine of the Trinity, and if it will also be acknowledged that most of Protestantism borrows its trinitarianism directly from Rome, then it should be no surprise if Protestantism is also largely succumbed to error in this area of doctrine, error of the same sort as Rome itself has. Until Protestants are willing to revisit their trinitarianism on the basis of sola scriptura, with a willingness to depart from extra-biblical dogmatic developments, this problem is likely to continue.

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      1. So is there no denomination, or sect that you are comfortable saying is orthodox on the Trinity?
        BTW, we still confess that the pope is “that antichrist” (the technical phrasing of the 1689) & that he has blasphemously applied titles for all 3 persons of the Trinity to himself. The word antichrist is only used in 1 John (where he speaks of many) so to affirm the pope as “that antichrist” is not necessarily to affirm he is the eschatological man of sin/lawlessness from Revelation.
        I was in no way attempting to defend Rome or the pope. They are a false church & unorthodox nearly across the board. I just wanted to be clear on your belief that they likewise are “semi-modalistic.”

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      2. I think there are probably theologians in the EO communion, who, while not being perfect in their theology, avoid the heresy of semi-modalism and are orthodox on the whole in their trinitarianism. From what I have read of John Behr and Beau Branson, for example, they seem orthodox in their trinitarianism. I think you’ll find pockets of people in Protestantism as well, but I think that on the whole, semi-modalism is very pervasive.

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    1. No, because I don’t think scripture ever speaks of God’s essence or nature as such. Scripture speaks of the three persons: God (the Father), His Son, and His Spirit. When we read of “God” in scripture, we are reading about a person. Normatively “God” without qualification simply refers to the Father (for example, consider Jn 3:16); there are plenty of other instances where it refers to the Son. But there is never a place where “God” means an essence or nature rather than a person. So of course, personal pronouns are always used.

      Because scripture does not speak of an essence or nature shared by the persons of the Trinity, I think we are far better off, speaking, as scripture does, of the persons Themselves, and leaving speculation about natures and substances aside, or at least, outside of the realm of dogma.

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      1. Well you can assume that every time a personal pronoun is used it is only meant to specifically apply to one of the persons, but it seems obvious to me that God is referred to generically (without specific reference to one of persons) countless times in Scripture using personal pronouns. So the confession is simply following that biblical pattern having already established explicitly that God is one being/essence & three persons. Hence, my charge that you are being overly scrupulous to the point of absurdity.

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      2. Well you can assume that every time a personal pronoun is used it is only meant to specifically apply to one of the persons, but it seems obvious to me that God is referred to generically (without specific reference to one of persons) countless times in Scripture using personal pronouns. So the confession is simply following that biblical pattern having already established explicitly that God is one being/essence & three persons. Hence, my charge that you are being overly scrupulous to the point of irrationality.

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      3. Its not merely an assumption that scripture always speaks of “God” in reference to a person, its an observation based on the language of scripture itself. The fact that personal pronouns are used show us a person is in view; to ignore that is to unreasonably ignore God’s revelation. And for what? To impose a view onto the text of scripture that is foreign to it.

        There is no “God” generically, distinct from the Father, Son, and Spirit for scripture to be referring to. The one God, the God of the Bible, the God of the Christian faith, is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6, Jn 17:3). The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of that one God, Who, as the Son of God, is also God over all things, excepting the Father, Who is His God. There isn’t some other “God” that scripture refers to, excepting its use of the word for lesser beings like men and angels at times, and for idols. We cannot rightly just take any random place that the Bible mentions “God” and read something foreign into it- if we will understand God truthfully, as He actually is, we must draw our understanding of God from the scriptures themselves, not take them from another source and impose them onto the text of scripture.

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