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The Salters' Hall debates 

 


This month sees the 300th anniversary of a series of seminal debates among the dissenting community about connecting the Word with the world. Lessons and questions remain, writes Stephen Copson 
 

 



Salters HallSome years ago I chatted with a courteous Jehovah’s Witness. When she learned I was a Christian and a Baptist to boot she offered “So, you believe in the Bible. Do you believe in the doctrine of the Trinity? The Trinity is not in the Bible”.

Dear reader, my explanations about the development of doctrine, the deepening experience of God and engagement with the framework of Neo-Platonism and the formulations of authoritative documents like the sixth century Athanasian Creed cut no ice whatsoever.

This month in 1719, a hundred or so Dissenting ministers met in the Presbyterian Salters’ Hall Chapel in London, just off Cannon Street, to weigh the same issues. If something was not in the Bible, then could it be required to define who was a Christian? Dissenters, including Baptists, were those English Christians legally allowed to meet and organise outside the authority of the Church of England as established by law.

What prompted the gathering was speculation about the nature of the Trinity by some tutors and students at the Presbyterian Academy at Exeter. It was customary for Presbyterian ministers to make a personal statement of faith before ordination. Could a set statement on the Trinity be demanded? Advice was sought from the London Dissenting ministers.

The subsequent meetings were termed “the Salters’ Hall debates”. Discussion was not about Trinitarian doctrine itself so much as whether any Dissenting body had the authority to make others agree a form of words that did not appear in scripture, in particular how much could theological statements like historic creeds – human constructs only as some saw them – be used. The sides were termed “subscribing” and “non-subscribing”.

Dissenters had been wary of the imposition of external tests of belief as defining a Christian. Many recalled the persecuting authorities in Restoration England and their zeal for religious uniformity. Baptists had valued the freedom of conscience to gather and organise without coercion, granted by the Act of Toleration, and accepted that the result of any deliberations in regional and national gatherings could not be forced upon the local church.

The story of the Salters’ Hall discussions is complex and the flurry of pamphlets from both sides was marked by intemperate language. The first meeting produced a slim majority against subscription (“The Bible won by four” as was mistakenly quoted at the time) but a later and larger gathering including Baptists produced the opposite result. Particular (or Calvinistic) Baptists largely numbered among the subscribers and Old General (or Arminian) Baptists tended to side with the non-subscribers. The arithmetic was not straightforward – some refused to subscribe whilst holding totally orthodox views.

Things had moved on in Exeter by this time and the chief suspect had been expelled – and immediately founded a new congregation. The London discussions did not launch a heresy hunt nor did Baptists adopt creeds as outweighing the prerogative of Christ speaking through the scriptures. What the debate captured was a sense of the dilemma emerging between a desire to be connected with past tradition and the willingness to embrace the new world that was being birthed, with a society weary of theological battles that was seeing great leaps forward in the world of natural and mechanical sciences. A culture emerging where deism posed a significant intellectual challenge to theists, and functional atheism a barrier to church growth. What place was there for the Word of God in this dynamic situation?

One response was to let the scriptures engage with contemporary thinking to bring out fresh appreciation of texts in the light of new knowledge and the process of rational thinking. For some this stance would mean a gradual shift towards views at variance with traditional trinitarian views. But it also produced in others the willingness to approach the scriptures afresh that underpinned the re-evaluation of slavery. Another response would lead to recovering the importance of the experiential in faith, as the Wesleys and other Revival leaders showed. Indeed the Lord had yet more light and truth…..

This may all seem remote and dry today. Yet Christians are still engaged in connecting the world and the Word. How do we read the Bible as 21st century Christians in the United Kingdom? If ecumenical creeds are widely accepted, what value are they for Baptists? And what do we learn from the example of people to get together to discuss together, in local congregations at regional and national forums?

As Baptists we uphold the autonomy of the local congregation, with confidence in the ability of the believers gathered together to discern the mind of Christ for their time and situation, without coercion or prejudice, yet still able to hear dissenting voices.

It is a distinctive to be valued. Erode this and we are all the less.


 

Image | By permission of the British Library




Salters HallFor anyone interested to learn more about the Salters’ Hall debates, there is a study day jointly sponsored by the Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Baptist History & Heritage on 23 March. 

For more visit https://baptisthistory.org.uk/events/ or click on the image.


Stephen Copson is Hon Secretary of the Baptist Historical Society 



This is the latest in a continuing series from Baptist Historical Society highlighting stories and moments from our past.

Earlier articles have looked at:

 

  • Anne Steele - marking the tercentenary of the birth of Anne Steele (1717-1778), a prolific Baptist hymn writer

  • W. T. Whitley - 'the outstanding British Baptist historian'

  • Edith Gates -  the first woman to be recognised as being in pastoral charge of an English Baptist church

  • Renewed for Mission, 50 years on - The 50th anniversary of George Beasley-Murray's presidential address 

  • Disestablishment - 'How do the churches relate to the state?' 

  • JH Shakespeare and The Churches at the Cross-Roads (1918) - The end of the Great War would lead to reconciliation and unity between churches alongside the call to peace among nations - a move anticipated, surprisingly, by a British Baptist leader. Keith Clements explains more   


 

 



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