Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 February 2010
THE “OVER-ORTHODOX DOCTORS”
“No particular Words in the World are Essentials of our Religion.” This startling pronouncement was made by the Puritan divine Richard Baxter during a conference convened in London in late 1654 to define the limits of tolerable religious orthodoxy under the Protectorate. What lay behind these words was a deep-seated suspicion of credal formulae, confessions, and platforms, which to Baxter's mind simply “multiply controversies, and fill the minds of men with scruples, and ensnare their consciences, and engage men in parties against each other to the certain breach of Charity.” Since “the Christian world will never have Concord, but in a few, certain, necessary things,” to insist on subscription to any form of words is a recipe for divisiveness: “The great cause of our uncharitable censures and divisions, hath been our departing from the Antient simplicity of Faith, and also from the sufficiency of the holy Scriptures, to be the Rule and Test of Faith.” “Did the Primitive church require Subscription to all our 39 Articles?” he pointedly asked.
This distrust of credal definitions of orthodoxy was a distinctive feature of Baxter's inclusive churchmanship. Despite his inveterate disputatiousness and a temperament which could be impatient, irritable, and severe, he worked tirelessly throughout his career to counter the ecclesiastical fissiparousness of the seventeenth century. Regarding denominational labels as the product of doctrinal and ecclesiological tribalism, Baxter declined to accept any one for himself: “You could not,” he wrote, “(except a Catholick Christian) have trulier called me, than an Episcopal-Presbyterian-Independent.”