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June 26, 2000






Baptists have debated creeds & confessions for centuries
___By Mark Wingfield
___Managing Editor
___"Let us not be deluded into thinking that the Southern Baptist Convention can integrate Southern Baptist thought by fiat of creedal declarations."
___Is it a response to the Southern Baptist Convention's more narrowly defined version of t
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he Baptist Faith & Message recently adopted in Orlando, Fla.?
___No, actually it's a statement published in the Baptist Standard April 30, 1925, when the SBC stood on the brink of adopting the first Baptist Faith & Message document in Memphis, Tenn. The warning was penned by John Ellington White, at the time pastor of First Baptist Church of Anderson, S.C., and president of Anderson College.
___The Standard that spring enlisted prominent figures to write opposing opinion pieces on the subject of whether the SBC ought to adopt its first explicit confession of faith. White wrote against adopting the confession of faith, while L.R. Scarborough, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in favor of the proposed statement of faith.
___Their dialogue illustrates opposing viewpoints that have co-existed within the SBC since its founding in 1845 and that have been present among Baptists for centuries, according to Baptist historians.
___On one hand, "No creed but the Bible" has been Baptists' mantra from their emergence as a distinctly identifiable group. Yet on the other hand, Baptists from the beginning often have written statements of faith to let others know what they believe.
___"When Baptists first emerged ... they needed to identify themselves; they needed to tell who we are and what we stand for," explained Leon McBeth, professor of church history at Southwestern Seminary. "The basic purpose of confessions of faith throughout the years has been to say: 'Here we are. We are Baptists. This is what we believe.'"
___In the early days, this was especially necessary to rebut misconceptions about Baptists, who were considered by some to be heretical dissenters.
___Yet the very forces that caused Baptists to dissent against state-sanctioned churches in Europe made them wary of adopting confessions of faith and creeds of their own, said Alan Lefever, director of the Texas Baptist Historical Collection. Baptists had been persecuted for not adhering to the authority of the state church and for insisting that every believer should have direct access to God without coercion from church leaders and without being required to work through a human intermediary or subscribe to a human-written creed.
___"Historically, Baptists have shunned creeds," Lefever said. In England, early Baptists "refused to adopt a confession. They said we need no confession but the Bible."
___That sentiment carried over to colonial America as well, where Baptists came seeking freedom of conscience for their faith. Eighteenth century Baptist preacher John Leland called confessions of faith a "Virgin Mary between the souls of men and the Scriptures."
___And when the SBC was formed in 1845, no confession of faith or creed was adopted. W.B. Johnson, first president of the SBC, explained: "We have constructed for our basis no new creed, acting in this manner upon a Baptist aversion for all creeds but the Bible."
___Prior to this time, numerous confessions of faith had been written by individual Baptists, local churches and associations. In fact, in the early days, Baptist churches and pastors would exchange statements of faith as part of the process of calling new pastors, McBeth said.
___The tension over confessions of faith also surfaced in early America as the so-called Regular Baptists and Separate Baptists eventually came together, McBeth said. "The Separates insisted that there be no confession, but the Regulars had a confession."
___To resolve the difference, both groups agreed the confession of faith would be "advisory only" and that no one would be required to subscribe to every point, McBeth said.
___The SBC existed for 80 years--more than half its current life--without adopting any confession of faith.
___The SBC's Foreign Mission Board in 1920 adopted the first statement of faith its missionaries were required to sign. The move was taken to abate "doctrinal agitation" and concerns about ecumenism, McBeth reports in his "Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage."
___Historians agree the 1925 Baptist Faith & Message arose out of the modernist controversies of the day, with many Baptists concerned about the teaching of Darwinian evolution as science.
___Likewise, the major revisions to the Baptist Faith & Message in 1963 arose out of the Ralph Elliott controversy at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Elliott had written a commentary on the Book of Genesis that conservatives deemed too liberal for Baptist consumption.
___Crises such as these helped Southern Baptists put aside their fear of confessions of faith and creeds, Lefever explained. "When we finally have adopted statements of faith, they usually have been in response to something."
___But even then, he said, the statements were intended "only to clarify basic statements of belief."
___"If you read the preamble to the (1925) Baptist Faith & Message, it basically says you can disagree with all this and it is OK. The preamble is the safety valve for Southern Baptists."
___Thus, by the time Southern Baptists faced proposed revisions to the Baptist Faith & Message this year, debate focused not on whether to have a confession of faith but on what doctrines would be included in the confession and what safety valves would be included in the preamble.
___The committee that drafted this year's changes offered a last-minute addition to include the phrases "soul competency" and "priesthood of believers" after widespread public outcry over that language being dropped.
___Baptist General Convention of Texas Executive Director Charles Wade attempted to amend the committee's new preamble to insert two paragraphs from the 1963 preamble affirming the lordship of Christ. Among his suggested insertions were statements that Jesus Christ is "the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists" and that Baptist statements of faith never have been regarded as "complete, infallible statements of faith nor as official creeds carrying mandatory authority."
___Wade's proposal was overwhelmingly rejected by the SBC after members of the study committee insisted the old language wrongly elevated Jesus above the Bible.
___In his June 19 column in the Baptist Standard, Wade expressed concern about language in the committee's new preamble that he said moves the statement of faith from a confession of faith to a creed. The new language identifies confessions of faith as "instruments of doctrinal accountability" outlining "essential" doctrines.
___"Baptists always have believed we are accountable to God and to holy Scripture. But never have we believed we were accountable to a confession of faith," Wade wrote. "That is the very definition of a creed.
___"The Scriptures are enough," he declared. "Baptists have no creed but the Bible."
___From his vantage point as a historian, McBeth sees this year's changes as further evidence of the SBC moving toward a more creedal stance, a trend he noted in his 1987 book "The Baptist Heritage."
___"Southern Baptists in recent years have shown a distinct trend toward creedalism," he wrote in the book. "What they adopted in 1963 was a confession; but the way that document has been used has gone far toward hardening it into a creed."
___One of McBeth's counterparts at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., sees the matter differently, though.
___That last half of the 20th century brought about deeper divides between Southern Baptist progressives and conservatives, said Greg Wills, assistant professor of church history and director of the seminary's Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention.
___"Those who moved toward a more progressive view in their theology also have tended to be anti-confessional," Wills said. "Those who have been more conservative in their theology have tended to see the adoption of confessions as one way to stem this rising tide of progressivism. They have rekindled a commitment to endorsing confessions of faith."
___He added: "Often the reason people oppose confessions is they oppose enforcing doctrinal standards."
___McBeth concedes there is significant value in adopting a confession of faith. "I personally believe a group is better off with a confession than without one," he explained. "Without a confession, you don't know where you stand. But with a confession, you know what people generally believe.
___"The risk is that it will become creedal. Our Southern Baptist confessions have become more creedal in the 20th century than ever before."

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