As happened this week, a question that usually arises from a perceptive student in my classes concerns how we are to understand the relationship between Baptists and their Confessions of Faith.
Much good work is out there by many who have gone before that details what Baptists have believed about the historic Creeds of early Christianity as well as later Confessions of Faith. (At the end of this article, I include a short list of some of these resources). In my lectures, I usually summarize the matter by saying that Baptists have typically used Confessions of Faith, both in local churches and in their assemblies and conventions, as documents both to define and defend.
(1) DEFINE: Baptists have used Confessions to define what they believe both for those who want to partner with them and to set boundaries for fellowship, especially in ecclesiological matters. Confessions, in this sense, are merely summary statements of their corporate understanding of the teaching of Scripture on a given doctrinal issue. Another way to say this is that Confessions are used to define the terms by which Baptist churches include or exclude those with whom they will work.
(2) DEFEND: Baptists have used Confessions to defend what they believe both to friends and foes. Sometimes this has been done to show other believers in like minded, but different, ecclesial traditions that there exists a significant amount of shared theological common ground where perhaps many assumed little existed. Other times, Confessions have helped a watching world to see that the claims of a false accuser simply has no rational basis of truth. Never assumed to be infallible documents, Baptists have felt the freedom to revise their Confessions as a specific context or theological crisis might require.
Of course, this two-fold understanding of Confessions of Faith did not originate with me. While summarizing the work of many others, much of what I have said here was articulated well by James P. Boyce in his “Three Changes in Theological Institutions.”
In addition, I have found helpful the following list of five uses of Baptist Confessions by Robert G. Torbet in A History of the Baptists.
- To maintain purity of doctrine
- To clarify and validate the Baptist position
- To serve as a guide in counseling churches
- To serve as a basis for fellowship with local churches, associations, or denominations
- To discipline churches and members
Finally, the preamble to the Baptist Faith & Message says well that this Confession of Faith “endeavors to state for its time and theological climate those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us” and that “We are not embarrassed to state before the world that these are doctrines we hold precious and essential to the Baptist tradition of faith and practice.”
- “Baptists Are Not a Creedal People?” Q &A at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with Jason K. Allen and Gregory A. Wills, September 11, 2013. See this clip made available at SBC Heritage:
- L. Russ Bush & Tom J. Nettles, Baptists and the Bible (Nashville: Broadman, 1999), 341-358.
- William R. Estep, “Biblical Authority in Baptist Confessions, 1610-1963” in Robinson B. James, ed., The Unfettered Word (Waco: Word, 1987), 155-176.
- Timothy George, “Introduction,” in Timothy and Denise George, eds., Baptist Confessions, Covenants, and Catechisms (Nashville: Broadman, 1996), 1-18.
- Thomas J. Nettles, “Creedalism, Confessionalism, and the Baptist Faith and Message,” in in Robinson B. James, ed., The Unfettered Word (Waco: Word, 1987), 138-154.
- Tomas J. Nettles, “How to Lose Your Way: A History Lesson in Confessions,” in Blount & Wooddell, eds., Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (Rowan & Littlefield, 2007), xiii-xxiii
Confessions of faith have been used in various ways in Baptist life … . [T]he major emphasis of most Baptist confessional statements has been expression rather than repression. Instead of attempting to set Baptists apart from other Christians (or from themselves), several early confessions sought to demonstrate Baptist agreement with mainline Protestant theology (341).
The confessions do, of course, defend Baptist views on the church and on the ordinances. However, the ruling principles in these statements are sola scriptura (Scripture alone) and sola fide (faith alone), points that the writers expected would appeal to other Protestant Christians. Early Baptists did not think exclusively in terms of Baptist distinctives. They affirmed Christian doctrines. They believed that they were being true to Scripture in their view of the ordinances, their view of God, and so forth, and they called on other Christians to join them in their faithfulness (341).
Baptists did not invent confessions. The Reformation stimulated a new era in the formulation of Protestant doctrinal statements. They were designed to set forth the major lines of demarcation distinguishing the communion issuing the confession from the Roman church, and from other Protestants as well (159).
The Reformation age of the sixteenth century has sometimes been called the Age of Confessions because of the numerous statements of faith written and adopted by many Christian churches in that time. However, the word ‘confession’ can be traced back to the New Testament itself, to Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to ‘take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses’ (1 Timothy 6:13).
In his comments on Ephesians 4:1-16, [B. H.] Carroll pointed out that a ‘Christian creed should enlarge, and not diminish, up to the last utterance of revelation in order that each article might be transmitted into experience.’ Each church should aim at the same goal for ‘The more doctrines a church can agree on, the greater its power … . The fewer its articles of faith, the fewer its bonds of union and compactness.’ In fact, according to Carroll, ‘The longest creed in history is more valuable and less hurtful than the shortest’ (148).
The pastor of the first Particular Baptist church in London, John Spilsbury, believed was essential for the being of a church. Benjamin Keach, Thomas Grantham, John Gill, Andrew Fuller, Abraham Booth, William Screven, Oliver Hart, Richard Furman, Adoniram Judson, Luther Rice, Basil Manly, the Philadelphia Association, the Charleston Association, James P. Boyce, J. B. Gambrell, B. H. Carroll and a host of others could be added to the list of Baptists who accepted the obvious reality that the adoption of a doctrinal standard was ‘only requiring that a man appear to be a Christian before he can have a right to be treated as such’ (xxii).
Photo Credit: Title Page from The Schleitheim Confession (1527)