Creeds added to the Bible? Defining and Defending Baptist Confessionalism

This week I presented a paper for the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society that gives a survey of the history of Baptist confessionalism. What follows is an excerpt from that paper. The entire paper will function as the introduction in a new textbook that chronicles the formation of Baptist Confessions from Christian Focus, forthcoming in 2021.

Throughout history, Baptists have used Confessions of Faith to define and defend what they believe both for those who want to partner with them and in response to those attacking their beliefs. Further, Baptists have used Confessions to set boundaries for fellowship, especially in ecclesiological matters, and to show connection to the broader Christian tradition.  

Yet, Baptists have not been a creedal people in that they have not sought to place their Confessions in a place of greater authority than Scripture. This tension has caused confusion and misunderstanding throughout history not only by those who have sought to interpret the Baptist tradition, but also by Baptists themselves. Famously, one group of Baptist churches proclaimed at their initial organization, “We have no creed but the Bible,” even while most of the churches represented held and used Confessions of Faith in their congregations.

Have Baptists understood Confessions of Faith as creeds added to the Bible? This paper will present a survey of the history of Baptist confessionalism to alleviate historical confusion and contemporary misunderstanding as to the role, importance, and value of Confessions of Faith in the Baptist tradition.

Defining Baptist Confessionalism

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.

The preamble to the Baptist Faith & Message states 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.”

Defending Baptist Confessionalism

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 have 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.

The vehicle that Baptists have used to defend the beliefs they “most surely” hold has been Confessions of Faith. As Baptists developed cooperating entities or pursued partnerships with one another among churches, the Confessions proved helpful in communicating to non-participants what was and was not believed and held by their groups. In addition, as Baptists developed institutions, schools, mission boards, they used confessions as “instruments of doctrinal accountability.”

To What End?

Baptists have used Confessions of Faith to define and defend what they believe. To put it another way, this paper defines and defends the historic practice of Baptists defining and defending. But to what end?  

Often lost in the history of Baptist use of Confessions is the ultimate reason for the Confessions. Beyond defining and defending, these local documents summarize the faith of Baptist churches in God himself and therein lies their power. Here Baptist historians and theologians can be helped by two Anglicans.

Dorothy Sayers, in her work Creed or Chaos? reminded that in the presentation and summary of doctrine, there is great drama. The drama, or value, is not in “beautiful phrases, nor conforming sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertation that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.”[1] 

Alistair McGrath, describes the study of Creeds and Confessions as the windows through which we look to gain “access to a greater reality, rather than being the object of study itself.” He explains, “Christian doctrine offers us a subject worthy of study in its own right; yet its supreme importance lies in its capacity to allow us to pass through its imaginative gateway, and behold our world in a new way.”[2]  

In this sense, Confessions of Faith are lenses through which we can look to gain a fuller understanding of how other Christians in the Baptist tradition have summarized their knowledge of God that they found in the Bible. 

[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (1949; Sophia Institute Press, 1974), 25.

[2] Alistair McGrath, The Landscape of Faith (SPCK, 2018), 25.