Baptists: Confessors of Faith
The title of Jimmy Draper’s presidential address to the 1983 Southern Baptist Convention in Pittsburgh was, “Southern Baptists: People of Deep Belief.” In this message Dr. Draper spoke of “cherished biblical truths” which have “characterized Southern Baptists.” He argued that, even for Southern Baptists, certain biblical doctrines are non-negotiable. Because of this, he called for minimal doctrinal parameters which encompass “the irreducible minimum theology that a person must subscribe to in order to be acceptable as a professor” or employee of any convention agency.
This recommendation, though met with charges of “creedalism” and judged by some to be unbaptistic, finds clear precedent in James P. Boyce’s address on theological education before the trustees of Furman University in 1856 (see the articles by Timothy George and Tom Nettles). Boyce saw his concerns given expression in the Abstract of Principles which, since its adoption in 1858, professors of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have been required to sign.
Much has changed since then. Southern Baptists have largely forgotten their theological roots. More alarming than this, however, is the widespread indifference toward and outright disapprobation of doctrine itself. “Leave theology to the theologians” is a sentiment which has been expressed in a variety of ways in many different forums.
Such doctrinal malaise inevitably spawns antipathy toward confessions of faith. Why seek to give expression to that which is, at best, unimportant or irrelevant? Will not such efforts sterilize our faith and drain it of life? Has not God made me free to read the Bible for myself and follow the dictates of my own conscience?
These and similar arguments have been employed to resist the formulation and use of creeds and confessions. Such reasoning is not, however, convincing.
The Bible declares that doctrine is important. It is to be watched closely: “Take heed . . . unto the doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:16). There is indeed a body of truth which constitutes “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). A proper Christology–doctrine of Christ–is prerequisite to fellowship: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine [of Christ], do not receive him into your house nor greet him” (2 John 10).
The New Testament Church had a confession even before its inauguration at Pentecost. Peter formulated it: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt. 16:16).
Far from stifling true faith, a creed is faith’s inevitable expression. “We believe and therefore we speak” (2 Cor. 4.14) Living faith must be confessed. The word “creed” itself comes from the Latin word credo, meaning, “I believe.” Because every Christian believes something, every Christian has a creed–whether it is clearly articulated or not.
Creeds and confessions do not undermine the Bible. Rather they derive their existence from the Bible. Like every other good and helpful tool, they too are subject to misuse and abuse. Yet, in their rightful place–in submission to the Scripture’s authority–they can be (and indeed have been) very beneficial to God’s people.
Baptists have been a confessional people. Historically, we have stood for certain discernible principles. Reclaiming our confessional heritage is an important step toward theological renewal and ecclesiastical revitalization.
When the imminent Baptist pastor, C. H. Spurgeon, republished the Second (1689) London Baptist Confession in 1855, he affixed these personal words of admonition to the preface:
This [confession] is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be fettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness. Here the younger members of our church will have a Body of Divinity in small compass, and by means of the Scriptural proofs, will be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them.
Be not ashamed of your faith; remember it is the ancient gospel of martyrs, confessors, reformers, and saints. Above all, it is the truth of God, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail.
Let your lives adorn your faith, let your example adorn your creed. Above all live in Christ Jesus, and walk in Him, giving credence to no teaching but that which is manifestly approved of Him, and owned by the Holy Spirit. Cleave fast to the Word of God which is here mapped out for you.
May this pattern of vital Christian living be increasingly realized in our own generation.