The Role of Confessions in Baptist Faith
Tom J. Nettles This article is adapted from a chapter which originally appeared in The Unfettered Word, ed. R. James (Waco: Word Books, 1987).
In my previous article (FJ 3) I sought to answer objections to the serious use of confessions. While much consternation and insecurity will continue to plague the minds of many, contemporary doubts surrounding confessional denominationalism, or even confessional Christianity, cannot remove one stubborn historical fact. Historically, Baptists have used confessions as determinative theological guidelines and pedagogical aids for individuals, churches, and denominational institutions. This article will emphasize the variety of ways in which Baptists have employed confessions while remaining sensitive to the loose ends necessarily involved in the intertwining of Scripture with the human attempts to understand it.
The Pre-Confession Pattern of Authority
Baptists have stressed the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, that is, Scripture alone is the foundation of our knowledge of God and the depository (2 Tim. 1:12-14) of divine truth. This has been so often and so thoroughly enunciated, and in such decisive and emphatic terms, that it would seem none could disavow the principle, at least from a historical perspective. Other realities, such as experience, reason, and confession have served as aids in understanding but not in the full sense of an “authority.”
All Christians must be careful not to place any other entity, whether existential or written, above Scripture. Neither catechism, creed, or confession–nor reason, conscience, or current experience should be allowed to eclipse a clear and plain Scripture affirmation at any time. As Philip Schaff has clearly and accurately stated, “In the Protestant system, the authority of symbols, as of all human compositions, is relative and limited, . . . always subordinate to the Bible, as the only infallible rule of the Christian faith and practice.”
Given such a proper submission to biblical authority, how should one regard confessions of faith? All should readily acknowledge, along with the preamble of the Baptist Faith and Message, that confessions are only “guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.” They are useful, however, in several ways and have been advantageous in conserving the particulars of Baptist life. From the abundance of Baptist confessions in existence, the following principles have been condensed: (1) the constructive contribution of confessions, (2) their necessary changeableness, and (3) their relation to Scripture.
1. A human document. That we acknowledge a confession as strictly a humanly composed document is an important step in a quest for unity. All conservative Christian denominations believe that their theologies and ecclesiologies are true reflections of biblical teaching. Hardly any sincere Christian would say, ‘You are biblical and obviously I am not, but I will stay what I am.” Though they disagree, each believes his position is biblical. The human document meets the essential need of revealing the different understandings of the Bible. When these understandings differ significantly in vital areas, unity of purpose and mission become difficult if not impossible.
For this reason, the scheme of Thomas Campbell and Alexander Campbell was impracticable. In 1809, Thomas Campbell set forth the ideal in his Declaration and Address, in which he called for a subduing of all inferential theology to a direct “Thus saith the Lord.” Claiming admirably that “nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith . . . but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God,” he also insisted that “no such deduction or inferential truths ought to have any place in the church’s confession;” such confessional extrapolations Campbell called “stumbling-blocks–the rubbish of ages.”
His son Alexander continued this call for freedom from confessions. Campbell’s anti-confessional crusade led Robert B. Semple, of Virginia, to characterize Campbell’s view as unbaptistic.
Some of your opinions, though true, are pushed to extremes, such as those upon the use of creeds, confessions, . . . In short your views are generally so contrary to those of Baptists in general, that if a party was to go fully into the practice of your principles I should say a new sect had sprung up, radically different from the Baptists, as they now are.
When Baptist Associations began to disfellowship the followers of Campbell, one of his sentiments repugnant to those Associations was “That no creed is necessary for the Church, but the Scriptures as they stand.”
J. P. Boyce himself saw this danger in the ideas of Campbell and warned the trustees of Furman against a repeat of Campbell’s error. “Playing upon the prejudices of the weak and ignorant among our people, decrying creeds as an infringement upon the rights of conscience, making a deep impression by his extensive learning and great abilities, Alexander Campbell threatened at one time the total destruction of our faith.” Boyce noted that Baptists had used creeds in two ways: to declare their own faith and to test its existence in others.
Campbell had strange bedfellows in his attempt to throw away inferential theology. One hundred-fifty years before the Campbells, the Quakers asserted themselves to be “found in the one Faith with the Primitive Church and Saints” and seemed to think that their approach of using only the language of Scripture “without Consequences or Commentaries” demonstrated that. Robert Barclay, a Scottish Quaker theologian and apologist of the seventeenth century, lamented “those strained and far fetched Consequences, which Men have invented.” He was sure that his catechism, “plainly couched in Scripture Words . . . without Niceties and School-distinctions” held more promise of edification for those who were in earnest about their search for the truth. The problem with this approach, however, is that none would disagree with the Scripture passages; from the vocabulary, logic, and implications of the questions, however, some would find reason to dissent.
A large part, therefore, of the constructive contribution of a confession lies precisely at the point of its being a human and interpretive document. The exegetical and explanatory character of confessions makes them valuable for creating and testing the unity of Christians on the teachings of Scripture.
2. Witness to the coherence of truth. Confessions are possible and necessary as witnesses to a belief in the coherence of truth. Scriptural data related to any subject can be synthesized (obviously with proper attention to contextual interpretation) so as to produce a biblical doctrine.
The most obvious example of such a doctrine is that of the Trinity. With the mention of Father, Son, and Spirit as separate personal subsistences in Scripture and the clear monotheistic commitment of all the Bible–plus the ascription of the attributes of deity to each of the three Persons–one can do justice to the total biblical witness only by confession of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. This necessary synthesizing of biblical data is most thoroughly done under the power of a commitment to inerrancy (that is, the pervasive, coherent truthfulness of Scripture). This conviction, therefore, constitutes the clearest and most consistent foundation for a biblical confession of faith. Without such commitment, some part of a doctrine could be dismissed on the basis of a bias toward another authority.
The treatment of 1 Samuel 15:3 is a case in point. The command to utterly destroy Amalek, “man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (RSV) is viewed by some unworthy of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This represents a clear case where no discrepancy about numbers, order or events, or textual variants clouds the discussion. The text is rejected as it is and forms no part of theology for that person. This part of Scripture loses its authority because it violates an independent standard held by the rejecter. Whether this standard arises from another place in Scripture, an autonomous ethical commitment, or a rationalistic assumption, it is clear that a commitment to the coherent truth of the entire corpus of Scripture is absent, and Holy Scripture is not the authority.
The admission of such a principle immediately outlaws any attempt to construct a biblical confession. The confession may represent the beliefs a person has as a result of familiarity with the part of the Bible that he or she has chosen to accept, for whatever reason; but it cannot be a confession in the historic sense that the confession expresses beliefs arising from an engagement with and submission to the authority of “all Scripture” (2 Timothy 3:16).
This very tendency in his own day led B. H. Carroll into a strong affirmation of the use of “creeds” and their purpose of reflecting the total of Scripture. In his comments on Ephesians 4:1-16, Carroll pointed out that a “Christian’s 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 of history is more valuable and less hurtful than the shortest.”
Carroll also spoke to the apparent tension between creed and liberty in uncompromising terms. “The modern cry, ‘Less creed and more liberty,’ is a degeneration from the vertebrate to the jellyfish,” Carroll insisted, “and means less unity and less morality, and it means more heresy.” After warning his reader against any who decried doctrines, Carroll continued, “We are entitled to no liberty in these matters. It is a positive and very hurtful sin to magnify liberty at the expense of doctrine.”
Carroll entertained no doubts or mental reservations about the veracity of any part of Scripture or its coherent relationship with all other parts. Thus his call for the enlarged and continually refined “creed.”
3. Commitment to unity. Confessions represent a commitment to guarantee a faithful and conscientious unity. The Baptist Faith and Message affirms that “Confessions are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.” This resonates clearly the position of Richard Furman, two hundred years ago, when he wrote, “Churches have not power to make rules of faith and practice; and the articles contained in their systems have not a claim to our faith and obedience, because they are agreed upon by the churches; but because they are truths, and supported by the word of God.” This is certainly as it should be. Baptists have, however, insisted that all who sign a confession do so conscientiously and make every effort to maintain the unity implicit in a confession of faith.
Richard Furman, in addition to voicing a necessary caution about confessions, considered it the church’s obligation, as the “pillar and ground of the truth,” to exhibit to her sister churches and the world at large “a just view of the great doctrines and ordinances of the gospel in candor and godly simplicity.” Such an exhibition will edify those who know and love the truth, give necessary information to those who are ignorant of religion, and will protect against errors which are “fathered upon the scriptures.” In addition, “an agreement in sentiment respecting the meaning of those sacred oracles, forms an important part of the union subsisting among the true disciples of Christ.” As long as one recognizes the strengths of these uses of a confession, “objections against the use of confessions of faith in churches, must appear ill-founded, and the consequences of such objections be pernicious.
When General Baptists in England were rescued from destruction by a doctrinal reformation under the leadership of Dan Taylor in 1770, a confession of faith was adopted which required strict adherence from all ministers of their new connection. The preface to the confession stated:
We agree, that no minister be permitted to join this assembly, who does not subscribe the articles we have now agreed upon; and that those who do subscribe, and afterwards depart from them, shall be considered as no longer belonging to this assembly.
The Philadelphia Association, the first Baptist association in the United States, considered a conscientious acceptance of its confession a matter of grave importance. Answering a query concerning some doctrines of the confession, that is, the foreknowledge of God and its implications, the Association then set the matter of conscience and confessions in a startling light. The question was posed:
Whether such a member of the church holding such an opinion endeavors to propagate it, and obstinately persists in it, is not worthy of the highest censure, notwithstanding he pleads matters of conscience?
Answer. We judge such worthy of the highest censure; because a church is to proceed against a person who is erroneous in judgment, as well as one vicious in practice, notwithstanding they may plead conscience in the matter. Tit. iii 10; 2 Thess. iii 14.
Is this a violation of the heritage of Roger Williams? Not at all. It is the proper application of a confession of faith which expresses the position of a voluntary body. J. P. Boyce presented this same viewpoint in his argument for the signing of an abstract of doctrine by seminary professors. Boyce argued, “No difference, however slight, no particular sentiment, however speculative, is here allowable.” Furthermore, continued Boyce, “His agreement with the standard should be exact. His declaration of it should be based upon no mental reservation, upon no private understanding with those who immediately invest him into office.”
Boyce considered this no violation of conscience, for it inflicts no bodily punishment or civil disability in the church-state relation but is a protection of the spirituality of the church and simplicity that is in Christ. His encouragement of the trustees at Furman to require the adherence to an abstract of doctrine clearly foreshadowed his own intention for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
You will infringe the rights of no man, and you will secure the rights of those who have established here an instrumentality for the production of a sound ministry. It is no hardship to those who teach here, to be called upon to sign the declaration of their principles, for there are fields of usefulness open elsewhere to every man, and none need accept your call who cannot conscientiously sign your formulary.
The same conviction was expressed by J. B. Gambrell when he was editor of the Baptist Standard in Texas. With equal intensity he declared both his willingness to fight for the protection of freedom of thought and speech as well as the rights of Baptists to insist on doctrinal purity in the pulpit and classroom. If a man departs from Baptist doctrine, Gambrell insisted that none should seek to “abridge his thinking, nor his defense of his thinking.” But that man “passes the bounds of liberty” and indulges in “arrogant license” when he uses an institution and its resources to dilute or overthrow “the faith which the institution was founded to build up.” Such a man should “resign his place and exercise his liberty without infringing on the rights of others.”
Baptists have insisted on liberty of conscience within civil society in order that conscientious union with voluntary societies, such as the church, be possible. Confessions of faith have defined the framework of conscientious commitment for Baptists.
Changeableness of Confessions
The progression, digression, and regression of men’s belief result in changed confessions. History is filled with men whose convictions and loyalties change either for the better or the worse. A look at the lives of John Smyth, Thomas Collier, Benjamin Keach, Abraham Booth, and a myriad of others demonstrates this.
Confessions change for other reasons, too. Historical challenges to the “faith once delivered to the saints” have brought to birth sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, sometimes more precise, and sometimes more ambiguous confessions. Each change came about from a perceived theological need.
The Creed of Nicea (325) did no harm to the universally accepted rule of faith (now known as the Apostles’ Creed) but strengthened its affirmation of the deity of Christ with at least four ingenious verbal additions to refute soundly the heresy of Arius. In like manner, the Tome of Leo, in 451 at Chalcedon, became the source for a four-fold clarification on the relation between the divine and human natures of Christ. In both cases, the additions were made necessary by theological tension and incipient or confirmed heresy. Neither statements was out of harmony with the historic belief of the church or the currently received creeds. Both, however, captured the theological necessities of their age perfectly.
Baptists have been willing to clarify confessions when such revisions grow “out of present needs.” They have affirmed strongly that “Baptists should hold themselves free to revise their statements of faith as may seem to them wise and expedient at any time.”
Because confessions normally are worded carefully and arise from intense deliberation and represent the considered, settled, and mature convictions of a large body of people who have saturated themselves with Scripture, as well as the questions and answers of past and current theological deliberations, alterations in a major confession should be pursued only under the pain of intense need. Sometimes confessions have noses of wax, purposefully to be bent this way or that if both bends are considered within biblically evangelical parameters. And, sometimes an ambiguity is discerned in the heat of later controversy which has the potential of being theologically destructive if left uncorrected. Such was the case with the confession of Eusebius at the Council of Nicea. Everything it affirmed was right, but it left enough unsaid that Arius himself could sign it. Enter, therefore, Athanasius. Stability and alterability must characterize a confession and a people’s attitude toward it.
Three attitudes toward confessions indicate an unhealthy view of them. The first, already discussed, consists of a refusal to give legitimate conscientious affirmation to it in its proper sphere of influence. The second consists of imputing immutability to its phrases and words; the result of this is that it can become static and not dynamically related to vital theological concerns. The third consists of conceding the presence of extraordinary divine activity and guidance in the production of a confession in a way that would attribute to it the characteristics of inspiration. Claims of providence in the production of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message so as to render alteration impious, unfaithful, divisive, and pharisaical have appeared in our day. These objections are aimed primarily at suggestions that article one should be rewritten to eliminate any ambiguity concerning the inerrancy of scripture. These represent lamentable lapses into an ironical creedalism and give to the confession a place that should be reserved for Scripture.
Confessions and Scripture
Changes should be considered in a confession only when an issue is deemed of sufficient importance to merit the attention. And then the change might be accompanied by an addendum instead of a textual alteration.
Since the entire purpose of a confession is to give as accurate a reflection as possible of full scriptural teaching on a subject, the doctrine of Scripture looms as an extremely important area for clear affirmation. It is self-contradictory for a confession’s position on Scripture to allow a belief that the Bible corrects (and thus contradicts) itself, that current human gifts and scholarship are so advanced that we unerringly discern discrepancies in Scripture, or that humility of mind consists of conceding variant accounts in Scripture to be irreconcilable. For a confession to lead to those positions, either in purpose or result, is intolerable. Instead, a confession’s statement on Scripture should be so strong and clear that no hint of freedom to modify, omit, or reject the clear teaching of any biblical text exists.
The phrase “without mixture of error” in the Baptist Faith and Message appears to fulfill the above expectations. The last phrase of the article on Scripture reads, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” Historically, this would mean that Christ is the fulfillment of all Old Testament types and ceremonies. He is the complete revelation. Practically, some take this to mean that Christ in his word and work at times contradicts and corrects other portions of Holy Scripture. Is it possible for our perception of Christ’s attitude to serve as an independent canon of criticism for the rest of Scripture? This author would say no, for we never find any words or actions of Jesus to justify it. Jesus set his interpretation and authority above that of the Pharisees and their traditions, but never in contradiction to his Scripture, our Old Testament.
If the wording of the Baptist Faith and Message permits agreement with the confession and a concurrent disagreement with the Scripture, then, just like the Athanasian correction of the Eusebian Creed, unequivocal clarification is needed. To do less exalts the confession above the Scripture and gives it independent and idolatrous authority.
Unswerving belief of Scripture does not remove God from the center of the church’s worship; it exalts him by encouraging unreserved trust in his work as faithful, impeccable revealer as well as sure redeemer. The doctrine of inerrancy does not encourage an arrogant self-assuredness; it requires a humble submission of reason, affection, will, and conscience to the self-disclosure of God. Full acceptance of pasa graphe (each and every Scripture) does not open an escape from the rough road of careful interpretation; it obligates the interpreter to deal, not only with the easy, comforting parts of the Bible, but with the tough and heart-wrenching also. The Christian should never view acceptance of the full truthfulness of the biblical text as an unbearable yoke; it is, instead, the light that shines in a dark place until the Lord himself shows us his personal glory (2 Pet. 1:19).