Missions and Creeds (Part 1)

Missions And Creeds (Part 1)

Tom Nettles

A decade and a half of tensions in Southern Baptist life have called forth several historical analyses seeking to discover, communicate, and perpetuate the true genius of Southern Baptist “success.” Recent works from Walter Shurden, Grady Cothen, Bill J. Leonard, and even Ralph Elliott have taken a stab at describing the change of contour in the Southern Baptist profile.[1] Much of the emphasis has been placed on the supposed diversity and theological tolerance that gave Southern Baptists warmth and power in its first several decades. According to these analyses, recent attempts at achieving a higher degree of theological unity are ipso facto un-baptistic.

For example, Bill Leonard views the genius of Southern Baptist organization as a “Grand Compromise” of various theological and ecclesiological options. He contends, “They hesitated to define dogma too narrowly lest they alienate large segments of the constituency, thereby increasing the possibility of fragmentation or schism.”[2] The tolerance of these mid-nineteenth century Baptists of the South is pictured as broad indeed in these halcyon days of the infant denomination. In his conclusion of a chapter entitled “Southern Baptist Theology,” Leonard appears to be summarizing the theological conditions present “from the beginning of the convention.” His fifth conclusion states, “Within this delicate balance there existed a wide variety of theological attitudes, and interpretations with roots in Calvinist, modified Arminian, and even occasional Arminian, Landmarkist, fundamentalist, neoorthodox, evangelical, charismatic, and social gospel interpretations of Christianity.”[3]

The spectrum of diversity asserted here developed eventually within the Convention, but such wide variety was not present from the beginning. Most of those options, historically defined, did not even exist when the Convention was formed. That particular spread of theological ideas stretches any confessional pattern far beyond its ability to withstand the pressure. Greater diversity exists now even within what Leonard calls the fundamentalist group than existed for the first 75 years of organized convention life.[4]

An ironic duality is created by this genre of doctrinal historiography. First, such delicacy is imputed to freedom that its life supposedly can not be sustained in the midst of a critical appraisal of theology, particularly if the appraisal concludes that two viewpoints are incompatible with an overall mission goal. Second, such elasticity is imputed to evangelism that supposedly the theological latitude demanded by freedom will make no substantial change in the overall outcome. Evangelism, so it seems, is so much at the heart of all the diverse groups that it is virtually oblivious to theological differences and surges forward scoffing at any supposed destructive incongruities.

On the one hand, the moderate[5] analysis gives the impression, mistakenly, that the effort to cut a confessional silhouette within which all aspects of the Southern Baptist face must fit contradicts the Baptist commitment to freedom. Conservatives conscientious about institutional confessional guidelines are pictured as having forsaken “such classic Baptist doctrines as soul liberty and the priesthood of all believers.”[6] Gary Parker’s book Principles Worth Protecting is advertised with the following paragraph.

Southern Baptists have historically cherished a number of theological “babies,” birthed to us by our scriptures and our history. We have held a number of beloved principles close to our hearts and called them our children. Now, however, our children face genuine danger. They face the danger of living in a house controlled by new parents. Some of the new parents love other principles more than the old ones. In some cases, the parents actually despise the children they were bequeathed. As a result, our principles face threats to their survival.[7]

Among the principles stressed are liberty of conscience, priesthood of all believers, the autonomy of the local church, the nature of Scripture, separation of church and state, unity in diversity, and a chapter entitled “No Lord but Christ, No Creed but the Bible.”[8]

Stan Hastey has written that “prevailing fundamentalists have succeeded in the systematic tearing down of what arguably are Baptists’ three most distinctive theological contributions–the priesthood of all believers, autonomy of the local church, and separation of church and state.” Later he indicates that soul freedom is “unquestionably Baptists’ primary theological distinctive.”[9]

Conservatives do not believe that the quest for unity in the more classical theological categories violates the historic application of what Hastey calls our “primary theological distinctive.” They are convinced that theology and mission are vitally connected and that theological harmony both biblically and pragmatically serves the cause of missions. Moderates present this quest as antithetical to Baptist freedoms.

On the other hand, moderate historiography minimizes the connection between theology and evangelism and functions as if that assumption of disconnectedness was shared by the framers of early SBC life. Walter Shurden summarized this tendency when he wrote, “The synthesis of the convention was missionary, not doctrinal, in nature.” Bill Leonard has made steps toward a correction of this misperception with his observation that the convention’s synthesis was “both missionary and doctrinal.” He submits the idea that “most Southern Baptists perceived themselves, rightly or wrongly, as doctrinally united and theologically homogeneous.”[10] But Leonard still represents the theological diversity as not hindering agreement on “the need to win souls and send out missionaries in some form or another.”[11]

These treatments of Baptist history give insufficient latitude to the power of theological and even confessional commitment within denominational life, including missionary theology and practice in early Southern Baptist life.


Creedless Unity

Significant diversity because of doctrinal imprecision, particularly at the institutional level, has not been deemed a strength or virtue. Baptists have rejected creedalism, and rightly so, since that word implies the elevation of a human document to the detriment of biblical authority. Moreover, a wide variety of opinion concerning the place of confessions in achieving unity is scattered throughout Baptist history. Though early New England Baptists such as John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, and Isaac Backus wrote personal confessions of faith, nineteenth-century New England Baptist leaders tended to discount the value of confessions, particularly at any point beyond the local church. “We think a creed worth nothing if it is not supported by scriptural authority,” wrote Thomas Armitage. He continues, “And if the creed is founded on the word of God, we do not see why we should not rest on that word which props up the creed.”[12]

Francis Wayland surmised that this very “absence of any established creed is in itself the cause of our unity.” His appeal, like that of Armitage, was that the study of Scripture was superior to the learning of a confession.

If the Bible be a book designed for every individual man, and intended to be understood by every man, then the greatest amount of unity attainable among men of diversified character, will be produced by allowing every one to look at it and study it for himself. Here is an inspired record allowed to be pure truth. The nearer the opinions of men approach to its teachings, the nearer they approach to each other. Here is a solid and definite basis of unity.[13]

Two conditions informed the pristinism of Armitage and Wayland. First, Baptists enjoyed a high degree of doctrinal unity. Notice, they were not applauding the great theological diversity of Baptists, but were noting the remarkable doctrinal unity. This was seen to be the result of faithful preaching and the personal Bible study of the laity without any overarching confession serving as a governor.[14] Second, they saw confessional denominations declining, fracturing, and lacking fervency and zeal in pulpit and pew. Why should they be envied or emulated?

Both these leaders, however, underestimated the cohesive power of the New Hampshire Confession during the decades following its introduction in 1833; they also somehow managed to overlook the unitive effect of the Philadelphia Confession of Faith adopted by nearly all of the original Baptist associations, including the Warren Association in Rhode Island. The doctrinal formulations of those confessions had inspired the preaching themes of the earlier generations and had been passed to posterity. But without the strong reminders of doctrine presented by a confession, this kind of system tends toward degeneration and the heightening of personal idiosyncrasies. In his classic work Fifty Years Among the Baptists, David Benedict noticed this very trend and commented, “In the business of ordinations, how little scrutiny is made of candidates as to their belief in the strong points of our system, compared with ages past.”[15]

In addition, the historic value of creeds, and in large part the Baptist dependence on them, was not carefully considered by Wayland and Armitage. Had there been no Nicea to ward off the Arian error, no Chalcedon to guard against the Nestorian and Eutychian misunderstandings, and no Augsburg Confession to stand by the doctrine of Justification by Faith even when threatened by death, even self-professed non-confessional Baptists would be the poorer for it. Historically, creeds define biblical truth against the subtlety of error so that believers affirm the distinctives of Christian faith as opposed to misleading, non-biblical views. Could it be possible that Wayland and Armitage were unaware of the blessings that were theirs from the confessional history of Christian polemics?

Their view also loses the pedagogic and corrective advantage of a confession. It is not necessary for each generation to reinvent the wheel. A confession helps the current generation benefit from the insights and struggles of the past. An enormously significant biblical theology is dumped in our collective laps, wrapped up as a gift inviting us to open and enjoy. It serves as a handle to help us pick up the Bible and make it our own; it projects a pattern to give the shape of what a revived and reforming church will believe, teach, and confess. Those important and beloved New England brethren seemed to overlook blessings that they themselves had received and minimized the usefulness of the “standard of sound words” which had been entrusted to them. In the subsequent period of decline, a healthy affection for the creed (or confession) would have served as a point of conviction to those who departed and as welcome ballast to a faltering and normless connection of churches.[16]

Creed-protected Unity

In the South, the institutional affirmation of a creed, (i.e., a doctrinal formulation which highlights, conforms to, and insinuates biblical authority) was not perceived as a threat to biblical knowledge or one’s submission to its teachings. Creedalism posed so little threat that J. P. Boyce, founder and first president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, did not hesitate to use the term creed. Nor did he hesitate to use such a document for “the declaration of faith and the testing of its existence in others.”[17] Especially did he insist on subscription to the declaration of doctrine for the teacher of prospective ministers. The basis of this “test of faith” is Scripture, Boyce claimed, which cannot possibly err.

His [the professor’s] agreement with the standard should be exact. His declaration of it should be based on no mental reservation, upon no private understanding with those who immediately invest him into office. . . . No professor should be allowed to enter upon such duties as are there undertaken, with the understanding that he is at liberty to modify the truth, which he has been placed there to inculcate. He . . . must be . . . upon every point in accordance with the truth we believe to be taught in the Scriptures.[18]

This position of Boyce, which accurately reflects the theological commitments of his Baptist constituency, lends a peculiar cast to Leonard’s historical interpretation that “During the twentieth century, Southern Baptists have moved steadily, albeit reluctantly, toward creedalism, all the time insisting that it was not really happening.”[19] His historical discussion of the use of confessions in the twentieth century is interesting and his conclusion is particularly striking: “If Southern Baptists ever really were a non-creedal people, they are not any longer.”[20] Leonard believes the evidence points to an SBC becoming increasingly creedal.

I see the evidence in a different way. Instead of a creeping creedalism, we have witnessed an increasing number of apologies and disclaimers and nervousness about the strength of our confessional past. The kind of punctilious adherence to all the doctrines of the confession commended by Boyce, has not been publicly endorsed by a conservative leader.[21] The current concentration on the issue of inerrancy shows a selectivity in application of confessional integrity not nearly as comprehensive as the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[22]

E. Y. Mullins served as pastor in Newton Center, Massachusetts, before accepting the presidency of Southern Seminary. While there, he absorbed some of the New England reticence about creeds. His confrontation, however, with a more doctrinally strict group of Southern Baptists and, at the same time, the genuine threat of liberalism to historic Christianity made even Mullins advocate adherence to a simply-, but clearly-, stated set of doctrines. During the evolution controversy, while he was president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Mullins himself spoke publicly of the necessity of a clear declaration of pivotal Christian truths. In his 1923 presidential address Mullins unequivocally affirmed the revelatory nature and authority of Scripture, the virgin birth, the sinless miracle-working life of Christ, his vicarious atonement, his bodily resurrection and appearances, his ascension, and his second coming. Following that he stated:

We believe that adherence to the above truths and facts is a necessary condition of service for teachers in our Baptist schools. . . . Teachers in our schools should be careful to free themselves from disloyalty on this point.[23]

B. H. Carroll, founder of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was committed to creeds, not just as a measure to be adopted in a crisis, but as a principle of Christian profession. Establishing Southwestern as a “permanent breakwater against this invading tide of practical infidelity,” he endorsed Boyce’s plan for theological education and insisted that faculty and trustee alike sign a theological statement. Rather than shy away from tests of faith Carroll welcomed them and rejoiced in them.

The modern cry: “Less creed and more liberty,” is a degeneration from the vertebrate to the jellyfish . . . and it means more heresy. Definitive truth does not create heresy — it only exposes and corrects. Shut off the creed and the Christian world would fill up with heresy unsuspected and uncorrected, but none the less deadly.[24]

Later Carroll insisted that “we are entitled to no liberty in these matters.” To “magnify liberty at the expense of doctrine” is a sin, according to Carroll. Throughout this discussion he affirms that the “standard [for this doctrinal statement] is the holy Scriptures” which he defends as infallible in the original manuscripts.

The founders of Southern Baptists’ first two theological seminaries believed in the disciplinary use of creeds. They expected each professor to sign a statement of faith, or creed, and to believe and teach in precise agreement with it. It cannot be un-Baptistic to abide by the principles of the founders and those Baptists who first supported such schools.

J. B. Gambrell, arguably one of the most influential and perceptive Baptist statesmen ever to live, served Southern Baptist life as pastor, denominational executive, newspaper editor, college president, seminary teacher, and convention president from 1872 through 1921. His unusual article in the Baptist Standard, “Questions in Baptist Rights,” I have used other places, but it is nonetheless appropriate here. Gambrell said, “So far as we know, Baptists stand for perfect liberty of conscience and liberty of speech. We would not deny to any one, even an infidel, the right to preach his doctrines.” This freedom, however does not include the right to use a church to “propagate other and contradictory doctrines.” Those who “do not preach the accepted doctrines of the Baptists, have no right in Baptist pulpits, and it is no abridgment of their rights nor any persecution to keep them out.” That principle applies to schools also. When one thinks that the doctrines of the denomination are wrong or outworn he cannot claim “the right to use an institution, its money, prestige and opportunities to overthrow the faith which the institution was founded to build up.” When he does so, he “passes the bounds of liberty and enters the realm of arrogant license.”[25] Gambrell saw no contradiction between the Baptist principle of freedom and the application of doctrine in a disciplinary and discriminating fashion.

[Go to Part 2]