Missions & Creeds (Part 2)

Missions and Creeds (Part 2)

Tom Nettles

(Part 1 of this article appeared in FJ 17 and gives a cogent explanation and defense of the proper use of creeds and confessions.)


The Foundation

The second factor downplayed by revisionist historiography relates to the doctrinal base of SBC expansion and early missionary practice. The emphasis given to the cohesive force of missions in Southern Baptist life is important and must never be usurped by a competitive interest. The very idea of missions, however, is supported by a significant network of doctrinal assertions and is defined in terms of those doctrines.

Our generation is in particular need of some theological reinforcement. Many, even among evangelicals, are diminishing their affirmation of the utter uniqueness of the gospel message as the means by which God establishes a saving relationship with sinners. Secondary probation, annihilationism, and even universalism are making appearances within the evangelical community. A Southwestern Seminary missions professor recently advocated the idea that Christ saves in other cultures by means of other religions.[1] A former Southern professor wrote, in the context of interpreting the Great Commission, that the disciples “may have mistaken some of the instructions and commands.”[2] Clark Pinnock, formerly a strong conservative as a Southern Baptist, now rejects what he calls the exclusivist view of salvation, the “view that restricts eschatological salvation to the number of confessing Christians.” Instead he opts for a view which claims that “God’s goodness and justice imply that God will not expect people to invoke Jesus’ name who cannot possibly do so, since they are ignorant of it through no fault of their own.”[3]

Those theologies affect not only the method of missions but call into question the very rationale for it. If one does not even have to be a Christian to know God and find forgiveness, or if perhaps Jesus did not tell his followers to go into all the world, the missionary enterprise can be justified only by the most obtuse reasoning. In fact, it could be seen as triumphalistic sectarian aggression, energized by an imperialistic motivation, and insensitive to the truth value of other religions.

One unusual development brought forth by the current theological milieu is that resistance to Calvinism is assumed to be a common denominator between moderates and many conservatives. Leonard, in what is an insightful, hard-hitting but gentlemanly, vigorously-presented but open-armed, article need only mention that faithfulness to original Southern Baptist doctrine would involve “Reformed theology” to score a virtual coup in the interchange.[4] Henry Smith argues strongly against Reformed theology, especially the “pernicious doctrine of limited atonement.”[5] Paul Basden can be confident that Southern Baptists will not return to their Calvinistic beginnings because “Southern Baptists are committed to foreign missions” which, in his opinion, presupposes the “free choice of individuals.” Belief in a “God who predetermines” will “eventually undermine missionary zeal.”[6] Walter Draughon III, in outlining his perception of Dale Moody’s contribution to Southern Baptist theology, attributes to him a view of the atonement which “served as a corrective to those who interpret the cross in terms more consistent with Calvinist confessional literature than with the Bible.” He continues:

Moody gave Southern Baptists a real denial of limited atonement: Christ died for every human being, and every human being may experience salvation by faith in Christ. This negation of the dominance of Calvinism over the interpretation of the message of reconciliation gives Southern Baptists a theology of mission that contains the element of hope for the salvation of the world.[7]

This phenomenon inserts another irony and a dilemma into current tensions. Some moderates contend that all theologies should be viewed as equally acceptable and non-threatening to missions, except the one which energized every man present at that original meeting which designed a structure to elicit, combine, and direct all the energies of the Southern Baptist Convention in one sacred effort for the propagation of the gospel. This group elected an articulate Calvinist, W. B. Johnson, its first president. C. D. Mallary, who had just completed a series of articles in the Christian Index strongly defending the tenets of Calvinism against Arminianism, was appointed corresponding secretary of the Foreign Mission Board, though he was unable to serve. J. B. Taylor, another Calvinist, took his place and served for twenty-five years. Thus, we confront the dilemma. Either we must conclude that our founders were wrong in the most distinctive aspect of their understanding of the gospel, or, if right, they were unprincipled in their action or completely imperceptive as to the connection between theology and practice. How could it be that those whose theology has such a pernicious influence on missions established a missionary organization?

The Content

Theology, however, does not function only as a pre-mission justification for engaging in the task. It is the tool by which the task is accomplished. Sometimes Southern Baptist theological conservatism has lead to expansion by drawing others into the orbit of truth with which they identify and in which they desire to participate. Next, theology has served to define the kind of person sent to be its proclaimer. Also, theology constitutes the content by which the task itself is done.

Defines the Group

The dovetailing of conservative doctrine and mission involvement prompted the movement of Southern Baptists from a sectional to a national denomination. A group of Baptist churches in Illinois separated from American Baptists in 1907 over three issues: the toleration of ministers who denied the deity of Christ, a lack of firmness on the “full inspiration and authority of the Holy Bible as the revealed will of God,” and the practice of open communion. They had no desire to assist in “planting and supporting churches that would not stand for the Old Baptist faith and practice.”[8] In 1910, they united severally with the Southern Baptist Convention as churches within the Illinois Baptist State Association.

Many Arizona churches became Southern Baptist under similar circumstances. Having separated from American Baptists (i.e. Arizona Baptist Convention), the leaders of the exodus were accused of acting from “personal and petty” motivation. On the contrary, claimed the seceders, the matters were weighty and doctrinal. To continue affiliation with American Baptists would “crush the spirit and power of our churches and weaken their testimony to the authority and the inspiration of the Bible.”[9] This group of Arizona churches became part of SBC life in 1928.

California was received into SBC life in 1942 so that they might be in a group who held “the fundamental doctrines of the Bible.” From California, Southern Baptist work moved into the Northwest.

Describes the Person

Early in the history of the Foreign Mission Board doctrinal screening was negligible, if present at all. Theological latitudinarianism was not the reason for this policy, or lack of policy, but the confidence that theological unanimity reigned in the Baptist Zion of the South. More than just a desire for missions in “some form or other” was expected in the doctrinal perceptions of missionaries. In 1886, N. W. Halcomb, an effective missionary several years into his service, resigned his charge because of a theological struggle over the deity of Christ. Lottie Moon engaged in personal Bible study with Halcomb in an effort to get “his feet upon a foundation that nothing can shake.” She wanted to keep “the strongest man we have” from leaving, all the while admitting that if he retained the doubts expressed in his resignation letter “he cannot remain a missionary.” When Matthew Yates, who served forty-two years as one of Southern Baptists’ first foreign mission appointees learned that Halcomb’s position on Christ’s deity had been “growing more unsettled for years,” he agreed fully with Halcomb’s decision to resign.[10]

In 1881 a very trying stream of events demonstrated the priority of theological purity to personal affections. T. P. Bell, an attractive and talented theological student, received special encouragement to sign with the Foreign Mission Board to be “the man for China so greatly needed by us.” “Will you apply or shall we extend a call?,” H. A. Tupper wrote him.[11] When Bell and his friend, John Stout, both applied they were accepted enthusiastically by the board in May.

Soon after the news of their appointment was released, J. P. Boyce wrote asking Tupper if the board had examined the men on their views of inspiration. A recent candidate, a Brother Walker, had been examined on inspiration. John Stout was aware of this and offered to make his views known before the board but apparently no questions on that subject arose during the interview.[12] Tupper told Stout that the question “had never been raised with regard to himself but it would do no harm” to send him a statement of his views “to be used at my discretion.” Upon receiving Boyce’s urgent question, Tupper engaged in a flurry of “confidential” letter writing asking for advice of different leaders. He also wrote Stout reminding him of his offer to provide his views, stating that it might be the wise thing to do. He asked him to confer with Bell and probably sent a similar letter to Bell. When the two responded, he issued a call for a special meeting of the Foreign Mission Board. Stout’s response had been clear, Bell’s somewhat confusing. The following preamble and resolution were adopted:

Whereas Rev. John Stout has candidly and courteously presented to the Board of Foreign Missions his views on Inspiration; and whereas his views do not seem to the Board to be in accord with the views commonly held by the constituency of the Southern Baptist Convention; and whereas, Brother Stout reduces the question between himself and the Board to the simple point, whether the Board will give him their consent to teach or print if thought advisable by him, these views as a missionary of our Board, therefore

  1. Resolved that while the Board distinctly and emphatically disclaim the least right over the conscience or Christian liberty of any man, they have no right to consent to any missionary teaching or printing anything regarded by them as contrary to the commonly received doctrinal views of the constituency of the Southern Baptist Convention.

This along with two other commendatory resolutions was sent to Stout asking for his response. Since Bell’s response was not clear, he was asked to appear before the board for examination. Stout answered the resolution quickly and, within one week, on June 24 the board was meeting again. The responses of Stout and Bell were read. Stout wrote, “The matter is settled, and I see no other course open but the withdrawal of my appointment.” He further insisted that the “responsibility of formally dissolving the relation existing between me and the Board shall rest upon them.” Bell wrote that he would not mind appearing before the board but saw no reason for it since he had read Stout’s paper finding himself in “substantial accord with him in the views expressed and give a hearty `Amen’ thereto.” He further informed them, “I shall teach the conclusions arrived at where ever I may be, if occasion arises.”[13] On the basis of those responses the board was “reduced to the necessity of withdrawing their appointments of these honored and beloved brethren as missionaries to China.”

When Lottie Moon heard the news she was disconsolate. Not only had the promise of personnel strengthening failed, the final verdict on her possible marriage with C. H. Toy was inevitable. Tupper wrote her, “This is a dreadful disappointment. But you’ll say, `Is it not your own fault?’ Now, my dearest sister, don’t turn on the friend seeking your good office. I know of your love for Dr. Toy, which cannot be greater than mine.”[14]

Soon after this Lottie Moon, now realizing that Toy could never come to the mission field, briefly considered moving back to the States to marry him and work along with him in academic pursuits. Lottie Moon was not quick to condemn the theological pilgrimage of others. This seems sufficiently demonstrated in her patience with Halcomb later. She, therefore, (as indicated by notations in books in her library) began studying the issues that Toy introduced to her. She concluded that the claims of Toy and God on her life conflicted and there could be no question as to the result.

Constitutes the Message

Theology in missions was not simply a tool of personnel discrimination, but actually functioned in a positive way to sculpt and define the missionary message and method. Scriptural revelation confronted the false world views of the non-Christian. Lottie Moon functioned in this way, joining Mrs. T. P. Crawford in the use of a catechism with boys and girls in China teaching the basics of the Christian faith as a foundation for evangelism. Also, her personal work with women involved the direct teaching of Christan truth (doctrine) as a corrective to the paganism of the Chinese. She recalled the following anecdote.

Imagine the missionary with a book in her hand, sitting or standing as may be most convenient, and trying to fix the attention of the women on the most important subjects. “I have come to tell you something very important,” says the lady. “You must listen well. I ask these children not to make a noise.” “How old are you?” inquires someone. Answer and go on: “If it were not very important, we would not take all this trouble to come here to tell you.” Audible approval. “Good people,” they say, “come here to tell us a good doctrine. Listen to what they say.” “Sad it is,” goes on the lady, “that you all here, almost without exception, worship mud-images, and you do not know that it is a sin. We have come to tell you that it is a sin against the heavenly Father.” “How many children have you?” “One,” says Mrs. H. if she happens to be the speaker. “Boy or girl?” “How old is he?” “Is he married?” The missionary goes on with her talk. (“How white her hand is!” “She doesn’t look more than seventeen or eighteen.” “How pretty she is.”) . . . “Pray don’t talk,” says the lady, “when I am through you may talk as much as you like.” “Be quiet; don’t talk,” they say to each other. Silence two minutes, while the lady resumes her talk: “People cannot transmigrate, neither are they like lamps that go out, nor are they annihilated, nor does the wind blow them away, nor do they go to the temple after death to drink the soup of forgetfulness.” “What! don’t transmigrate?” exclaims some astonished listener. “No; after death there are but two places, a heaven of boundless happiness, a hell of endless suffering.”[15]

This simple interchange is informed by a world of theological truth. The clarity of special over general revelation, the tendency of all to suppress the truths of general revelation, the sinfulness of this ignorance, the exclusivity of Christianity in it salvific content, the reality of heaven, and the non-existence of alternate means of escaping condemnation–all these doctrinal commitments lie behind this conversation.

Years later, The Foreign Mission Journal carried an analysis of China, its geography, its people, its customs, its religion, and its dominance over the development of Oriental culture. The writer of the article called Lottie Moon “that Princess of the Lord, that jewel of our female missionaries [who] has laid the sweetness of her piety and the splendor of her genius and culture on the altar for God.” Among the great needs of China, the writer, Dr. B. D. Gray of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, emphasized the need for “teachers of theology there. What a mighty power would such men as Hodge, Boyce and Hovey be in China. Before their orderly and masterly systems of theology heathen systems would tremble and totter.”[16] Even if he was given to exaggerated language, Gray saw clearly the distinctive truthfulness of the biblical revelation as opposed to paganism and had great confidence in the compelling power of Christian truth to bring into captivity every imagination that exalts itself against Christ.


A Christian should give no countenance to a system that draws a dichotomy between missions and creeds. Missionaries are not sent to present a contentless, individuated, existential encounter, but to set forth a world view built on the principles of the gospel. He or she presents the tri-une God revealed in Scripture, the absoluteness of the moral law, the sinfulness, corruption, and condemnation of all humanity, the covenant of redemption effected in the person of the God-man the Lord Jesus Christ, the necessity, perfection, and consistent righteousness, of his completed work of redemption by sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection, the certainty of the judgment of all rational beings, and the necessity of repentance toward God in light of our rebellion and deserved condemnation and faith in Jesus Christ in light of the excellency and sole sufficiency of his work as redeemer. These things should be believed by the missionary and fuel his zeal. It is also the content of that which is to be believed and heartily embraced by the convert. Creeds and missions are perfectly congruent; they are neither exclusive of each other nor adiaphoristic in their relationship, but depend on each other and, in reality, are defined in terms of each other.

In addition, creedal statements must both implicitly and explicitly have missions as a guiding principle. The triune God himself is the original missionary. In his great missionary and infinite wisdom he devised a strategy by which to seek and save the lost. This good news he puslished promiscuously. Even to those who were not his sheep, the savior spoke clearly, fervently, and with compassion. Within every section of a confession, the tendency of truth in general to call for belief, and the purpose of Christian doctrine in particular to be a savor of life unto life or of death unto death must set a tone of infinite urgency about the importance of the doctrine taught. Henry Fish’s “Scriptural Catechism” is remarkable for this feature. The Baptist Faith and Message appropriately includes an article on “Evangelism and Missions.” These are urged on individuals and churches as their duty and privilege. This confession proposes that missionary outreach rests “upon a spiritual necessity of the regenerate life” as well as the explicit commands of Christ. It advocates the use of all methods “in harmony with the gospel of Christ.” The content of the gospel implies missions, explicitly commands missions, and governs the methods of missions.

Another side of this coin is that missionaries and evangelists must seek to be “creedal”-in the very best sense of the term. The tenacity of their missionary zeal and the purity of the vision of the necessity and nature of conversion is roughly proportionate to the strength of their knowledge of and commitment to Christian truth. The missionary life and method of Adoniram Judson illustrates this point beautifully. Historically, some missionaries have shunned the necessity of conversion and others have embraced the religion of those to whom they were sent. Clear understanding of the faith and its coherence as a system, an unwavering commitment to its veracity, along with an ability to defend it in the face of opposition are virtual necessities (Acts 17:2-4; 18:4, 19, 25-28; 19:8). A missionary cannot escape being a creedalist.

Finally, those who believe the doctrines of grace must see the mission field as a most propitious place of following Christian calling. It was in the context of preaching to unbelievers in a culture molded by pagan values that the Apostle Paul learned experientially what he knew by revelation: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). Thus, not only can a missionary not escape being a creedalist, a true creedalist cannot escape being a missionary. “But having the same spirit of faith according to what is written, `I believed, therefore I spoke,’ we also believe, therefore also we speak” (2 Cor 4:13). May God give us again the union of the believing and the speaking in our generation.