“I am Southern Baptist”: A Confessional People and Their Confession of Faith
Yet people ask us all the time, “Who are you? What’s a Baptist? How are you different than any other church or religious group?” One would hope that any church-going Southern Baptist could answer such questions with aplomb. But can they?
“Who are you?”, the criminal once asked Batman. “Who are you?”, the Who once asked their generation.
In one sense, the answer should be obvious. We ought to be able to answer as Popeye did: “I am who I am, and that’s all that I am.” But, is it really? Can your identity be boiled down to one easy statement? “I’m Peter.” Or, “I’m a pastor.” “I’m Karis’ father.” “I’m Melanie’s husband.” You get the idea. Who you are is not one thing or another. It’s the aggregate of many things.
If that’s true of each of us as individuals, how much more complex must the answer be when we answer as a body, as a gathering of diverse yet somehow like-minded folk who share a common identity? Now, think of the complexity of the answer to that question when the answer represents the collective sentiments of millions of people in a denomination or even a movement that spans the globe.
Yet people ask us all the time, “Who are you? What’s a Baptist? How are you different than any other church or religious group?”
One would hope that any church-going Southern Baptist could answer such questions with aplomb. But can they?
I regularly begin a class on Baptist theology by asking doctoral students, “What does it mean to be Baptist?” I get all the expected answers. “We practice believer’s baptism by immersion.” So? So do many evangelical groups who aren’t Baptists. “We believe in congregational polity.” Yeah, so do some of your charismatic neighbors. “We hold to regenerate church membership.” And? Around and around we go.
They eventually get my point just as you did. Baptists are all those things. And more. Thus, the answer to the question, “Baptists, who are you?”, is complex. The answer to that question is found in our corporate identity and, as Southern Baptists, in our corporate confession of faith.
Southern Baptists and Their Confession of Faith
The founding president of the Southern Baptist Convention, William B. Johnson, famously and erroneously said Baptists have no creed but the Bible. The irony, of course, is such a statement is a creedal statement, a summary statement of belief, personal or otherwise. He said it because he believed it. Most Baptists didn’t. From the start Baptists have been a confessional people. This was true of Baptists in Europe. It was true of Baptists in America. In fact, as Baptists began to form unions for cooperation, they did so around confessional statements like the Philadelphia Confession or the Charleston Confession. For Baptists further north, it was the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. This was true for churches, associations, and denominations.
Not even a generation after Johnson’s profession, Baptists in his own state of South Carolina produced a confession of faith for the founding of what became the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859. Thus, the Abstract of Principles became the theological statement of what it meant to be a Southern Baptist in the South for generations as pastors and denominational leaders were taught “in accordance with and not contrary to” the Abstract of Principles. Virtually from the outset, Southern Baptists professed a corporate faith that defined them as a movement and shaped their disciple-making endeavors.
In the ensuing years, statements of faith like the Abstract were also used to protect the denomination from theological drift. Such was the case with the dismissal of Lottie Moon’s onetime fiancé, Crawford Howell Toy, in 1879. Toy lost his professorial appointment at Southern Seminary not simply because he refused to adhere to the Abstract but because his own faith commitments had moved beyond it. He was, in essence, no longer a Southern Baptist, as evidenced by his failure to teach in accordance with the confession of that people. In due time, Toy left Baptist life behind altogether for Unitarianism.
Those ideals which informed Toy’s departure from Southern Baptist life impacted other denominations at the end of the 19th century as well. Modernism in its many forms led pastors like Presbyterian David Swing to reject all confessional statements before leaving his own denomination. A generation later, the Baptist Harry Emerson Fosdick could pastor a Presbyterian church, because the orthodoxy of one generation no longer held any authority over the next. Many in that day agreed and saw no problem with the pastoral arrangement. Some even went so far as to encourage Fosdick to simply become a Presbyterian to end the turmoil. He refused, left the church, and founded a nondenominational church with the backing of John D. Rockefeller.
Rise of the BF&M
Denominational and theological laxity were not the only challenges confronting Southern Baptists in the opening decades of the 20th century. Modernism’s dalliance with Darwinism also struck close to home. As the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial upheld a Tennessee law enforcing the teaching of creationism in public schools, public sentiment was beginning to shift on the matter. Creationists won in the court of law but lost ground in the court of public opinion. As these events unfolded, Southern Baptists were caught positionally unaware. It’s not that Southern Baptists didn’t have an opinion about Darwinian evolution. In true Baptist form, they had many, but they didn’t have any official position.
At the same time, calls for reconciliation with Northern Baptists 60 years after the Civil War were growing louder from some quarters. Southern Baptists sent representatives to the Northern Baptist Convention to further these discussions and explore the idea of reunification.
In light of all this, Edgar Young Mullins, then president of Southern Seminary and president of the SBC, called for the formation of a committee to formalize the denomination’s theological views—in essence to define what it meant to be Southern Baptist. In 1925, even as Northern Baptists rejected a similar call to adopt a denominational confession of faith, one based on the long-revered New Hampshire Confession, Southern Baptists adopted their own based on that same confession. That year they affirmed the Baptist Faith and Message as a statement of their collective beliefs, a “consensus of opinions.”
Troubling Revision of the BF&M
Not 40 years later, Southern Baptists would again answer the call to define and refine their faith in light of theological controversy. In the 1960s, debate raged within the convention over how one reconciles the creation narrative of Genesis with the scientific narrative of evolution.
One might ask: if this was part of the impetus for the creation of the BF&M in the first place in 1925, why must it be dealt with again? The answer is easy. While the Preamble affirmed a supernatural reading of Scripture and the world around us, an explicit statement regarding evolution and Scripture was deleted from the initial draft of the Baptist Faith and Message before it was ratified by the denomination. Thus, the problem remained unresolved and had to be addressed again by a later generation.
Under the leadership of Herchel Hobbs, the SBC formed another committee and issued an updated version of the BF&M in 1963. A firmer, though still not concrete, statement on theological commitments about the controversies of the age emerged. The updated statement presented a compromise meant to narrow the boundaries of Southern Baptist theological life in such a way as to answer the present concern without constraining the idea of liberty of conscience Baptists hold dear. As a result, while church members were being discipled according to the teachings of the BF&M via Hobbs’ own commentary on the confession, others in the seminaries and elsewhere were able to claim adherence to the revised doctrinal statement while also holding views contrary to the faith of the rank-and-file membership of the SBC, those things they claimed “with which they have been and are now closely identified.”
In a very real sense, the Baptist Faith and Message (1963) failed to unite the denomination in faith. The controversies that prompted the formation of a committee to revisit the statement festered for nearly another decade due to political maneuvering by some involved. The result was that the denomination’s faith statement no longer accurately represented the united faith of the denomination as a whole. Such theological diversity led to theological division. Within a decade and a half, the movement that would become the Conservative Resurgence was birthed, and the battle for the heart of the convention was on.
This denominational tug-of-war drug on into the 1990s. When it was over, the conservatives reclaimed the denomination’s entities from the theologically broader-minded Moderates. More importantly, they saw the opportunity to reaffirm the Southern Baptist faith they believed was compromised over the preceding 70 years and called the convention back to its theological roots.
Y2K and the End of the World As We Know It
The year 2000 was burdened with great theological and prophetic significance. Such was already the case for hundreds of years before the coming of the new millennium. As the historical moment drew closer, it appeared Nostradamus and others might be right.
Of course, the apocalypse didn’t begin on January 1 any more than did all the computers in the world crash as predicted. Yet the year 2000 and the years surrounding it did usher in an era of change for Southern Baptists.
Firmly in the hands of the conservatives, the SBC experienced significant change in its leadership and its institutions. New trustees were elected, new presidents hired. And, in one sense, the old faith was rediscovered.
However, as the millennium was set to begin, Southern Baptists had yet to address definitively the issue that led to the donnybrook recently ended: the Baptist Faith and Message. To prevent yet another round of theological controversy, something had to change.
An important step was taken in the closing years of the 1990s to do just that. Then SBC President Tom Elliff presciently appointed a committee in 1997 to bring a proposal back to the convention addressing the coming social storm over the nature of the family as defined by the Bible. This proposal came in the form of new article on “The Family” that was to be added to the Baptist Faith and Message. The convention affirmed this proposal in 1998. While it caused a minor denominational dustup, its impact would pale in comparison to what was just over the theological horizon. It proved to be an omen of things to come.
In 1999, Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention, appointed a “blue ribbon committee,” a veritable who’s who of the Conservative Resurgence, to review the BF&M and present any recommendations to the convention at its annual meeting in 2000. This committee would return with a revision that would address many of the perceived flaws that allowed for the divisions only recently resolved.
As the committee observed in their final report, “Baptists are a people of deep beliefs and cherished doctrines. Throughout our history we have been a confessional people, adopting statements of faith as a witness to our beliefs and a pledge of our faithfulness to the doctrines revealed in Holy Scripture.” Moreover, they added, “Our confessions of faith are rooted in historical precedent, as the church in every age has been called upon to define and defend its beliefs.”
Working from the position of historical precedent, the committee reviewed the BF&M in light of the earlier versions and “the ‘certain needs’ of our own generation.” In other words, doing what Baptists have always done, they revisited the Baptist faith as it had been handed down to them with a view toward clarifying and amending it to address the challenges of the present age.
Unlike its predecessors at certain points, the 2000 update of the Baptist Faith and Message addressed the “certain needs” head on and narrowed the theological definitions provided. In places, language was clarified. In others, articles were modified to reflect contemporary debates earlier writers could not have foreseen. Beyond that, the current version of the BF&M largely mirrors the wording of earlier editions.
The most significant changes brought forward for consideration were arguably found in the introduction to the confession, the Preamble. There the committee omitted the language of 1963 which stated, “The sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is Jesus Christ whose will is revealed in the Holy Scriptures.” For many, such a hermeneutical principle proved too subjective and allowed for theological variances that might be cloaked in pious claims of Christlikeness that pitted long-held views against modern concerns.
Such a possible interpretation is highlighted by the next statement the new version of the Preamble also deleted: “A living faith must experience a growing understanding of truth and must be continually interpreted and related to the needs of each new generation.” Whether it was the intent of the 1963 framers or not, such was the language of those like Toy who abandoned the ancient faith in the name of modernizing it for their generation, something many believed to have continued to happen in the 20th century SBC. Instead, the new Preamble simply states, “Our living faith is established upon eternal truths.” Thus, the Baptist Faith and Message as adopted in 2000 seeks to ground “those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us” in unchangeable truth.
While the proposed updates were broadly accepted within the SBC, some took exception to the latest revision of the BF&M. A number of individuals and churches left the denomination over what they perceived to be violations of other key Baptists ideals such as soul competency and liberty of conscience. Such people were no longer convinced that the Baptist Faith and Message was no longer truly Baptist. Still others chose to remain within the Southern Baptist Convention but retained the use of the Baptist Faith and Message (1963) as their personal or congregational confession of faith.
At the end of the day, while affirmation of the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) is not a requirement of fellowship within the Southern Baptist Convention, it is the official confessional document of the denomination. It is theological self-portrait of a people called Southern Baptists. It is who we think we are.
Baptist Identity Defined and Defended
In the aftermath of 2000 and the ratification of the latest version of the Baptist Faith and Message, some claimed the denomination’s confessional statement moved beyond confession and consensus to creed. Using the concept of creed as a pejorative, they meant to imply the BF&M was now being used as a test of orthodoxy, a litmus test for the purpose of exclusion rather than inclusion. Such an argument betrays a theological and political bias that ignores the meaning of the word itself and the historical use of creeds through the ages. The term “creed” is drawn from the ancient term credo which simply means “I believe.” Or, as one modern dictionary defines it: a set of fundamental beliefs. The historical and contemporary use of confessions of faith in Southern Baptist life echoes these definitions.
Likewise, church history is replete with examples of the twofold use of confessional statements found in 21st century Southern Baptist life.
First, creeds and confessions are meant to be inclusive.
They identify those doctrines or theological hallmarks that characterize a particular body of believers. In other words, creeds and confessions define or identify those within a religious body by their shared system of beliefs. If one shares those beliefs, they are included as part of that body.
Second, creeds and confessions are meant to be exclusive. They are used to identify those who do not belong to such bodies, not in a punitive sense but a protective one. Those who do not identify with the body with their rejection of that body’s beliefs are prevented from joining or changing that body. They are excluded from membership because they refuse to identify with the members.
Thus, as one looks at Southern Baptist history, we have adopted confessions of faith to define this unique body of believers by identifying those doctrines that give us our unique identity within the larger Christian church. These confessions were then used to train our pastors and disciple our parishioners as to what we believe the Bible teaches. In so doing, the Baptist Faith and Messages does more than provide a summary of what Southern Baptists believe. It shapes what we believe. It defines who we are. It defends our convictions and our churches from external challenge.