The Southern Baptist Convention’s use of its faith statement, the Baptist Faith and Message, to ensure doctrinal integrity has raised anew the cry, “Creedalism!” Below is some basic guidance for setting Baptist creedal controversies in context.
Confession or creed? The extent to which a faith statement is used as leverage to squelch diversity of expression has led some Baptists to distinguish between confessions and creeds. For some, “confessions” is the term used for faith statements that do not coerce belief at the expense of personal religious liberty; “creeds” is used for those that do. I was taught “we” true Baptists are confessional, “they” are creedal.
How easy the yoke? The reality is more complex. At various times for various purposes, Baptist faith statements—or a particular one—have been used more or less restrictively. The lighter the burden imposed by enforcement of the confession, the less coercive it is. The less coercive it is, the more a free and personal faith must assume responsibility for preserving unity. The more a free and personal faith is called upon to maintain unity of fellowship, the more Baptist is that fellowship.
Baptists have always authored faith statements. Seldom have these been employed to compel uniformity or limit Baptist cooperation.
First Baptist confessions. Early British Baptists usually wrote faith statements to make clear how they differed from or agreed with other traditions. The first English Baptist confession in 1611 justified refusal to merge with Mennonites.
Particular Baptists, hoping to become allies with the dominant Presbyterians during the Restoration, produced in 1677 the Second London Confession, an almost word-for-word revision of the Westminster Confession. The very influential confession of the Philadelphia Association, adopted in 1742, was a close rewrite of the Second London. The association mainly used its confession to express the unifying doctrines of diverse colonial Baptist churches, not as a tool to expose individual heretics within the association.
Mission societies. The introduction of cooperative mission efforts curtailed the influence of confessions among Baptists in America. Cooperative missions replaced doctrine as the glue that held churches together. Maryland Baptists represent in microcosm this shift.
When the Baltimore Association split in 1836, one side supported mission efforts and the other opposed them; both appealed to claims of correct doctrine. The Maryland Baptist Union Association, forerunner of the present state convention, formed around a new basis of association, cooperative mission work. The MBUA agreed to “discuss no query on matters of faith or discipline.”
Asked for a statement of its “faith and practice,” the MBUA, noting the independence of its churches, replied: “We, as their representatives, have no power to dictate articles of faith to our churches.” More than a century later, when a constitutional revision committee requested that the MBUA add “satisfactory evidence of [a prospective church’s] Faith and Order” to its entrance requirements, the association defeated the amendment as “foreign to the objects for which the association was organized.”
Likewise, the national Triennial Convention, founded in 1814 to aid Luther Rice and Adoniram Judson, required no confessional standard. The president of the newly organized 1845 SBC declared “no creed but the Bible.”
Protestant fundamentalism. Nineteenth-century Fundamentalism re-introduced creedal controversy into Baptist life. In 1922, the Northern Baptist Convention refused to adopt a premillennial fundamentalist creed. The SBC adopted its first faith statement three years later, the Baptist Faith and Message, to pre-empt more extreme statements. (Revised in 1963 and again in 2000, the BFM is the standard for enforcing doctrinal integrity in today’s SBC. The MBUA affirmed it in 1991.)
Blunt instruments? The confession the Northern Baptists rejected and the one Southern Baptists accepted were both revised versions of the best-known Baptist confession of their time, the New Hampshire. Ironically, the Baptist Convention of New Hampshire, which commissioned an obscure committee of three in 1831 to write this underlying faith statement, never voted to adopt it. It was saved from obscurity by being revised and printed two decades later by J. Newton Brown in his best-selling Baptist Manual.
Among Baptists in America, familiarity sometimes outweighs theological acuity when it comes to faith statements.
Loyd Allen is professor of church history and spiritual formation at the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology.