Much has been said about the similarities and differences between the 1925, 1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention. Not nearly as much attention has been paid to the importance of the statements’ respective preambles.
The 1925 Baptist Faith and Message intended to reestablish denominational unity within a larger debate over evolution. Still, four of the seven committee members charged with writing the statement initially had their doubts about whether a new confession was needed at all. Some were fearful that the statement of faith was a move toward creedalism. Others had practical concerns in light of Northern Baptists’ failure to agree on a confession in 1922.
To allay such fears, Chairman E. Y. Mullins’ committee presented its summary of the Baptist Faith and Message along with five statements outlining the historic Baptist position regarding confessions of faith:
(1) That they constitute a consensus of opinion of some Baptist body, large or small, for the general instruction and guidance of our own people and others concerning those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us. They are not intended to add anything to the simple conditions of salvation revealed in the New Testament, viz., repentance towards God and faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
(2) That we do not regard them as complete statements of our faith, having any quality of finality or infallibility. As in the past so in the future Baptists should hold themselves free to revise their statements of faith as may seem to them wise and expedient at any time.
(3) That any group of Baptists, large or small, have the inherent right to draw up for themselves and publish to the world a confession of their faith whenever they may think it advisable to do so.
(4) That the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Confessions are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.
(5) That they are statements of religious convictions, drawn from the Scriptures, and are not to be used to hamper freedom of thought or investigation in other realms of life.
Baptist historians have noted that the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message cannot be interpreted apart from these five introductory statements. Indeed, the confession of faith more than likely would not have been adopted without them.
It was not until 1962-63, amid controversy over Ralph Elliott’s book The Message of Genesis, that Southern Baptists revisited their confessional statement in another attempt to achieve denominational unity. Herschel H. Hobbs was named chairman of the study committee which presented a revised form of the 1925 statement and restated the same five introductory points as a part of its report.
The new preamble declared that statements of faith “have never been regarded as complete, infallible statements of faith, nor as official creeds carrying mandatory authority.” Rather, “the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is Jesus Christ whose will is revealed in the Holy Scriptures.”
In a published essay, Hobbs later argued that to impose the doctrinal articles of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message while disregarding the preamble was to do violence to the entire statement. In his words: “The preamble is as much a part of this statement adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention as any of the seventeen articles which follow. Without it the statement becomes a creed. And Baptists are not a creedal people. Without this preamble the Convention would not have adopted it. Therefore, no one Southern Baptist or group of such has the right to seek to ignore the preamble in interpreting or applying it.”
Whereas the 1925 and 1963 statements attempted to unify Southern Baptists around the larger truths of their common faith, the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message seems designed to divide the SBC according to an increasingly narrow set of beliefs. In a supreme irony, Adrian Rogers’ study committee chose to include the five introductory points in its preamble while deleting from its initial report this line from the 1963 statement: “Baptists emphasize the soul’s competency before God, freedom in religion, and the priesthood of the believer.” Only after firestorms of protest were these core Baptist values restored to the preamble.
In a chillingly prophetic statement, Hobbs declared in 1979: “If The Baptist Faith and Message be abused it can become a source of strife among Southern Baptists. But if it be used as intended, it will be a source of unity among us.”
John M. Finley is senior minister of First Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga.