A call to unify Baptists by reciting the Apostles’ Creed at a global gathering next year is proving divisive for some.
“Fundamentalists are not the only creedalists within the Baptist camp,” Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists wrote in a July 1 Weblog. “Even before SBC leaders accused the Baptist World Alliance of a ‘liberal drift,’ some moderate Baptist fingers were twitching to create a creed of their own.”
Prescott’s reaction was to a recent news story quoting a Baptist World Alliance leader who says a resolutions committee is working on “a significant statement on Baptist identity” for presentation at the BWA Centenary Congress, scheduled July 27-31, 2005, in Birmingham, England.
The quote is from a story about 28 scholars from North America, Europe, Australia and India requesting that Baptists gathered in Birmingham recite the Apostles’ Creed, a historic confession of the Christian church.
The Apostles’ Creed was recited at the first BWA congress in 1905 in London. But since then, the scholars, say many Baptists have developed an “allergy” to creeds because they have been misused as instruments of coercion.
The ancient creeds of the church do not possess authority independent from the Bible but do contain “a basic outline of apostolic preaching and teaching to which the Scriptures attest,” they say.
Steven Harmon of Campbell University Divinity School said in an e-mail the authors hope to seize “a teachable moment”—the Southern Baptist Convention’s withdrawal from the BWA over charges of liberalism—to move theological discussion away from worn-out labels of conservative and liberal.
“We believe that one of the most pressing issues on the Baptist agenda at the beginning of the second century of the Baptist World Alliance and its witness to the world is recovery of the connection of Baptists to the ancient tradition that they share in common with all other Christians,” Harmon said.
One obstacle to that, he said, is many non-fundamentalist Baptists misunderstand the nature and function of ecumenical creeds, which should be viewed as expressions of worship and tools for education rather than tests of fellowship or coercion.
“The current leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention has taken one of these more detailed denominational confessions and employed it in a manner that is contrary to the proper traditional uses of both creeds and confessions,” Harmon said. “That, I think, is the abuse that gives many non-fundamentalist Baptists pause about making use of the ancient creeds of the church.”
Harmon is one of four authors of a document titled “Confessing the Faith,” which the 28 scholars sent along with their letter to Keith Jones, chair of the BWA resolutions committees.
The others are Curtis Freeman of Duke Divinity School, Elizabeth Newman of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and Philip Thompson of North American Baptist Theological Seminary.
“For myself, I think it is crucial for Baptists to learn to see themselves as part of the wider church,” Newman said in an e-mail. “I think being able to say the creed in a liturgical setting is a step in this direction.”
Critics say they don’t have a problem with the Apostles’ Creed but wonder about another agenda.
“We have been through this before,” Prescott said: in 1996 when he was asked to sign on to a “manifesto” document calling for a “re-envisioning of Baptist identity.”
Freeman, Newman, and Thompson all were among signers of the statement, nicknamed the “Baptifesto,” which sought to correct what the authors viewed as overemphasis on individualism and dependence on Enlightenment rationalism among Baptists in North America.
“We reject all accounts of following Jesus that construe faith as a private matter between God and the individual or as an activity of competent souls who inherently enjoy unmediated, unassailable and disembodied experience with God,” the statement said. “We further reject all identifications of the priesthood of believers with autonomous individualism that says we may do and believe what we want regardless of the counsel and confession of the church.”
The manifesto critiqued theologies of both the left and right, which “as different as they may appear, are really siblings under the skin by virtue of their accommodation to modernity and its Enlightenment assumptions.”
Both Baptists who embrace modernity by defining freedom in terms of autonomous moral agency and objective rationality and those who react against modernity in revivalistic religious experience and seeking truth through common-sense reasoning “drank deeply from the same waters even if they have done so at different wells,” the statement said.
Prescott, in remarks to Cooperative Baptist Fellowship leaders a later article in Baptists Today, said the Baptifesto overlooked the Baptist distinctive of “personal integrity,” which led pioneers like Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams and John Leland to break with established churches.
None of those figures submitted to prevailing opinions in their own communities of faith, Prescott said. “All of them are examples of submission to the authority of an inner voice that speaks to the heart and mind and conscience. In one way or another, all of them are examples of people who were constrained to obey God rather than men.”
The scholars, several who are identified with the Atlanta-based CBF, gained an unexpected ally in a leader from the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC in June pulled out of the Baptist World Alliance because leaders said they lacked confidence that the BWA represents a clear gospel witness.
“Maybe the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed will put away all this nonsense about ‘no creed but the Bible,'” Russell Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote July 7 in Baptist Press. “Maybe it will refocus the BWA leadership on what Baptists have always known—there is no cooperation without a common confessional conviction.
“And maybe one day the BWA will move away from the ambiguity of a ‘creedless’ bureaucracy toward a defined orthodox Baptist witness in the world. If that happens, I think you will see Southern Baptists ready to join back up—though not a minute sooner.”
Once believed to have been written by the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, modern scholars say the Apostles’ Creed in its current form dates to about 700 A.D. Catholics, who recite it at every Mass, regard it “ex cathedra,” while Protestants it accept it only as representing evangelical teaching of the Apostolic Age, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
The text of the creed, as usually recited, is: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of the saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.”
The small-c “catholic” does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church, but to the universal church of Christ.
Asked if the intent in reciting the Apostles’ Creed was to exclude any Baptists on the left who, for example, question the Virgin Birth or on the right who don’t believe in an “invisible” church beyond the local congregation, Freeman said the thought excluding anyone “never crossed my mind.”
“We actually were trying to find a way to be inclusive and positive rather than reactionary and negative,” Freeman said. “The Nicene and Apostles’ creeds are the closest thing to consensus documents of faith shared by all Christians worldwide. They are widely recognized as starting points for ecumenical conversations.”
While not everyone agrees with interpretation of all the phrases, Freeman said the creeds are “ecumenical in the truest sense of the word.”
Newman answered the same question, however, by saying the Apostles’ Creed is exclusive “in some sense.”
“Many of the classic teachings of the church arose in response to various heresies,” she said. “But any interpretation of the Bible on a given point is going to necessarily exclude others. The question we are called to discern together (and with the church across the ages) is what is most faithful to who God is and who God is calling us to be.”
In “Confessing the Faith, the theologians say affirming the creeds safeguard against “twin dangers” of both outspoken detractors of the BWA who demand capitulation to a new set of fundamentals and others who reduce faith to “what seems at the time to be most rational or most relevant.”
Prescott said there is no reason for global Baptists to issue another statement on Baptist identity. “The apostle’s creed ought to be sufficient to confirm our Christian orthodoxy,” he said. “Re-affirming liberty of conscience should more than suffice to confirm our Baptist identity.”
Jones, the resolutions committee chairman and rector of the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, Czech Republic, said the BWA has from time to time sent messages to Baptists around the world, and the 100th anniversary meeting seemed like a good time.
He said he did not think the resolution would respond to criticism by the SBC or others but take on a “positive note to thank God for 100 years of being together and to make clear the gospel people we have been, we are and we intend to be.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.