Founders Journal


Founders Journal · Issue 49 · Summer 2002 · pp. 1-4

How Do We Know Who We Are?

Tom J. Nettles

Discussions concerning Baptist origins excited controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention at the end of the nineteenth-century into the twentieth century. The Landmark movement, according to Old Landmarkism: What Is It? wanted "to preserve and perpetuate the doctrine of the divine origin and sanctity of the churches of Christ, and the unbroken continuity of Christ's kingdom, 'from the days of John the Baptist until now.'" They were convinced that Matthew 16:18 and Hebrews 12:28 spoke of Baptist churches. While W. H. Whitsitt agreed with Landmarkism concerning the doctrines of Baptist identity, when he expressed his dissent from their viewpoint of origins and perpetuity in A Question in Baptist History, it cost him the presidency of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The discussion has broadened. Now the issue of Baptist identity has come to the forefront. William Brackney in The Baptists has pointed to identity as a perennially controversial issue (ix-xiv). Some parties in the discussion argue for a very narrow definition of Baptist identity. They focus on the distinctives related to liberty and independence; they have minimized the importance of positive doctrinal affirmations. Doctrinal definition intruded into Baptist life from fundamentalism and eventually neo-evangelicalism but was alien to the original Baptist ethos, so they say. On the other hand, others try to demonstrate that the distinctive tenets of freedom and voluntarism would never produce a Baptist church apart from a broader foundation of theological, christological, and soteriological truths.

Perhaps the gap between these two interpretations is beginning to be bridged. Fisher Humphreys, in the 2002 version of The Way We Were, has suggested an interpretation of Baptistness that includes the broad theological foundation as prelude to ideas uniquely Baptist. He calls these "Beliefs Baptist Share with All Christians," "Beliefs Baptist Share with Protestant Christians," "Beliefs Unique to Baptists," and "Beliefs Baptists Share with Revivalist Christians." These four categories combine to give twenty-eight separate doctrines that Humphreys suggests as formative of healthy Baptist life. Among them are the Trinity, orthodox Christology, the authority of Scripture, justification by grace through faith, believers' church, separation of church and state, conversion, assurance, evangelism, and missions. He insists that "to understand Baptists one must attend not only to the beliefs distinctive to Baptists but also to the beliefs that Baptists hold in common with other Christian groups" (35). This approach holds promise for helpful dialogue and gives credibility to the larger confessional heritage of Baptists.

Another encouraging mark of the book is that Walter Shurden has recommended it heartily. Shurden has operated within the narrow definition group and has concentrated his energies on "Baptist distinctives--freedom of conscience, religious liberty, separation of church and state" and has seemingly dedicated his e-mail magazine, The Baptist Studies Bulletin, to the propagation of these ideas. In the first issue of this magazine, January 2002, along with these distinctives, however, he emphasized the need for "unapologetic convictions" to accompany free and voluntary faith and "religious responsibility" to accompany religious freedom. Perhaps his endorsement of Humphreys' more wholistic model means that an openness to the strong evidence for orthodoxy and reformed evangelicalism could squeek in for a hearing.

Given this encouraging advance in the discussion, one must still recognize major differences between Humphreys (and Shurden) and those he denominates the new leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention. That, in fact, constitutes a large portion of what Humphreys does in the book. For example, Humphreys, along with most of the writers for the moderate position, continues to represent the argument concerning the inerrancy of the autographs of Scripture as only a recent development in the history of the church and a useless doctrine (90-92, 138-9). Humphreys also accepts the idea that the Bible can easily be compartmentalized into issues of faith and practice as opposed to history and science (142). This is very tricky business. The incarnation, the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, and their relation to a real historical fall of Adam certainly require the relevance of history to New Testament faith.

A second problem is his representation of Calvinism. His discussion of six "minority traditions" coincides with his July 1980 History and Heritage article, "Current Theological Trends Among Southern Baptists." In the book he adds "Anabaptist Beliefs." He is right to list Calvinism is a minority position but is wrong to imply Southern Baptists make the most direct theological connection with the anti-Calvinistic General Baptists (67). He makes no mention of the powerful impact English Particular Baptists made on the origin and growth of Baptists in America. Puzzling. Also missing is any recognition of the peculiarly strong and persistent commitment to the Particular Baptist Calvinism among Baptists in the South. While he systematically mentions the Baptist Faith and Message 1963 on other doctrines, he mentions nothing about the Calvinism of articles IV and V. In fact, his own discussion of repentance and faith (71) contradicts article IV-A. For some reason, he does not see that article as "descriptive" of Baptist belief. In addition, he perpetuates the misconception that the so-called Sandy Creek tradition presents a corrective contrast to Particular Baptist Calvinism (72). We should ask Richard Furman if his Separate Baptist foundations hindered his Particular Baptist preaching and pastoral ministry.

Humphreys shows deference to Calvinism in an early paragraph (68) conceding that "it has good claims to be true to Scripture." His subsequent discussion--understandably for one who would like to limit if not eliminate Calvinistic influence--has an increasingly corrosive effect on his earlier admissions. For example, "Calvinists among Southern Baptists today are highly committed to missions and evangelism" (68) compared with "But Southern Baptists suspect that they would lose their commitment to these things if they adopted Calvinism, and there is good reason to think they are right about that" (69). It is strange reasoning that concludes that Calvinism would cause people to lose their commitment to issues to which Calvinists are highly committed. This criticism repeats his observation in the 1980 article that Southern Baptists have "learned from experience that human efforts at evangelism and missions do make a difference." Of course! Was not the "Attempt great things for God" the human action derived from the Calvinist confidence that we could in reality "Expect great things from God"?

Apart from the importance of those individual items concerning Baptist identity, another more foundational issue takes a beating in Humphreys' presentation. He believes that Baptists have used confessions only as descriptive of faith and not as prescriptive. "Creeds that are used prescriptively are wrong" (124). Because of that he laments the possibility that "the new majority tradition will no longer include a resistance to prescriptive creeds" (141). When Humphreys recalls the confessional violations of Dale Moody, he reluctantly expresses a conviction that trustees cannot simply allow any teaching without restraint. He concedes, "In schools, regrettably, it is necessary to place constraints on professors, and this amounts to creedalism" (126). Such a condition "falls below the Baptist ideal."

To remedy this unbecoming and unbaptistic creedalism, Humphreys proposes a very scary and morally shocking solution to this problem. Professors need not believe everything in the document but they should pledge not to teach contradictory to it (126). In areas where they disagree, they can simply keep quiet. This solution presents an unacceptable alternative for professor and institution alike. "To teach in accordance with and not contrary to" carries both positive and negative obligations. "In accordance with" means ex animo, as an item of heart-felt belief, as a guide to what he will instruct. He delights in its truths and counts it a privilege to train others so to regard the summaries of revealed truth in the document. What school would want professors that cannot use the confession as a positive and encouraging pedagogical tool? What professor would want to be in a position where he constantly had to be brought up short in proclaiming all that he believed because he was teaching under false pretenses?

Humphreys' non-prescriptive use of confessions gives no means by which Baptists may distinguish themselves from, as well as identify themselves with, other sola scriptura groups. Humphreys himself has identified twenty-eight individual beliefs that constitute the majority position in Baptist life. He knows a Baptist by those beliefs and identifies divergence by describing modifications or rejections of those beliefs. Even in his descriptive use of these ideas he is assuming that they are right; it fills him with "sadness" to lose them. Nay, even more severe, such alteration constitutes a "theological tragedy," a "theological disaster" (130, 144). Such language betrays more than an ethos of description; he has invested his "description" with a moral oughtness. More is at stake in his mind than "The Way We Were;" he describes the way we ought to be. Though many would disagree with him on some of the individual items he includes, they, including this writer, would not disagree that loss of confessional identity is a theological disaster. The confession is a seismograph that detects the shaking of the foundation; it also serves as a level by which we may bring the fallen foundation back into line.

Not only does Humphreys himself find it impossible to see confessions as merely descriptive, his representation of the non-prescriptive nature of confessions in Baptist life simply is not the case historically. Only in the twentieth-century has the idea become widespread that it is unbaptistic to use confessions as prescribing belief and, as a corollary, disciplining both church and theological academy in light of the confession. Humphreys joins a chorus that has been swelling since 1979. In 1983, E. Glenn Hinson in Are Southern Baptists "Evangelicals"? notes "All observers of Southern Baptists can discern a radical tilt from an anti-creedal toward a creedal stance in theological matters" (187). Bill Leonard writing in 1990, argued that the adoption of a convention-wide confession in 1925 increased confessionalism throughout the century:

Once a confession was written down and officially approved, however, the scene was set for its more arbitrary use in defining the doctrinal parameters of the SBC. The line between a confession and a creed is thin indeed, In retrospect, it seems Southern Baptists were naïve in their effort to distinguish between confessionalism and creedalism. Since 1979, the distinction has become particularly academic" (God's Last and Only Hope, 79).

E. Luther Copeland in The Southern Baptist Convention and the Judgment of History includes a chapter entitled "The Enforcement of Orthodoxy." In this he represents Southern Baptists as moving from "non-creedal beginnings to the present highly restrictive creedalism" (113) which he ingeniously constructs as a function of racism. Walter Shurden in his introduction to Amidst Babel, Speak the Truth (1993), asserts, "It is a near unanimous opinion among Baptist historians that Baptists have historically been anti-creedal people." They have shunned the adoption of creeds as "theologically restrictive statements" that are designed to curtail "freedom of inquiry" (8). Shurden slightly nuances Leonard in his argument that the SBC managed to ignore the 1925 and 1963 Confessions before 1979. Since then, however, he goes on to charge, fundamentalists have turned a non-binding confession into a "creed that straps the conscience" (Baptist Studies Bulletin, June 2002). In 1990 at Southern Seminary, Grady Cothen spoke of "a people historically non-creedal rush[ing] headlong into a narrow creedalism that claims superior authority to holy Scripture."

Given these representations, any indication of a prescriptive use of confessions among Baptists prior to 1979, or particularly prior to 1925, should be rare. Only the occasional kook who understood little about the Baptist contribution to Christian witness would dare suggest, either in church or association, that a confession should have a purifying effect on a Baptist body. The intent of this issue of the Founders Journal is to provide some evidence from a variety of witnesses and perspectives that confessions used prescriptively are consistent with the use Baptists have made of them historically. In addition, such a use gives health, spiritual vitality, unity and a sense of well-defined mission.