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ANALYSIS: Baptists’ ’63 confession reiterated Bible’s authority, doctrinal integrity

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Confessions of faith often arise from a time of conflict as Christians respond to attacks on their beliefs. It was a theological crisis that prompted the call in 1962 for a review of the first confession of faith written for Southern Baptists in 1925. Ralph Elliott’s book, “The Message of Genesis,” published by the Sunday School Board in 1961, drew criticism for espousing a higher critical approach to biblical interpretation.

“Baptists have historically defended a man’s right to believe what he chooses, but not to continue to identify himself as a Baptist if his beliefs or actions deny Baptist doctrine,” stated Richard Land in his article on Baptist confessional statements from the book, “We Believe,” a collection of sermons on Baptist doctrine.

When Southern Baptists gathered in 1962, messengers questioned the right of their publishing house and one of their seminaries to defend and distribute the views of the author/professor whose beliefs and actions were out of the norm.

“The fact that ‘The Message of Genesis’ had been written by a professor in a Southern Baptist seminary and published by Broadman Press, the arm of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, was intolerable to many conservative pastors and a number of theologians,” recounted Jesse C. Fletcher in his 1995 “The Southern Baptist Convention: A Sesquicentennial History.”

Concern over doctrinal integrity led to the appointment of a committee to consider revising the first Baptist Faith and Message statement. Denominational leaders Porter Routh and Albert McClellan worked with SBC President Herschel Hobbs to propose a committee similar to the 1925 model, involving seminary presidents. Texas Baptist Standard editor E.S. James opposed the move, however, noting the absurdity of seminary presidents taking the lead when the seminaries were “being investigated.”

Instead of relying on denominational employees to fashion a statement, the SBC president joined with 23 state convention presidents to tackle the project. All but two of them were ministers. They chose to work from the 1925 statement, adding language to the article on the Scriptures to state, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” Twenty-five articles were condensed to 17.

Similar to the role of SBC President E.Y. Mullins in drafting the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, Hobbs provided the leadership of the committee that proposed the 1963 revision. When the first draft of the report was finished, all of the professors of the six Southern Baptists seminaries along with doctrinal writers of the Sunday School Board were given an opportunity to study the document and suggest changes. The final version was given to state Baptist paper editors two months before the 1963 SBC annual meeting, providing an opportunity for editorial feedback.

Hobbs, referring to the committee’s report in his presidential address on “God and History,” said, “If the work of this committee accomplishes nothing else, it has demonstrated that brethren of Christian conviction and love can work together.”

Emphasizing the value of unity, Hobbs continued, “When twenty-four men from one side of this Convention area to the other, and as close as they are to the people in their given areas, can sit down together, and, without a single serious theological difference, agree on a statement of faith; and when the faculties of our six seminaries can study that statement without voicing an objection to its theological concepts, do not tell me that Southern Baptists are not basically united in their theology! It would be tragic, therefore, if, in this strategic moment in history, we should spend our time gnawing on old bones or stirring among burnt ashes.”

Hobbs referred to theology as “the muscles of our denomination,” necessarily maintaining some tension. “We should not be using these muscles to bash in one another’s heads,” he said. “Instead we should be using them to lift toward God a world which writhes in the throes of sin and death.” Hobbs ended with a warning that future historians would write of their deeds on that day, stating either that “we stood in the breach for God” or that “we slept through a revolution” and found “Ichabod” written on the door.

When it came time for messengers to act on the recommendation of the Committee on Baptist Faith and Message, Florida messenger C. Earl Cooper sought to strike all but the scripture references from the report. North Carolina messenger Julius H. Corpening proposed that the convention simply receive the report as information. Messenger Wendell Rone of Kentucky wanted to strike the paragraph which referred to the redeemed of all the ages as one definition of the church. All such attempts to change the report failed. The report was adopted overwhelmingly.

The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message served as a guideline for questioning Foreign Mission Board candidates, and some BSSB employees were required to sign it. The seminaries either adopted it as their confessional statement or placed it alongside existent articles of faith to be signed.

Neither the 1925 nor the 1963 statement was considered a complete expression of Southern Baptist beliefs. Both prefaces state 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.”

The Bible is stated to be the sole authority for faith and practice while confessions are a guide in interpretation. “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,” the preface reads.

“In other words,” Baptist historian Slaydon Yarbrough wrote in “Southern Baptists: Who Are We?” in 1984, “Baptists do not judge the Bible by their confessions of faith. They judge their confessions of faith by the Bible.”

Precautions had been taken to ensure that the confessions of faith would not be misused, wrote Baptist historian H. Leon McBeth in “A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage.” But he added, “In fact, the way the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message has been used makes it the most creedal document in Baptist history.”

When Larry Lewis proposed a doctrinal integrity resolution in 1979 to hold denominational employees accountable for their beliefs, Kentucky pastor Wayne Dehoney asked the 1979 convention to simply reaffirm the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message statement on the Scriptures. President-elect Adrian Rogers asked Dehoney to be more specific in his motion to reaffirm the Bible as “truth, without any mixture of error.” The two men conferred privately, and then Dehoney stated, “My interpretation and Adrian’s is that in the original autographs God’s revelation was perfect and without error — doctrinally, historically, scientifically and philosophically,” according to Baptist journalist-historian James C. Hefley in his book, “The Conservative Resurgence.”

Hobbs joined in with the explanation that the committee which wrote the 1963 statement accepted the original manuscripts “by faith, not by sight,” and furthermore, had adopted the statement on Scripture with the understanding that truth without any mixture of error included the whole Bible.

The historic consensus among Rogers, Dehoney, Hobbs and Lewis was never reported by Baptist Press. “I think we’ll let it pass. The folks in the churches don’t care about such detail,” BP news director Dan Martin explained at the time, dismissing a complaint by Lewis, Hefley recounted.

At the 1980 convention, Hobbs appealed to messengers to reaffirm the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message along with the preface. He argued that the preamble “protects the conscience of the individual and guards us from a creedal faith.” Hobbs’ remarks reinforced the noncreedal tradition of Baptists while confirming the committee’s insistence on an inerrant Scripture.

An insistence that Southern Baptists practice what they confessed to believe resurfaced during the 1980s, a decade of controversy within the SBC. “Southern Baptists seem to be at a crossroads concerning their historic tradition relation to the nature and purpose of confessional statements and current concerns over doctrinal integrity,” Yarbrough wrote in 1984.

By 1999, messengers were ready to approve a third look at the confessional statement within the span of a century. The revision to be considered this year fulfills a prediction by Hobbs that a subsequent convention might decide to revise the 1963 statement in light of future needs, such as the array of issues posed by contemporary postmodernism.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter