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Confessions affix scriptural truth to believers’ minds, Nettles says

WILMORE, Ky. (BP)–Baptists have used confessions of faith throughout their history because such succinct summaries of doctrinal teaching are clearly set forth by Scripture, Baptist historian Tom Nettles said in an address to the 2001 Southern Baptist Founders Conference, July 17-20 at Asbury College in Wilmore, Ky.

Nettles, professor of historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., used the apostle Paul’s doctrinal admonition of Timothy in 2 Tim. 1:8-14 to underpin his argument that confessions and catechisms are inherently biblical.

“We see in this text that Paul teaches us that summaries of this truth may be helpful in firmly fixing this truth in the mind,” Nettles said. “I would contend that this is something of a confessional statement that we see could be learned by first-century Christians and then they would recognize true expositions of this when prophets stood and began to give expositions.”

The use and validity of confessions became a topic of debate when a revision of the Baptist Faith and Message at the June 2000 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting was met with resistance by moderate Baptists who dismissed confessions of faith as “unbaptist.”

As a particular example, Nettles pointed to 1 Tim. 1:8 to demonstrate the presence of confessional statements as distilled points of doctrine found in Scripture. In an economy of words Paul urges Timothy to remember Christ and his resurrection and his standing as a descendant of David.

The doctrines of which the passage speaks are those which Paul more fully unfolds in other writings such as Romans 3-6, Nettles said, adding that Paul models how pastors may take confessional articles and fully exposit them from the pulpit.

“What short, pithy words we see here,” Nettles said. “How few words and yet what reminders of massive portions of Scripture, of the faithfulness of God, of the life of David, of the promises to David, of the covenant with David, of the real lineal descent of our Lord from David, of [Jesus] paying the debt of sin, of the Father receiving his debt that he has paid and receiving him back to himself, raising him from the dead, for it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

“How suggestive are these short words, and yet memorable, easily retained by anyone.”

Nettles cited B.H. Carroll, founder of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, who wrote that to set aside confessions in favor of liberty is “a degeneration from the vertebrate to the jellyfish…. [S]hut off the creed and the Christian world would fill up with heresy unsuspected and uncorrected, but nonetheless deadly.” Nettles pointed to scores of historic Baptist leaders who also held such views.

The current theological chaos in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Nettles said, is an illustration of the end result of rejecting confessional conviction. The CBF, a denomination-like breakaway group from the SBC, held its annual meeting in Atlanta in late June, during which competing factions sparred over the issue of homosexuality.

The CBF, an anti-confessional group, has been “sucked into a labyrinth” of being unable to assert any tangible belief because of its denial of the usefulness of confessions, Nettles said.

“What a terrible, sad condition,” Nettles said. “Any of you who know some individuals in that group that you had higher hopes for, and that you know better about, must feel sad that they’re in such a terrible condition, arguing over the things they are arguing over, simply because they have failed to see this fundamental principle of the rightness and goodness of a Christian to confess precisely what he believes the Bible teaches. It is a gloomy labyrinth not to do that.”

Nettles made it clear that Baptists have never considered creeds and confessions to be infallible — a charge often lodged by anti-confessionalists — but have merely used them to declare a belief in the doctrines which the Scriptures teach and are foundational to orthodox Christianity.

The early church used confessional elements to equip believers to distinguish false prophets from those who spoke biblical truth, Nettles also noted.

“If a prophet said something that was not in accord with these sound words, with this confessional statement, if he began to deny something or to give an exposition that was not consistent with it, they could figure that this was a false prophet, that he was speaking things that were not true,” Nettles said.

In accompaniment to confessions, Baptists have historically used catechisms — a series of brief questions and answers that define biblical doctrines and include scriptural proofs — to train children in scriptural truth, Nettles said. Typically, this has been done with the hope that the truths of Scripture will take root in the heart and be used by the Holy Spirit later to effect salvation.

This is what Paul was driving at when he advised Timothy to remember that which was taught him by his mother and grandmother from birth in 2 Timothy 3, Nettles said.

“These things are to be taught from childhood,” Nettles said. “They are to be taught in such a way as we see that they are true and they are to be taught with the hope and the desire that they will conduct and lead to wisdom that leads to salvation.”

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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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