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Protestant unity is new confession’s focus

EDITOR’S NOTE: This year, Baptist Press is publishing a series of stories leading up to the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, Oct. 31, 1517.

NASHVILLE (BP) — A confession of faith aimed at expressing “interdenominational unity” among Protestants on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation has drawn endorsement from professors at all six Southern Baptist Convention seminaries and staff members at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

The “Reforming Catholic Confession” also has been signed by professors from at least eight colleges affiliated with state Baptist conventions and by Southern Baptist pastors including Matt Chandler, J.D. Greear and James MacDonald. ERLC President Russell Moore was the only SBC entity president among some 930 signatories as of Sept. 18.

Malcolm Yarnell, one of two SBC seminary professors on the confession’s drafting committee, told Baptist Press in written comments, “Combining my voice with others who treasure our common history is a great way to remind ourselves of certain truths that were rediscovered during the 16th-century Reformation. These truths are in danger of being lost due to the rapidly changing context and short-term memory of our churches.”

Yarnell, research professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, added, “It should be noted that this confession explicitly does not supersede our Baptist Faith and Message. Just as I signed a statement recently regarding the biblical view of human sexuality and another regarding the problem of racism, so I felt it necessary to affirm publicly the Reformation, because it has so positively shaped our faith and we are in danger of forgetting what God has already given us (again).”

Released Sept. 12, the confession, according to an accompanying explanation, attempts to express “mere Protestantism” — the “interdenominational unity in the essentials of the faith” shared by all heirs of the Protestant Reformation. The term “catholic” in the title does not reference the Roman Catholic Church but conveys the framers’ intent to speak on behalf of “the whole church,” according to the explanation.

The confession addresses 12 main topics: the Trinity, Scripture, human beings, fallenness, the person of Christ, the work of Christ, the Gospel, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, holy living and last things.

On issues where major Protestant traditions have points of disagreement, like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the confession attempts to express only points of commonality, highlighting the five “solas” of the Reformation — by Scripture alone (sola Scriptura), by faith alone (sola fide), by grace alone (sola gratia), through Christ alone (solo Christo) and glory to God alone (soli Deo gloria).

The confession’s published explanation states, “While it is tempting to focus on and exaggerate the differences, we want here to strengthen the Protestant cause by focusing on the doctrinal beliefs we have in common, not least for the sake of our common witness to the truth and power of the gospel.”

Gregg Allison, the other Southern Baptist drafting committee member and professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP via email, “On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and to rebuff the ongoing charge that Protestantism is hopelessly divided, we constructed a Reforming Catholic Confession as a statement of beliefs that are shared in common by Protestants of many varieties: Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists and more.

“We are not divided over, but stand united on, these core beliefs! As one whose heart yearns for Protestant unity on the essentials, and for the sake of the church of Jesus Christ and its mission to the world, I consider this confession a fitting expression of mere Protestantism for our day,” Allison said.

The confession’s 12-member steering committee also includes individuals with Southern Baptist ties. Among them: co-chair Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School; David Dockery, president of Trinity International University; Robert Sloan, president of Houston Baptist University; and Ed Stetzer, executive director of Wheaton University’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.

The full confession, explanation and list of signatories and committee members is available at http://reformingcatholicconfession.com/.