FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–One word can make all the difference between voicing an incorrect view of God and confessing the God of the Bible, said Malcolm Yarnell, assistant dean of theological studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
That is precisely why changes to the Baptist Faith and Message, the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of beliefs, were necessary, Yarnell said in chapel Oct. 30.
“For a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s I wondered whether a number of evangelicals were actually Trinitarian,” he said. “The Trinity was notably absent from many evangelical pulpits for much of the 20th century … even among Baptists. The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message could easily have been affirmed by modalists,” Yarnell said.
Modalism is the belief that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are “modes” of God’s existence, rather than true and coeternal persons capable of interacting with one another.
Early church councils, Yarnell said, rejected this heresy but it still lives on today in numerous places — even among some Southern Baptists in the last century.
The 1963 BF&M noted that, “The eternal God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.”
“Fortunately, those who revised the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message stuck in one word that would make it impossible for a heretic to affirm it. If you left it [the 1963 statement] as it was, you only have the economic trinity but no essential Trinity. But the committee added one word, the word ‘triune,'” Yarnell said.
The BF&M 2000 now reads, “The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.”
With this minor addition, the statement more accurately reflects the church’s historic confession, Yarnell said. “God is eternally, essentially, immanently triune. One word made all the difference.”
But there is more to God’s essential nature, Yarnell noted.
“Perhaps we could also affirm the monarchy of the Father, the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps a full-orbed Trinitarian confession could keep well-meaning Baptists from preaching that God’s glory is self-centered in nature.
“The Son who is God does not selfishly glorify Himself. He glorifies the Father. The Spirit who is God does not glorify the Spirit. He glorifies the Son. God is so selfless that He invites man to share in His glory,” Yarnell said.
A renewed confession of the triune God is essential if Southern Baptists are going to be found faithful in this generation, Yarnell said, noting that no academic or applied discipline is exempt from the need to reaffirm the Trinitarian character of orthodox Christianity.
“My hope is that in thinking biblically and theologically, our students will bring a revolution in the various ecclesiastic arenas, not only in the field of pastoral ministry but in educational and music ministries, too,” Yarnell said.