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Speakers: Confessions rooted in history, guard against heresy

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–What role should confessions of faith play in Southern Baptist life? Are they un-Baptist and a violation of Christian liberty? Or, is their usage a good way to guard against the teaching of heresy in seminaries and on the mission field?

Southern Baptist leaders, professors and pastors gathered in Jackson, Tenn., April 5-6 to consider what it means to be a Baptist and whether modern-day Baptists have strayed away from their historical roots. More than 10 Southern Baptist leaders spoke at the conference, titled “Baptist Identity: Is there a Future?”

“Confessions have been at the heart of Baptist life,” Greg Wills, professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said. “[In the 1700s and 1800s] associations over and over again told a church, ‘If you don’t bring us a confession of faith we can’t let you in, because how do we know what you believe?’”

The International Mission Board was criticized by some last year for having its missionaries affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. But Wills said that the IMB has a “responsibility” to make sure that its missionaries hold to biblical faith.

“Our churches want to send those who are true to the Scriptures and don’t want to support those who are going to spread heresy or other errors,” he said.

The opposition to the Southern Baptist Convention’s application of the BF&M, speakers said, is due to a difference in belief of what it means to be a Baptist. Those identified as conservatives tend to hold that the most basic issue is one’s view of Scripture as being inerrant, they said. Moderates, though, tend to believe that the most basic issue is freedom in biblical interpretation.

“If we as Baptists resist creedalism, that does not mean that we resist publishing our beliefs,” said L. Russ Bush, dean of the faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “Baptists have set forth and continue to set forth expressions of what we believe and what we believe our Baptist distinctives are. Baptist confessions express how much we stand together with other evangelical Christians and our commitments to basic Christian truths.”

Any freedom in interpretation must take place within the boundaries of Scripture, Bush said.

“So when people say, ‘I’ve been led by the Spirit’ or ‘The Spirit is what has given me the freedom,’ if it’s contrary to the Scripture, we can say that that’s not correct,” he said. “… God didn’t give us the freedom to contradict His Word.”

Because moderates cling to freedom, Wills said, they are being inconsistent when they say someone’s teaching and beliefs are wrong.

“They recognize that they have a conservative mass of people in the churches, and so when push comes to shove and some leader starts proclaiming that Christ is not divine … they ultimately have to give them up and say, ‘Well, OK, he’s gone too far,’” Will said. “But their principles do not sustain them. It was a concession to their conservative denomination.”

Union University President David S. Dockery said the moderates — sometimes called progressives — won a victory in the 1960s when the 1963 Baptist Faith & Message included a preamble de-emphasizing the confession’s authority. It, like the 1925 BF&M, said that confessions “are only guides in interpretation” and have “no authority over the conscience.” Additionally, the 1963 BF&M emphasized the importance of having a “living faith.”

Dockery said that Herschel Hobbs, chairman of the 1963 BF&M study committee, had a “misplaced emphasis on individualism” that “moved him to a false dichotomy between a living faith and a confessional or creedal faith.” While Hobbs’ beliefs on Christ and salvation are to be applauded, his de-emphasis of confessions was wrong, Dockery said.

“While no Baptist,” Dockery said, “would want to put any confession on the same level with Scripture or confuse doctrinal statements about Jesus with a dynamic trust in Jesus, to say that the confession has no authority is certainly an overstatement and a wrongly informed understanding of our Baptist heritage. The confession is a secondary source of authority, not a primary one like Holy Scripture. Nevertheless, confessions have historically been understood to have a normative place in the life of believers.”

Stan Norman of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary traced the emphasis on individual liberty back to E.Y. Mullins and his 1908 book, “The Axioms of Religion.” While Mullins was not the first to make such arguments, Norman said, he did help steer Baptists toward a new emphasis.

The Axioms of Religion, Norman said, “marked a significant shift in the prevailing understanding of the theological distinctives of Baptists and provided an impetus for a second defining distinctive from which some Baptists would elaborate their unique theological identity.”

Mullins, though, would not recognize the beliefs that some progressives who claim to follow him have adopted, said Norman, director of New Orleans Seminary’s Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry.

“The acorn has fallen far from the tree,” Norman said.

R. Albert Mohler Jr. said that two “parties” emerged during the SBC’s conservative resurgence — the “truth party” and the “liberty party.” The truth party said the most basic issue was theological; the liberty party emphasized freedom.

“Some have tried to join both, but in the end the controversy forced a choice,” Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, said.

In some instances, the two sides overlapped, Mohler said, adding that members in the liberty party cherished truth and members of the truth party cherished freedom.

“But for the truth party, freedom had to be fitted within the truthfulness of God’s Word and the parameters established by divine revelation,” Mohler said. “For the freedom party, truth had to be accommodated to the larger issue of freedom. Parameters thus became not only awkward but eventually impossible.”

Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, read a quote from Episcopal Bishop Peter J. Lee, who told a group of Episcopalians in January: “If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy.”

Chapman said Lee’s belief is “diametrically opposed” to what conservative Baptists believe. Scripture and truth, Chapman said, must set the boundaries for cooperation.

“If we must choose heresy and schism, we choose schism — even when it is painful for us to separate from some beloved colleague,” Chapman said. “Cooperating conservatives always choose truth before unity.”

Calling for a renewed emphasis on confessions, Dockery said more is needed than simply a confessed belief in inerrancy.

“I am saying that a commitment to biblical inerrancy alone is insufficient,” he said. “That is not enough to guarantee orthodoxy. There are Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults who claim belief in inerrancy.

“… I am making a plea for the importance of confessional statements.”
Lectures from the Baptist Identity conference can be heard online at:
Tapes and CDs from the conference can be purchased at: https://www.uu.edu/events/baptistidentity/CDTapeOrderForm.pdf. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at https://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: CONFESSIONS OF FAITH, TRUTH IMPERATIVE and KEYNOTE SPEAKER.

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  • Michael Foust