Andrew Fuller on Confessions of Faith

One of the key differences between most Southern Baptist conservatives and most moderate Baptists in the South is the place of confessional statements. This difference was magnified during the years between 1998 and 2002 when Southern Baptists amended and then revised the Baptist Faith and Message and required denominational employees to affirm the confession of faith. It remains a sticking point: many conservatives accuse moderates of being theological pluralists, while many moderates accuse conservatives of being “creedal” and exalting man-made statements over the Bible. I believe both accusations are more political rhetoric than reality, but that’s par for the course in intra-Baptist squabbles.

Political exaggeration aside, it is true that moderate Baptists tend to be more suspicious of confessions. It is also true that conservative Southern Baptists are typically more favorable toward confessions. Both groups can find support for their position from Baptist history—we are too diverse a tradition for a cut-and-dry approach. That said, as a Southern Baptist who is comfortable with confessions of faith, I know that my position is not out of sorts with Baptist history. Over the course of 400 years, many Baptists have embraced confessionalism as a valid way to summarize biblical doctrine, commend those beliefs and hold Baptist Christians accountable to those convictions.

As in so many Baptist discussions, Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) offers wisdom on this topic. In his short essay “Creeds and Subscriptions,” Fuller makes a Baptist case for a robust confessionalism. Note the following excerpts:

It has been very common, among a certain class of writers, to exclaim against creeds and systems in religion as inconsistent with Christian liberty and the rights of conscience; but surely they must be understood as objecting to those creeds only which they dislike, and not to creeds in general; for no doubt, unless they be worse than the worst of beings, they have a creed of their own. The man who has no creed has no belief; which is the same thing as being an unbeliever; and he whose belief is not formed into a system has only a few loose, unconnected thoughts, without entering into the harmony and glory of the gospel. Every well-informed and consistent believer, therefore, must have a creed—a system which he supposes to contain the leading principles of Divine revelation.

It may be pleaded that the objection does not lie so much against our having creeds or systems as against our imposing them on others as the condition of Christian fellowship. If, indeed, a subscription to articles of faith were required without examination, or enforced by civil penalties, it would be an unwarrantable imposition on the rights of conscience; but if an explicit agreement in what may be deemed fundamental principles be judged essential to fellowship, this is only requiring that a man appear to be a Christian before he can have a right to be treated as such. Suppose it were required of a Jew or an infidel, before he is admitted to the Lord’s supper, (which either might be disposed to solicit for some worldly purpose,) that he must previously become a believer; should we thereby impose Christianity upon him? He might claim the right of private judgment, and deem such a requisition incompatible with its admission; but it is evident that he could not be entitled to Christian regard, and that, while he exclaimed against the imposition of creeds and systems, he himself would be guilty of an imposition of the grossest kind, utterly inconsistent with the rights of voluntary and social compact, as well as of Christian liberty….

The substance of the inquiry therefore would be, whether a body of Christians have a right to judge of the meaning of the doctrines and precepts of the gospel, and to act accordingly? That an individual has a right so to judge, and to form his connexions with those whose views are most congenial with his own, will not be disputed; but if so, why have not a society the same right? If Christ has given both doctrines and precepts, some of which are more immediately addressed to Christians in their social capacity, they must not only possess such a right, but are under obligation to exercise it. If the righteous nation which keep the truth be the only proper characters for entering into gospel fellowship, those who have the charge of their admission are obliged to form a judgment on what is truth, and what is righteousness; without which they must be wholly unqualified for their office.

It is a trite and frivolous objection which some have made against subscriptions and articles of faith—that it is setting bounds to the freedom of inquiry, and requiring a conformity of sentiment that is incompatible with the various opportunities and capacities of different persons. The same objection might be urged against the covenanting of the Israelites (Neh. 10:29) and all laws in society. If a religious community agree to specify some leading principles which they consider as derived from the word of God, and judge the belief of them to be necessary in order to any person’s becoming or continuing a member with them, it does not follow that those principles should be equally understood, or that all their brethren must have the same degree of knowledge, nor yet that they should understand and believe nothing else. The powers and capacities of different persons are various; one may comprehend more of the same truth than another, and have his views more enlarged by an exceedingly great variety of kindred ideas; and yet the substance of their belief may still be the same. The object of articles is to keep at a distance, not those who are weak in the faith, but such as are its avowed enemies. Supposing a church covenant to be so general as not to specify one principle or duty, but barely an engagement to adhere to the Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice, the objection would still apply; and it might be said, One man is capable of understanding much more of the Scriptures than another, and persons of more enlarged minds may discover a great deal of truth relating to science which the Scriptures do not pretend to teach: why, therefore, do we frame articles to limit the freedom of inquiry or which require a conformity of sentiment incompatible with the opportunities and capacities of persons so differently circumstanced? The objection, therefore, if admitted, would prove too much. The powers of the mind will probably vary in a future world; one will be capable of comprehending much more of truth than another; yet the redeemed will all be of one mind, and of one heart.

Every one feels the importance of articles, or laws, in civil society; and yet these are nothing less than expositions or particular applications of the great principle of universal equity. General or universal equity is that to civil laws which the Bible is to articles of faith; it is the source from which they are all professedly derived, and the standard to which they ought all to be submitted. The one are as liable to swerve from general equity as the other from the word of God; and where this is proved to be the case in either instance, such errors require to be corrected. But as no person of common sense would on this account inveigh against laws being made, and insist that we ought only to covenant in general to walk according to equity, without agreeing in any leading principles, or determining wherein that equity consists; neither ought he to inveigh against articles of faith and practice in religious matters, provided that they comport with the mind of God in his word. If the articles of faith be opposed to the authority of Scripture, or substituted in the place of such authority, they become objectionable and injurious; but if they simply express the united judgment of those who voluntarily subscribe them, they are incapable of any such kind of imputation.

For the complete essay, see Andrew Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, vol. III, ed. Joseph Belcher (1845; reprint, Sprinkle, 1988), 449–51.

Toward a Confessional Basis for Cooperation in the SBC: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Southern Baptists are not as confessional as we claim we are, but we ought to be. This is my thesis. For some Southern Baptists, this will seem like common sense. For others, it will be provocative and perhaps even anathema. But the time has come to begin having this discussion. My prayer is that it will soon become a discussion before the Convention itself.

The following paragraphs are cited from my essay “Priorities for a Post-Resurgence Convention,” in Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future, ed. David S. Dockery (Crossway, 2009), pp. 273-74. This post should be understood as a “trial balloon” because it represents as second public mention of a topic that I hope to flesh out in greater detail in the coming months (the first mention was obviously in the essay itself).

A new paradigm for cooperation is necessary because Southern Baptists remain quite diverse, albeit not as diverse as we were prior to 1979. David Dockery argues that SBC conservatives are a loose-knit coalition of at least seven broad groups: fundamentalists, revivalists, traditionalists, orthodox evangelicals, Calvinists, contemporary church practitioners, and culture warriors.[1] I would add Landmarkers, Cooperative Program apologists, and miraculous gifts advocates to Dockery’s list. Tensions exist between some of these groups which can hinder our corporate ability to cooperate with each other. The question before post-Resurgence Southern Baptists is how to determine acceptable diversity within the SBC.

According to the Convention’s constitution and bylaws, any local church is free to cooperate with the SBC, provided that it financially supports the denomination and does not endorse the homosexual lifestyle. Cooperation at this level is defined as the right to send up to ten messengers to the denomination’s annual meeting, depending upon a church’s contributions and/or membership.[2] This minimalist approach means that a church can believe virtually anything, including pedobaptism, and at least in theory cooperate with the SBC! At this time, there is no confessional basis for denominational cooperation, which is probably a bit too close to the pragmatic cooperation of the pre-Resurgence era.

Post-Resurgence Southern Baptists need to embrace a confessional basis for cooperation, but it would probably not be a good idea to mandate complete adherence to the Baptist Faith and Message by all cooperating churches. To do such would demand a degree of doctrinal uniformity that would exclude too many conservative Southern Baptists who are uncomfortable with aspects of the Baptist Faith and Message. David Dockery helpfully suggests that Southern Baptists should not seek such uniformity, but should commit to the best of the Baptist confessional tradition.[3] Perhaps Jim Richards offers a helpful proposal to this end:

The future for the Southern Baptist Convention is to become a confessional fellowship. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 may be too restrictive. A minimal set of doctrinal statements is necessary for the expansion of the SBC. We cooperate not because of common geography, heritage, or goals. We cooperate because we believe the same essentials (Amos 3:3). At some point someone needs to move the SBC to adopt doctrinal affiliation requirements. Cooperation will be based on agreement regarding the nature of the Word of God and certain doctrines that define who we are. Preaching and teaching doctrine is the only way Baptists will retain their identity.[4]

This seems like a wise suggestion. I would propose that post-Resurgence Southern Baptists adopt a brief abstract of the Baptist Faith and Message that affirms a high view of Scripture, an orthodox statement of the Trinity and Christology, an evangelical understanding of salvation, and a basic Baptist understanding of ecclesiology. This would form an adequate confessional basis for churches cooperating with the SBC.

[1] David S. Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 11.

[2] The Convention’s constitution and bylaws are available online at

[3] Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, 215.

[4] James W. [Jim] Richards, “Cooperation among Southern Baptist Churches as Set Forth in Article 14 of the Baptist Faith and Message,” in The Mission of Today’s Church: Baptist Leaders Look at Modern Faith Issues, ed. R. Stanton Norman (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), game

On The GCR Declaration, Part 3

Lord willing, over the next few days I will be blogging through the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. This is the third article in what I hope will be a series. As you read, please remember that while Between the Time is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.

Article IV: A Commitment to Biblical Inerrancy and Sufficiency

I mentioned in a previous post that the GCR is, in my opinion, the logical next-step following the success of the Conservative Resurgence. This particular article, perhaps better than any other article, does a fine job of making that explicit. While the Conservative Resurgence was surely about more than inerrancy, there is little doubt that the full truthfulness of Scripture was the key rallying point for Convention conservatives. It is evidence of God’s grace that biblical inerrancy is, once again, a central affirmation of those who would draw a paycheck from our churches to serve as missionaries, teach in our seminaries, or work in our other denominational parachurch ministries.

Ditto on the GCR Declaration’s affirmation that the broader “Battle for the Bible” began just after creation and will continue until consummation. The Conservative Resurgence was just a single skirmish in one corner of the world, albeit one about which many of us care quite a bit!

As for biblical sufficiency, I think most Southern Baptists would agree in principle that, “It is not enough to believe that the Bible is inerrant; we must also be willing to submit to all of its teachings, even if that means we must relinquish our own preferences or human traditions”. The key is that we enjoy increasing unity as we seek to determine which of our practices might be “our own preferences or human traditions” (see below). I think this will be a tension point in our cooperation, but I don’t think it has to be a denominational “WMD” if we stay focused on Christ’s lordship and obeying the greatest commandments. Join me in praying that God will give wisdom to each of us, to all of our churches, and to every parachurch ministry within our denominational family.

Article V: A Commitment to a Healthy Confessional Center

I’ll probably camp out here for awhile. If you’ve been listening to podcast interviews with Johnny Hunt or reading the various print interviews with President Hunt or Danny Akin, you hopefully already know what this article does not mean. I am glad that they have made it clear that this document is not a rehashing of the argument from a couple years back that the BF&M is a “maximal” statement of faith and that no denominational parachurch ministry can articulate further parameters. While the BF&M 2000 is the document around which we choose to cooperate as Southern Baptists (and in many state conventions), every seminary or board should have the right to adopt entity-specific guidelines because each of them has a unique history, faces unique challenges, and embraces unique emphases.

I realize that some readers will take umbrage with this position because of the way they feel about specific guidelines (i.e. the IMB baptism and PPL guidelines, the SWBTS prohibition against women teaching Hebrew, or the use of the Abstract of Principles at SBTS and SEBTS). Now I think it is totally appropriate to debate the merits of a given entity’s guidelines, but I also think it is crucial to preserve the right of denominational parachurch ministries to adopt such guidelines. Remember that almost all Southern Baptists agree that our confession of faith is not an infallible creed but is a living document that is subject to revision as contexts change and new issues arise. It would be a tad awkward for us to claim that the BF&M says all that needs to be said, but then turn around in 15 or 20 years and revised it again (which you can bet will happen-it has happened once a generation thus far).

I like it that the GCR Declaration notes, “Like the best of confessions, the BF&M 2000 speaks most clearly to those doctrines wherein we enjoy greatest agreement and speaks more generally concerning areas where some differing opinions exist.” Simply put, the sections on ecclesiology are more specific than the sections on some of the finer points of soteriology for a reason (we are uniformly Baptist, but not uniformly Calvinist, Arminian, Amyraldian, Calminian, or “biblicist”). I would simply add that the BF&M also is silent on a number of matters wherein our churches are characterized by considerable differences of opinion.

To me the most important part of this article, at least in terms of our future cooperation, is the third paragraph. It is here that we find mention of the oft-debated “theological triage” terminology, a practice that I am convinced almost all of us affirm in principle. I don’t think most of us are debating whether or not we ought to practice such triage, but rather which doctrines fit into which categories (primary, secondary, tertiary). Is one’s position on the number of elders/pastors in each church secondary or tertiary? What about one’s views of election and the extent of the atonement? Are female deacons ever appropriate? Can women teach mixed Sunday School classes and/or choose to work outside the home? What about some practices traditionally associated with Pentecostal, Charismatic, and/or Third Wave Christians? Must one be properly baptized to participate in communion (this one’s particular tricky because the BF&M says one thing–and I agree with what it says–but many [most?] of our churches practice something different)? Where do styles and methods and cultural preferences and strategies fit in? Each of these is a live debate, and the list could go on.

I agree with the GCR Document that the BF&M will help guide us in these debates, but remember, as I mentioned in the last paragraph, the BF&M is ambiguous or even silent on some issues, including most of those mentioned in the previous paragraph. So even more than the BF&M, we will need wisdom and grace from on high as we interpret our inerrant and sufficient Bibles under the lordship of Jesus Christ for the sake of the gospel and the health of our churches and parachurch ministries. To the degree that we do this, I think we will be doing theological triage with biblical integrity and Christian charity.