Alethes (Truthful) Baptist

All Things Southern Baptist Considered

Baptists and their Confessions

Posted by Alethes (Truthful) Baptist on June 26, 2006

I had an interesting conversation the other day among a few friends. In discussing the recent events of the SBC, the question of creeds vs. confessions came up. Are they the same? If not, how do they differ? What are their respective functions? I did my best to answer the various questions. I have since reflected on the conversation, consulted a few sources, and now make available my thoughts on creeds and confessions.

1. Are Creeds and Confessions the Same

In a short answer: no. They are not the same. Confessions are simply what they say they are: a confessional statement of a person/church/group of churches describing their beliefs. A creed is prescriptive in nature (i.e., this is what you must believe). Confessions are descriptive in nature (i.e., this is what this particular group believes). As Baptist historian H. Leon McBeth wrote, “Early Baptists never elevated their confessions to the status of creeds . . . . Confessions include; creeds exclude. Early Baptists were careful to emphasize that confessions were merely human statements; that they might later be revised; and that in no wise could they ever approach the authority of Scripture.”

 

2. What is the function of a confession?

McBeth noted that Baptist confessions had two audiences: those from without and those from within. For those outside the Baptist faith, confessions "explained, defended, and clarified Baptist beliefs.” To those within Baptist circles, confessions “educated, unified, and confirmed.”

McBeth offers four uses of a confession:

1. To clarify the Baptist faith. Baptists were constantly accused of absurd beliefs and gross practices. Through confessions, Baptists addressed the larger world to defend their faith. Patiently refuting false charges, Baptists often used confessions not to proclaim “Baptist distinctives” but instead to show how similar Baptists were to other orthodox Christians. To show this similarity was, they said, the “Maine wheele that set us awork” in the London Confession of 1644.

2. To inform and educate their own members. Baptists often used confessions for instruction in the faith. Ministers and churches used the confessions to indoctrinate the lay people in the Baptist way. Thus the confessions not only expressed the Baptist faith but also helped formulate it.

3. To provide a basis of fellowship. Associations and later the general assemblies used their confessions as “constituting documents,” providing the basis for affiliation and fellowship among churches and messengers. Local churches studied the confessions to decide if they desired to affiliate with associations; churches or individuals who deviated from the faith were often dealt with according to the confession.

4. To deal with controversy. When controversy erupted in Baptist life, as it often did, Baptist usually turned to their confessions for guidance. They applealed to confessions to establish what constituted heresy, and sometimes used these standards as the basis for discipline of members, ministers, or churches. However, Baptists were careful to avoid giving the confessions too much power. In fact, efforts to use the confessions to discipline and even exclude some churches probably accounts for the decline of confessions in later English Baptist life.

 

In a future post, I will give my thoughts McBeth's four uses for a confession, demostrating the relevance for our current situation within the Southern Baptist Convention.

Charis humin,

Alethes (Truthful) Baptist

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4 Responses to “Baptists and their Confessions”

  1. John Fariss said

    Good to hear someone who recognizes that there is a difference between a creed and a confession. I have often thought that good way to characterize a confession was as a consensus of opinion (I believe at least the ’63 BF&M uses that term, if not also the 2000). A consensus (pardon my spelling) is essentially something that you can live with, even if you are not ardent about it all. A creed, as you and McBeth say, is proscriptive in every point; and it seems to me, limits you to saying, “I believe THIS, no more and no less.” I have problems with that; for instance, the 2000 BF&M mentions (I do not have it before me, so I am going from memory) something about substitutionary atonement. Now I can easily affirm that, but it seems to me, that it does not exhaust the meaning of the atonement, even in strictly Biblical terms. Of course, as a confession, no problem; but if it were a creed. . . different. And the language in the 2000 BF&M, about “an instrument of doctrinal accountability”–doesn’t that get awful close to a creed?

  2. Steve Walker said

    Alethes,
    In reference to your comment on another post, you have more than 4 readers. πŸ™‚

    I know you are reading about HHBC and open membership. Dennis posts on this issue of confessions and creeds. Currently, I’m of the opinion that if HHBC is disfellowshipped if they choose open membership, that seems more like a creedal action rather than a confessional action. Am I wrong, in your opinion?

    HHBC is generally in agreement with most of the BF&M. Other SBC churches have open membership. Many SBC churches practice open communion. Those churches have not been disfellowshipped. I’m certain there are other aspects of the BF&M that are not embraced or followed in other SBC churches. IOW, we do not have 100% adherence to the BF&M in 100% of our SBC churches.

    Confessional doesn’t seem to me to be as hard-line as creedal. Does a confessional perspective demand 100% adherence?

  3. Steve,

    Thanks for the encouragement about the number of readers. It was a poor attempt at a joke and a bit of self-vilification (a little bit now and then keeps my pride in check!). To be honest, I have not read what Pastor Newkirk has written on creeds and confessions. Therefore, take my response, add 50 cents, and you still can’t buy a good cup of coffee! Seriously, I still think they can be disfellowshipped for their stance on baptism and membership and the BFM2000 still act as a confession and not a creed. As I said, confessions act as guide for fellowship.

    I see the a major difference between creeds and confessions as this: if you reject a creed, you are potentially placing yourself in a position outside of orthodoxy; if you reject a confession, it means you just don’t fit in (or agree) with the doctrines that particular group is confessing.

    You have it on an interesting issue and one that Southern Baptists struggle with greatly: consistency. It is very fair to say that many SBC churches do not practice closed communion, a doctrine clearly ‘confessed’ in the BFM2000. Technically, churches that do not agree with and practice this form of communion are in rejection of the BFM2000. However, and this is unfortunate, Baptists are prone to having their sacred cows. Baptism is one of those sacred cows while the Lord’s Supper is not.

    To answer your final question, I think confessions do demand 100% adherance. Does that mean confessions should be ‘nit-picky’ about numerous doctrines? Probably not. The more in-depth a confession goes, the more difficult it is for churches to agree. Therefore, I am a proponent of a bare-bones confessional document.

    I hope I have answered your questions. Thanks for your care for such matters and for the time you have taken to express your concerns.

    Charis humin,
    Alethes (Truthful) Baptist

  4. Steve Walker said

    Very interesting! I appreciate your response, and the spirit in which you do so. Yes, we do have our sacred cows, and perhaps we should put them to good use by making hamburgers out of them! πŸ™‚ I hadn’t thought of that term in connection with this issue until you brought it up.

    I’m really concerned about what wanting to keep our sacred cows and discard a sister church because she’s calling one of our sacred cows into question says about us. If the BFM2K is the test of fellowship, and there must be 100% adherence, then we should be disfellowshipping quite a number of churches. Of course, since I give more credence to John 17 and other such scriptures than the BFM2K, I am troubled by what I am seeing manifested in response to HHBC, and would be more greatly troubled by a sweeping move to demand 100% adherence to the BFM2K, or else…

    I’m all for asking 100% adherence to the Bible though.

    I’m really glad this discussion is taking place, and I appreciate you hosting this aspect of it. Also know that I really enjoy reading your blog, even when I don’t comment.

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