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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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