Yet more on being confessional

In a recent discussion with some local Baptist ministers, someone mentioned the idea of writing a confession of faith for a particular church congregation. This seems a popular idea at the moment (presumably someone famous and American has insisted it is the only way to be a properly Biblical congregation somewhere?).

My immediate response was ‘Don’t do it!’ Analysing the thought later, there are actually some convictions underlying this response, some good Baptist convictions about not imposing confessions on people. If you want to bring a church together around a confession, then perhaps; to suggest imposing a confession on an already-existing church appears to me to be a fairly basic breach of Baptist church order. We once went to prison, and worse, rather than accept such impositions. Assuming you could get 100% agreement (not just a vote nem. con. at a meeting, but informed, detailed acquiescence) it may be permissable, but…

The visceral response came from somewhere else, however. I was involved in the tail-end of the process of revising the EAUK basis of faith, and I realised then that it is astonishingly difficult to write a good symbol. Three years, and at least thirty pairs of eyes – many of them highly gifted theologians – in to that process, the late and lamented David Wright gently pointed out to us that we had managed to choose a phrase, entirely by accident, that actually contradicted a core Reformation conviction about the atonement.

A Baptist church doesn’t need a doctrinal basis (it might need a written covenant; that’s rather different); if it did, why not just use the EA one? The chances of producing anything better, or even one tenth as good, are about as remote as my chances of winning the National Lottery (and, yes, I am a good enough Baptist to refuse to buy lottery tickets…)

14 Comments

  1. Chris E
    Feb 10, 2009

    On the other side of things, two of my brothers and I attend three separate Baptist churches where the membership is more elderly than the attending congregation. In large part this is because the newer attendees don’t understand why they should be members, and this is linked to the fact that they wouldn’t be able to articulate Baptist distinctive.

    Mind you, neither would most of the members. So I imagine this is the sort of thing that ‘writing a confession’ is intended to solve.

    There are certain things written into the title deeds of church buildings, but especially in this country Baptists tend to exist in the amorphous evangelical middle. Look at the number of Baptist churches that are also part of the NFI – not a problem in itself, except that some other Baptists would view them as somewhat beyond the bounds of Baptist orthodoxy!

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but it isn’t the status quo. The influence – among others – of the new atheist movement has meant that younger people want a more reasoned faith, which means teaching more doctrine. That doesn’t imply a confession, but at the very least it means that a church has to do more with a ‘statement of faith’ than writing it and shelving it.

    Lastly, I think most churches don’t take membership seriously enough. As a result, people from cultures with a more traditional view of leadership always feel uncomfortable with it, as it seems to solely be a way of objecting against the pastor and telling him what to do.

  2. Warren Dodson
    Feb 10, 2009

    Although the history is not undisputed, my sense of Baptists here in the United States is that non-confessionalism was decidely a minority position through the 18th century and only began to gain significant ground in the mid-19th century, at least partly under the influence of (1) Campbellite restorationism and (2) pragmatic minimalism for the sake of mission mobilization. While I think the warnings about the dangers of confession-writing certainly apply to the Baptist confessions of the time (with the 1689 LBC following the WCF in overconfessionalization), I am not sure, at least as a historical matter, how at odds confessionalism is with Baptist doctrine.

  3. Andy Goodliff
    Feb 10, 2009

    Although from my little baptist history knowledge, for a good long while baptists were constantly writing confessions of faith … having said that i like john’s call in his recent G. B-M memorial lecture not for a confession but ‘in confessing differently: a liturgical distinct of manner rather than content’ (BQ 43.1, 2009)

  4. Steve H
    Feb 10, 2009

    Welcome, Chris, Warren. Thanks all for your comments.

    @Andy. In Britain, we wrote confessions inveterately until about 1689. The date is quite significant – the Act of Toleration. Almost all the early British Baptist confessions were not ‘you must believe this to be in’ documents, so much as ‘we believe this, please stop persecuting us’ documents (‘Almost’? I lent my copy of Lumpkin to a student; my memory suggests one exception in the C17th). I don’t object to people or churches trying to specify what they believe – I object to people or churches trying to specify what I should believe. Anti-confessionalism was a big part of the BU response to Spurgeon over the ‘Downgrade’.

    @Warren. I don’t know the American history as well as I should (‘had we but world enough and time…’). You might well be right. Certainly, American Baptists kept writing confessions long after British Baptists stopped (I have no idea what happened elsewhere; I cannot think of any confessions associated with Oncken and his missions, but that may be merely my ignorance); I kind of hope they are not impositional documents. (An association – or church – can gather around a confession; the problem in my mind comes when we start making post-factum tests of orthodoxy – ‘you’re a member now, but if you don’t sign this, we’re going to kick you out…’) Do you not think the (natively American) concept of ‘soul competency’ is necessarily anti-confessional, though?

    @Chris. Your analysis of the problem is spot-on; I’m just not convinced that confessionalism is the solution. As you say, most Baptist churches are generically Evangelical in their beliefs. What makes us different from Evangelical Anglican churches, or non-Baptist NFI churches? Fundamentally, a practice of Baptism and church meeting. (The London Baptist Association (as was) regularly struggled with new churches, particularly Black majority churches, who wanted to affiliate; the decisive question was almost always governance: did they practice leadership by gathered church meeting, or were they effectively Presbyterian?) The BUGB and BUS Declarations of Principle are slightly different in one clause, but both witness to this fact: what makes us Baptist is not a theology, but three decisive practices: baptism; church meeting; and evangelism. Two of those are distinctive. Writing a confession of faith which tries to specify beliefs that make us Baptist is missing the point, largely. Baptist churches basically believe the EA statement of doctrine, and act according to the BUGB/BUS Declarations of Principle. What else do we need?

  5. Jason
    Feb 10, 2009

    Alas! …leave it to someone “famous and American” for the innovative ideas! (grin)

    This topic really seems like it could use a book-length treatment!

    But Steve, how does this work with the need for contextualization, and articulating the Gospel in ways that articulate and identify (and, consequently of necessity, engender exclusivity) its shape in a particular locale, especially in light of constant changes on a host of given demographic issues (e.g., language adaptations & advancements, diverse socio-ethnic shifts, etc.) and ideological/theological ones? It seems that the church historically has shown some insight here, but also some wrong, and recently, both recklessness and shallowness.
    But for the church’s constant mission, to what end does theological engagement move as it takes shape in the local church(es)?

    And what of doctrinal statement revisions, like that of the EFCA in the States (which just revised theirs last year after seeing need to revise the 1950 one), which at the national/association level has deep partnerships with a variety of groups equivalent to the EA (like NAE, etc., which have confessional statements that are also very good), though does not interfere with stated theological enhancements at the autonomous local-level (which can be better refined or intentionally descriptive as might serve the Gospel in the trenches)?

  6. Chris E
    Feb 10, 2009

    I’m not sure confessionalism is the answer either, though there was a time when Baptists did write confessions :-)

    However membership has to mean something, and for membership to mean something it has to at least be an assent to something more than just adult baptism, and a hankering back to the Welsh Revival and Martyn Lloyd Jones. I say that tongue in cheek, but there is an element of truth to it.

    Believers Baptism and Evangelism on their own are tricky as markers – as I don’t know of any evangelical movement in this country that would deny either. It’s instructive to me that the only Baptist church that I know of which has a large number of young members who have a very strong sense of identity is Metropolitan Tabernacle, who have their own distinctive emphasises.

  7. Steve H
    Feb 10, 2009

    @Jason: interesting – I was not clear enough in the original post, or in my mind, that what I object to is not the writing of confessions, but the use of them to exclude. Let me try it like this: if I am a member of Great Pagford Baptist Church, then we have convenanted together to walk in the light the Lord has granted to us. There may come a point where the church judges that I have failed so to walk, and so disciplines me and excludes me, but for the church, ten years (or ten hours) on, to introduce doctrinal tests that were never before there, and exclude me on that basis, is, I believe, a failure in being church. I write enough theology (…) – much of it – too much of it, in my current estimation – with polemical intent or implication. But none of it is an attempt to unchurch anyone else. As Jenson says of Hegel somewhere: ‘His only real mistake was to confuse himself with the Last Judge. But that’s quite a mistake!’ We Baptists, perhaps particularly in Britain, have suffered from people who confused themselves with the Last Judge, and – from Helwys on – have named them for what they were: antiChrists. Writing confessions designed to exclude might be the thin end of that wedge, but one step towards it is one step too many…

  8. Jon
    Feb 10, 2009

    I gave you Lumpkin back right…? It’s not me…?

    Is it?

  9. Steve H
    Feb 10, 2009

    @Chris. Church meeting is the key, as I tried to indicate in my reply. If you really have never met an evangelical group who deny believers’ baptism, you’ve not been out much(!), but I take the point. But, the idea that the minister is subject to the direction of the gathered church – what would the good Doctor L-J have made of that? And the point is decisive: God can speak through the youngest child, the most wayward believer, as well as through the saintly and honoured senior pastor, and certainly as well as through the professional theologian. That’s what we mean when we say ‘church meeting’, although we act in a thousand ways to eviscerate it. It is, or should be, if we would let it be, radical and decisive for who we are as believers.

  10. Steve H
    Feb 10, 2009

    No, Jon, not you – another. If he publishes an article on the back of it also, I’ll be well satisfied…

  11. kenroxburgh
    Feb 11, 2009

    A Scottish Baptist view from the American South…..

    William Bullein Johnson was one of the most significant Baptist leaders in the Southern states, a ‘pivotal figure in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention’ who, more than any other person shaped ‘the structure and nature of the Convention.’ Johnson was present at the formation of the Triennial Convention of the United States in 1814, and from 1841-1844 served as President of the Convention, immediately prior to the split in 1845. As President of the Board of the Board of Trustees of Furman Theological Institute, that eventually became the nucleus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Greenville in 1859, he encouraged theological education among Southern Baptists.

    Johnson’s experience of Baptist life at Association, State and National level led those Southern leaders who met at Augusta in 1845 to follow his lead in preparing a constitution for the newly fledged body. Johnson’s leadership at the convention was recognized, not only when he was appointed President of the Convention, but as preached the first sermon on 7 May and led the morning devotions the following morning. Johnson was also given the responsibility of issuing an Address to the churches on behalf of the Convention. The Address was initially written by Johnson and edited by Richard Fuller and T. F. Curtis. One of the most significant comments contained within the Address, stated that the Convention had ‘constructed for our basis no new creed; acting in this matter upon a Baptist aversion for all creeds but the Bible.’ Tom Nettles described this statement as ‘idiosyncratic’ and argues that Johnson was ‘clearly…out of harmony with his brethren in the South’ and that ‘those who followed his views were in a vast minority.’ Yet, as I argued in an article published a few years ago, Johnson’s views on this issue were well known to his colleagues and continued to shape the direction of a Convention that, until 1925, did not issue any Statement of Faith on behalf of its constituents.

    Baptists in the American South (and elsewhere) have written numerous confessions of faith. My question is whether they were intended to be descriptive of what a group of Baptists believed at one particular time, descriptive of what Baptists in this or that local association held to be important in terms of theological definition, rather than prescriptive. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between these two uses but still helpful. This would certainly apply in the context of local church life where covenants played an important role in the south, but any one particular Baptist confession did not take the role of excluding people from membership.

    Ken Roxburgh, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.

  12. Steve H
    Feb 11, 2009

    Ken, welcome! I would like to believe that most of our Baptist confessions have been descriptive rather than prescriptive, and to know that even the SBC began with an anti-confessional stance (or at least anti-confessional leadership) is very interesting.

  13. Stuart B
    Feb 14, 2009

    For me whether Baptists have or have not had written confessions is interesting but actually certainly not determitive one way or another. My reading of the ‘tradition’, or perhaps just my preference, is that at its theological centre is a conviction that actually we don’t ultimately define ourselves by our linear history but by looping back to the Scriptures each in our own time and place as we ask together, what is the Risen Christ saying to us today about how to live in the light of his future coming Kingdom. That very understanding of the Living Christ speaking is in turn what for me limits the value of any confession because it locks a historical moment of decision as somewhow binding and prevents the sense of constant live movement. Again for me distinctives will be found in actual practices that are demonstrably shaped by the Living Christ who is not other than Jesus the Christ, rather than principles. Principles I have found always unite until you suggest what they mean in practice but is there at their embodiement that they either mean something or not.

  14. Chris E
    Mar 5, 2009

    Forgive the belated response, but I’ve been circling this topic mentally for a few weeks now, in some ways because of my own experience.

    I’m not sure in what sense you are using the term ‘church meeting’ – presumably most baptist churches implement some kind of ‘age of majority’ even if informally.

    Secondly, for church membership to work there has to be some kind of policing of the boundaries, both in terms of intake and church discipline. Mark Dever’s book on the deliberate church is very much the product of his personality and particular context, but the underlying issues are real ones that have to be addressed by any church practicising a congregationalist governance style.

    Lastly, be it a confession or a creed, there has to be some kind of standard of appeal. Guarding the boundaries implies it very strongly. Additionally, without something of the kind, congregationalist governance becomes the primary mechanism for taking cultural forms and institutionalising them within the church. It is not, I think, an accident that a lot of baptist churches in the south east are rather less diverse than the area which they serve.

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