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Confessionalism History SBC Author Scripture

Reflecting on the Baptist Faith and Message, Part 2: The Doctrine of Scripture

The first article of The Baptist Faith and Message, the doctrinal statement of the Southern Baptist Convention, addresses the doctrine of Scripture and reads as follows:

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.

Herein is contained a robust confession of the source, nature, authority, and goal of holy Scripture. In this installment we will ponder the source and nature of the Bible, leaving the authority and goal of it for the next reflection.

The Source of the Bible: Divine Inspiration

The first sentence of this section of the confession affirms that men wrote the books of the Bible, but in doing so they were “divinely inspired.” The doctrine of inspiration states that, by a special and unique influence of the Holy Spirit, the human authors of Scripture wrote in forms that express their own individual personalities, yet nevertheless in such a way that what they wrote as Scripture constitutes the very Word of God to humanity. In other words, they did not put their own autonomous ideas down on paper, but were carried along by the Holy Spirit as they communicated God’s own words (2 Peter 1:19-21). The process of inspiration involves the Holy Spirit’s influence on the biblical authors.

But the product of inspiration is the biblical text itself, which, according to 2 Timothy 3:16, is “breathed out by God.” That phrase expresses the theological truth that Scripture itself is the product of God’s own mouth. The confession, by declaring plainly that Scripture “has God for its author” does not deny the human authorship of Scripture but rather affirms that God, by his work of inspiration in men, produced for humanity a book like no other: a book of which he himself is the author. Scripture is the very Word of God written. The Bible itself testifies to its own origin in this way numerous times, but I will note just one here: the author of Hebrews, quoting from Psalm 95 in Hebrews 3:7, introduces this Old Testament quotation with the words “as the Holy Spirit says.” Examples such as this one can be multiplied many times over.

The Nature of the Bible: Revelation

The 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message spoke of Scripture as “the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man.” As a statement of fact, that is a true statement. Scripture does indeed constitute a record of the various revelatory acts of God in the various stages of history, including his revelation to the patriarchs, to the people of Israel, and ultimately to his new covenant people through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. However, the 1963 statement was revised in 2000, not so much because it was wrong, but because it was insufficient. By affirming that the Bible is a record of God’s revelation, the confession left room for some to claim that God’s revelation itself can only be identified with the historical events recorded in Scripture, but not with Scripture itself. On this view, Scripture is a fallible human testimony to God’s revelation, a revelation that occurred in the past and is now inaccessible to us except through merely human accounts of it written in the Bible.

The revision to the statement that occurred in the year 2000 addressed this deficiency by affirming that Scripture “is God’s revelation of Himself to man,” not merely a record of revelation. By identifying Scripture with God’s revelation, the statement does not deny that the historical events, culminating in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, are also God’s revelation. Rather, the statement simply affirms that the acts of God in history by which he has revealed himself have also been recorded and interpreted by his own verbal revelation.

When God reveals himself, he does so by the pattern of word-act-word. First, there is a verbal revelation announcing the revelatory act in advance. Think of all the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, written as scriptural testimonies to Christ before he ever appeared in history. After this announcing Word, God acts in history. Jesus Christ was born during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. He grew up in Nazareth, carried on a three-year public ministry, and then was crucified by Pontius Pilate before rising again and ascending into Heaven. These events, as acts of God, actually occurred in history and were witnessed by many. And then following these events, God inspired men to write about them, not only preserving their memory for future generations, but also interpreting their theological significance with God’s own interpretation of these events. The word of announcement is followed by the act, which is then followed by the word of interpretation. Scripture, as God’s verbal revelation, is an absolutely necessary part of this total revelatory work, and thus may rightly be called God’s revelation of himself to man.

One more reason the confession speaks of Scripture in this way is because, for all people at all times who are not eyewitnesses of God’s revelatory acts in history (the vast majority of humanity), Scripture is the only special revelation of God to which any of us has access. So yes, Jesus Christ, incarnate in the flesh, is indeed the culminating revelation of God. We will worship him forever, not the pages and ink of the Bible. But none of us living today can know Jesus Christ rightly apart from Scripture, the permanent written record and divine interpretation of his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection.

The Holy Bible is God’s Word written, the result of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit operating upon its human authors. Consequently, it constitutes the permanent, abiding form of God’s special revelation. Whatever the Bible says, God says.

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Confessionalism Ecclesiology

Reflecting on the Baptist Faith & Message, Part 1: Introduction

At the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in the year 2000, a report from a committee appointed to review and revise the convention’s confessional statement, the Baptist Faith and Message, included these words in the preface to its report:

Baptists are a people of deep beliefs and cherished doctrines. Throughout our history we have been a confessional people, adopting statements of faith as a witness to our beliefs and a pledge of our faithfulness to the doctrines revealed in Holy Scripture.

Baptists have drawn up confessions of faith for centuries. Early Baptists in England affirmed the First London Confession in 1644, which was followed by the Second London Confession, affirmed in 1677 and published in 1689. As a revision of the famous Westminster Confession of Faith (a Presbyterian confession), the Second London Confession is a detailed, nuanced, and theologically rich statement of historic, Calvinistic Baptist theology.

General Baptists (i.e., those with more Arminian views of salvation) published the Orthodox Creed in 1679. Baptists in America affirmed the Philadelphia Confession, a slightly revised version of the Second London Confession, in 1742. In the following century, a group of Calvinistic Baptists affirmed the New Hampshire Confession of 1833, a fairly brief statement of faith drawn up to define their teachings over against that of Free Will Baptists.

The Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845 and affirmed its first confessional statement in 1858 known as the Abstract of Principles, a document drawn up as confessional boundaries for the first seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. To this day, every professor appointed to SBTS continues to sign that confessional statement.

By the early 20th century, Southern Baptists were faced with two particular challenges that they addressed at the institutional level in the year 1925. One challenge was that of funding the various agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention. Prior to 1925, Southern Baptist agencies were funded directly by the churches, which resulted in numerous agencies making direct and repeated appeals to churches for funding, a procedure that tends to become exhausting for all involved over time. In order to ensure better efficiency and adequacy of funding for all of its various agencies, Southern Baptists instituted the Cooperative Program, a funding mechanism that remains in place to this day, whereby churches give money to their state conventions that is then shared according to certain formulae with the various agencies of the state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention.

Crawford Toy

The other challenge present in the early 20th century was the influence of Protestant Liberalism in the dominant theological institutions of Europe and America, which had produced a pervasive anti-supernaturalism among many claiming a Christian identity. In response to this challenge, the convention ratified a statement of faith, entitled the Baptist Faith and Message, which was a revision of the 1833 New Hampshire Confession. In their preface statement, the committee that produced the 1925 version of the Baptist Faith and Message made the following claim:

The present occasion for a reaffirmation of Christian fundamentals is the prevalence of naturalism in the modern teaching and preaching of religion. Christianity is supernatural in its origin and history. We repudiate every theory of religion which denies the supernatural elements in our faith.

From its inception in 1925, the Baptist Faith and Message has been a document intended to express orthodox, biblical, and Baptist theology in the face of challenges of the present day. Unlike the historic creeds of the church (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed), and even unlike historic confessions of mainline denominations (e.g., the Formula of Concord, the Westminster Confession, or the Belgic Confession), the Baptist Faith and Message has been subject to periodic revision in light of new cultural challenges. Revision of a statement of faith is not a practice that an ecclesial body would ever want to practice too often, or else the statement would tend to lose its effectiveness as a doctrinal boundary. On the other hand, as cultural challenges to the Christian faith change in every generation, it is a good practice for ecclesial bodies to have some process by which they are able to address contemporary challenges through official teachings. For Southern Baptists, that process is, at the highest level of our denomination, to revise our confessional statement periodically.

The Baptist Faith and Message of 1925 guided our convention until it was revised in 1963. In 1998, the convention adopted an article on the family that was added to the statement, and then in the year 2000 a more extensive revision was approved by the convention. The Baptist Faith and Message as approved in the year 2000 remains to this day the confessional standard of the Southern Baptist Convention. In this series I intend to explore the theology of this statement of faith and its relevance for us today.

Baptists have long been a confessional people. We would do well to look to our confessional statements for guidance in the face of today’s challenges.