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Confessionalism Scripture

Reflecting on the Baptist Faith and Message, Part 3: The Doctrine of Scripture (con’t)

The first article of the Baptist Faith and Message speaks of the source, nature, authority, and goal of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity:
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.
Having addressed the matters of the source and nature of the Bible in the previous installment, I will now turn attention to the confession’s doctrine of Scripture’s authority and goal.
 
The Authority of Scripture: Absolute
Because God is the author of Scripture by means of inspiration, and because God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18; Tit. 1:2), that means the Bible contains only “truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.” Scripture is, in other words, inerrant in all that it affirms. We are, therefore, obligated to believe and obey all that it teaches, when we have properly interpreted and applied that teaching.
 
The doctrine of inerrancy has been a flashpoint of controversy among Christians in recent history. Some have claimed that Scripture never claims inerrancy for itself, and that the phenomena of Scripture clearly disprove the concept anyway. For example, if the Bible uses round numbers to relate historical details, has it recorded some data point erroneously? And if so, doesn’t the doctrine of inerrancy seek to impose on the Bible a standard that the Bible itself never claims to meet?
 
In fact, the doctrine of inerrancy does not claim that Bible is written with maximal precision. Proponents of inerrancy gladly acknowledge it was written, instead, in ordinary human language. For this reason, the doctrine of inerrancy claims that the Bible is inerrant according to the standards of precision to which it seeks to adhere. If a man earned $52,174.23 in net income in the year 2020, and he said to a friend, “I made $50,000 last year,” no one would accuse him of deceit or error; so it is with Scripture. It must be evaluated at the level at which it intends to communicate. Round numbers, figures of speech, omission of incidental details in parallel accounts, etc. do not constitute errors. They are accepted conventions of human communication.
But does the Bible itself claim that it is inerrant, and therefore completely authoritative in all that it affirms? Yes, it does, and in numerous places. But I will simply note two here, both from the words of Jesus. In Matthew 5:18, Jesus says, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law [i.e., the Old Testament Scriptures] until all is accomplished.” The reference to an “iota” and a “dot” represent, respectively, the smallest letter of the alphabet and the smallest part of a letter. Jesus goes to great lengths to speak of the absolute authority of the Bible as the written Word of God. And because it is the written Word of God, he came to fulfill it, not to scrap it and start over with something new (Matt. 5:17). One other reference of Jesus to the Bible is found in John 10:35, where in a passing comment he notes, “and the Scripture cannot be broken.” Here Jesus affirms not only that the Bible has no errors, but that indeed it cannot have errors because of the nature of what it is: the very Word of God. In other words, Jesus affirms not only the fact of inerrancy, but even the stronger claim of biblical infallibility, the claim that the Bible is incapable of error.
 
Because Scripture has no mixture of error, it is completely trustworthy and represents the absolute standard by which all truth is discerned. The Baptist Faith and Message affirms biblical authority very clearly.
 
The Goal of Scripture: Salvation
In addition to noting that Scripture has God for its author and inerrant truth for its matter, the confession affirms that it also has “salvation for its end.” Scripture is divine revelation that is oriented toward one main goal: the salvation of sinners through Jesus Christ. This is why, as the confession affirms, “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ.” The Bible is not our Savior. Jesus Christ is. But how can we know Jesus Christ in the absence of his physical presence with us? God has committed the authoritative prophetic and apostolic testimony of the Person and work of Jesus Christ to writing in Scripture, which is now the permanent form of divine revelation that remains with the church until the end of history.
In the early years of the church, the gospel spread by apostolic proclamation. That proclamation took on certain forms that could be passed down orally as tradition. However, the more time elapses between the events of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection and the hearing of that tradition, the more opportunities arise for corruptions of the traditions handed down. If we had no permanent, written account of Jesus here now 2,000 years after his time on earth, we would be dependent on an oral tradition that could have become so corrupted by this point that it could lead us far astray into error. In fact, the Roman Catholic adherence to oral tradition as a stream of divine revelation on par with Scripture demonstrates the level of doctrinal corruption that can accrue over long periods of time without an authoritative canon that stands above tradition to keep it in check. Roman Catholics hold numerous beliefs and practices that are not only non-biblical, but even anti-biblical, as they have allowed tradition to stand alongside Scripture as a source of revelation. As a result, they have a compromised gospel of justification by faith plus works, combined with compromised worship practices that resemble paganism: prayers to Mary and the saints, indulgences, a continuing earthly priesthood, etc.
 
Because God has given us the Bible as the only divine authority on earth, we can trust that its revelation of Christ to us is what will lead us to salvation. Where Scripture is preached, taught, and revered, faith in Christ will be stirred, nurtured, and preserved. Where Scripture is not proclaimed in faithfulness, people will descend into spiritual darkness.
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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.

Categories
Scripture

Why Christianity and Progressivism Don’t Mix

Conventional wisdom tells us that neither political side has a corner on the Christian faith. Christians should not pledge allegiance to any political party, but evaluate issues individually and vote on candidates individually. Some Christians will naturally fall toward more conservative positions, and some toward more liberal positions. But at the end of the day, politics must not divide us because our opinions on political matters are less important and less clear from Scripture than what we share in common as believers in Christ.

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Methodology Missions Racism

Is Preaching the Gospel Sufficient to Combat Racism?

It seems that we could generate much more light, instead of mere heat, if we would take the time to define the terms of our controversies. In the past few years, a social media divide has emerged among Christians who argue, on the one hand, that we must address racism by preaching the gospel, and those who argue, on the other hand, that while the gospel must remain central to the church, wider forms of social activism are also necessary as legitimate implications of the gospel. This common method of framing the debate is actually too crude to be helpful. What we need is a nuanced look at what, exactly, is being argued on each side.

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Methodology

On How We Speak of Sin

In a 2013 essay, Thabiti Anyabwile wrote regarding same-sex marriage, “Turns out that being civil about indecency actually hurts the traditional cause.” His point was that polite discourse about abominable behavior plays a role in normalizing such behavior. It is not difficult to see why that would be the case. Polite discourse minimizes and, over time, neutralizes the instinct of moral revulsion. While moral revulsion alone is not enough to sustain ethical practice over time, it is an important community-shaping element. Healthy communities express moral revulsion at that which is truly abominable, and the healthy effect of such revulsion is a natural deterrent toward said behavior within the community. People who are socialized into being appalled at what is appalling to God have the blessing of a moral compass shaped according to truth. Anyabwile’s “gag reflex” argument highlights an important component of the effects of our discourse about sin. It is entirely possible to speak of sin in a way that is technically correct, while still lacking entirely in true moral fiber, leading to the further erosion of social norms and the withering away of a protective moral revulsion.

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Uncategorized

Clarifying the Gospel, Part 2: How the Apostles Preached Christ

[See Part 1 of this series.]

Although the salvation accomplished by the cross work of Jesus Christ entails multiple dimensions of deliverance—from the power of Satan, from the dominion of sin, from this present evil age, etc.—there is no greater deliverance accomplished by Christ than that which is from the looming judgment of God over humanity. Having surveyed this theme in the Old Testament, my purpose in this installment is to show that the preaching of the gospel by the apostles in the book of Acts demonstrates the same truth.

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Social Justice

Clarifying the Gospel, Part 1: The Looming Judgment

It is common knowledge that the word “gospel” means “good news,” but the nature of that news and what, exactly, makes it good are not always a matter of agreement. Is the good news the hope that we might go to Heaven when we die? Is it that we will be raised from the dead with Christ? Is it that God is creating a new world? Is it that, through Jesus Christ, God has triumphed over the devil? Is it that God has formed a new society of reconciled humanity through the cross work of his Son? Is it the forgiveness of sins? Is it liberty to the oppressed? Is it victory over evil?

In fact, the gospel is about all of the above and more. God’s redemptive work is both individual and global, microcosmic and macrocosmic, eternally salvific and socially transformational. However, the recognition of Scripture’s rich diversity of perspectives on God’s salvation through Christ does not eliminate the need for careful understanding of the order and logic of the gospel. It is entirely possible to proclaim gospel truths in a manner that distorts the biblical shape of the good news and, consequently, tends to lead people astray from the true gospel of Christ. And so, if we are going to proclaim the gospel rightly, we must ask the question: what is the primary orientation of the good news of Christ’s redeeming work?

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Critical Race Theory Critical Theory Gender Homosexuality Intersectionality Social Justice

Identity Politics, Localism, and the SBC

I love the word “community,” but I hate to see it bastardized into such phrases as “the ________ community” (fill in the blank: white, black, gay, female, non-binary, Christian, minority, etc.). Whenever you put a modifier in front of “community” to define it as a demographic, you have actually changed the meaning of the term. A true community is a local establishment of households who share physical spaces and community traditions. They are invested in local history and institutions. They have flesh-and-blood interactions with one another. They eat together, do business together, send their children to school together, go to town hall meetings together, worship together, attend local public library events together, and thousands of other activities that are entailed in living one’s life locally. A city or town is itself a large community that is further subdivided into communities that exist at smaller levels: districts, neighborhoods, schools, churches, etc.

My point here is simply this: there is no such thing as a “community” of people who are grouped together on the basis of a demographic indicator (skin color, sexual orientation, sexual identity, etc.). The moment we speak of “the gay community,” for example, as a way of linking together gay people across 3.8 million square miles between our national borders, we are speaking of people who do not share common spaces and institutions, who do not (and cannot) have interactions with one another, and who therefore cannot in any meaningful sense constitute a community.

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History Methodology Missions Scripture

Why Educational Institutions Naturally Drift Left

The conservative resurgence (CR) of the Southern Baptist Convention was a movement to reclaim institutions for a conservative theology and mission. Preeminent among those institutions marked for reclamation were our six seminaries, which had, to varying degrees, come under the influence of a left-leaning theology in the decades preceding the CR, which began in 1979. As a result of the CR, the seminaries have now been under the leadership of conservatives for a few decades, but state Baptist colleges and universities continue to represent a much wider theological spectrum that includes left, right, and middle. The reason for this discrepancy between seminaries and colleges is, of course, because the CR operated at the level of the national convention, to which only the seminaries are directly accountable. The CR was not an organized movement at the level of state conventions, to which state Baptist colleges and universities are directly accountable.