Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Latitudinarianism and Baptist Tradition

Since the NC Baptist State Convention's decision to stake out a strong, enforced confessional stance on homosexuality, there has been much furor appealing to Baptist tradition, but “religious liberty” is irrelevant with respect to Baptist conduct of inter-church relations; it refers the church-state relationship, not matters of individual conscience; the priesthood of believers refers our intercessory ministry to the world and each other, not individualism. Strong arguments can be made that Baptist tradition here contradicts these objections. Baptist history is littered with examples of individuals and associations, including Charleston, Sandy Creek, Philadelphia, and Tuscaloosa, and SBC actions, refusing fellowship with churches or individual service to those not holding to their confessions or taking actions contrary to the majority’s stated positions. A better objection would be to note that, in June, a resolution calling on the SBC to repent for not practicing church discipline was shamefully defeated because the truant “members” of churches are “some of our best contacts for evangelism.” What about regenerate membership, “the” key Baptist principle? The NCBSC would not be in this position if its churches consistently practiced church discipline according to the New Testament pattern for every member. You reap what you sow on both sides of this issue.

Typically, the logic goes this way: Baptists do not believe in creeds. To exclude a Baptist church on the basis of a confession or majority opinion is a violation of religious liberty or the priesthood of believers or soul competency. Therefore, this is out of step with Baptist polity.

Let's explore this a bit, shall we.

The only CREEDS there are are the Nicene, the Apostle's, the Athanasian, and the Chalcedonian. It continues to amaze me that some Baptists will cry about creedalism but then will usually come back to these 4 and acknowledge them and say it is here we should gather, since they are "ecumenical," that is the whole church was involved in their writing.

A CONFESSION is more developed statement of faith that goes further than a creed, and it reflects the variances among different groups. The 39 Articles is similar on some points to the WCF, but they are not the same by any means. Some are more forgiving than others. What we are dealing with is not "creedalism" (a misnomer if ever there was); rather we are dealing with "confessionalism."

Confessions include: the Savoy Declaration, The NHC, the 1 and 2 LBCF, the BFM (any version), the Assemblies of God statement of faith, the 39 Articles of the Christian Religion, the Westminster Confession.

"Creedalism" is a 19th century perjorative word that was used by many Particular and General Baptists and New Light Congregationlists in response to their detractors with respect to the new methods. Those detractors, the "Old Lights" would often appeal to the methodological traditions of the past, not necessarily the confessions of the past. In response, they were deemed "creedalists, because they were perceived as imposing the authority of the ecumenical creeds (to which everybody generally stipulated anyway) on the New Lights, who were largely confessionalists anyway, in a negative and hypocritical manner. In turn, this carried over into Baptist thought among some groups who responded this way whenever their PRACTICES were questioned, and this has, in more recent times carried over into DOCTRINAL disagreement.

It is very true that Separate Baptists were often wary of “creedalism.” Why? Because they had experienced in their history, coming as they did from Congregationalism, a dead confessional tradition and churches that had, while lying in a state of dead orthodoxy, used those confessions against them. In short, the confessions had been used against them, but those who used them were “dead” and did not follow those confessions as they required of the New Lights. Their assent lacked any real commitment beyond the intellectual. This was what prompted the Separate Baptist distaste of confessions – not the confessions when used properly, but the confessions used this way. Why use them or hold to them if this is what you do? Yet they were confessional themselves. They were even known to reject overtures of union with Regular Baptists because the Regular Baptists that made the overtures were perceived as not holding to their confessional stance as closely as they professed. In short, the question was not so much authority or as it was hypocrisy in those traditions with which they had contact and the necessity to use them properly. They affirmed confessions of their own crafting or choosing, including, in many of their daughter churches and associations, the Philadelphia Confession. Basil Manly Sr., who was at one time secretary of the Sandy Creek Association, even argued that if a prospective member wanted to join your church, they had to agree to every part of the confession, which was, for him, the Second London/Charleston Confession. This is not the reason that some Southern Baptists today have questioned the use of the BFM, and it certainly is not the way Southern Baptists today treat the BFM.

When it came to doctrine, things were actually quite different among the earlier Baptists compared to today. The Philadelphia Association, for example, who had a strict policy of not entering into association with Baptists of non-Particular Baptist principles. They would, if allowed, disperse a General Baptist church and reconstitute it under Particular principles if necessary. In addition, you have James A. Boyce's and Basil Manly Jr's rationale for the Abstract of Principles in which they stated very plainly that it was written with the intention the faculty conform to it. You also have Basil Manly Sr., who called on the people of North River Association to abandon their heresy and errors--in this controversy Salem Church, in Tuscaloosa Association, voted out her articles of faith and the Association called her to repent. Indeed Dr. Furman was one to quiz the children of his church on the Charleston Confession and its catechism. We also have associational letters and sermons from those days, in which the pastors would write or preach on a point of doctrine in their associational confession; sometimes reminding their audience to be vigilant about them. Alabama Baptists would not accept churches until they had been found orderly and orthodox. Alexander Campbell's church was granted a pass on the Philadelphia Confession. That one mistake did wonders for the Campbellite Movement. In 1844, A query in Tuscaloosa Association asked specifically if it is consistent and proper for churches in the Association to call ministers who disagreed with the Associational Abstract of Principles. There was a one word answer, "No." Richard Furman stated the confessions and commitment to them was an essential practice for churches, though they should allow some leeway for those whose confessions were not as clear. "Let your lives adorn your faith, let your example adorn your creed. Above all live in Christ Jesus, and walk in Him, giving credence to no teaching but that which is manifestly approved of Him, and owned by the Holy Spirit. "Cleave fast to the Word of God which is here mapped out for you." C. H. Spurgeon (from the preface to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith which his republished for use by his congregation). As far as the seminaries are concerned professors were asked to sign off on their confessional documents well before 1979. ""If a religious community agrees to specify some leading principles which they consider as derived from the Word of God, and judge the belief of them to be necessary in order to any person's becoming or continuing a member with them, it does not follow that those principles should be equally understood, or that all their brethren must have the same degree of knowledge, nor yet that they should understand and believe nothing else. The powers and capacities of different persons are various; one may comprehend more of the same truth than another, and have his views more enlarged by an exceedingly great variety of kindred ideas; and yet the substance of their belief may still be the same. The object of articles [of faith] is to keep at a distance, not those who are weak in the faith, but such as are its avowed enemies." Andrew Fuller, Works 5:222.

The "anti-creedal" Baptist stance is, relatively speaking, late development in Baptist history. It came along, because there were those that felt that there was a danger in elevating them to the level of Scripture. The question was not whether or not to have them or coalesce around them. Rather the question was "what is their proper place?" To some extent this is a concomitant of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

Sola Scriptura states that Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith and practice, but it goes on to state that we may use any other sources, like confessions, as long as they are not elevated over Scripture. The irony here is often that, in Baptist circles, those who cry most about creedalism are the mirror images of those they sometimes label as biblioaters. Why? Because they retreat from Sola Scriptura to the principle of Solo Scriptura in the process of leveling their objection. This is quite irrational on their part, particularly when they will sometimes run to the 4 creeds to say we should gather around those.

Generally, the cry about "the priesthood of the believer," but that principle is historically defined not as the absolute right to interpret Scripture as an individual, though we have historically defended that right within certain (undefined) boundaries, but the way we serve each other and the world as a kingdom of priests without a covenant mediator, eg. a class of priests. Thus, the term "priesthood of believers." It was never intended to infer absolute individualism. They appeal to "soul competency," but that merely refers to the necessity and obligation of every human being to deal with his relationship to God through Christ, and they appeal to "religious liberty," which refers not to the way we interpret Scripture or the way we cooperate with other churches, but the way we interact with the state.Shedd called such men "latitudinarian bigots," who in reality hate precision, not love liberty, and who desire to impose their latitudinarian bigotry on everyone, so their complaint goes both ways.

The real issue is not over those three principles, but between the way we define cooperation and the way we use a confession. In short, how does an association or convention balance the principle of local church autonomy and the right use of confessions. A few observations can be made:

First, local church autonomy, as noted by the examples above, is by no means considered, by Baptist tradition an absolute priniciple. Today, there are other Baptist groups, like ARBCA that coalesce around a particular confession with little problem. In Scripture, there is quite a good argument that the churches were connected in the Apostolic period. Indeed, one of the earliest post-Apostolic documents we have, 1 Clement, consists of a letter from Clement of Rome representing his whole church, exhorting the people of the Corinthian church and reminding them of the things Paul had taught them. This isnt' to say they had a Presbyterian form of government; rather it is to say that they recognized that the churches were not absolutely independent entities and that they were mutually responsible for each other.

Second: The General Baptists themselves added a third office, messenger, in their early days. Indeed, they were functional Presbyterians in their polity from the early days in England. I'd add that local church autonomny is generally considered a function of Particular, not General Baptist ecclesiology, so those that cry about "creedalism" are borrowing capital from the Particular Baptists (whose doctrines they may largely reject), when they likely have, doctrinally, more in common with the General Baptists. This tells me that those persons feel quite free to call on "historic Baptist principles" when it suits them while ignoring others. That should send up a red flag.

Third: One problem with the BFM is that it's like the 39 Articles. A Calvinist Anglican can read them and see his doctrine, and a Tractarian can read his. The result is chaos eventually. "How can two walk together if they are not agreed" at least on some fundamentals? That was, indeed, the purpose of The Fundamentals of the early 20th century.

If you compare the BFM to, say, the First London Confession, you see a striking difference. Namely, both are forgiving by 2LBCF standards, yet one basically says too much in too little and sometimes ambiguous language and leaves you wondering what it means, and the other says a lot but in very simple, mostly direct language, and you know what it means very well, particularly if you know anything about those for whom it was framed. The point is, the BFM tries to be everything to everybody. But there are doctrines it articulates over which there is disagreement, in large part, because the sheer size of the Convention as it is today was not conceived of in the minds of the framers of the Charter (who all, incidentally held to the Philadelphia Confession) or the framers of the BFM 25. There needs to be a way for the churches to collectively state that there is a set of "fundamentals," perhaps an Abstract version of the BFM, so questions like open/closed communion, a particular soteriological scheme, etc. are placed in a different category.

"A confession of our loyalty to the Bible is not enough. The most radical denials of biblical truth frequently coexist with a professed regard for the authority and testimony of the Bible. When men use the very words of the Bible to promote heresy, when the Word of truth is perverted to serve error, nothing less than a confession of Faith will serve publicly to draw the lines between truth and error. ...

The church is to "hold fast the form of sound words"(), to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints"(), and to "stand fast with one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel"(). In the fulfilment of this task, a confession is a useful tool for discriminating truth from error and for presenting in a small compass the central doctrines of the Bible in their integrity and due proportions. ..

Nevertheless, our confessions are not inherently sacrosanct or beyond revision and improvement; and, of course, church history did not stop in the seventeenth century (or any other). We are faced with errors today which those who drew up the great confessions were not faced with and which they did not explicitly address in the confessions, but it is a task to be undertaken with extreme caution. ...

A confession is a useful means for the public affirmation and defence of truth...(it) serves as a public standard of fellowship and discipline...(and it) serves as a concise standard by which to evaluate ministers of the Word." R. P. Martin in Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, (Evangelical Press, 1989), p9-23.

Finally, Miller, in The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions, rightly argues that to deny to a group of Christians the right to frame a confession and the right to subscribe to it and use it would be to deny to them true liberty of conscience:

"It will not, surely, be denied by any one, that a body of Christians have a right, in every free country, to associate and walk together upon such principles as they may choose to agree upon, not inconsistent with public order. They have a right to agree and declare how they understand the Scriptures; what articles found in Scripture they concur in considering as fundamental; and in what manner they will have their public preaching and polity conducted, for the edification of themselves and their children. They have no right, indeed, to decide or to judge for others, nor can they compel any man to join them. But it is surely their privilege to judge for themselves; to agree upon the plan of their own association; to determine upon what principles they will receive other members into their brotherhood; and to form a set of rules which will exclude from their body those with whom they cannot walk in harmony. The question is, not whether they make in all cases, a wise and scriptural use of this right to follow the dictates of conscience, but whether they possess the right at all? They are, indeed, accountable for the use which they make of it, and solemnly accountable, to their Master in heaven; but to man they surely cannot, and ought not, to be compelled to give any account. It is their own concern. Their fellow-men have nothing to do with it, as long as they commit no offense against the public peace. To decide otherwise, would indeed be an outrage on the right of private judgment."

The problem is that modern Christianity is awash in a flood of doctrinal relativity as well as areas of legitimate dispute. Baptists bought into the myth that a "39 Articles" approach was enough, but it has proven not to be enough not for the Anglican Communion and not for the SBC. You reap what you sow. By the same token, it is manifestly apparent we are beyond the days when Particular and General Baptists felt compelled to separate when cooperating.

A confession serves as a public standard of fellowship and discipline, and has been used that way in Baptist history in past generations already. Indeed that is most Scriptural, for Scripture is riddled with covenant renewals in the Old era and confessions of faith in the New era.We are to "mark them that are causing the divisions and occasions of stumbling, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and turn away from them" (). We are to cut off those who trouble the peace of the church by false doctrine: "A man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject" (Titus ).

So, the question isn't "should we be confessional?" but "how much of a denominational confession should be considered good and necessary for the cooperation of the churches of the SBC, a state convention, an association, or any other cooperative entity?"Jesus said, "Every house divided against itself cannot stand." (). WGT Shedd was right, those who differ with this principle aresuch men "latitudinarian bigots," who in reality hate precision, not love liberty, and who desire to impose their latitudinarian bigotry on everyone. (W.G.T. Shedd, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1893). pp. 167-68.)

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