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.
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.