The excuses for deriding Baptists are legion. The London Baptists of the 17th century were assailed by Prebyterian paedobaptists for being Anabaptistic, or for supposedly believing that rebaptism was necessary, contrary to several instances of clarification. The derision received by those Baptists, who had quite well crossed their t’s and dotted their i’s theologically speaking, was not deserved for several reasons, one of which was the overabundance of clarification the paedobaptists received throughout their correspondence with the London Baptists: That they were, in fact, not Anabaptists, despite some obvious similarities.
Over the last one-hundred years or so, criticism of the Baptist tradition has shifted away from sacramentology toward a more general ecclesiological criticism, not altogether unrelated to the regulative principle of worship (RPW). It is no secret that Baptist churches, especially in the United States, have become laughing stocks in the eyes of serious alt-traditional laypersons and theologians alike. The reasoning for this ranges from the arbitrary implementation of “programming” to female Sunday School teachers to ordination of female “pastors” and, perhaps the eldest criticism of these last hundred years—a tendency to privatize the interpretation of the Scripture thereby neutering catholicity and openly rejecting creedal theology of any sort. And while the latter has most certainly informed the former aberrations of Baptist practice in America, it exists in sleeper cells within the most conservative circles of Baptists, from the Reformed Baptists to the independent fundamentalists to the Landmarkian tradition of Baptistic thought (all of these may overlap in various ways, FYI). To be clear, I’m not blanketing these groups, but only saying the rejection of creedal Christianity does lurk in all of them, either explicitly or implicitly, as assumptions.
It is the rejection of catholicity and the accompanying anti-creedalistic, “my only creed is the Bible,” mentality that serves as contemporary modern-day laughing stock material for serious theologians from other theological traditions, from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism to Lutheranism.
Now, I couldn’t care less what individual Presbyterians and Lutherans think about my tradition, nor do I mind the jesting (sometimes, it’s even fun). But the fact is, some of them do make a valid point about the practical behavior of Baptist churches today. Baptists are even pointing this out about themselves, e.g. Drs. Craig Carter, Matthew Barrett, James Dolezal, et al. As a Baptist, I myself can say that there are conservative and liberal Baptists whom fail to obey the Apostle when he writes, “But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another (1 Cor. 12:24-25).” Nor do they follow in the creedal tradition of the Apostles. Nor do they take care to follow the implications of the Apostle Peter’s words, “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation (2 Pet. 1:20).”
I will elaborate below on some of these observations, but there is a fundamental concept lacking in the general Baptist milieu, and that is the concept of orthodoxy and what makes the orthodox, well, orthodox. Our 17th century forerunners understood orthodoxy and the resulting catholicity very well. One of the several goals of the Second London Confession was to demonstrate a measure of catholicity between the Particular Baptists and their paedobaptist brethren.
A final qualification: When I mention fundamentalism henceforth, I am not referring to the very needful late 19th to early 20th century fundamentalist push-back against liberalism. The Princeton fundamentalists, for example, were good, theologically astute men. And there were Baptists in their ranks from C. H. Spurgeon to B. H. Carroll as well. Also, I am not referring to the fundamental articles of the Christian faith. In terms of holding to essential Christian teaching, every Christian ought to be a “fundamentalist.” I am instead referring to the independent Baptist fundamentalism of the 50s and 60s, which began with good intentions. But because of their theological pre-commitments (or lack thereof), that movement has ended in a gross confusion of law and gospel. Much of its preaching does not consider the text of Scripture, but (ironically) man’s opinion about what Scripture says—and this has a lot to do with the error(s) to be discussed below.
The Intention of the 2LBCF Framers
If you purchase and read the reprint of the confession and catechism from Solid Ground Christian Books, you will find a preamble titled, ‘To the Judicious and Impartial Reader.’ It is in this originally included document that the framers of the confession make known their intentions. They say, “We did… conclude it best to follow their example in making use of the very same words with them both in these articles (which are very many) wherein our faith and doctrine are the same with theirs.”
There is a running joke in theological circles, and with many online, about the plagiarism of the Second London Confession, which is only a revision of the Savoy Declaration and the Westminster Confession of Faith. We Baptists, unapologetically, copied the confessions of the independent congregationalists and the Presbyterians. But it wasn’t because we were trying to be funny or intentionally unoriginal (well, maybe the second thing a little), it was because we were trying to maintain catholicity. Their further explanation makes this clear when they clarify their method, which was “to manifest our consent with both [documents] in all the fundamental articles of the Christian religion, as also with many others whose orthodox Confessions have been published to the world on the behalf of the Protestants in diverse nations and cities.”
Most of the Second London merely repeats (in substance) what the Savoy and Westminster say. There are obvious differences in the chapters on the church and baptism. And there is some practical illumination added which did not exist in the other two. Yet, I would venture to say that what defines (but does not determine, a function which belongs to Scripture alone) Particular Baptist orthodoxy is the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677/89).
The Modern Baptist Rejection of Confessions and Creedal Statements
“No creed but the Bible” is a popular sentiment among Baptists. I will first demonstrate how this statement is, on its face, illogical and objectively false. Secondly, I will examine the claim in light of the Baptist orthodoxy of the 17th century. Thirdly, I will attempt to show how, “No creed but the Bible,” leads to things like unfettered church programming, bad doctrine, female ordination, and the contemporary influx of cultural Marxist thinking we now deal with today (not to mention all the LGBTQ stuff).
First, the claim, “there is no creed but the Bible,” is irrational. That statement alone is a creedal statement which is not found in the Bible. To say, “there is no creed but the Bible,” is to adopt a creed and thus become the very thing the statement is supposed to avoid in the first place. It’s self-refuting.
Second, our Baptist forerunners did not speak in terms of “no creed but the Bible.” A diligent student will not be able to find that kind of language in extant Baptist literature preceding the last 100-150 years. It is easy to find, however, the authoritative subjection of councils and creeds to Scripture in Baptist thought, “The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined… can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit (2LBCF, 1.10).” But this is hardly a Baptist distinctive. This same paragraph is found in the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration, neither of which were Baptist. I do not know any Christian, excluding Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, who would deny this statement. The highest churches in Protestantism from Anglicanism to Lutheranism agree with this. Yet, all of those traditions are creedal. I will explain below what it means to be creedal in connection to the meaning of catholicity (little “c”) below.
Third, “no creed but the Bible” has made provision for what the Apostle Peter denounces as private interpretation. This has led to an utter neglect of creedal Christianity and catholic doctrine. It has made the individual mind the supreme judge of interpretive decisions. Essentially, Baptists have entered into a vacuum of theological thought. And they get to determine how to fill that vacuum. Sometimes, by God’s grace, they turn out okay (usually by relying on creeds and confessions, but not overtly admitting they do so). But other times, they end up forcing one of their members to shut down a business for legalistic reasons, or they come up with clinically insane doctrine that would make a 17th century Baptist vomit all over the London cobblestone sidewalks.
The fruit of “no creed but the Bible” is a downplaying and broadening of confessional statements, i.e. the BFM, 2000 in concert with the corrupt cooperative program; and an outright rejection of any kind of human accountability or authority, i.e. Beth Moore fighting her heart out for “women pastors,” regardless of the counsel she’s received or the historical orthodoxy of her own professed Baptist tradition. “No creed but the Bible” has brought about some pretty rotten fruit, from Billy Graham to the “Jesus Movement” of the 1960s and 70s, and the subsequent empire of Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel enterprise. It’s brought about charismania, rampant hypocrisy, and the church growth movement. It’s birthed forth rock concerts in church services and “digital church.” And of course, the emergent church of the 90s and early 2000s is another offspring of “no creed but the Bible,” or at least the principle sentiment behind it. All this considered, either Baptists spawned Pentecostalism, or Pentecostalism has influenced modern Baptists. It’s a “chicken/egg” conundrum that some historian somewhere will probably one day solve.
Creedal Christianity & Catholicity
Creedalism and catholicity are everywhere either asserted or exemplified in the Bible. For example, Paul recites a creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7—
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.
There are those, of course, who deny the creedal nature of this statement. But there are several reasons leading one to conclude, beyond all doubt, that these verses indeed included an early creed which predated Paul’s ministry. The words for received and delivered refer to receiving traditions from elders and passing them on to others. For more reading on the creedal nature of this passage, visit this link.
Paul passes on a creedal statement to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:16 which he calls “the mystery of godliness,” something equated to the gospel itself elsewhere. This text was no doubt something easily committed to memory, a summary of the essential faith, “God was manifest in the flesh, Justified in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Preached among the Gentiles, Believed on in the world, Received up in glory.”
The response, of course, is that these creeds are inspired by God whereas the Nicene or the Apostles’ Creeds are not. This is true, but this does nothing but make these creeds infallible. It does not forbid us from making creeds in like manner anymore than the existence of Psalms or the epistle to the Hebrews prevents us from singing hymns or preaching sermons. In fact, it sets an infallible, authoritative precedent for the construction of creeds and confessions of faith, and actually obligates the church to follow the same method in point of practice. This just is the biblical way.
These creeds are to be used as a tool to maintain catholicity. I have to be careful here because the word catholic is often associated with Roman Catholicism. However, Rome does not own that term, nor do they have sole rights to its meaning. In fact, the term was used long before Rome was what it is today. In the Nicene Creed, we read, “ We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” And when this creed was framed, Roman Catholicism in no wise looked how it looks now. Balthasar Hubmaier, an Anabaptist leader in the 15th and 16th century, calls it “the universal church.” Interestingly enough, he goes on to exposit the doctrine of the universal church from the Nicene Creed (cf. Hubmaier, Catechism). Thus, the creedal expression and the concept of catholicity are consistent themes throughout Christian orthodoxy, even being found in the Anabaptists—who some consider to be fringe Baptists.
Modern Baptists have gotten away from all of this, whether it be the modern fundamentalists or the more liberalized and contemporary sectors of the SBC. Both extremes share one thing: a “no creed but the Bible” mindset. It’s “them and their Bibles” and there is no accountability for their interpretation, their application, or their teaching on the Scripture. There is no fundamental meaningful doctrinal standard for modern Baptists, and that’s why “Baptists” are all over the board in these recent days. The term “Baptist” has nearly lost all meaning.
I propose that the solution is a return to creedal and catholic Christianity, in the same spirit with which our Baptist forefathers penned the Second London Confession of Faith. It is pretty bad when Anabaptists, who are often considered fringe Baptists by many serious theological thinkers, are more orthodox than most modern Baptists. And if I had a decision to make between most modern SBC or “fundamentalist” churches on the one hand, and Hubmaier’s church in the 16th century on the other, I’d probably be going to Hubmaier’s church where at least I can be sure historical, creedal and catholic Christianity is taken seriously.