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Revisiting the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 (I)

*Recently, Southern Baptist Convention president, Dr. Ronnie Floyd, invited me to address a gathering of Southern Baptist leaders on the topic: “The Baptist Faith & Message 2000, A Reflective View Historically and is there anything that Needs to be Addressed in It?” After giving a brief summary of our confessional history, I landed firmly against revising the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. Below is the first installation of a two-part summary of my address:

Typically, my assigned topic shows up in a meeting like this during a moment of conflict. It is good to consider such a topic without being embroiled in a crisis, or facing an impending one.

For the sake of analogy, and to help frame my answer, I want to remind you about one of Southern Baptists’ memorable sermons, Joel Gregory’s “The Castle & the Wall.” Most of you know the story; many of you were there.

It was the 1988 gathering of the SBC and the ninth year of the SBC controversy. Joel Gregory had been tapped to preach the annual convention sermon. Then politically unaligned, he made a compelling, pragmatic case for unity.

The sermon was captivating, but, of course, its effect proved short-lived.  Peace in the convention would eventually come, but it would come through the ultimate conservative victory, not by way of pragmatic compromise.

Gregory’s sermon lives on, primarily because of its gripping conclusion about “the Castle and the Wall.” In it, he told the story of the bizarre ending of one of the great, old castles of Ireland.

Gregory recounted:

It was the ancient home of the Castlereagh family, one of the most princely residences of the Emerald Isle. But the ancient home fell into decay and was no longer inhabited.

The usual happened. When peasants wanted to repair a road, build a chimney or pig-sty, they would scavenge stone from the fine old castle. The stones were already craftily cut, finished and fit. Best of all, they were available without digging and carrying for miles.

One day Lord Londonderry visited his castle. He was the surviving descendant and heir. When he saw the state of his ancestral home, he determined to end immediately the robbery of the building for its stones.

The ruin itself reflected the earlier glories of his family and was one of the treasures of Ireland. He sent for his agent and gave orders for the castle to be enclosed with a wall six feet tall and well-coped. This would keep out the trespassers. He went on his way.

Three or four years later he returned. To his astonishment, the castle was gone, completely disappeared, vanished into the air. In its place there was a huge wall enclosing nothing.

He sent for his agent and demanded to know why his orders had not been carried out. The agent insisted they had been. ‘But where is the castle?’ asked the Lord. ‘The castle, is it? I built the wall with it, my Lord! Is it for me to be going miles for materials with the finest stones in Ireland beside me?’

Lord Londonderry had his wall—but the castle, without which the wall meant nothing, had disappeared.

Gregory’s point was clear enough. What good would erecting a doctrinal wall be, if, in order to build it, one destroyed that which the wall was intended to protect?

And he had a point. After all, what good is the wall of sound doctrine if the castle of ministry and missions does not stand behind it?

His point, however, failed the test of Scripture, church history, and of our own denomination’s story. The castle of ministry and mission, and the wall of doctrine, do not merely complement one another. They enable and ensure one another. Where there is no wall of theological faithfulness, there will not long be a castle of ministry and missions.

Put more bluntly, where there is no confessional faithfulness, there will not long be denominational distinctiveness–and certainly not denominationally vibrant ministry and mission. Where there is no wall, there eventually will be no castle. You can randomly select most any mainline denomination and find evidence of this very point.

Our Confessional History

When you consider the history of confessional statements – whether it be in the Patristic Era or our own – they most always were drafted in a moment of conflict or confusion to address or redress a theological issue of great urgency. Some heresies serve the church by forcing it to clarify and articulate the faith. Heresy can be a helpful agitator. Surveying Southern Baptist history confirms this.

Thematically, all of our confessional statements—1925, 1963, and 2000—had similarities. They were prompted by controversy and drafted with both doctrinal and pragmatic concerns in mind.  The committees were intentionally mindful of whom they excluded and included, and sought the widest, yet most faithful, rendering of Southern Baptist belief.

The 1925 Baptist Faith & Message was our first convention-wide statement of faith.  Before then, most churches and associations used the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, which was drafted nearly a century earlier in 1833. The 1920s was one of the most consequential decades of our existence, and the 1925 SBC meeting was the epicenter of it. Meeting in Memphis, Tennessee , 5,600 messengers voted to establish the Executive Committee, launch the Cooperative Program, and adopt its first statement of faith.

Of course, the immediate context was the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy, and, within it, the creationist/evolutionist debates. In saying this statement was the first to be adopted convention-wide, that is not to say we were not previously a confessional people. The New Hampshire Confession of Faith was the most common statement of faith held by our churches, associations, and state fellowships.

It is a tendentious rendering of our history to argue Southern Baptists first became a confessional people in 1925. Rather, given how consistently confessional our churches—especially through the associational structure—were, they did not feel the urgency to pursue a denomination-wide confessional statement.

As a footnote, the argument moderates made that Southern Baptists are not a convictional, confessional people is self-evidently false. If we weren’t, we’d not have spent so much time fighting over doctrine throughout our history.

Moreover, before the SBC’s organizational maturation in the 1920s, and of course, the 20th century advances in travel and communication; our cooperative work was mostly provincial.

To be sure, concerns over creedalism—especially the kind that would be implemented and enforced on the churches instead of by the churches—was a perennial cause for concern.

So, the 1925 meeting produced a statement that was based upon the New Hampshire statement, and intentionally as inclusive as possible, being oblique on matters like: the age of the Earth and manner of creation, Calvinism, and eschatology; and measured in its prescription for matters like church government.

Meeting nearly 40 years later in Kansas City, Mo., the convention adopted the 1963 Baptist Faith & Message, a revision of the 1925 version. The Elliott Controversy—emanating from Midwestern Seminary in 1961—sparked a broader denominational concern over theological slippage, most vividly captured by K. Owen White’s famous, “Death in the Pot” article.

The 1963 Baptist Faith & Message was a disaster. It was undertaken with the intent to strengthen the Baptist Faith & Message but it weakened it, substantially. Arguably, the denominational tension was greater than both 1925 and the SBC controversy leading up to the 2000 revision. Herschel Hobbs, Porter Routh, and other SBC statesmen felt a split in the convention was possible, if not probable, if they did not reassure the churches on the orthodoxy of the seminaries and denominational leadership. Herschel Hobbs chaired the committee, which included all state convention presidents.

The committee sought wide input from seminary professors and presidents, who were only too happy to give it. The revision of Article I—the article on the Scriptures—was especially problematic, stating the Bible “is the record of God’s revelation…” and that “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ…”

The entire episode is indicative of this era in SBC life, which was our programmatic heyday. They just were not thinking theologically; and those who were, were thinking more of Julius Welhausen than John Dagg and James Boyce. I am reminded of this every time I read the founding minutes of Midwestern Seminary. The trustees had endless debates over architects and minute budgetary details, but they populated their faculty with theological moderates with little trustee discussion.

This brings us to the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, which is a remarkable statement. Every time Southern Baptists have revised their statement of faith, it has been to make it more conservative, not less—though I have already acknowledged the result of the 1963 statement—and the BF&M 2000 continued this trajectory. In the year 2016, it is hard to overstate the importance of the BF&M 2000.  Appointed by SBC president Paige Patterson and chaired by Adrian Rogers, the committee included pastors and SBC leaders.

It consolidated and codified the gains realized through the SBC Conservative Resurgence. It fixed the 1963 slippage, especially on the Word of God. The genius of the BF&M 2000 was its prescience, not only for matters upon us, but matters yet to come full bloom. Some of these matters, like open theism, were upon the church but not yet the SBC; others, like issues of gender and sexuality, were hardly upon the culture, much less the SBC.

Those who served on the BF&M 2000 committee are to be commended for addressing issues that were, at that point, mere dots on the horizon. Frankly, the culture and church has changed more in the 15-year period from 2000 to now, than the 40-year periods between the previous two revisions. That’s testimony to the strength of the BF&M 2000 and the foresight of those committee members.

Which brings me now to answer the question asked of me by President Floyd about whether or not we need to revise the BF&M 2000? Let me state plainly why I would have significant reservations about revising the current Baptist Faith and Message. In part two, I’ll give six reasons why I’m firmly against revising the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.

topics#Southern BaptistsBF&M

One Response to “Revisiting the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 (I)”

February 29, 2016 at 2:52 pm, Ernie Cecil said:

Love the historical background of the BF&M.

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