Carl Trueman, Creedalism, and Contemporary Southern Baptists

A couple of weeks ago, I read Carl Trueman’s new book The Creedal Imperative (Crossway, 2012). As a confessionally minded Baptist, I resonated with much of what Trueman wrote, though I’m no doubt more chastened in my confessionalism than Trueman. (His book could have been subtitled, “Why I am a Confessional Presbyterian–And You Should Be Too.”) I agree wholeheartedly with my Presbyterian brother that too much of North American evangelicalism is doctrinally listless, especially in terms of ecclesiological matters. I also share his more optimistic view of denominations, which sets him (and me) apart from many contemporary evangelicals.

One paragraph that stood out in The Creedal Imperative touches on the reality that all churches are creedal on some level. Trueman argues:

I do want to make the point here that Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions and that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true (p. 15).

This is a good reminder to those of us in Baptist traditions. Ever since W.B. Johnson’s unfortunate remark at the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 that Baptists have “no creed but the Bible,” large numbers of Baptists in North America have been nervous about confessions. This despite the fact that numerous scholars have demonstrated that Johnson’s views were out of step with what most Baptists have historically believed. In fact, Johnson’s views were closer to the frontier Restorationists such as the Disciples of Christ than they were to earlier Baptists. Nevertheless, many contemporary Baptists continue to reject, in principle, any written confessional statement.

Others Baptists make a sharp distinction between creeds and confessions, arguing that the former are non-Baptist because they are prescriptive, while the latter are kosher because they are merely descriptive. Perhaps this is true in some cases. But in my experience, nearly every Baptist church or group of churches either makes their confessional statement prescriptive for at least some people, thus making it “creedal” according to this understanding, or they downplay their confession altogether, becoming in practice the “anonymous creedalists” whom Trueman is critiquing. This very tension lies near the heart of the differences between many contemporary Southern Baptists and the moderate Baptists who have left or disengaged from SBC life.

But I think Trueman is correct that even anti-creedal Baptists are intuitively confessional. For example, try introducing a complementarian view of gender roles into the average moderate Baptist church. Or, to move in a different direction,  try introducing a plural-elder-led congregational polity into many a revivalistic Baptist congregation. Or, to offer yet another example, try offering an altar call in a seeker-driven Baptist megachurch. In such cases, it likely wouldn’t take long for the unwritten creedal traditions of the church to come to the forefront.

I believe that Baptists need a better theology of confessionalism. Southern Baptists have taken some steps in this direction in recent years, though we remain selectively confessional for the most part. For example, though I have to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as a seminary professor, the church down the road can reject the BF&M entirely and remain Southern Baptist so long as they continue to give to the Cooperative Program and they don’t approve of the homosexual lifestyle. Reformed Baptists are probably closer to Trueman’s ideal, but I think they require a bit too much. For my part, I’m just not convinced that everybody in a church should have to affirm the so-called Christian Sabbath, or limited atonement, or covenant theology, or the regulative principle of worship to be a member of a particular congregation.

It seems like there needs to be a middle way, a generous confessionalism, that doesn’t claim too much, but claims enough–and claims it for enough people. Perhaps the proverbial balanced middle is to move toward a confessional basis of cooperation in the SBC by adopting an abstract of the BF&M 2000 that churches must affirm to remain in friendly cooperation with the Convention.

What are your thoughts?

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  1. Don Henrikson   •  

    ” … a confessional basis of cooperation in the SBC by adopting an abstract of the BF&M 2000 that churches must affirm to remain in friendly cooperation with the Convention.”
    While I think that is an excellent idea, I wonder if it would be possible, given our polity and the fact that our local churches are so detached from the confessions the confirm in their own governing documents. Would such an action at the convention level actually inspire confessional integrity in the local churches? I have my doubts.

  2. Robert   •  

    Respectfully I disagree.

    Baptists, especially Southern Baptists, have never been about requiring adherence to a confession as a test for fellowship. In fact in some instances where this had been required there have been failures and abuses.

    Look at the examples that you give ok the second to last full paragraph, who’s to say that these preferences don’t suddenly become foundations for fellowship? I think of my experiences with fundamentalist Baptists who required adherence to strict dispensational premillennialism as well as dress and appearance. The “fellowship” failed and ultimately became a divisive sect.

    If Baptist history shows us anything it is that that we, Baptists, can’t help ourselves from confining and controlling in these situations. Requiring a doctrinal test for fellowship like the affirmation of the most recent BF&M is remarkably against historic Southern Baptist distinctives.

    My greater worry, though, is how much these Presbyterians and Gospel Coalition Calvinists are pushing the conversations in our denomination.

  3. Blake   •  

    I wish we could return to a time when churches and church leaders put great effort into their confessions, publishing and distributing them widely, and then covenanting with other churches for ministry around them. If I planted a church I’d certainly try to return to that model of church networking.

  4. D. Thomas Hunter   •  

    Your assessment has hit the proverbial nail on the head in terms of the major [SBC] Baptist weakness.

    I’ve spent my relatively young life either in the Baptist (my current) or Methodist tradition. Both traditions – as in the SBC and UMC – are struggling with this issue, and it is something that has frustrated me personally as of late. In the Methodist realm, you can see it in the ongoing voting for acceptance of certain issues. These votes and vehement disagreements are overt results of having the same problem. In the Baptist realm, viewpoints can be widely divergent from one local congregation to the next. Honestly, they can even vary that much in a single congregation it would seem.

    Your example of the BF&M 2000 is probably one that could be applied to virtually any town or city with multiple Baptist churches. And this is something that has personally frustrated me, because the beliefs are at least confusing and often contradictory. I am all for big-tent Christianity in the sense that two people whom disagree on a minor issue like choice of attire in church can fellowship together, but if you have churches basically preaching irreconcilable doctrine, then what is the convention really about?

    Much of this has crept in because of the postermodern mindset of relativistic truth, but there is inherent tension within the history of the Baptists on the subject. I also think you have to look to our tendency to polarize to extremes. We’ve taken sola scriptura to extreme of solo scriptura when it comes to traditions and creeds that look to the Bible as the infallible source.

    I look to other denominations and traditions and long for a confessional existence. I hope to read Trueman’s book when I am able to purchase it.

  5. Richard   •  

    Even Dr. Mohler said in a recent interview with Camden Bucey and Peter Lillback that eventually only confessional churches will remain with the rest being swept away by the cultural tide. Roger Olsen, on his blog this week, posted his “approved denominations” (!) but wouldn’t recommend SBC. Why? Because you never know what you’ll get when you walk into one. You might get fundamentalism. Or Calvinism (which is worse in his opinion). Or Arminianism. Or Pelagianism. And all you have to do to be SBC is contribute to the CP and say “no” the homosexual lifestyle.

    The BF&M is wholly inadequate for the task; it’s a mile wide and an inch deep. It offers only a cursory glance at critical doctrines, leaving a wide path for many diverse (aberrant?) teachings to wander in.

    The Nicene fathers are likely slapping their foreheads at our “standards.”

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