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Confessional Baptists or Bible Baptists PDF Print E-mail
Written by Joseph R. Holder   

 

In 2004 Dr. Tom Nettles spoke at a Founders Movement conference on “Baptists and the Doctrines of Grace.”  While making many quite good points, points with which I fully agreed, I was taken aback by a statement that he made in one of these presentations to the effect that Baptists are a “Confessional denomination.”  If I were to engage in dialogue with Dr. Nettles, I have no doubt that he would affirm the supremacy of Scripture over confessions, including the 1689 document that he used as a centerpiece of his presentation, yet the use of “confessional” to describe Baptists gave me pause.

Often these days I find myself caught “smack in the middle” as I read various posts and comments.  On one side I see some evidence that some of my PB brothers are closer than I’d prefer to being “confessional PBs,” claiming that Scripture rules, but almost in the same breath stretching the meaning and use of Biblical terms almost to the breaking point with the apparent objective of defending the idea that the 1689 document contains no errors or mistakes of any kind, a kind of belated divine inspiration.  When I read the 1689 document regarding the supremacy of Scripture over confessions, I clearly read that the framers of this document had no intent whatever to make their confession or any other confession equal with, much less to rule over Scripture.  Thus their own intent is being stretched when advocates of the confession attempt to prove that it contains no theological errors or mistakes of any kind or degree.

On the other side of the tension that I experience I find good brothers who seek to “demonize” the 1689 document, making it the cause of every theological departure and error that has occurred since its publication.  This view borders on—if it doesn’t cross the boundary—of revisionist history writing.  The document forms an integral part of our history.  It presents with impressive detail—and frankly impressive accuracy—what Baptists believed in that era.

When you observe in today’s broader Christian culture the varied denominations and fellowships that claim to believe the 1689 Confession, it becomes factually obvious that people are applying their own interpretation to the confession, sometimes rather loosely.  Even within our own fellowship I see evidence of this same attitude.  Either in or outside our fellowship, some who hold to absolute predestination of all things claim the confession as evidence that their belief is the historical Baptist view.  Others who hold to the instrumentality of the gospel in regeneration point to the confession and claim its support for their view.  Still others point to the confession and claim its support either for the evangelization of all the elect or the view that any regenerate elect who hears the gospel will be irresistibly converted by it.  I respect the footnotes that our own ancestors applied to the confession in Fulton, KY in 1900.  Rather than adding complexity to the problem, we should research—where possible, as with Kiffen’s personal statement of faith as an evidence of regeneration, not a cause or an instrument in regeneration, in his preface to Richardson’s thesis on faith—what the writers personally believed.  In other cases anyone who has a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language can look up any of the words used by the framers of the confession and find the accepted meaning of the word in or around 1689.  We need not make blind stabs at what they intended or believed.  The confession should be interpreted as far as possible as it was framed in 1689, not translated into contemporary language and culture and necessarily reinterpreted based on contemporary use and meaning of those words.

Should Primitive Baptists today be “confessional” as a fellowship of people?  I interpret this term to mean that a people use a confession to interpret Scripture, effectively elevating the confession to the same—or higher—level of respect as Scripture itself.  Traditional “confessional” denominations start their catechizing of new converts or the young with a published catechism and with their confession, eventually leading their converts to Scripture, but only after they have been indoctrinated in the catechism and their confession.  If this is a correct description of a “confessional” culture, I must say that Primitive Baptists should not claim to be “confessional,” nor should the act like a confessional culture. That said, I also believe that we should not ignore our history, a history that includes not only the 1689 London Confession, but many other confessions as well.  There is an invaluable benefit to confessions.  We need—legitimately so—to leave a record for future generations of what we believe and why we believe it.  Our forefathers in the faith left us such a record.  However, by their own clear and repeated (in every respected confession I’ve read, including one that dates back to the eleventh century) words, they utterly rejected any thought of elevating their confession to equality with Scripture.

In his book The Historical Jesus Dr. Gary Habermas devotes an entire chapter to what he believes to be compelling evidence that the first generation of Christians compiled and held to formal and representative statements or “confessions” of faith as they traveled to the four winds carrying a common gospel truth with them.  While I/we do not agree with many points of Dr. Habermas’ theology, I believe that chapter is worth far more than the cost of the book.  While I do not believe we should be “confessional” as a fellowship, I distinctly believe we need to know our history and to encourage concise and representative statements of what we believe, both for our own people and for generations yet to come.

Out of my own desire to know more about the broader history of Christian doctrine and departures from generally accepted orthodoxy, several years ago I invested over five years and significant personal funds to complete a Masters Degree program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University.  My objective was to learn about the departures that challenged the Christian faith, and even more so to learn how the more traditional Christian culture dealt with those departures.  I did not enroll in that program to validate my faith or to find an alternative to my faith.  I was—and am—quite content with what I believe—as nearly as I can determine the same thing that my ancestors believed and taught to me.  I raise this point for one simple reason.  Never have Christians faced with departures from the accepted theology of their history constructively solved their problems by emotional reactions, either pro or con!  Emotional reactions complicate the real issue and add greater difficulty to any constructive solution that should be reached following Biblical teachings and strategies. There has been too much emotion on both sides of the issue in recent dialogue.  

I am convinced that our problem is more complex than mere definitions of terms.  We are a diverse people, even though we’ve often claimed to be wholly agreed on major doctrines.  Sadly that diversity today is stretching us almost to the breaking point.  On one side some are demanding that everyone agree with them on every precise point of doctrine and interpretation of passages, or “you are not a real PB.”  On the other side some are demanding that they be allowed nearly unlimited flexibility in their views.  Neither of these views will serve our culture profitably.  Extreme attitudes that either demand absolute agreement or push to expand diversity of belief to the point of contradictory views will not serve the greater interest of our culture.

Personal integrity demands that we be open and concise in expressing our beliefs, whether they make us popular or not.  Duplicity in a minister reveals a lack of personal integrity.  Therefore, when we express our beliefs, either in the pulpit, or in personal dialogue, we should be so clear as to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind as to what we do believe.  Christian grace requires that those of us who disagree with someone on a given point do so with “grace,” and not with acrimony or sarcasm.  (Colossians 4:6)  Our greatest challenge is this. Shall the fruit of our personal words result in more heat (emotion and anger) or more light?  May we come down on the side of more light and less heat.

I am inclined to face the “elephant in the room,” rather than pretend there is no elephant, all the while complaining about all the problems that an elephant in the room create.  If this post offends any of you, I sincerely ask your indulgence and forgiveness.  Without question we have an elephant in the room, but atomic bombs to eradicate all elephants nor pretending there is no elephant will solve our dilemma.  In my personal conviction solutions that attempt to force folks into lock-step marches, where ever the march intends to go, create more problems than they solve.  I am not wholly comfortable with solutions that step outside the authority of the local church and its pastor.  The church that I serve and I try to invite men to preach for us who will preach our convictions and edify the sheep that gather here to hear preaching.  Sadly there are men who have preached in our pulpit who have not been invited in recent years to preach here.  I’m comfortable with that strategy.  I’m not especially comfortable with attempts to force our whole culture in any direction, either against or for various views.

Submitted with sincere love for you and for what we believe,

Joe Holder

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The Primitive or Old School Baptists cling to the doctrines and practices held by Baptist Churches throughout America at the close of the Revolutionary War. This site is dedicated to providing access to our rich heritage, with both historic and contemporary writings.