I have been thinking rather frequently about confessions of faith and what place, if any, they have in the lives of modern believers. Now, in a piece on confessions, I feel I should start with a confession of my own. I am a... Baptist.
I suppose this will mean different things to different people. For some it will conjure up images of casseroles and potluck dinners, for others a rather rigid ban on alcohol and dancing, while others immediately think of elongated members' meetings to decide what type of vacuum cleaner the church should purchase!
Perhaps all of these have merit, but I think my favourite descriptor of Baptists is: 'people of the Book'.
'No creed but the Bible!'
One of the more prevalent Baptist distinctives is the 'Authority of Scripture'. Of course this is in no way limited to the Baptist denomination, but it is one of the major principles defining Baptists.
The Queensland Baptist Guidelines for Belief and Practice states that for members of their denominational body, 'The Bible is our supreme and absolute authority on all matters of faith and practice and everything that the Bible affirms.'
This is great, and is one of the (many) things I love about being a Baptist. It's also deeply Biblical. 2 Timothy chapter 3, verse 16 explains, 'All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.'
Similarly, the Bereans are upheld as a worthy example because 'they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so' (Acts chapter 17, verse 11).
Finally, Jesus Himself rebuked Pharisees and scribes for following traditions of men rather than the words of Scripture (Mark chapter 7, verses 8-9).
Therefore, like the reformers of old, we gladly wear our 'sola scriptura' badge. Yet this can often make us dubious of anything that isn't the Bible, regardless of how biblically accurate.
Set foot in a Baptist church and reference a historic creed or confession, and you may very well be met with a cacophonous uproar as people shriek 'no creed but the Bible!' In itself, this is a noble sentiment as people genuinely seek to uphold the authority of Scripture (of course, one may wryly suggest this itself is a confession).
But I'm left wondering, does affirming the ultimate authority of Scripture discount confessions? In my experience, to many Baptists the answer is yes; but is this is a false dichotomy?
First Baptists and Confessions
As part of my ongoing study, I have been doing a unit on Baptist history, and find it striking how prevalent confessions were in the formative years of Baptist history. Specifically their seminal work, the 1689 Second London Confession, was instrumental in defining and defending their beliefs on what Scripture taught.
It appears that Baptists, the people of the Book who are defined by their commitment to Scripture, were from the start a confessional people.
This confessionalism, however, never undermined the authority of Scripture. The 1689 Confession starts: 'The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.' (Chapter one, paragraph one).
The confessions affirmed what a group of people believed Scripture taught, rather than being authoritative and prescribing what people must believe. Scripture was unquestionably the infallible, inspired Word of God that was authoritative for all matters of faith and practice. Yet, a written document outlining their agreement on Scripture was still seen as useful as a secondary authority.
So, despite my love of most things contemporary Baptist, it is at this point that I part ways with some and happily hark back to our beginnings. I suggest that historic confessions needn't be discounted under the guise of commitment to the Bible.
Of course Scripture must be ascribed magisterial authority, but we can still glean from the wisdom and insights of brilliant Christian thinkers who have come before us, inasmuch as such things conform to Scripture. The historic Baptist confessions don't teach anything new or ask people to believe anything not in Scripture, but present a concise understanding of what Scripture says.
Furthermore, I've already referenced the Queensland Baptists' Guidelines for Belief, and most churches will have a statement of faith for various issues—which are essentially a confession for that church or denomination.
Finally, I would like to finish with the teaching of my church history lecturer. When it comes to Christian knowledge, we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants, able to see so much more for the work they have already done.
People have faithfully studied the Bible for 2,000 years, and can offer us great insight into what it teaches. We would do ourselves a disservice to ignore everything they have taught.
'The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience,' if we agree with that, then we agree with at least one teaching of a confession, and perhaps we can learn about Scripture through what others have taught before us.
Haydn Lea is an associate pastor in Queensland, and is currently studying his Master of Arts (Theology). He has been a member of the Royal Australian Air Force since 2007, and is now training to be an Air Force Chaplain. He is married to Shamsa Lea, and loves distance running and studying Theology.
Haydn Lea's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/haydn-lea.html