This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Baptist Confessions”, running in the Winter Term 2024 (January to March), and convened by Jordan Steffaniak.
If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.
Roughly 150 years ago Alexander Campbell (1788–1866) remarked on confessions of faith:
Now all the abstract views of God and man, of things present and future, with which these confessions are replete are matters of opinion; and as the general character of these books should fix upon them their name, they should be styled Confessions of Opinions… Perfect freedom and liberty should be granted to all opinions.1
Confessions as matters of opinion, which should be granted perfect freedom and liberty, is a ghost that has haunted Protestants—especially Baptists—for centuries. The specter of toothless confessionalism continues today. Recently Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Research Professor of Theology Malcolm Yarnell mused similarly about the limits of confessions on X:
As reflections of sinners, confessions are in process, revised as we grow. We must confess with conviction and humility. Those who seek to impose their confessions on others exalt human constructs, usurp his Throne, deny his Word’s sufficiency, and violate consciences.
Confessions are humanly constructed statements of belief. As soon as they are elevated beyond what Campbell terms “opinion” they become destroyers of Christ’s kingdom. Pressing further, Yarnell argues:
If Southern Baptists make the final transition into treating the Baptist Faith and Message as necessary for all member churches, we will have taken a significant step into a constrictive Presbyterian view of confessions and a significant step away from historic Baptist freedoms.
But is this really how Baptists have thought about confessions? W. O. Carver (1868–1954) certainly thought so. He decried the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message as an “abomination of creedmaking.”2 Instead of confessions serving as the lifeblood of ecclesial life, as the means for protecting both the confession of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all” and the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” confessions are tools of, dare I say it, the antichrist. They are abominable: exalting human constructs, usurping the glorious throne of Christ, denying the Protestant dogma of Scripture’s sufficiency, and violating Christ’s people’s consciences.
Confessions, then, at least for Baptists, should be rejected from both a historical and a practical viewpoint. Baptists committed them to the flames in the past and we should continue that tradition today.
Of course, this is revisionist history. Baptists historically have done no such thing. And there remains no good reason to continue in the modernist mold of seeing them as straitjackets to the faithful Christian life. Tour the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of Baptist life and you’ll find no such thinking. Visit Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle—even to this very day—and you’ll find copies of the famed Second London Confession of Faith tucked neatly next to the pew Bible in front of you as you find your place to worship.
Whatever reasons there were for Campbell in the nineteenth century, Carver in the twentieth century, and Yarnell in the 21st century, to reject the necessity of confessions for Baptist life, they ultimately fail to account for the best of Baptist history and theology.
If you want to find out more, sign up for my course this Winter term at Davenant Hall on Baptist Confessions. We will cover Baptist confessions from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century. We will debate the use and potential abuse of confessions, and we will find out who are the true heirs of both our Baptist heritage and the commands of the Apostle Paul to “guard the good deposit” and to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught.”
This Baptist Studies/Theology course will be taught by Jordan Steffaniak. This course will run from January 8th through March 16th. Register here.
Jordan Steffaniak (ThM, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is President of The London Lyceum, Editor of Hanover Press, and Research Fellow at the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. He is a Recognized Instructor of Theology for Union Theological College and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Anderson University. He is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham (UK). He has a forthcoming book entitled Mere Classical Theism set to release from Lexham Press and has published widely in peer-reviewed journals such as International Journal of Philosophy of Religion, TheoLogica, Journal of Reformed Theology, Philosophia Christi, and Evangelical Quarterly.