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Monday, July 09, 2007

Historical Amnesia: A Response to Beth Newman

Beth Newman is a Professor of Theology and Ethics at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond. In addition to co-authoring the Baptist Manifesto, Newman writes guest commentary for the Associated Baptist Press.

Recently, Newman advocated the use of creeds in an opinion piece for the ABP.

Newman writes....

Professor Walter Shurden has commented recently on the diverse dangers arising for what he terms the “historical amnesia” of the Baptist people.

Foremost among these dangers he places the movement “from a Christ-centered to a creed-centered faith.” The substitution of which he speaks means, I suppose, the abandonment of a vital experiential faith for a structured recital of theological propositions. These propositions would presumably be used to enforce some rigid orthodoxy.

Now I would agree that historical amnesia is one of the greatest dangers faced by today’s Baptists -- and by most other Christians, by the way. Where I find myself in profound disagreement with Dr. Shurden is his location of danger in the creeds. The creeds are our surest defense against the very historical amnesia that threatens us.....

The historic creeds, while they certainly do not replace Scripture, are a way of shaping this lens. In 2005, in fact, the Baptist World Alliance recited the Apostle’s Creed as it had done at its beginning one hundred years earlier. The first president of BWA, Alexander Maclaren, in his address to the assembly, proposed that their very first act be an affirmation of the historic Christian faith through saying the creed. He rightly saw that saying the Apostle’s Creed is not antithetical to being Christ-centered. Read the rest here.

It was fine for the BWA to recite the Apostles Creed in 1905 but let's remember why this was done. The purpose of the recitation was to let other Protestants know that "we are like you in our basic beliefs. Don't worry about us. We are no less Christian than you."

But again, let's don't think for a moment that most Baptists in 1905 knew the Apostles Creed by heart or that they recited it or any other creed regularly. And let's not think for a moment that Alexander Maclaren was pushing creeds into Baptist Life. There was no effort then or in subsequent years to use a creed in the BWA. In fact, the opposite is the case. Throughout its history, the BWA has been staunchly anti-creedal.

Baptist moderates have always been willing to teach the history of the church and have always used the phrase - "All of Church History is Our History." We've taught the creeds. However, we've simply felt that creeds need not be recited or given a privileged position to have unity (by the way, exactly what creeds is Newman referring to; the Apostles' Creed, Nicea, and others of the early church or do we include Protestant statements like Westminster?).

When we have achieved any unity it has been through a common personal religious experience with Jesus and a common commitment to the authority of the Bible. Perhaps, Newman's historical amnesia is her failure to find value in the Baptist heritage and its warnings about coercive creedalism. Baptists can surely recite creeds if they want to; they are free! But Baptist history tells us over and over again about groups imposing their interpretations of creedal statements against believers. We have no historical amnesia about that.

Throughout her history, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has been criticized for not having an official detailed "confession." That is in part a reaction to fundamentalism and its coercive practices and I expect a recognition that creeds haven't produced much voluntary unity. Nevertheless, the CBF is not without principles. It has adopted a set of core values or doctrinal beliefs. The very first core value is Soul Freedom:
Soul Freedom – We believe in the priesthood of all believers. We affirm the freedom and responsibility of every person to relate directly to God without the imposition of creed or the control of clergy or government.
Allow me to recapitulate: Why put creeds between a believer's reading of the Bible and his/her relationship to God?

No Freedom For The Soul With A Creed!

While the Associated Baptist Press certainly has the freedom to use Beth Newman or other commentators - it's just a bit ironic that ABP, whose existence is so heavily interwined with the CBF, has published an op-ed which appears to contradict moderate Baptist core values.

Since the ABP has chosen to publish opinion pieces, perhaps they should also make room on their website for letters to the editor. The Texas Baptist Standard and North Carolina Biblical Recorder both do this.

Many publications include a disclaimer that says that the views of commentators do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the publisher. The ABP has no such disclaimer. Perhaps a disclaimer is needed?

Or perhaps it's time to add a voice consistent with the principles of soul freedom and religious liberty that most people identify with ABP itself?

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Anonymous km in co said...

I've been out of Southern Baptist life for about 10 years now. I'd heard that the priesthood of the believer language was removed from the Baptist Faith and Message.

Is this true?

5:03 AM

Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I'm going to say that both you and Beth are right. You are right that Baptists have usually distinguished between statements or confessions of faith and rigid creeds. But not always. Even in our earliest history we sometimes used the terms interchangeably--as with the Orthodox Creed of English General Baptists (1660). You are right that we usually wrote confessions to explain our orthodoxy to others, but we also used confessions, at times and places, to instruct new members or the young. This was especially true in the U.S. of the Charleston tradition, which was more Calvinistic.
You are right that the BWA used the Apostles' Creed in 1905 to express our orthodoxy to outsiders. You go too far, however, in saying that the Baptists assembled weren't familiar with it. To the contrary, no one had to pass out copies. Even though it was NOT repeated in Baptist worship services, it was still so widely known (perhaps used in classes for baptismal candidates as in earlier days) that every Baptist there could repeat it verbatim. When Bill Leonard taught among Baptists in Japan, he found that they sang the Apostles Creed weekly.

The phrase "no creed but the Bible" was started not by Baptists, but by Alexander Campbell. He was taking the anti-creedalism of Baptists, especially frontier Baptists, and running further with it.

I don't like Beth's embracing of the language of creeds. I would bet she is getting some flack from her colleague at BTSR, Phyllis Rodgerson Pleasants, over that one. (I am friends with both these worthy women.) But she is right that we Baptists have often used confessional statements as aids against amnesia. I would argue that this is how the BF & M was used before it began to be treated in a rigid creedalist fashion.
Baptists aren't Unitarians who just haven't gotten around to denying the Trinity, yet. One can't believe just anything in the name of "priesthood of the believer" and claim to be a good Baptist.

We seem to falling off our historic path on both ends these days. Perhaps it is worth remembering that confessions were not the only, or even primary, way we Baptists staved off historical amnesia: There were the hymns we sang, the Scriptures we read together (and argued about together) and the stories we told of local saints and famous Baptists. There were the missionaries whose stories we heard on furlough--or who corresponded back to us from abroad. There were testimonies in public worship. There was the oral tradition of persecution for conscience sake. There are the memories we forged at convention meetings or Bible camps or (my favorite) meetings of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.
All these aids to memory keep us from relying too exclusively on confessions of faith, and definitely from turning such confessions into creeds.

9:43 AM

Blogger Big Daddy Weave said...

My statement:

"But again, let's don't think for a moment that most Baptists in 1905 knew the Apostles Creed by heart or that they recited it or any other creed regularly."

I should have offered a citation for the conclusions made (which were not originally made by me)

Walter B. Shurden, The Life of Baptists in the Life of the World. Page 59-60, I believe. Also in Richard Pierard, ed., Baptists Together in Christ, 1905-2005: A Hundred-Year History of the Baptist World Alliance (Falls Church, VA: BWA, 2005) 37.

Another author has chronicled the 1905 event and wrote:
Throughout the history of the Baptist World Alliance, international Baptist leaders have affirmed the use of confessions but opposed creedalism. At the opening Baptist World Congress in 1905, British leader Alexander MacLaren invited the delegates to stand and repeat the ancient Apostle’s Creed to demonstrate to the world that Baptists were doctrinally orthodox within the larger Christian community. He said,

"So I have suggested that, given your consent, it would be an impressive and a right thing, and would clear away a good many misunderstandings and stop the mouth of a good deal of slander—if we here and now, in the face of the world, not as a piece of coercion or discipline, but as a simple acknowledgement of where we stand and what we believe, would rise to our feet and, following the lead of your President, would repeat the Apostle’s Creed. Will you?"

The editor of the proceedings added, “The whole gathering then instantly rose and repeated, slowly and deliberately, after Dr. MacLaren the whole of the Apostles’ Creed.” MacLaren’s action was spontaneous, not choreographed. It was not a crusade for creedal adoption. As he emphasized, recitation of the creed was “not a piece of coercion or discipline,” and the editor’s note makes it sound like the crowd did not know the creed, so they had to repeat it after MacLaren. His use of the Apostle’s Creed, moreover, also revealed that Baptists had never had a consensus statement of faith beyond the Bible.


Obviously "no creed but the Bible" is a rather simplistic saying. And the priesthood of the believer doesn't mean that I can believe whatever and remain in good standing with my community of believers or local Baptist church. With freedom comes responsibility. I carry that responsibility as does my church. If I was to become a unitarian - my church would have the right to take action since they too are responsible.

11:12 AM

Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I didn't know they were repeating Maclaren line by line. I thought they knew the Apostle's Creed. I've been a Baptist for over half my life, now and never met anyone who didn't know the Apostle's Creed--but I have also never been in a Baptist congregation that used it in worship.

You are absolutely right that there is no consensus Baptist creed (or even confession). The closest in British Baptist life would be the 2nd London Confession of 1689 (modeled after the Westminster Confession--and which was the model for the Philadelphia Confession and the Abstract of Principles in the U.S.), but it has never been "official"--certainly not with the founding of the Baptist Union. When Charles Spurgeon tried to impose it on the Union, they rejected it and Spurgeon left the Union because of that.
The Trienniel Convention and the Northern (American) Convention never had a unifying confession. The closest may have been the New Hamphshire Confession on which the BF& M was based, but it was never used in the North outside of New Hampshire. The SBC had no confession from 1845 when founded until 1925 and then adopted the BF&M as a revision of the New Hamphshire Confession--but it was mostly ignored. So was the 1963 revision. It wasn't until the 1980s that the fundamentalists began to use the BF&M in a creedal fashion.

Ironically, although Beth wants to make a case for the Creeds (the Apostle's, at least) as a cure for historical amnesia, her example is NOT of creedal use, or even confessional use, but of shared practices of Bible reading.

You are right that your congregation is also responsible. That's completely Baptist

1:01 PM

Blogger Andy Black said...


I enjoy reading your blog. We have a lot of background in common (Calvary, BJC, Dawson Institute, etc.) -- but we part ways on this issue.

I fear that responses like yours lead to more talking past one another. I simply don't see what she's advocating as the kind of threat you perceive.

I admire you passion for ensuring that an important heritage is not forgotten. However, it's nonetheless true that Baptists have essentially grown up alongside the modern era and as major assumptions of the last four or five hundred years are critiqued (from a variety of directions, by numerous groups with varied agendas), we simply can't afford to let the defensiveness engendered by conflict with the fundamentalists make it hard for us to be self-critical on theological grounds.

When I say that "soul freedom" as typically defined seems to individualistic, it's not because I am afraid of diversity and want centralized authority and communal uniformity. Rather, I simply reject an individualism that sees people essentially as marbles who relate to God and each other in discreet points of contact. That the church is more than the sum of its individual members seems to me a fundamental biblical assertion. I don't have a merely personal relationship with God that isn't always already implicated in my participation in the shared life of Christians.

5:04 PM

Blogger Big Daddy Weave said...


Thanks for your response.

I acknowledge that soul freedom can be misused (see Charles Marsh's chapter on Douglas Hudgins in God's Long Summer).

But any freedom can be misused. I feel - and think the Baptist tradition supports this - that the right to individual dissent of conscience must be preserved. As for creeds, while they don't have to be abused, their track record is spotty at best. Creeds can tend to create an imbalance, if not careful, toward the community silencing dissent (at least history has shown this). Finally, have creeds created unity? I still think there is a better chance for unity based on common experience and common commitment to the Bible's witness to Christ as the primary/supreme authority for faith.

In the hands of those that don't care about the individual or about freedom - creeds are frightening.

I'm not a theologian and I don't necessarily disagree with everything you wrote about the nature of the church. I obviously prefer congregationalism which affirms (or should) the role of the individual in an egalitarian way and which emphasizes community because decision making is not individual but broad based. I never meant to imply that the church was just a group of atoms. Hardly. A church can always "excommunicate" a person. Churches have responsibility too. But Baptists have always insisted that the individual conscience before God be preserved.

As for Newman, I was "hard hitting" but that is my style. Still, I think that her phrase "profound disagreement" with Shurden is cause for my concern. While I recognize that authors of the Baptist Manifesto don't agree with Shurden, I like his insights on soul freedom and the priesthood of believers.

A second thing about Newman; her advocacy of creeds is still a concern. Like I said, historical amnesia is not necessarily tied to creeds. If pastors are leery of historical amnesia perhaps they should offer an ongoing class on the varied elements of the Christian tradition not just creeds. To simply recite creeds is to necessitate interpretation and on and on...

Finally, those people that are criticized as too individualistic (James Dunn, for example) are heavily involved in local church life and are ecumenical in expected moderate fashion. Are there a bunch of lone-rangers hiding behind soul freedom that aren't involved in church community? I doubt it, and surely not those people that are known for advocating its preservation.

Again, thanks for stopping by.

8:03 PM

Anonymous Greg Tomlin said...

Aaron --

I found this whole episode quite interesting, for obvious reasons.

In my interpretation of Baptist history, I never speak of creeds as being documents which are supposed to promote unity. They really are about disunity; disunity from the world (in the case of the Apostles' Creed), disunity from all other Protestant denominations (in reference to the Baptist Confessions). They aren't formed in a vaccuum. They are always formed in opposition to something else, or some other position.

When you get down to it, there also really isn't a hair's difference between confession and creed. They are both exclusionary documents, and I think to say otherwise is historical fallacy.

When you confess something, you are saying, "I believe this to the exclusion of all other possible theological positions." When you establish a creed, from "credo" meaning "to believe," you are saying the same thing. So while people might find some loose organizational framework under either rubric, they are marking themselves off as being opposed to something else. This is, apparently, the way it has worked in Baptist life since the beginning. I don't think there was as much "freedom" in this process as moderate Baptists propose.

Baptists had no problems separating themselves from others, and even excluding those who held views divergent from their own by the construction of confessions (or creeds in the case of the 1660 Orthodox). This comes through Campbell's view, which MW-W has mentioned. Once a Baptist, Campbell was a later a restorationist, and his statement is an active exclusion of all creeds and confessions. So even he was doing it.

Confessions and creeds are not only about teaching Orthodoxy, but they are also about saying "we are the true church," or "we are the closest to the New Testament Church, and by the way, you're not."


9:31 PM

Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I have to disagree some from Greg Tomlin. Many Baptist confessions were written to show how LITTLE they differed from other, more powerful, groups. When the Particular Baptists wrote the First London Confession in 1644 they gave a preamble in which they spelled out their reasons for writing: A major purpose was to refute the accusations that they were heretics. (They begin by describing themselves as "commonly though falsely called Anabaptists." Why the urge to distinguish themselves from Anabaptists with which they had strong links? Because "Anabaptist" means "rebaptizer" and they denied this is what they were doing--as did the Anabaptists, who also rejected the title, originally. Also because Anabaptism was associated with the Munster rebellion and they did not want to be though revolutionaries.) Then they use the True Confession of the Congregationalists (Independents) as a model and copy everything they can verbatim--departing only when they must. Their purpose is clearly to be thought as "orthodox" as the more well-respected Congregationalists.

Then in 1689, when the Presbyterians were the strongest group in the land, the Particular Baptists wrote the 2nd London Confession, following the Westminster Confession as much as possible. Again, their purpose was clearly to keep from being persecuted as heretics. We are not so different from you.

There is little evidence that either confession was widely used in Baptist worship--or any other confession for that matter.

4:03 AM

Blogger Andy Black said...


I'm glad you've read Marsh. His chapter on Douglas Hudgins exposes the soft underbelly of accounts of Baptist identity that stress the centrality of an essentially ahistorical, immaterial "soul" and its freedom.

I wholeheartedly second Michael's important reminder that there are a number of practices that aid in community formation and can prevent historical amnesia -- without these, creeds can become mere verbal formulas that can be wielded unscrupulously and/or in the same flat-footed manner in which a literalist approaches scripture. (The Apostle's creed was originally a baptismal formula, the primary issues hammered out in the early ecumenical creeds were live issues because of existing devotional practices). I see absolutely nothing in Beth's column that implies an endorsement of a creed in the wooden sense you so fear.

I'm not saying this makes you a hypocrite or completely undermines your argument, but your response to Beth is, in the way you're using the term, creedal. You're clearly saying, "she's really not one of us and ABP should not risk presenting her views as such."

I guess there's no use in denying that there are fairly significant "sides" among us exiled former Southern Baptists. Like I said, I'm a former BJC intern like yourself, and I consider Dr. Dunn an important friend and mentor. But I do think that the rhetoric of recent intra-baptist battles doesn't help us as Baptists engage in prophetic yet self-critical conversations with other Christians about what it means to be the faithful people of God in our time.

Lots more to say, but this is the comment section of a blog, after all......

6:19 AM

Anonymous Greg Tomlin said...

Aaron and MW-W:

Earlier I wrote that confessions NOT ONLY teach Orthodoxy, as the writers understand it. But they also exclude. Consider the First London Confession, since it has been named already. Yes, they wanted to distinguish themselves from Anabaptists. But the goal was hardly to demonstrate that they were like the COE, the Presbyterians, the Puritans or the Separatists. In fact, they held significantly different doctrinal positions.

Here are some:

1. They believed that the Bible was a sufficient guide for the church, a peculiar people belonging to Christ and not to the government in any way. So the government had no say in church affairs.

2. Baptism for believers, by immersion.

3. They denied that it was necessary to impose the Decalogue in order to create a climate for conversion. They didn't believe also that it had any power to rule over the believer's lives. This goes back to Conrad Grebel really, the Anabaptist, who in his letter to Muntzer was shocked that he had set up "the tablets" to govern. The New Testament laws of loving God and one's neighbor, they thought, were sufficient.

4. They also denied that the Old Testament was foundational in any way for the New Testament.

5. They said that ministers of all denominations that baptized infants were false ministers, and not really ministers of the gospel at all. They also denied that these churches were true churches, and that the people in them were among the saints. Here, they are denying the notion of an invisible church, classically understood, because they thought that salvation should bring people into a New Testament practice of the faith.

6. They denied the concept of prophecy in pedobaptism. And they also don't deal with the death of infants and their salvation or damnation.

7. They denied apostolic succession as necessary for the authority of the church. In other words, there was no need for Rome, the COE, or any other group to make a direct connection to Christ. They taught that the true succession was the result of the true gospel being preached. There might be long periods of history where the true gospel wasn't preached except in a very few places.

8. They denied the papacy, and said that the church existed for the saints, rather than the saints existing for the church.

9. They denied that the ordinances had any meaning because they were administered by a corporate church (presumed to be Christ's body). They emphasized the true church, comprised of baptized believers, and that gave the ordinances legitimacy.

So in all of this, I see that they are more distinguishing themselves than they are saying that they, as Baptists, are like the other peoples in England (COE, Presbyterians, Puritans, and Separatists).


7:31 AM

Anonymous Greg Tomlin said...

I just realized that in saying "they denied" so much, it makes it sound like these "denials" are written expressly into the Confession. They are not worded that way. That is my language, meaning that they had excluded these concepts, seen as normative by other groups' statements of faith, such as the COE, the Puritans, the Separatists. Their language is, of course, much more positive. But this is the gist of what they are saying. "This is our belief, and the rest of you have it wrong."


7:44 AM


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