It’s time to set the record straight. Baptists are not anti-creedal. Or at least, they shouldn’t be.
Perhaps you have heard Christians (most likely a baptist) assert, ‘no creed but Christ’ or ‘no creed but the Bible’.
Both of these sayings sound appealing. Which Baptist is going to set up an authority on par with the Lord Jesus Christ? Who would argue that the Church has an authority equal to or greater than Holy Scripture? A desire to preserve the authority of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture is noble and right. The rightful Lord of the church is Jesus Christ and the Bible is God’s final, full and sufficient word. Unfortunately, despite their appeal, these creedal mantras present a false equivalence not intended by Creeds and Confessions, they fail to recognise that all Christians are creedal by definition, and they ignore the fact that historically many Baptists wrote and affirmed confessions of faith.
To begin with, throughout our 400 years Baptists have written and given ascent to many Confessions of faith. It is true that many have opposed written and formalised statements of faith, and many others welcomed such agreed formulations.
Even today some baptists are strident in their rejection of Creeds and Confessions. My understanding is that in Australia only one State Baptist Union includes a reference to the rejection of creeds or confessions. They do so, despite requiring all constituents to affirm a doctrinal basis.
One of the earliest figures associated with the birth of baptists is John Smyth. In 1609, Smyth wrote a confession of faith, although he never published it. Some of Smyth’s ideas though became untenable for many Englishmen who had moved to Amsterdam with him. Smyth became a Mennonite and many of his followers eventually split with him and returned to England where they (under Thomas Helwys) established the first Baptist Church. Smyth was so concerned to avoid liturgy (which he believed stifled the work of the Spirit) that he did not permit the Bible to be read in the gathering. Either way, Smyth is hardly the baptist example par excellence.
In 1611 Thomas Helwys wrote a declaration of faith for English Baptists living in Amsterdam. Since then, no fewer than 50 Baptist Confessions of faith have been written, published and affirmed by various baptists across the centuries. Both the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) and the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833/1853) remain in use today across many baptist networks. In other words, any blanket statement about baptists being anti-creedal cannot be sustained. The historical record demonstrates that Baptists are among the most prolific writers of confessions among all Christian denominations. And these do not include all the statements of faith and doctrinal bases that are in use today across baptist fellowships.
When baptists speak of creeds and confessions, the correct description ought to be, many baptists adhere to confessions and creeds while others do not, and at times, both groups live and serve together.
We have answered the question, are baptists anti-creedal. The next question is, should baptists be anti-creedal?
In 2004, Russell Moore made the observation,
“all Christians are, by definition, “creedalists.” After all, the Spirit tells us that the regenerate person must “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead” (Rom 10:9 ESV). All Baptists are, by definition, “creedalists” since our name signifies that we share a belief about the meaning of baptism in identification with Christ. This is where the shell game hypocrisy of the “anti-creedal” Baptists is so disingenuous.”
Since the earliest days of the Church there has been a standard of belief, a statement of foundational truths required by churches. Even the New Testament gives us evidence of such statements. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.”
Laying behind the anti-creedal movement may be a concern to preserve the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and to uphold Christ’s authority. Far from undermining these, Creed and Confessions, if they’re doing their job, will articulate and support these fundamental elements of the Christian Church. More often, or at least in contemporary situations, the issue is admitting that there are crucial points of doctrine where baptists no longer agree and then having to face the question of what to do next. Confessions and Creeds require agreement and commonality, whereas ‘no creed by Christ or the Bible’ is sufficiently vague so as to include all manner of weird, wonderful and downright heterodox positions. Whereas Creeds and Confessions require settled teaching, there is another “baptist” value that pushes against this, namely that the Spirit of God has new truths to enlighten us. This particular “baptist” distinction is one that I’ll respond to on another occasion for it is as historically controversial as is the question of creeds. Hence the use of inverted commas.
Creeds and Confessions of faith have long played a significant role for churches in articulating faith and doctrine, and in the formation of partnerships and unions. They are not infallible documents as is Scripture, but they can serve as faithful witnesses to and summaries of the Apostolic faith and of teachings crucial to the Church. A church that disconnects itself from historic Christianity is likely to move away from the faith once for all delivered. Is it any wonder that baptists can reject the bodily resurrection of Christ and still remain in union? Should it surprise anyone that penal substitutionary atonement, while formally declared in the ABM doctrinal basis, can be thrown out by some as an abhorrent teaching and yet happily fellowship together?
Creeds and Confessions alike can serve churches in these 4 helpful ways:
First, they ground our churches in the historic faith. They remind us that we are not separate from or distinct from faithful churches who have gone before us over the millennia; we share the same apostolic faith.
Second, they serve as a buttress, helping to preserve a church’s theological convictions. They give churches a reference point for summarising foundational beliefs and distinctives. Somewhat ironic, for all the talk about not relying on confessions, many Baptists are right now rushing about drafting statements of belief in relation to sex, gender, and marriage.
Third, such statements serve to aid the memory and function as useful catechizing tools.
Fourth, they serve to unify the church. For example, when we recite the Apostles Creed at church, with one voice we are affirming the faith that we hold together.
The next time a baptist looks you in the eye and with confidence tells you, baptists have no creed but Christ, perhaps ask them, which baptists? And then, if conversation permits, explore with them the reasons behind their objections.