Growing up and serving in Landmark Baptist churches in the Deep South, a document entitled “Church Covenant” hung on a wall somewhere in the auditorium. If someone had suggested removing it from its place of prominence, it would have been equal to telling grandma she had to relocate from her “spot” on her pew. Yet, for a document possessing a fixed place of prominence in these churches, it had little meaning to the life of the church. This covenant was a decorative ornament that people looked at but had no bearing on the life of the church or the individual members. As an ornament, it was perfectly fine. But mention that it should be enforced and you’d be looked at as if you were from Mars. This same attitude marks many Baptists (especially Southern Baptists) when it comes to creeds (for this article, I use creeds as synonymous with confessions of faith).
Believers are called to be good stewards of truth, teach the sound words of the faith, and protect the good deposit entrusted to the people of God. Creeds are statements of belief that unite people in the truth and that expose error. These statements have long been used in Baptist life for these purposes including to say that a person or church no longer holds to the Baptist faith. In Baptist history, the pseudo-Baptist position of creeds being mere decorations containing broad doctrinal suggestions has opened the door to much error. Due to the unique polity of Baptists, a tension exists at times between respecting the priesthood of all believers while at the same time emphasizing creedal truth as setting forth boundaries to guard the church. While this tension should be respected, Baptists must continue be a creedal people.
Baptists and Creeds: A Complicated Relationship
In his three-volume work on Baptists, Tom Nettles pushes back on the popular belief throughout the last century that soul competency/soul freedom/liberty of conscience is the premier marker of Baptist identity. The reason many hold this view is to escape the authority of creeds. Thus, while Baptists might have employed creeds, Baptists never actually held those documents to be used in any sort of official capacity. For the anti-creedal, to use a creed as a binding document with a disciplinary element is to act in an un-Baptist way. Nettles disputes this claim. Pushing back on the notion that creedalism violates Baptist norms, Nettles writes:
Issues of church purity and individual clarity of conscience have prompted Baptists from the earliest days to produce confessions of faith. The confessions have been used, not only as personal declarations, but as documents of formative and corrective discipline. The disciplinary use of confessions seems to be one of the most offensive and misunderstood elements of the historic Baptist witness.
Baptist churches and associations, both in England and America, wrote confessions to bind the churches together in matters of faith and practice. The Particular Baptists of the 17th century published the 1st London Baptist Confession of Faith and the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith. The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith would become the basis for the Philadelphia Baptist Confession of Faith and the Charleston Baptist Confession of Faith. The General Baptists in the 17th century also published two confessions of faith: Standard Confession and An Orthodox Creed.
These confessions were not created as academic tomes for the research department of an academic institution. These documents played a part in the growing development of Baptist polity on both sides of the Atlantic. The vast majority of Baptists embraced and supported the use of confessions in the life of their local church and association. Associations required churches to present some type of confessional or creedal statement to judge whether that church conformed to the faith and practice of that association. Such actions by associations demonstrated an expected uniformity both in what a church believed and how a church behaved. This expectation at an associational level mirrored a local church’s expectations for members regarding belief and behavior.
Baptist usage of creeds developed out of Baptist ecclesiology. The argument that creeds infringed upon soul freedom was foreign to most Baptists historically. Polity was a distinctive marker of Baptist identity, and creeds were a component of that polity. Creeds protected and promoted polity by helping to maintain purity—false teachers must be marked out. With a written creed and affirmation of that creed, pastors, teachers, and churches were bound to live within that boundary. “No creed but Christ” did not arise out of the historic Baptist movement but from charismatic dissenters such as Alexander Campbell. Campbell decried creeds for being Calvinistic (which he was not) and exposed his divergent views from the Baptist community. A majority of Baptists pushed back on this aberrant view by disfellowshipping churches who followed Campbell. Associations also disfellowshipped churches that renounced their creedal affirmation. As Greg Wills points out, “Baptists believed that without a creed a church lacked theological stability and would drift into heresy. More commonly they concluded that a church that rescinded its creed probably had embraced heresy already.”
Throughout the 19th century, Baptists in America promoted and utilized creeds. Church manuals written by James M. Pendleton, William Crowell, J. Newton Brown, Edward Hiscox, and James L. Reynolds all included sections and statements in support of creeds in Baptist churches. These men hailed from the North and the South showing the broad support for Baptist creeds. Exceptions did exist such as with W.B. Johnson, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention. However, Johnson was a vocal minority among Baptists in his opposition to creeds. This was most likely due to his rejection of the traditional, confessional language used for doctrines such as the imputation of Adam’s sin and Christ’s righteousness.
The majority support for creeds being enforceable in the life of Baptists churches and cooperative work manifested itself in the work of James P. Boyce and the founding of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). James P. Boyce was the first president of Southern Seminary and the driving force behind the school’s formation in 1859. Before the seminary began, Boyce delivered an address that would serve as the framework for what a confessional institution looked like. Upon his ascent as theology professor at Furman University, Boyce delivered Three Changes in Theological Institutions in 1856. Boyce argued in this address that confessional subscription was a necessity when it came to schools training men for ministry. Boyce pointed out the error of Campbellism that had infiltrated and harmed many Baptists. After speaking of how “error usually commences” with one man of influence, Boyce declared how confessions protect and preserve. In describing the classic Baptist position, Boyce stated:
The history of our denomination in this country, furnishes an illustration. Playing upon the prejudices of the weak and ignorant among our people, decrying the creeds as an infringement upon the rights of conscience, making a deep impression by his extensive learning and great abilities, Alexander Campbell threatened at one time the total destruction of our faith.
Boyce laid out how Campbell’s work would have been more disastrous if he had chaired a department in one of the Baptist state colleges. To prevent heresy and false teachers from gaining sway, Boyce proposed that institutions require confessional subscription. In anticipation of objections, Boyce walked his audience through a history of how creeds were used as a way of affirming truth and detecting error. Noting how some in Baptist life had used liberty of conscience as a shield against creedal authority, Boyce specified that Baptists opposed the state using creeds in the form of the civil magistrate but never when it came to church and denominational governance.
Boyce argued that signing such a confessional statement was owed to the students who attended the school and to the churches who supported the school. In a very important footnote to this address, Boyce laid out that the one who taught in a school must subscribe to the confessional document and mean it. Boyce declared:
No difference, however slight, no peculiar sentiments, however speculative, is here allowable. His agreement with the standard should be exact. His declaration of it should be based upon no mental reservation, upon no private understanding with those who immediately invest him into office; but the articles to be taught having been fully and distinctly laid down, he should be able to say from his knowledge of the Word of God that he knows these articles to be an exact summary of the truth therein contained.
Boyce’s views on Baptists and creeds were the view of most of his contemporary Baptists. The Southern Baptist Convention would appoint a committee that would endorse The Abstract of Principles that became the governing confession of SBTS. Drawn from The Second London Baptist Confession, this document provided the confessional basis for the institution. As Boyce laid out in his address in 1856 at Furman, the seminary’s fundamental laws required each professor to sign their name as a testimony to their subscription to the confession. Each professor was to “teach in accordance with, and not contrary to” the confession.
Boyce’s vision became codified by the adoption and support of the seminary by the convention. By its very nature, creeds were an interpretation of biblical truth with an established meaning. These views were not novel to Boyce but only a continuance of a pattern in Baptist life. Writing nearly thirty years after the seminary began, William Cathcart stated, “The extensive use of a creed in Baptist churches should be encouraged by earnest Christians who love our Scriptural principles.” Sadly, this view would not hold as Baptists moved into the 20th century.
Baptist “Freedom” vs Creeds
The modern argument that soul freedom is the chief mark of Baptist identity was born in the 20th century. The continual progressive slide that impacted Southern Seminary highlighted what Boyce said would take place when a creed was no longer treated as a binding document. One of Boyce’s successors, E.Y. Mullins, began the practice of allowing seminary professors to redefine what the Abstract stated. In 1907, Mullins spoke to a progressive faculty candidate and described the confession as “sufficiently broad and elastic” as a way to accommodate views that were not within the confessional guidelines. Mullins shifted from Boyce on how the confession was to be understood and utilized. This was only the beginning of what would lead to progressive theology being taught and celebrated at the seminary.
By the 1980s, leaders at the seminary sounded more like Campbell than Boyce when it came to confessional subscription and the purpose of creeds. Roy Honeycutt, SBTS President from 1982-1993, argued that a creed was acceptable as long as it was not interpreted or viewed as actually being a creed. Honeycutt allowed the most liberal, broad interpretations of the Abstract which gave cover to faculty teaching in direct violation of the document. This “freedom of conscience” that men like Honeycutt appealed to was not the historical view of Baptists. Honeycutt stated his views on creeds in the following manner: “The only thing that should stand between the Baptist and the Bible is the Holy Spirit as he leads us to interpret scripture…no room for creedal statements adopted by anyone and imposed on an individual Baptist…But in principle, creeds have no place in Baptist life.” A man charged with maintaining confessional authority decried such a practice as anti-Baptist.
The unhealthy emphasis on soul liberty by Honeycutt and Mullins was always complicated by the existence of the seminary’s creedal statement. To his credit, Mullins landed more on the creedal side when the SBC adopted The Baptist Faith and Message 1925, in part due to Mullins work and support. However, even that document was phrased by Mullins and others to satisfy those who believed that being a Baptist meant freedom from any creedal boundaries. Mullins helped establish a trajectory that engulfed the seminary, and in some ways the entire denomination, that made personal experience the only true creed. The 20th century gave rise to fundamentalist biblicists and Protestant liberals who placed their experience or feelings as the confessional test for doctrine. “My God would not be this way” became the motto of liberals who decried eternal damnation in hell and fundamentalists who decried sovereign election by grace alone.
Therefore, the argument by many in Baptist life became that creeds infringed on the conscience and that was not a Baptist thing to do. Timothy George rightly pointed out that such statements from modern Baptists would cause many historic Baptists to not recognize those who called themselves followers of the Baptist way. George argued that the “no creed but Christ” sentiment in Baptist life had totally stripped the historic Baptist tenets of religious liberty and liberty of conscience out of their historic moorings. Calling it a new mythology of Baptist identity, George wrote that the “conscientious adherence to an explicit doctrinal standard is somehow foreign to the Baptist tradition is a peculiar notion not borne out by careful examination of our heritage.” That heritage influenced men like James P. Boyce and was embodied in the vision of Albert Mohler to return SBTS to historical Baptist understandings.
Returning to the Baptist Way
When Al Mohler informed SBTS professor Molly Marshall that she was teaching in violation of the Abstract in 1994, the Baptist world took notice. Mohler’s election to the presidency in 1993 marked a departure from the Mullins-Honeycutt era of non-creedal creedalism. While many saw Mohler’s actions as heralding a new day, it was really a reclaiming of the Baptist tradition. In his inaugural convocation address in 1993 entitled Don’t Just Do Something; Stand There!, Mohler reclaimed the creedal mantle of James P. Boyce. Quoting Boyce over and over, Mohler reminded faculty and students alike that the seminary was a confessional institution. The Abstract was not some ambiguous document but a precise creed. Mohler specified that “The Abstract is not something foreign which has been imposed upon the institution—it is the charter of its existence and its license to teach the ministry. Its purpose is unity, not disunity; its heart is bent toward common confession.”
Mohler saw this return of the seminary to the creedal way as the need of the larger Baptist community. So, when Mohler charged Molly Marshall with error, Marshall resigned from the seminary rather than contest the charges leveled against her. Upon her resignation, Marshall exclaimed that Mohler had violated her conscience because professors interpreted the Abstract according to “the liberty of the conscience of the faculty member.” While she was correct—this had been the practice for the preceding decades—it did not excuse the failure of seminary leadership in enforcing the school’s confession of faith. The actions of Mohler found their basis in the vision of Boyce which was the historic Baptist way. Churches, associations, denominations, and schools functioned in a Baptist way, not by “soul freedom” that said there was no definitive truth, but in a robust confessionalism that united Baptists together based upon a common confession.
The echoes of noncreedal creedalism have not been silenced. In the past few weeks, renewed attention has come to the SBC regarding the function of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. One of the largest churches cooperating with the SBC, Saddleback Church pastored by Rick Warren, publicly showcased the ordination of three women as pastors with declarations that this was a historic occasion. While Saddleback possesses the right to ordain these women as an autonomous church, Saddleback identifies as one in friendly cooperation with the SBC. The actions of this church violated the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 and should lead the convention to disfellowship the church. However, such pronouncements of the need to do so have revived the echoes of noncreedal creedalism.
Some pastors in the SBC have pushed back on the notion of using the confessional statement as a disciplinary function, especially over this issue. Some contend that the confession uses the term “pastors” in Article VI only for senior pastors and that no church should be removed from the cooperation of the SBC for ordaining women who are not holding the office of senior pastor. However, the Bible does not speak of “senior pastor” as an office, only pastor or bishop. The Baptist Faith & Message followed the historic Baptist confessions in the language used in this article. In a way reminiscent of Molly Marshall’s charge that Al Mohler could have no official interpretation of the Abstract, these pastors are asserting that the SBC cannot disfellowship a church over an official interpretation of the Baptist Faith & Message.
As in the 20th century, a sector in Baptist life continues to say that creeds should never function as creeds in denominational life. A creed can be admired and hung on the wall, but it cannot mean anything specific. Furthermore, some have declared that we should not divide over matters of polity. While there are some polity matters that should not be tests of fellowship (such as open or closed communion), who can be ordained to the pastorate is a test of fellowship within a denomination. Of all Protestant groups, Baptists were (and I pray will be again) the most committed to a New Testament polity with no apologies in being specific on what we believe about the church.
A well-written creed is itself an interpretation because it uses words about the Bible and defines what the Bible is saying. A creed adopted by an organization, church, association, or convention is an official interpretation, and it must be the basis for cooperation. Southern Baptists are again confronted with the following question: will cooperation be rooted upon a pragmatism for the sake of missions at the expense of doctrinal unity as expressed in the common creed? While I am aware of the language used in the by-laws of the convention surrounding the usage of the Baptist Faith and Message that does not make formal confessional subscription a prerequisite for denominational cooperation, there is no doubt that many Baptists still retain a fondness for the noncreedal creedalism of previous generations. This debate is not new. Every individual, church, entity, and institution possesses a creed though not everyone abides by it. The question is whether it actually means anything. Baptists historically believed that creeds do mean something. It is time for Baptists to once and for all reject the notion of non-creedal creeds that mean nothing in the life of the church and association. It is time for Baptists to reclaim the mantle of our forebears and be a creedal, confessional people with a definitive stance regarding doctrine and practice. This is the true Baptist way.
 Thomas J. Nettles, The Baptists: Beginnings in Britain (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 46.
 For the contents of these confessions and their background, see William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1959).
 Greg Wills, “The Church,” in Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life, ed. Mark Dever (Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001), 28.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 30-31.
 Ibid., 31-32.
 James P. Boyce, “Three Changes in Theological Institutions,” in Confessing the Faith: The Living Legacy of Southern Seminary’s Abstract of Principles, ed. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (Louisville, KY: SBTS Press, 2016), 170.
 Ibid., 175.
 Ibid., 169.
 Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 40.
 William Cathcart, Baptist Encyclopedia, (Philadelphia, Louis H. Everts, 1881), 294.
 Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009, 515.
 Ibid., 517.
 Timothy George, “Introduction,” in Baptist Confessions, Covenants, and Catechisms, ed. Timothy and Denise George (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 3.
 R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Inaugural Convocation Address,” in Confessing the Faith: The Living Legacy of Southern Seminary’s Abstract of Principles, ed. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (Louisville, KY: SBTS Press, 2016), xxiv.
 Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009, 520.
 See this article from Albert Mohler on this issue: https://albertmohler.com/2021/05/10/women-pastors-women-preachers-and-the-looming-test-of-the-southern-baptist-convention