Friday, April 20, 2012

Bible Freedom

Baptists did not write the bible.

No, indeed, we did not. We inherited it from the larger church and we still share it with them. And as such as the story goes, it would be irresponsible to claim we are the only ones who know what to do with it or what truth comes out of it.

As Shurden breaks it  down, Bible freedom means a few things:

Bible freedom means freedom under the Lordship of Christ.

Historically, Baptists have also affirmed the preeminence of Christ over the words on the page. However, in 2000 (post-takeover) the Baptist Faith and Message was changed from saying Jesus is the "criterion by which the bible is to be interpreted" to "all scripture is a testimony to Christ." This is a small change, except that many of the most political stances which come from the bible have been fought against with the claim-- well, Jesus never said anything about that. But, no longer! For Jesus is no longer the rule, but only the message. Now, we can remake Jesus into whatever message we find in the bible.

The 2000 BF&M also removed the clause on the authority of Jesus, "The sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is Jesus Christ"which is found in the 1963 version.

So there have been some interesting changes to make the current interpretation of the words of the Bible lord, instead of making Jesus lord. This was not the spirit of Bible freedom.

So now, the static words of the page have been exalted over the dynamic presence of Christ, restricting freedom of interpretation. That's why so many institutions which stay affiliated with their convention are going through a sort of doctrinal purging. No longer are we free to interpret, we are stuck in our old understandings and knowing exactly what the bible means already.

Bible freedom means freedom to obey the word.

Something we seem to have forgotten: the word of God is not the Bible. The Word of God is Jesus Christ. But God has certainly promised to speak through the Bible, and through the words on the page, the living and active Word of God may be heard.

That is not to say the Bible is unimportant. By no means. The scriptures testify to Christ, and as such, they are the sole authority for Baptists. (Although, for this idea we probably need to thank Luther more than any of our specific founding forerunners.)

But listen to what Shurden says about the founding Baptists and their understanding of the truth gleaned from the Bible:

"For Baptists, the Bible is and always has been the final authority... the Bible is final, but human understanding of the Bible is never final or complete or finished... Baptists did not begin and apparently did not intend to live out their faith as a static, rigidly fixed, inflexible group of disciples. They did not arrive at The truth in every area of life and then determine to pass it on to succeeding generations. What they arrived at was an attitude of openness to the ongoing study of the Bible..."
He goes on to quote from the 1963 BF&M which discusses a living faith rooted in Jesus who is ever the same. Thus, the authority is Jesus. "A living faith must experience a growing understanding of truth and must be continually interpreted and related to the needs of each new generation."

Yes! That is what Baptists were saying about themselves in 1963! Of course, that statement has been revised in the 2000 BF&M to say, "Our living faith is established on eternal truths," which sounds similar, but is just different enough to sound a lot more like, "We aren't wrong... for eternity."

Remaining true to Bible freedom not only allows, but encourages diversity. Yes, this is dangerous, but the alternative is to become stagnant and irrelevant unto death "resulting from unbending dogmatism." As Shurden says, "Built into [this approach] is the idea that our understandings of the Bible change... with this birthright of freedom and faithfulness... no Christian communion should be better able to meet the changing challenges of the contemporary world than Baptists."

Although recently Bible freedom has been hidden away under disguised creedalism, it is one of our most precious gifts and should be celebrated-- especially for those looking to prepare the leaders of tomorrow in a Liberal Arts University.

To be a people free to change and respond to the changes of life is to be the exact people of faith who can take seriously both faith and education. I do not need to fear the coming together of my faith and learning because my faith is flexible and will not break. I am free to respond to everything I learn, trusting that God is faithful. Perhaps this is what our founding Baptists had in mind in 1910 when they chose a University over a seminary for their little state.

Bible freedom means freedom from all other authorities.

Believe it or not, Baptists are non-creedal people. That does not mean they reject the ancient creeds of faith, but rather that no document (even the BF&M) is the norm for Baptist beliefs. Only the Bible can be that.

To be sure, Baptists have confessions. But those are expressions of what certain Baptists believed at a certain time. They are in no way normative for the whole of the Baptist church. Even the BF&M is actually titled, "A statement of the Baptist Faith and Message." It is only a statement--  not a creed. Even the 2000 BF&M says that it is not complete or infallible and Baptists should be free to revise it whenever it seems wise or expedient to do so. Further, the BF&M should not "hamper freedom of thought or investigation."

But what has happened? As Shurden puts it, the story usually goes like this. 1) Strong statement of aversion to any creed in favor of freedom. 2) A group arises which calls for strict orthodoxy. 3) This group issues a call for a statement to safeguard orthodoxy. 4) They call for the imposition of such a statement to guarantee orthodoxy. -- Now we are creedal.

This is exactly what happened at the SBC seminaries, post-takeover. Suddenly professors were required to sign documents detailing specific beliefs about gender and other peripheral matters. This is what is happening at Shorter with the lifestyle statement. This is what's happening at OBU with Dr. Norman's crazy ideological barrage of interview questions. It is NOT Baptist, it is fundamentalist.

Thus, if professors at any Baptist institution are asked to sign anything which is not the Bible itself, the institution is no longer acting Baptist.

Finally, Bible freedom means freedom of interpretation.

It is the right and responsibility of each individual to seek and find their own understanding of the Bible.

It does not mean anything goes. Rather it means that the Bible should be taken seriously and our best scholarship should be used to understand it.

It seems to me that a Baptist University is the best place to do that. There, we may seek to learn in order that we may better understand our Holy Book. We may disagree and discuss and come to varying conclusions, but that is the only way to take this most important document seriously.

So letting Dr. Norman, or Anthony Jordan, or the BGCO, or the BF&M, or any other authority interpret the Bible for us is not only against what it means to be educated, it is against what it means to be Baptist. The two ideals go hand in hand. Because we take seriously the rights and freedoms of each individual to come to this book with their own mind and conscience, we must educate them.

If we decide we already knows what it means, we are not only being bad students, we are being bad Baptists.

Sources: Shurden, Walter B. The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys Pub, 1993.


  1. The problem with the 63 BF&M was liberals would say well my Jesus does this or that. I think it is safe to say Jesus will never contradict the word of God and the word of God will never contradict Jesus. Paul said "faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God" Jesus said all Scripture reveals Him. I think the 2000 statement is correct and a lot safer than having guys be able to contradict the word and hide behind "their Jesus"

    1. Exactly. See, the problem was that "the liberals" disagreed about the interpretation of scripture with those in power and so the fundamentalists made sure to redefine the parameters to protect "orthodoxy." I suppose that is indeed "safer" but, like I said, it is not Baptist.

  2. @Anonymous and the problem with saying "never contradict the word of God" is that lots of people read the Bible in lots of different ways, and any close reading of the texts will result in various understandings, even among like minded folks. I think you are attempting to establish a standard that doesn't exist in reality. Sorry :(

    And btw, are "guys" the only folks who get to interpret the Bible? Yeah, there's another problem I won't even go into.

    If we are going to talk about "safe", I think the safest thing to do is to place the power with everyday believers, which seems much more baptist, than to entrust it to whoever is in power and their particular interpretation of texts.

  3. The problem with yalls view is this why do we even get up and preach? Why not just read a passage everyone sit in silence for a while and meditate and go on? Since the bible is dependent upon man and how many believes at the time of the reading all scriptural authority is gone in that mindset. One other thing is if you look at church history only one denomination has ever stopped the slide toward liberalism that is the SBC. All other denominations have continue down the slope until they are just shells of what they once were. The SBC has continue to flourish after the resurgence. If God is so against fundies why has the SBC propspered?

    1. The SBC is in decline (thus the desire for the name change). Far too many new churches tied to the SBC don't even want to use "Baptist" in the name. In fact, the SBC has been under fire for many years for falsifying and misrepresenting statistics of baptisms in the U.S. and through the IMB overseas.

    2. As to the question why we preach--the issue at hand is not why preach but the pastor's place in the church. Until 1988, when the SBC adopted Resolution 5, the pastor was the leader among the priests of the congregation. Those called by God led local churches, but they did not control the consciences of the individual members. This is the essential, foundational (as in every other major, historic Baptist doctrine flows from it) belief in the priesthood of all believers.

      However, Resolution 5 in 1988--a major result of the fundamentalist takeover--, changed all of that. Let me quote a little from the statement:

      "Be it further resolved, That the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer in no way contradicts the biblical understanding of the role, responsibility, and authority of the pastor which is seen in the command of the local church in Hebrews 13:17, 'Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account;' and

      Be finally resolved, That we affirm the truth that elders, or pastors, are called of God to lead the local church (Acts 20:28)."

      Now in the SBC, the role of the pastor is not just a leader, but the arbiter of the beliefs and consciences of all members of the congregation, who must "submit" to the theological views of the pastor.

      If that is one's view of the role of the pastor, then yes, why bother to preach if Save OBU gets its way. But, if you hold to historic Baptist doctrines, then preaching plays the role it held for long--stimulating believers to Christian service and helping non-believers understand the call of the kingdom of God.

  4. The SBC is not in rapid decline as others are yes it has dropped but in some ways but that is easy to understand with the fact the boomers and all are dying off. As far as authority goes as a pastor my authority does not come from the position but from the word of God in that I can proclaim it believing it to be truth. There are some absolutes in Scripture saveobu seems to want to ignore such as the fact that homosexuality is wrong. Liberals say the word is not used in the Greek however Romans 1 Paul says that unbelievers have gone against what is natural women with women men with men. That clearly prohibits it right there.

    1. @anonymous 1) is there a reason you will not use at least some sort of moniker? 2) It seems that you are the one making an issue of LGBTQ inclusive reading of texts. I think SaveOBU posted a reference to it once. Would you like to comment on the substantive posts that SaveOBU has spent extensive time highlighting the issues that arise from such a close relationship between OBU and the BGCO?

  5. You may call me "Eskimo Joe" if it pleases you. ;D

  6. To Eskimo Joe. This is a serious blog. JUST GET OFF IF YOU CANT PLAY BY THE RULES!!!


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