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.