Thursday, June 21, 2012

The New Credalism: The Baptist Faith and Message of 2000

Understanding Fundamentalism Series
Part 1 - Understanding Fundamentalism
Part 2 - Baptist Distinctives and the Fundamentalism Movement
Part 3 - Preserving Unity:  The Baptist Faith and Message of 1925
Part 4 - Censoring Higher Education:  The Baptist Faith and Message of 1963
Part 5 - The New Credalism:  The Baptist Faith and Message of 2000
Part 6 - Fundamentalism and the Future of Baptist Higher Education

The two prior versions of The Baptist Faith and Message, in 1925 and 1963, responded to the fundamentalist crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention by working to bridge the gap between Southern Baptists who were at odds with one another.  Led by Southern Seminary president E. Y. Mullins, the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message sought to preserve historic Baptist distinctives—especially soul freedom—as it balanced the need to clarify the Southern Baptist identity.  The 1925 BFM was influenced by fundamentalism (evident especially in its shift toward a strong supernaturalism), but it chose to include a moderated form of the Social Gospel and intentionally left out any condemnation of evolution.  Initially, it appeared as if the compromise worked, but at the annual meeting in 1926, fundamentalists introduced and passed a resolution condemning evolution, a more restrictive view that became the official SBC interpretation of the new confession.

Then, in 1961, the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis (and the possibility of allowing for evolution) rocked the convention with controversy again.  In response to this new crisis, Southern Baptists revised the Baptist Faith and Message in 1963.  The new BFM placed a heavy emphasis on the Lordship of Christ as another means of preserving unity; though, the language of Jesus' lordship also recalled fundamentalist objections to Elliott's work (in which the doctrine was inextricably tied to a literal reading of the Bible).  The new BFM also added to the article on "Education" a statement that "there should be a proper balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility"[1]—effectively legitimizing the objections and tactics of the fundamentalists in removing Ralph Elliott from his position, banning his book in all but name only, and manipulating the board of trustees at Midwestern Seminary.  This time, the unity achieved by conceding higher education to the fundamentalist faction lasted only a few years.

The Inerrancy Controversy
It was not long after the Elliott Controversy that another battle broke out among the Southern Baptists concerning the accuracy of the Bible.  Nearly all Baptists agreed that the Bible was “without any mixture of error,” but the various groups involved interpreted this phrase very differently [2].  The moderate movement maintained that the Bible was authoritative and free from all error but not necessarily inerrant, that its purpose was theological not scientific.  However, inerrantists, influenced by dispensationalist interpretations of God’s supernatural involvement in history, insisted that it contained no error on any grounds whatsoever [3].  It would be in this controversy that the fruit of the fundamentalist movement could be seen most clearly in Southern Baptist life.

In 1973, only ten years after the Committee on the Baptist Faith and Message had affirmed the 1963 BFM, a fundamentalist group known as the Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship formed to ensure that SBC organizations met the terms of the new confession.  Led by Paige Patterson, a Dallas theologian, and Paul Pressler, a Houston judge, they recognized that structure of national convention gave enormous power to the president.  A concerted, organized effort to elect sympathizing presidents who would appoint only fundamentalists to the boards of the denomination's various agencies could transform the convention in ten years.  At the annual SBC meeting in 1979 in Houston, Texas, the orchestrations of Patterson and Pressler led to the election of Adrian Rogers to the presidency.

Accordingly, Rogers instituted a policy of only appointing trustees to the denomination's boards who supported the fundamentalist agenda and goals.  Moderates were caught by surprise at the sudden support for the fundamentalist cause.  Fundamentalists claimed that the SBC needed to return to the historic doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture.  They controlled the terms of the debate by contending that anyone who did not believe in the doctrine of inerrancy denied the authority and truth of the Bible.  Moderates countered by claiming that the takeover was about restructuring the power base of the SBC rather than about the Bible.  Both sides became embroiled in a fierce and very personal debate.  Moderates were offended that their love and admiration for the Bible was being attacked by those they considered brothers and sisters, and fundamentalists believed that they were purifying the denomination of doctrinal heresy [4].

Though its seeds were planted much earlier, the official beginning of the Inerrancy Controversy was the election of Adrian Rogers to the presidency of the SBC in 1979.  Since his election, not a single non-fundamentalist has been elected to preside over the convention, and each president has continued to pursue the policy of only appointing those who are in agreement with the fundamentalist cause to the boards of the various denominational agencies [5].  Though the battles would continue for many years after, Patterson and Pressler were successful in institutionalizing fundamentalist leadership within five years of beginning their plan.  The denomination which once prided itself on its ability to balance theological diversity and cooperation in missions was splitting apart, now controlled by what was formerly a minority tradition.

The Creed of 2000
Whereas the confessions of 1925 and 1963 were primarily concerned with negotiating between various groups within the denomination for the sake of Christian unity, the adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000 focused on the consolidation of power within the denomination's new direction.  Prior to its adoption, fundamentalists attempted to use the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message to force agreement among Southern Baptists through narrow interpretations of its statements.  No longer was it the expression of a general consensus among Baptists; rather, it was a tool used to enforce a particular interpretation of theology and the Scriptures.

Given the inadequacy of using the 1963 BFM beyond its intended purpose, a new committee was formed.  It went beyond simple revisions to the 1963 or 1925 confessions toward a re-envisioning of Baptist theology in light of the fundamentalist movement.  The committee was chaired by Adrian Rogers and included other noted fundamentalists such as Richard Land and Al Mohler [6].  The new statement was approved at the Convention meeting in Orlando in 2000.

The 2000 BFM stressed two issues that had been concerns for the fundamentalists during the Inerrancy Controversy:  (1) the absolute authority of the Bible and (2) doctrinal accountability.  Though the changes were not as dramatic as those in 1963, the Orlando confession had wider implications for Baptist theology:

Intending to reinforce an inerrantist interpretation of the 2000 confession, the article on “The Scriptures” made three substantive alterations.  In the 1963 BFM, the Bible is referred to as "the record of God’s revelation of Himself," but the new statement drops the phrase "the record" to say that the Bible is "God's revelation of himself" [7].  Seemingly a minor change, in the mind of fundamentalists the word "record" implied that the Bible was not the direct revelation of God but something less.

The 2000 BFM chose language that was definitive but not inclusive.  This contention became painfully clear when Texas pastor Anthony Sisemore spoke to the BFM committee in protest of this change:
Without any hesitation, I believe the Bible is God’s word, and I strive to obey the standards it prescribes.  The Bible is a book we can trust.  The Bible is a book that points toward the Truth.  With that being said, the Bible is still just a book.  Christians are supposed to have a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Living Word, not a book.  Jesus Christ redeems us, not a book. [8]
Al Mohler replied, "The Bible is not merely a record.  It is the revelation of God" [9].  In support of this idea, the committee added a sentence to the article on "The Scriptures" that made a stronger statement of biblical authority—"Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy," implying a strict and contentious interpretation of inerrancy.

Moreover, Jesus was placed in a secondary position to the Bible.  Originally, Christ was the interpreter of Scripture, but the positions were reversed so that Scripture interpreted Christ.  "All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation," replaced "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ."  For the 1963 confession, the Lordship of Christ had been used to bring fundamentalists and moderates together, but in 2000 the authority of the Bible was used to divide them.  Mohler himself acknowledged this, calling the distinction a "magnificent textbook illustration of why we had a denominational struggle," and pointed out that "there are two different visions of Baptist life and the Baptist faith" [10].  Yet, in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, one vision was prioritized and the other excluded, and that distinction demonstrated the normative, defining nature of the new Southern Baptist statement of faith.

Doctrinal accountability also made its mark on the Orlando confession, especially in the articles on "The Church" and the Preamble.  Both the 1963 and the 2000 BFM affirm the autonomy of the local church; however, in the 2000 statement individual members of the congregation are placed in a secondary position to the congregation as a whole.  The phrase characterizing church members as "committed to His teachings” in 1963 was replaced by "governed by His laws" in 2000 (a restoration to the 1925 statement).  Additionally, church members were no longer "equally responsible" to one another; rather, "each member is responsible" to Christ.  These changes, though subtle, demonstrate a more hierarchical view of the local church.

Furthermore, the Preamble to the 2000 BFM most explicitly affirms the normative, defining nature of the new Southern Baptist statement of faith:
Baptist churches, associations, and general bodies have adopted confessions of faith as a witness to the world, and as instruments of doctrinal accountability. We are not embarrassed to state before the world that these are doctrines we hold precious and as essential to the Baptist tradition of faith and practice. [11]
Pastor and Southwestern Seminary adjunct professor Bruce Prescott argued against the new vision during the annual meeting saying, "This committee defines soul competency as 'under the church,' and accountable to each others' interpretation of the Word of God" [12].

These shifts in Southern Baptist theology are consistent with the definition of the priesthood of all believers that the fundamentalist-led convention adopted in the middle of the Inerrancy Controversy.  In San Antonio in 1988, Resolution No. 5 became the official interpretation of the historic Baptist doctrine, stating that,
     WHEREAS, The priesthood of the believer is a term which is subject to both misunderstanding and abuse; and…
     WHEREAS, The doctrine of the priesthood of the believer can be used to justify the undermining of pastoral authority in the local church.
     …Be it therefore 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 to the local church in Hebrews13:17. [13]
According to this interpretation, the individual’s moral right to ascertain the truth of the Bible for himself or herself is subject to the interpretations of those in authority over her.  Though not explicitly creedal, Southern Baptist theology has been radically altered.  In contrast to the confessions of 1925 and 1963, the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message chose to define—rather than to describe—Southern Baptists and their theology.

Baptist Distinctives and Fundamentalism
The effect of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message can be seen on all four Baptist distinctives.  Soul freedom, Bible freedom, and church freedom have been placed under the authority of the pastor and the Baptist Faith and Message.  Even religious freedom, the hallmark of Baptist contributions to society, has been watered down with statements on abortion and euthanasia in “The Christian and the Social Order.”

The priesthood of all believers, while an ideal to strive after and attain, is no longer a reality in Southern Baptist life.  It is important to recognize that the twin emphases of the new statement of faith—the absolute authority of the Bible and doctrinal accountability—do not limit Baptist freedoms in and of themselves.  Rather, they are the tools used by fundamentalists to undermine four centuries of Baptist witness to the freedom of every person to respond to God authentically and individually.

Baptist distinctives—based upon this understanding of soul freedom—were in direct conflict with the aims and goals of the fundamentalist movement within SBC life.  From the 1920s forward to today, the emphasis on aggressive, militant opposition to perceived doctrinal impurity is in direct conflict with Baptist understandings of freedom.  As a result, the Southern Baptist Convention has become more centralized—a creedal institution.  The effect on Baptist distinctives has been devastating.


  1. The Baptist Standard, “Comparison of 1925, 1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message,” The Baptist Standard Online [database on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 6 November 2004.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Bill J. Leonard, God’s Last & Only Hope: The Fragmentation of the Southern Baptist Convention (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 136-7.
  4. Ibid., 140-142.
  5. Ibid., 139.
  6. John Yeats, "Definitely a Defining Moment," The Baptist Messenger [database on-line], 22 June 2000; available from; Internet; accessed 6 November 2004.
  7. "Comparison."
  8. Marv Knox, “Sisemore defines Bible Statement,” The Baptist Standard Online [database on-line], 10 July 2000; available from; Internet; accessed 6 November 2004.
  9. Mark Wingfield, “What Would Jesus Do? Vs. What Does Bible Say?” The Baptist Standard Online [database on-line], 19 June 2000; available from; Internet; accessed 6 November 2004.
  10. Wingfield.
  11. "Comparison."
  12. The Baptist Messenger, “SBC Messengers Overwhelmingly Approve BF&M Revisions, Despite Some Misgivings,” The Baptist Messenger [database on-line], 22 June 2000; available from; Internet; accessed 6 November 2004.
  13. Fred Wolfe, Resolution No. 5, Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention 1988, by the Southern Baptist Convention (Nashville: Executive Committee, SBC, 1988), 69.

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