Well, it finally happened.
A summer gathering of Baptists is uniting around, of all things, a creed. We should have seen it coming. Baptist “moderates” have been warning for years about the dangers of creeds. Creeds replace Christ as Lord over the Christian, they said. There’s no need for a creed when we have the Bible, they said. Creeds violate the “soul competency” of the individual believer exercising his priesthood before God. That’s why it is so surprising that the creedalists this summer aren’t meeting at the Southern Baptist Convention. They’re at the Baptist World Alliance (BWA).
According to the Biblical Recorder newspaper, a group of Baptist professors—including several scholars related to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship—have asked the BWA to recite the Apostle’s Creed at next year’s 100th anniversary convocation. The BWA agreed to include the recitation in the opening session of the meeting. The move comes after the SBC’s June decision to sever ties with the global body.
In one sense, this should come as no surprise. After all, 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” (Romans 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.
During the SBC inerrancy controversy, moderate Russell Dilday, then president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, defended his faculty against charges of liberalism by noting that all of them were in line with the Baptist Faith and Message (1963). Moreover, there is not a Baptist church—of any theological stripe—anywhere in the world that does not practice “creedalism” of some kind or other, and rightly so. A Voodoo priest might be a “competent soul,” but just watch what happens when he tries to bite the head off a live chicken at Vacation Bible School. Even in the most liberal Baptist church, an offertory prayer ending with “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet” will result in a special-called deacons’ meeting.
The Apostles’ Creed is an early and beautiful expression of what Jude calls “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The Apostles’ Creed defined orthodox Christianity against false teachings masquerading as Christian truth. Against the heretics of the day, it affirmed the personality and triune nature of God, the virginal conception, the visible Second Coming, the resurrection from the dead, and so forth. In the same fashion, the Nicene Creed defined what Christians meant by the deity and humanity of Christ over against the dangerous doctrines on either side of that question.
Despite what so many on the Baptist left have said over the past several years, the Baptist Faith and Message functions in precisely the same way. After all, there was “anti-creedalism” in the days of the early church confessions of faith too. They asked: why not just coalesce around “Jesus is Lord”? The church rightly concluded that a common confession required definitions of “Jesus” and “lordship” in order to make that claim. The Gnostics could affirm: “I believe in God.” What they could not say is “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
The same is true now. We live in an age when so many claiming to be “Christians” and “Baptists” believe in “God the Father” while believing He is “Mother” too. They believe in the “Almighty” but they don’t believe He knows the future. They believe in the “virgin birth”—but only as a metaphysical metaphor. Moreover, many of these same leaders argue that not all human beings are persons in the image of God and that Scripture is simply wrong when it sets the boundaries of human sexuality.
The early church fathers didn’t have to worry about paying white supremacists to preach a hate-filled “gospel” on foreign shores—but Southern Baptists once did. But with a confession of faith that affirms the gospel for all races and nations, that kind of poisonous teaching is beyond the bounds of our cooperative mission.
The Patristic-era churches did not worry that their faculty members might advocate on “biblical” grounds the abortion of pre-born children. But, as we have seen in the past 25 years, Southern Baptists have had to confront such heresy. Now we have confessed together precisely what we believe about human life.
The problem with the “anti-creedalists” is never the idea of a creed. Most of them are perfectly happy with the last confession adopted. Instead, they fear attention being called to the point where they deviate from Scripture—and it is usually exactly where the culture is raging against the Christian Gospel at the moment.
So two cheers for the BWA. Maybe the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed will put away all this nonsense about “no creed but the Bible.” Maybe it will refocus the BWA leadership on what Baptists have always known—there is no cooperation without a common confessional conviction. And maybe one day the BWA will move away from the ambiguity of a “creedless” bureaucracy toward a defined orthodox Baptist witness in the world. If that happens, I think you will see Southern Baptists ready to join back up—though not a minute sooner.
And if that happens, by the way, we’ll be happy to recite the creed.
Russell D. Moore is dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.