“What we believe…” – Is that a creed? Is it a doctrine? Or is it just “What we could agree on at the meeting”?
In this article I’m examining one specific article in one particular “Statement of Beliefs” to see what function it fills. I’ve been bothered by both the presence and the absence of such statements for various church organisations. This essay helped me to understand the dilemma I was experiencing: The way we frame these things is intended to be inclusive, but inevitably becomes an instrument of division. Because whatever we affirm in the Statement of Belief, we are automatically denying alternative points of view.
In order to assess the validity and adequacy of Article 4 of The NSW Baptist Statement of Beliefs, it is important to consider what it is attempting to achieve, and therefore its nature. Is it a creed, is it a doctrine, is it just “minutes-of-the-meeting”?
The article states:
The Divine Inspiration of the Scriptures
The Scriptures, consisting of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, are the infallible Word of God. They were written by holy people of God inspired by the Holy Spirit and have supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.
When creating, “a description of the nature and authority of Scripture” as a Statement of Beliefs, it inevitably functions as a creedal statement, even when it is not intended that way. It automatically defines “who’s in” and “who’s out”.
I attempt to use the nature and history of creeds to analyse Article 4, and although it does have an implicit creedal role it is found to be inadequate for that purpose. The function of a creed is the establishment of the lines of orthodoxy and heresy for the purpose of resolving theological disputes. Article 4 demonstrably fails to do this, leaving key contemporaneous questions unanswered.
Article 4 could alternatively be said to be the Doctrine of Scripture for the Baptist Assembly. In this case it would be an attempt to describe the Bible and its role in the church. If so, it is also lacking. It fails to define key disputed terms, and appears to differ in character from a key apostolic definition of Scripture.
The most that can be said about the validity and adequacy of Article 4 is that it faithfully represents the maximum level of agreement achieved at the 1979 Assembly. This outcome could therefore be seen as the “nature” of the Article, whether or not that was the intention. In this very limited capacity it is found to be “adequate”.
In our contemporary cultural situation, faith claims are critically analysed and deconstructed as a matter of course. The authority of religious documents such as the Bible, and institutions such as Christian denominations, do not enjoy automatic deference and recognition even amongst Christians, but rather their promoters are challenged to explain the validity and relevance of their particular claims. Article 4 of the NSW Baptist Statement of Beliefs (hereafter “Article 4”) attempts to express the collective view of the NSW Baptist Union with respect to the nature and authority of the Bible, so that the members of the institution have a common basis on which to engage with their commonly recognised sacred text. Its validity and adequacy depends on whether the result is taken to be a creedal statement, a Doctrine of Scripture, or merely a record of what was discussed at the 1979 Assembly.
What is a Creed?
Bloesch talks of the “hardening of orthodoxy into creedal formulas”, which is a normal process when alternate views are expressed and clarification is required. Creeds are generated and updated to resolve disputes, establish orthodoxy, and as a result, define heresy. The earliest creed of the Church was “Jesus Christ is Lord” (so Sider). It defined the difference between a believer and a non-believer, and was sufficient for that purpose until other questions arose. Its growth into the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Westminster Confession, and an array of other creeds can be traced by noting theological controversies such as Marcionism, Gnosticism, and later Arianism, Trinitarianism, Montanism, and various others. Each has left its particular legacy in the creeds’ wordings.
A Statement of Belief Functions like a Creed
It is helpful to see “Statements of Belief” as creeds, because that is how they function. Such statements are deliberately crafted to define what is believed, and therefore also what is not. The authors of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (Hereafter, “The Chicago Statement”), plead that they “do not propose that this Statement be given creedal weight”, but such a suggestion is simply naïve. If the authoritative voices have stated that a particular doctrine is true to the exclusion of others, then it is inevitably a creedal statement. Manley states that, “inerrancy became a touchstone of orthodoxy”, in the Southern Baptist Union, demonstrating this principle at work.
The NSW Baptist Statement of Beliefs, in the same way appears to function as a creed. It outlines 13 doctrines as statements of fact, under the heading, “What do Baptists believe?”, with the inevitable inference that if one fails to believe any one of those doctrines then one is not “a Baptist”! It may not be employed in that way in reality, but it has all the appearance of a creed to those who first see the Statement of Belief. In any case it is certainly not true to say, “Baptists have never been creedalistic” (so George). In 1679, “An Orthodox Creed” was published by Baptists in response to certain heresies and in an effort to unite Baptist groups. It is difficult to discern the difference between such a document and the “Statement of Beliefs”.
This Statement of Beliefs was formulated for Creedal reasons
Manley describes decades of polemical debate on the matter of “inerrancy” in the Australian Baptist community, both leading up to the 1979 NSW and ACT Assembly which approved Article 4, and the ongoing disputes following it. Article 4 has been crafted in the midst of a polemical dispute about the nature of the authority of Scripture, and represents an attempt to accommodate what it can, and to exclude what it must, in order to settle the controversial matters. It is possible to identify features of the landscape of the debate reflected in the final wording of the Article through its key terms: infallibility, authorship, inspiration, level of authority, and scope of authority. By comparison, in the “Orthodox Creed” of 1679, the Scriptures are assumed to be reliable because they are believed, “ex authoritate dicentis”, and Article XXXVII, entitled, “of the Sacred Scripture”, does not even address the question of the nature of that inspiration, but is very specific about the question of dreams, prophecies, and a number of alternative views on Salvation, because those were the issue of contention in the day. One is left to wonder what Article 4 of the NSW Baptist Statement would say, or indeed if there would even be such an Article if the debate had not preceded it.
As a Creed, it is inadequate
Insofar as it is a creed, however, the absence of key elements of the debate bears on the question of its adequacy. Had it included a definition of “infallible”, a clarification of “inspired”, and added references to “inerrancy”, and how inerrancy relates to details of history and science, then at least the debate would have been curtailed. But the conference was unwilling, or unable, to agree on such things, making ongoing debate inevitable. If the role of a creedal statement is to establish orthodoxy to the exclusion of heresy, clearly this is an inadequate creedal statement.
Functionally, the 13 Articles are therefore no more than minutes of the 1979 Assembly’s deliberations.
It is a statement about Scripture
Its validity, however, relates to the Article being defensible as a Doctrine of Scripture. To be valid, it must provide the interpretive framework within which the orthodox are prepared to field and resolve questions about what is found in Scripture from a common understanding of the nature of the texts. Article 4 mentions both infallibility and inspiration. It does not, however, define those terms, and the definition is the very point of much controversy about the nature of Scripture. For example, Allert accuses Evangelicals of having a, “dropped out of the sky”, understanding of the Bible, whereas he says that the Bible is “the church’s book”, because of the way in which the church compiled the canon. Osborne criticises Allert’s lack of clarity on what this means for the question of “scriptural revelation”, but Chapman details how this type of view can be expanded to a doctrine of inspiration, by seeing “Canon as a Historical Process”. Chapman’s description is explicitly incompatible with “divine dictation”, which Bloesch describes as “Protestant orthodoxy”.
Looking at its validity as a Doctrine of Scripture
The inclusion of loaded, controversial terms like “inspired” and “infallible”, without a definition undermines the validity of Article 4. Avoiding the term “inerrancy”, Garrett categorises the “levels” on which the dependability of the Bible can be challenged: reliability in transmission of information through history, reliability of the basic religious and moral message, and reliability of “Chronological, Geographical, Literary, and Scientific Matters”. He says that it is the third category in which most difficulties consist, but Chapman shows how authorship is a significant point of controversy as well, and is addressed in his model. Erickson demonstrates that “inerrancy” is a matter closely connected with “inspiration”, because a viewpoint on inspiration will necessarily restrict the possible viewpoints on inerrancy. He offers 5 different possible definitions for inerrancy, and considers this inerrancy to be, “part of the larger issue of infallibility”.
Article 4 leaves too many controversial questions unanswered, including basics of Inspiration like, “did God write the Bible, and if so, how?”, and of infallibility, such as “is the Bible correct in all details of measurement and chronology?” The faithful cannot field questions and uniformly provide apologetics in such an atmosphere of uncertainty.
Inadequate for Apologetics
A Doctrine of Scripture is also an opportunity to provide apologetic equipment to the church as she engages with the wider world. The opportunity has been missed. The contemporary cultural situation is one in which truth claims are only entertained on the basis of authority which is derived from already accepted authoritative sources. Post-Modernism instructs the whole community’s reaction to truth claims, including that of Christians, necessitating, “a contextualized application that awakens modern readers to an awareness that the Bible speaks in relevant ways” (so Dockery). Article 4 claims authority for the Bible based on the basis of inspiration by God. It is unreasonable to pretend that this is sufficient, even within the faith community where the concept of “God” actually has meaning, because the controversy rages over the nature of that inspiration. But in addition, Article 4 does not offer any reason for the non-Christian to regard the Bible as authoritative in any way that is relevant to them.
Ignores Didactic role of Scripture
The didactic role of Scripture within the church is ignored in Article 4. One practical point at which both a Christian and a non-Christian can comprehend the phenomenon of Scripture would be to affirm: “Christianity is not true because it rests on an inspired and inerrant text, but vice versa” (so Horton). With that as a foundation, a Doctrine of Scripture could describe the authority of Scripture in terms of its role in the faith community, demonstrating that the purpose is being achieved through the teaching and ministry activities of the church. The people of God compiled the Bible, and the Bible equips the people of God. Paul gives his protégé, Timothy, a simple description Scripture in 2 Tim 3:15-17. The three features he describes address the sufficiency of Scripture for Salvation, the inspiration of Scripture, and the purpose and role of Scripture in the faith community. Article 4 only addresses two of these. Article 4’s reference to Scripture’s authority over “all matters of faith and conduct” does not address the way in which the church is to appropriate the benefits of her sacred writings. The Lausanne Covenant similarly addresses only “faith and practice”, and not the role of Scripture in the community. Conversely, Article XXXVII of the “Orthodox Creed” of 1679 specifies that believers should read the Scriptures privately and, “endeavour to frame their Lives” accordingly, which better reflects Paul’s view of Scripture.
Conceives of Scripture differently than Paul does
Article 4 also contains problems of logic if it is to be considered a Doctrine of Scripture. Paul explicitly describes Scripture in terms of its purpose: “[Scripture] is useful for … so that …”(2 Tim 3:16-17). There is some internal inconsistency in that, whereas Article 4 affirms the Bible as “supreme authority”, the Bible describes Scripture explicitly in terms of its purpose, and Article 4 fails to do so. Not that it contradicts Paul, but it doesn’t take 2 Tim 3:16-17 into consideration.
Wording is careless
Article 4 also goes further than the Lausanne Covenant, which simply affirms the Bible’s authority “in all that [the Bible] affirms … in faith and practice”. Article 4 affirms the Bible as “supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct”. Strictly by this definition (as the Puritans found), we would stop celebrating weddings in church on the grounds that such practices have no Biblical warrant. Clearly this was not the intent. If this was a Doctrine of Scripture, the wording could have been more careful, as in the Lausanne Covenant.
Ignores the role of Tradition
Finally, Article 4 also departs from the apostolic witness to the relationship between Scripture and the spiritual mentor. Timothy is told that the Holy Scriptures are “able to make you wise for salvation” (2 Tim 3:15), and that Scripture is “profitable” for didactic purposes (vv16-17), having originated in God (v16), but that an important aspect of their value is the “doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, etc.” (v10) of the person, “from whom you have learned” (v14). This represents Scripture as a tool in the hands of a faithful teacher, not as “supreme authority” in isolation, over “all matters of faith and conduct”. Post-Reformation polemics have resulted in the devaluation among Evangelicals of the role of “Tradition”, as it relates to Scriptural authority, and Article 4 reflects that trend. But it remains important that, in Paul’s view, the character and orthodoxy of the person teaching the Scriptures affects the relative value of the Scriptures for the student, and that the Scriptures are a tool in that didactic process rather than authoritative in isolation.
In conclusion, Article 4 is responding to the various controversies which initially gave rise to the need for it, which include issues such as authority, infallibility, authorship, and the nature of inspiration. When Paul described the nature and authority of Scripture in 2 Tim 3:15-17, he was not surrounded by the same issues, and presented Scripture in terms of its application and utility within the church. To the extent that Article 4 is a creedal statement, it is lacking: it uses terms which are the subject of intense controversy without attempting to clarify them, and completely omits several other controversial matters which were relevant to the contemporaneous debate. The continuing controversy over those matters within the Baptist community is evidence that the statement was not adequate even at the time. It is also difficult to consider Article 4 to be a “valid” doctrine of Scripture when it does not line up with all of the Apostle’s ideas about the nature of Scripture, and fails to give an objective observer any reason to see the Bible as anything beyond an archaeological curiosity.
It’s “minutes of the meeting”
Therefore Article 4 lacks validity and adequacy, both as a doctrine of Scripture and as a creedal statement, but it does faithfully represent the maximum that could be agreed by the 1979 Assembly. Therefore, only in its capacity as minutes-of-the-meeting, is it both valid and adequate.
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