Baptists: People of the Book

by Derek Gentle

Southern Baptists, among others, continue to be a "People of the Book." This can be seen in the pulpits of Southern Baptist Churches with the expository style of Bible preaching and in the Bible based curriculum in the Sunday Schools, age-graded cradle to grave. Discussions on spiritual matters often end with, "But the Bible says . . ."

Baptists confess the inspiration of Scripture. That is, the Scriptures are God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). This is not the same kind of inspiration as when one sees a great work of art and exclaims, "It is inspired." Instead, it affirms that God spoke through human personality so as to communicate God's very thoughts in God's very words. He did not by-pass the personality of the Biblical writer, but rather used the personality as well as the hand and pen. He did not merely dictate a letter; God spoke through His writers. "For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21).

Inspiration means that the Bible is completely reliable. "Southern Baptists have affirmed repeatedly and decisively an unswerving commitment to the divine inspiration and truthfulness of Holy Scripture, the Word of God revealed in written form. We believe that what the Bible says, God says. What the Bible says happened, really happened. Every miracle, every event, in every one of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments is true and trustworthy." (From "Report of the Presidential Theological Study Committee" Adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention - Meeting in Session June, 1994 - Part II, Article One, "Holy Scripture"). (See also:Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.)

Baptists confess that God speaks to us through the Bible in a way which is relevant and timeless. Though the various books of the Old and New Testaments were written upon specific occasions for specific peoples, the principles are timeless. It is easier to grasp these timeless principles when we understand the original historical context of the passage, but the words are generally very clear and one might almost always say that it means what it says.

We further confess that, "The word of God is living and powerful" (Hebrews 4:12). In the dynamics of inspiration, God produced a Book which has a life of its own. It is not just "a good read". It is more than a set of rules. Far from being a dead letter, it has a transforming effect upon those who read it and heed it - unlike that of any other book.

Baptists hold the Scriptures as the objective standard of truth. As the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message says, "It reveals the principles by which God judges us; and therefore is . . . the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried." James M. Frost said: "We accept the Scriptures as an all-sufficient and infallible rule of faith and practice, and insist upon the absolute inerrancy and sole authority of the Word of God. We recognize at this point no room for division, either of practice or belief, or even sentiment. More and more we must come to feel as the deepest and mightiest power of our conviction that a 'thus saith the Lord' is the end of all controversy" (Quoted in 1994 Report of the Presidential Theological Study Committee).

Because the Scriptures are the objective standard of truth, Baptists do not embrace tradition or the teaching (the Magisterium) of a church as sources of authority. No creed or church teaching enjoys equal footing with the Bible. Nor would Baptists consider their own interpretation of Scripture to be without error. All confessions and creeds are subject to evaluation in light of Scripture. In fact, when the 1963 Baptist and Faith and Message committee brought its report, they said of its statements of beliefs, "That we do not regard them as complete statements of our faith, having any quality of finality or infallibility. As in the past so in the future Baptists should hold themselves free to revise their statements of faith as may seem to them wise and expedient at any time."

The Scriptures are complete and adequate. No new revelation is needed. The Philadelphia Confession of 1742 expressed it this way:

"The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word . . .."
Although it is accurate to describe Baptists as a people of the Book, it would not be true to to say that we have "No creed but the Bible." B. H. Carroll wrote, "There never was a man in the world without a creed. What is a creed? A creed is what you believe. What is a confession? It is a declaration of what you believe. That declaration may be oral or it may be committed to writing, but the creed is there either expressed or implied." Dr. Carroll went on to address those in opposition to creeds, "You have no particular creed. Well, I am sure then that you have no particular religion." The introduction to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message Statement states that Baptist's "Emphasis [on soul competency and the priesthood of all believers] should not be interpreted to mean that there is an absence of certain definite doctrines that Baptists believe . . .." Confessions in Baptist life serve the purpose of helping to define the basis of our fellowship and to maintain a standard for hiring faculty for the training of our ministers.