Sunday, January 22, 2012

Contending for the heritage of biblical authority

Jude 1:3b - "I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints"

How scripture's unique authority as the inerrant Word of God been contended for by the historic church? To see a specific example, we will quickly journey through the Baptist movement in general, and Southern Baptists in particular, to discover how God's people have contended for the "faith once and for delivered to the saints" in the realm of biblical authority. 

The heritage of the Baptist Movement and its view on Biblical Authority
From the early centuries of the Christian church, various groups with similar beliefs to Baptists existed.  All of them espoused belief in the sole authority of scripture in determining how  Christians drew conclusions from experience, reason and others sources of authority.  How did earlier "Baptists" come to express this principle of "sola scriptura" (scripture alone) and how does Southern Baptist life connect into the historic Christian view of Scripture's authority?

1. The 1689 London Baptist Confession on the authority of the Bible - It alone is sufficient
Although historic doctrinal statements are secondary sources of authority, it is important to see how doctrines have developed and are consistent in the history of God's people.  In this early Baptist Confession of faith, we see this statement on the scriptures: "The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation."  

2. The 1723 Philadelphia Baptist Confession on the authority of the Bible - It alone is sufficient
When the Baptists came to America, most of them arrived to our shores with a familiarity of the 1689 confession.  At Philadelphia in 1742, Baptists articulated what they believed and formulated what was termed:  "The Philadelphia Baptist Confession". In it's article on the scriptures, they retained the identical wording of the 1689 confession.

3. The 1833 New Hampshire Confession - an important link to Southern Baptists
By 1833 Baptists in America existed in several different groupings.  In the New England area the Baptist Churches felt it necessary to state their doctrinal beliefs in the "New Hampshire Confession of Faith".  This document would be the forerunner to the "Baptist Faith and Message of 1925" (a Southern Baptist Doctrinal Statement).  The New Hampshire Confession still advocated the principle of sola scriptura: (The Bible is) "the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried."  The New Hampshire confession also advocated in writing that had been held by historic Baptist groups - namely the belief in biblical inerrancy.

4. The 1925 Baptist Faith and Message
When the Southern Baptists formed in 1845, they did not have a unified doctrinal statement.  Southern Baptists have typically treated their statements of faith as "summaries" of what they believe.  In 1925 the Southern Baptist Convention adopted what was termed "The Baptist Faith and message 1925".  Its statement on scripture still advocated the Reformation principle of sola scriptura.  Southern Baptists continued the emphasis of stating the Bible's character of inerrancy as the reason why it alone was the believer's authority.  You can see this by going to the Southern Baptist Website ( and comparing the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message.

5. The 1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message
By 1963 the Southern Baptists felt the need to issue an updated version of the Baptist Faith and message.  By retaining much of the same wording on the article of biblical authority, they added the following statement: "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ."  As the Denomination went through battles over Biblical inerrancy in the 70's, 80's and 90's, many leaders and pastors felt that a more emphatic statement needed to be made.  In 2000 the convention adopted the current Baptist Faith and Message, changing the wording on the article of scripture in the last part to: "All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation." This change identified Christ as the "central focus" of the Bible's message, while re-emphasizing the historic belief in inerrancy as the chief characteristic behind the Bible's authority.

In Summary - Southern Baptists have never stopped believing in Sola Scriptura nor valuing biblical inerrancy
This quick summary serves to demonstrate where Southern Baptist have stood in light of the historic Christian church's belief on the absolute authority of the Bible.  I would also add that in order to continue in that tradition, we must never abandon the belief in the Bible's inerrancy - since inerrancy is the main trait demonstrating the Bible to be Divinely inspired.  As long as Christians continue to prize the Bible as uniquely sufficient in all matters of eternity and life, they will continue to "contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints." 

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