on affirming “non-credal” creeds

Not too long ago, while searching for employment, I happened upon a job opening that looked promising and appealing. It was in my field, it was at a good school, and it was in a city that we love (though I would certainly melt in the summer months). Yet two out of the four desired qualifications presented a challenge for me. One, the school wanted someone ordained in the Southern Baptist convention; two, the candidate needed to affirm, in good faith, the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message (2000 BFM).

Despite the fact that the first qualification had a “must” attached to it, I decided to see if there was any flexibility in the requirement. I asked because, while I grew up Baptist (here is my early childhood church) I neither remained nor was ordained in that denomination.[1] The kind and helpful people at this school responded by stating (quite understandably): since they are a Southern Baptist school, the ordination requirement is extremely firm; there’s no bending it. However, if I wanted to serve in an adjunct capacity, then the requirement would be lifted. Although, the second one would still apply–i.e. affirm, in good faith, the 2000 BFM–and a third one would be introduced: affirm, in good faith, the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI).

The requirement of needing to affirm, in good faith, the 2000 BFM and the CSBI struck me as rather odd for at least two reasons. On the one hand, historically and traditionally, Baptists have prided themselves on being non-credal;[2] their longstanding mantra was, “No creed but the Bible” (which, strangely enough, functions as a credal statement). On the other hand, the Preface to the CSBI clearly states: “We acknowledge the limitations of a document prepared in a brief, intensive conference and do not propose that this Statement be given creedal weight” (emphasis added);[3] yet the requirement of needing to affirm the Statement, in good faith, for the purposes of gaining employment sounds rather credal–not to mention in conflict with the nature and intent of the CSBI. This would seem to be reinforced not only by the implied corollary of the requirement–i.e. no affirm, no job–but also the qualifier, “in good faith.”

Tangent, but a necessary one: In 1798, Barton W. Stone sought ordination in the Presbyterian Church. In order to obtain that goal, he needed to pass a type of examination before a group of governing Presbyterian ministers.[4] One of the determinative questions in that examination was, “Do you receive and adopt the ‘[Westminster] Confession of Faith’ [WCF], as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Bible?” The problem was that Stone had two hiccups with the WCF: the doctrine of the Trinity (he didn’t understand it), and the doctrines of election, reprobation, and predestination (he rejected them). And Stone knew that if he said “No” because of these two points, he would fail the exam and not be ordained. So rather shrewdly, he said: “I do, so far as I see it consistent with the word of God.” He passed.

This type of response used to be acceptable–even commendable–for it represented the freedom of conscience, or: the ability and permission for ministers and/or teachers of the Bible to teach in accordance with faithful, disciplined interpretation and the guidance (or, “illumination”)[5] of the Spirit. However, in the case of the particular school I contacted, the inclusion of the qualifier “in good faith” in the required affirmation would seem to disallow that ability and permission. What do I mean? Would I be permitted to accept/affirm the two documents as guidelines for orthodoxy and not creeds with exclusionary powers–because that’s how they present themselves? Would I be able to say, “In good faith, I affirm the 2000 BFM and CSBI as far as I see them consistent with Scripture”? Or to come at this a different way: would I be free or allowed to disagree with parts of both “creeds” and openly discuss such things in the classroom if prompted?

If the answer is yes, then I will admit the error of my assessment. If the answer is no, then we have a problem, and the problem is twofold. First, “in good faith” no longer relates to acting in accordance with with one’s conscience, but comes to mean an “all-or-nothing” affirmation. This takes us right back to the issue of the documents functioning as creeds–i.e. determiners of one’s acceptance or exclusion.[6] Second, that “all-or-nothing” affirmation comes at the expense of one’s conscience and it winds up undercutting the nature of a “good faith” acceptance.

In other words: if I want the job, and yet I happen to disagree with either the 2000 BFM or CSBI (or both) in part or whole, I would have to affirm the entire contents and teachings of both documents, teach in accordance with them, and do so in such a way that I appear to agree with their entirety, when in reality I do not. Thus, while I would be conducting myself in a manner that reflects (or even exemplifies) the desired requirements of the school–i.e. acting “in good faith” (i.e. full acceptance)–I would be doing so in a way that is dishonest to my theological and academic conscience. In essence (or effect), I would be intentionally and knowingly misleading the institution and the students I might teach, giving the appearance of full acceptance of the 2000 BFM and CSBI when such acceptance does not exist. That, by definition, would not be acting “in good faith”.

Needless to say: I did not apply for the full-time version of the job, and I will not apply for the adjunct version. In good faith, I just can’t.

[1] If you’re curious, in 2002 I was (technically) ordained into the non-denominational Christian Church–which, strangely enough, is a classified denomination. To avoid confusion and strange looks, I usually tell people my ordination was into the Christian Church/Church of Christ tradition–i.e. the net result of the Restoration Movement in the US.
[2] Although, the Preamble to the 2000 BFM oddly says otherwise.
[3] Though, it is worth noting, the underlying tone of the CSBI Preface (and the Statement itself) comes across as a rather credal.
[4] For a fuller account, see John Rogers (ed.), The Biography of Elder Barton Warren Stone, Written by Himself (Cincinnati, 1847), 29-30.
[5] I’m going to side-step the idea of “illumination” as a valid doctrine. Suffice it to say that I have problems with it.
[6] And I’m setting aside the curious fact that the 2000 BFM removed a key statement from its earlier edition–i.e. the 1963 BFM. In the Preamble to the earlier edition, it was stated: “Throughout their history Baptist bodies, both large and small, have issued statements of faith which comprise a consensus of their beliefs. Such statements have never been regarded as complete, infallible statements of faith, nor as official creeds carrying mandatory authority.”

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