What’s missing from our Baptist Principles
Recently, I had opportunity to discuss some finer points of the application of one of the Baptist Principles with a pastor friend. He happened to comment offhandedly, “I really think that our BU Statement of Principles could do with a freshen up and reworking.” I agree. In addition, I see two things missing from our Baptist Principles with significant losses in the expression of what it means to be a Baptist today. I believe we Baptists are poorer for not having these affirmations and their respective applications in evidence today.
Here is a huge omission: not one of our Baptist Principles touches on any aspect of involvement of one local church with another. There is no ‘interdependence’ to be found anywhere in the theological affirmation of the practice of our churches. The closest any of our Baptist Principles come to this, is tagged on the end of our avowed autonomy in the definition of ‘The Church;’ where we read, “It is fully autonomous and remains so notwithstanding responsibilities it may accept by voluntary association.” Thus, voluntary association is the nearest we get to any stated expression of ‘interdependence.’ This is as surprising as it is disturbing. Has this perhaps been partly responsible for the independence that is relatively common among Baptist congregations today? I believe that we have lost something crucial which can be clearly seen in the book of Acts and infrequently among our contemporary Baptist churches.
Consider too, for a moment, the beginning of our definition of ‘The Church;’ “We as Baptists believe in ‘The CHURCH’ as the whole company of those who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ and regenerated by the Holy Spirit.” Yet, in spite of this, there is no description or, let me add, necessary requirement of how ‘the local church’ relates to the rest of the church. This is astounding!
Here is another missing Baptist Principle. Known as “soul competency” this Baptist Principle states that because all human beings are created in the image of God, all persons have the inalienable right of direct access to God. I immediately hear you say though, that this is what is meant by our Baptist Principle of ‘The Priesthood of all Believers.’ It’s not; the Priesthood of all Believers relates to believers. Sole competency relates to everyone, believers and unbelievers. This latter affirmation, strangely missing from our South African expression of Baptist Principles, means that God is able to reveal himself to all people and that every person has been made with a capacity to know and relate to God. R. Stanton Norman states that Calvin calls this “an awareness of divinity,” “the seed of religion,” and “the worm of consciousness” and adds that “the ‘natural’ capacity of the soul for God is the basis for the compelling, religious yearning common to all human beings” (2005:161-162). Thus, every human being is accountable to God – for his actions and relationship with God, for “we will all stand before the judgement seat of God” (Rom 14:10) and “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27). For “what can be known about God is plain to them” and “they are without excuse” (Rom 1:19-20). What happened to this principle in our South African history, I have no idea, but I believe it is essential that we restate it and make it known again.
B.H. Carroll argues that this was a distinctive contribution of Baptists to Christian theology; “This is the first principle of New Testament law—to bring each naked soul face to face with God. When that Baptist voice broke the silence of four hundred years it startled the world with is appeal to individuality… If one be responsible for himself, there must be no restraint or constraint of his conscience. Neither parent, nor government, nor church may usurp the prerogative of God as Lord of the conscience.” (1913: 4,5).
Carroll, B.H. 1913. ‘Baptists and their Doctrines: Sermons on Distinctive Baptist Doctrines’ 1913 viewed 31 March 2021, http://www.baptisttheology.org/baptisttheology/assets/File/Baptistsandtheirdoctrines.pdf
Norman, R. Stanton. 2005. ‘The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church.’ Nashville: B&H Academic.
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