Why the need for a new Statement of Belief?
Monday night, 20 May 2019, was the BNA’s AGM and it was a BIG event because there was a particularly big item on the agenda – are we going to adopt the 2017 Statement of Belief as our own or not? This was the first time the 2017 was coming to any formal gathering of Baptists for a decision. And the vote took place with 80 voting members present and the results came in; 64 representatives voted ‘yes’, 13 voted ‘no’ and 3 representatives abstained from voting. Thus, 80% of our churches affirmed the need for this new statement of belief as our own.
Without exaggeration, this effectively marks the beginning of a new era of theology, theologians, pastors and churches in South Africa and brings an end to the semi-serious era of Baptist theology that has become the norm for us today. This was never the case when the work first started in South Africa, and so, in many ways this is a dramatic swing back to our substantial theological roots. But, as significant as this is, the acceptance of the Statement of Belief as our own is not the primary win for us. Rather, the really big victory, is all that this implies for for the future – simply put, “watch this space…”
Many have asked “Why do we need a new statement of belief?” Some have put it this way, “What’s wrong with our current 1924 Statement of Belief anyway? It’s served us well for the last 94 and a half years?” (See a write up of the 128 year history of the BNA and the 1924 Statement of faith here).
Here are some reasons as to why we adopted a new statement of belief;
The Union was different then to what it is now
When the Baptist Union accepted the 1924 statement of faith, there were 105 delegates in attendance and of these, 21 were the wives (or maybe mothers!) of their husbands, 10 were ‘Miss’s’, 2 were Indians and 3 were ‘Natives’ (and recorded as such!). Unfortunately, the attendance register does not show how many churches were represented which would be helpful for comparison, but simply that “the Assembly was constituted in the usual manner.” The point is that the constituency of the union today is very different in size and in racial composition to what it was then. Today, there is a far reduced number of English-as-first-language speakers and hence the necessity to make things as plain as can be in a new statement of belief.
The language was different then to what it is now.
There is no doubt that language changes with time. This is immediately obvious when reading the minutes of the “44th Annual Assembly of the Baptist Union of South Africa” at which the 1924 Statement of Belief was accepted. For instance, the opening minutes of the first session on Thursday 18 September 1924 record this, “Devotional exercises opened at 2:43p.m. … Dr. Gutsche addressed a few words on retiring and spoke of the harmony existing among executive etc. The retiring president introduced the new President, the Rev H.T. Peach, who replied in words that were as choice as they were brief at the same time giving the sum of £100 to the funds of the Baptist Union…” The way they wrote and spoke then is not the manner in which we do so today, hence the necessity of a new language version of the Statement of Belief such that in the 1924, “We believe in one God eternally existing in three persons” now reads, “We believe in one God who eternally exists in three co-equal persons” and the “Holy Ghost” is the “Holy Spirit” and “just and unjust” is now, “righteous and unrighteous.”
We can no longer make general assumptions about a shared theology.
Our great diversity culturally, linguistically and ‘charismatically’ has begged the question as to what is believed ‘in the open spaces’ of what is not stated in the 1924 Statement of Belief. And there are many open spaces and some now addressed. For instance, for the first time, there is an entirely new description of the mission of the church, which may have been stated or implied elsewhere but is now something we affirm together.
It is my firm belief that the primary reason for our lack of unity is not the wording of our definition of ‘The Church’ which is described as ‘autonomous’ not ‘independent’ – that aside, and it is a concern – rather the primary reason for our independence is the suspicion that arises from not knowing if we believe the same thing on the core issues of faith and the core expressions of what that looks like in practice. In other words, ‘the open spaces’ of what is not stated has become the primary reason for disunity and the only way this is rectified is to put the unspoken issues on the table. The 2017 Statement of Belief certainly does that.
If the crucial aspects of our faith are not openly described affirmed, agreed to collectively and regularly put before us again and again, confusion in the head is always followed by a waywardness of the heart which then leads to a wandering off the path.
Because it serves to redefine who we are (and always have been).
There are a number of aspects of the Statement of Belief that affirm where we have always stood and this can be proven, that have never been included in a common statement. It could be that priorities lay elsewhere, many statements issued to the Nationalist government on human equality and the dignity of all people and much action taken on this front, matters of social justice, church planting, resolution of conflict – there’s been a lot to do. It could also be that we South African Baptists have indeed been ‘people of the book,’ not people of a shared and stated theological definition. In my view, we have two types of Baptists, those who primarily specialise in doing, and those who primarily specialise in definition and planning – and we need both, ideally the one doing what they do best before and with the other.
But here is a new day – the plans are laid for a new united theological understanding as Baptists together. This, we hope, will lead to a closer co-operation in all the work yet to be done.
Because of the theology evident in the Statement itself
Negatively, the 1924 certainly had some idiosyncrasies – some of these are (in no particular order);
- Only man was created in the image of God – “We believe that God created man in his own image…” Oh yes, we know what that means (“in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” Gen 1:27), but it could be misunderstood, right? This now reads, “He created humankind male and female as his image bearers…”
- The “moral responsibility” question – “that all human beings inherit a sinful nature which issues (in the case of those who reach moral responsibility) in actual transgression…” This is helpfully clarified with, “the first man sinned and thereby incurred the penalty of death, physical and spiritual for all people, and as a consequence of his sin, all humans inherit a sinful nature that results in actual transgression and sin.” End sentence. Stop where God stops.
- Virgin Mary – historically we believed seemingly in the “Virgin Mary” (yes, with a capital!) – this is now rectified as “He was born of the virgin Mary…”
- Baptismal regeneration – ” Historically we believed “that Baptism is the immersion of the believer.” Fortunately, this is now wonderfully clarified in “that Baptism is the immersion of the professing believer.” I have no idea how we used to know for certain that these baptismal candidates were certainly saved prior to their baptism. Did we used to hold to a prebaptismal baptismal regeneration?
- Lastly, the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper was previously defined as “partaking of bread and wine.” This is now clarified as “partaking of the bread and the cup.” Perhaps some may joke that it is easier to drink wine than a cup, but I imagine an elderly woman wagging her finger saying, “See, that’s why I joined the Temperance Society.”
Positively, there are two brand new inclusions in the statement, specifically, a statement on the person of the person and work of the Holy Spirit (statement 7) and a description of the mission of the church (statement 10). What is puzzling is why these have not been included prior to this. Are the charismatics right in their accusation that we Baptists do not believe in the work of the Holy Spirit? No, they were not and more so now than ever before.
In addition, there has also been no little commotion over some seemingly greatly contentious items addressed, including a clarification on the role of the ministry of men and women in the church, the particularly contentious phrase being, “that in the local church, both men and women are called to serve equally, and male headship should be evidenced” which follows the seemingly less contentious one, that marriage is the “lifelong union between a natural man and a natural woman giving the man the responsibility of loving leadership and the woman the role of compatible support.”
Moreover, another particular prickle in the sock seems to be the inclusion of what, it seems to me, we have always held to (see proof here) and now finally affirm in saying that “the Scriptures are true in all that they affirm and are trustworthy and without error.” Those last two words are the additions and you’d think, judging by the reaction of some, that we had just served up poison in a cup. Literally, “Oh my word!”
Other new affirmations seem to have successfully sidestepped serious criticism, and now, woe betide, I’m laying them out for scrutiny, the translations and the matter of Bible versions is dealt with, the sufficiency of Scripture, the nature of the role difference in the godhead, his pre-time plan to save sinners, his sovereign plan over all history, the fact that all things are created to display his glory, male and female as equal image bearers,
Because it will safeguard our pastors and churches in the future.
There is no doubt that as public opinion continues in particular directions against the simple reading of the Bible on a number of contemporary issues, both churches and pastors will need to return to a clearly stated standard of what we hold to together. Thus, our statement then is the new beachhead for the battle that will certainly be coming. We have a choice now as we will have a choice then, “Where do we stand on the big issues of our day?” We will stand by what we have affirmed or fall. Satan has always readily deployed the weapon of “Divide and conquer.” Here is our standard – the flag raised high to which we must all rally when the warning goes out – and it will.
Because of all that will come from our shared theological unity.
Think about it, “What comes from unity?” Not uniformity, for we do not look the same, think the same, see the same. But unity give the real sense of togetherness on the matters that count. Think of a family – each member has different gifts, a different sense of humour, different outlooks, concerns but there is a undeniable unity that, like magnetism, pulls inward and together. No matter how far each member may be serving, that unity that comes from being a unit is always true and must be experienced as real. Kevin DeYoung states that “unity is a relational good we are called to maintain where true spiritual unity is already present.”
Unity is a relational good we are called to maintain where true spiritual unity is present.”Kevin DeYoung
I speak of something we once had, but now, it seems to me, no longer exists. It must. For the sake of the gospel to every nation, it must. For the sake of the display of the beauty of Christ by his racially diverse church, it must. “See how they love each other” must be seen.