The administration of Mid-America Baptist Seminary asked me to write an essay on Baptist confessions of faith and Baptist distinctives. You can find the entire essay here:
The discussion of Baptist distinctives must wait for an explanation of Baptist confessions. This is because Baptist distinctives are derived from Baptist confessions, which are based on the Scriptures. Some denominations write creeds, but Baptists do not develop creeds. Instead, they write confessions of faith. The late William R. Estep, a long-time professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, explains the difference between a creed and a confession. “Creeds are authoritative and often viewed as final, unalterable, and binding statements of faith.” While confessions are “abstracts of biblical truth as the group formulating the confession perceived it.” To express this another way, a creed is binding on all the individuals and churches in a denomination. A confession of faith is not binding on individuals and churches, but the confession does express what a group of Christians believe the Bible teaches. A confession of faith is like an executive summary of the Bible. So, if someone asks, what do Southern Baptists believe, one could refer them to the Baptist Statement of Faith and Message, which summarizes what most Southern Baptists believe.
Baptists have written many confessions through the centuries. The London Confession of 1644 represents one of the early British Baptist confessions. The Philadelphia Baptist Association wrote a confession in 1742 that influenced many Baptists in the United States. Perhaps, the most important Baptist confession for early Baptists in America was the New Hampshire Confession (1833). Surprisingly, the Southern Baptist Convention did not adopt a confession of faith for eighty years. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was organized in 1845, but the messengers to that first convention did not formulate a confession of faith. The SBC eventually did adopt a confession in 1925. The committee that wrote that confession testified that they leaned heavily on the New Hampshire Confession. They also wrote a Preamble in which they explained how they viewed confessions of faith:
- That they constitute a consensus of opinion of some Baptist body, large or small, for the general instruction and guidance of our own people and others concerning those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us. They are not intended to add anything to the simple conditions of salvation revealed in the New Testament, viz., repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
- 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.
- That any group of Baptists, large or small, have the inherent right to draw up for themselves and publish to the world a confession of their faith whenever they may think it advisable to do so.
- That the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Confessions are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.
- That they are statements of religious convictions, drawn from the Scriptures, and are not to be used to hamper freedom of thought or investigation in other realms of life.
The Southern Baptist Convention adopted revised statements of faith in 1963 and 2000, but both of the formulation committees affirmed the preamble from 1925.
It is important to understand that Baptists view the Bible as primary and the statement of faith as secondary. Indeed, under every article of faith in the Baptist Statement of Faith and Message one can find the list of Scriptures that support the beliefs expressed in the article. Dr. Stan Norman has been a prominent writer on Baptist doctrine in recent years. He comments on Southern Baptists and their fidelity to the Bible:
“Baptists, along with other Christian denominations, appeal to the Bible as their ultimate or sole source for religious authority. Baptist distance themselves from other denominations, however, by claiming a complete dependence upon Scripture as the principal foundation for their beliefs and practices. Whereas certain other Christian groups incorporate extra-biblical sources such as tradition for religious authority. Baptists in their distinctive writings contend that they alone consistently and exclusively hold to the Bible exclusively as their religious authority.”
Before explaining Baptist distinctives, the reader should understand that the Southern Baptist Convention does not impose its Statement of Faith and Message on its member churches. Rather, the SBC commends the Statement of Faith and Message to the churches for their approval and use. To be sure, many SBC churches have adopted the 2000 Statement as their statement of faith. Beyond that, the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board require their missionaries to sign a pledge to preach and teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” the 2000 Statement of Faith. This is also true at the SBC-owned seminaries, excepting Southern Baptist Seminary and Southeastern Baptist Seminary, which have their own confessions of faith. These two seminaries affirm the 2000 Statement, but they continue to prioritize their historic confessions. For Southern Baptist Seminary, the oldest SBC seminary, the confession is called The Abstract of Principles. Mid-America Baptist Seminary has its own statement of faith (The Articles of Belief), but it is quite similar to the 2000 Statement of Faith.
 William R. Estep. “Baptists and Authority: The Bible Confessions, and Conscience in the Development of Baptist Identity.” Review and Expositor, 84, No. 4 (Fall 1987): 600-601.
 For copies of these confessions and information about their composition, see William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1969).
 Herschel H. Hobbs, The Baptist Faith and Message (Nashville: Convention Press, 1971), 2-3.
 R. Stanton Norman, “Southern Baptist Identity: A Theological Perspective.” In David S. Dockery, Southern Baptist Identity. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009), 44-45.