In my last blog, I wrote about our Baptist denomination with its beginnings based upon religious freedom for all. In the early days of our country, many people came here to have the freedom of religious expression. They were fleeing societies where government and religion were deeply entwined. Unfortunately, the tendency to repeat that practice followed as well, and Baptists found themselves persecuted by states where the religious and political leaders enjoyed their joint power. From those experiences, it’s easy to understand why Baptists have been a force for religious freedom in America. Many books have been written over the years, delving into our Baptist ideas of freedom and what that means to our faith, so my attempts here will be a mere sketch of these issues.
The Bible and Creedalism
Due to the stand for independence of these early Baptists, there are areas we call Baptist distinctives, and here I want to examine the issues that surround Baptists as non-creedal believers and advocates of soul competency. As such, Baptists avow that our only “creed” is the Bible. We believe that the Bible instructs us on everything we need to know about Jesus, His life and ministry, our duties as Christians, etc. Therefore we have no repeated litanies, such as the Apostles creed, that are spoken in every service. Grady Cothen, one of our most respected Baptist leaders, used to say that no one had to have a checklist of beliefs, that there’s no theological template that must apply to each church. (You can easily see that this type of thinking is what created the Protestant movement, as denominations strained against the Catholic church and its insistence on standardization of everything.)
Soul Competency and Scriptural Interpretation
In interpreting scriptures, Baptists believe in soul competency. This means that each believer has the freedom and the responsibility to study the scriptures and determine their meaning. The 1964 Baptist Faith and Message states that Jesus is the revelation of God with the Bible as the record of Jesus. We use what we know of Jesus through the Bible and our personal experience with Him to help us in our interpretations of scripture. The Bible, while inspired by God, is still an object; it isn’t the living Lord. If we say that the Bible is God’s revelation, we are demoting Jesus as just another character in scripture. The written word cannot rise above Jesus.
Another issue with elevating the written Bible as the revelation of God is that it then creates the dilemma of determining just who provides our “authoritative interpretation” of scripture without Jesus as our interpreter. You can see where this is heading….it necessitates the creation of some authority figure to make these interpretations for us. This then eliminates the Baptist belief in the freedom and responsibility of the individual believer, which is our concept of soul competency. Baptists have always been a bottom-up organization as opposed to top-down. So to allow a person or group to dictate what we believe and how we believe it is to reverse our belief in soul competency and non-creedalism.
Direct Accountability to God
This non-creedal stance is a testament to our long-held belief that each believer has a personal, ongoing relationship with God. We believe that the individual Christian is competent before God, not before man. Christians must think for themselves and come to their faith through their own free will and discernment using Jesus as their guide. No one entity is allowed to make that determination for us. It’s the reason our early Baptists were persecuted for insisting in believer’s baptism. Infants were not to be baptized in our denomination because they couldn’t think and decide for themselves. We are to be accountable to God, not to the church or any other group that attempts to dictate how everyone should believe. Therefore, we remain a non-creedal denomination, believing in soul competency.