If you grew up Baptist, as I did, you've probably heard many times that Baptists do not believe in creeds. We are told that our creed is the Bible, and that our cherished doctrine of the priesthood of the believer allows people to interpret the Bible any way they choose. Unfortunately, as I've studied Baptist history, I've come to realize that such claims are rooted more in legend than in fact. True, we believe the Bible is the foundation of all our doctrines, and we would never put any written doctrinal statement on the same level as Scripture. Nevertheless, Baptists have always reserved the right to express our beliefs via such statements, as well as the right to disassociate ourselves from people that disagree with those beliefs. Mind you, Baptists have always cherished religious liberty. If people do not agree with us, then we certainly support their right to join a church that is more in line with their thinking. However, that does not mean people can believe anything they choose and still call themselves Baptist.
I've been reading a biography of James P. Boyce, the founding president of Southern Seminary. When he proposed establishing a seminary for Southern Baptists, he insisted that it have a written doctrinal statement. He further insisted that all faculty would sign that statement and teach according to it. In the 1870's, a young faculty member named Crawford H. Toy strayed from the seminary's beliefs, and he was eventually dismissed. Boyce and the other faculty were heartbroken in taking this step, but they knew it was necessary to preserve the doctrinal integrity of their school.
E.Y. Mullins was president of Southern Seminary in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and is often cited as a champion of "soul freedom". Yet even he noted the importance of formal doctrinal statements:
"Our traditional championship of liberty and individualism is constantly cited against new declarations of faith. How exactly the opposite is true. The publication of confessions of faith has been a constant expression of our ideal of liberty. Repression at this point is exactly what Baptists do not want. Repression covers up, hides belief, and under the cover all kinds of errors breed and flourish "("Baptists and Creeds", reprinted in The Axioms of Religion, Baptist Classics series, Broadman Press, 1997, p. 187, emphasis added).
Or consider the words of Southwestern Seminary professor W.T. Conner:
"We hear much said today about a creedless church. What kind of a church would a creedless church be? Of all the absurdities that I ever heard of I think the idea of a creedless church is the greatest. The creed of a church is what the church believes. A creedless church, therefore, would be a church that believed nothing. I think I know of one place where such an organization would be appropriate; viz, in the insane asylum." (W.T. Conner, Southwestern Journal of Theology, Vol. 7, No. 2, April, 1923; Reprinted inSouthwestern Journal of Theology, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall 2008, p. 26, emphasis added).
J.B. Gambrell, another noted Southern Baptist leader from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wrote on the importance of doctrinal statements:
"The large matters of the Baptist faith have been condensed into two creedal statements, the New Hampshire and the Philadelphia Articles of Faith. There is no vital difference between the two. They have had wide use among our people and have done much to clarify the thinking of Baptists. They have fixed the Baptist mind on the nerve centers of revealed truth. They have put up the fences against the invasions of many hurtful heresies, and have contributed largely to the efficiency of the denomination by promoting unity." ("The Uses and Abuses of Creedal Statement", from Christian Union Relative to Baptist Churches, ed. by J.M. Frost, Sunday School Board, 1914; reprinted in The Baptist Banner, Vol. 2, #7, September 1994, emphasis added).
Or consider the words of the great Southern Baptist statesman Herschel Hobbs:
"In the academic world, whether in a university or a seminary, professors voluntarily accept limitation. "The Baptist Faith and Message" is careful to protect individual freedoms,but it also sets forth tenets of faith as safeguards against irresponsible exercise of freedom contrary to the generally accepted faith held by others of that persuasion. To put it even more plainly, I would fight for your right to teach or preach whatever you wish. But that does not mean I should provide you a livelihood, building, and a ready-made audience to which to do it "(My Faith and Message: An Autobiography, Broadman & Holman, 1993: p. 251, emphasis added).
In short, it is simply not true that Baptists have historically shunned creeds. Many have preferred to use the term "confession" rather than "creed", but as my church history professor in seminary used to note, there is no substantial difference between the two words (look them up in a dictionary if you don't believe me). The idea of Baptists being "anti-creedal" is heavily rooted in legend, yet many historians - particularly those on the theological and political left - continue to print this legend as fact. Furthermore, it is intellectually dishonest to say people "can interpret the Bible as they choose". If that is the case, then the Bible really doesn't mean anything.
Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that the conservative resurgence of the 1980's was a betrayal of our Southern Baptist heritage. On the contrary, it was a return to our heritage. Thank God for the men and women who were willing to take a stand for His Word, and may the Southern Baptist Convention continue to do so until our Lord returns.