Adam Harwood recently wrote about the view of imputed guilt held by Tom Schreiner, a professor at Southern Seminary. Harwood’s post was not intended to interact with Schreiner’s argument but to ask whether or not there is room for such views in the entities of the Southern Baptist Convention. Following his argument that Schreiner’s view is at odds with the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, Harwood concludes his post with a question: “Do we expect SBC professors to teach according to the BFM?”
I want to consider Harwood’s question from three sides. First, what is the relationship between the BF&M 2000 and other Southern Baptist confessions? Second, has an actual change taken place, and what is behind it? Third, is the BF&M 2000 incompatible with Reformed views of inherited guilt? It takes me a little while to get to the main point of this post, that Reformed theology (particularly Reformed views of inherited guilt) are not challenged by Article III. If you are only interested in my explanation for that, you can jump straight to the section A Reformed Reading of Article III.
What is the relationship between the BF&M 2000 and other Southern Baptist confessions?
The SBC has had three official, convention-wide statements of faith. These statements or confessions are related to each other with the second and third being modifications and expansions of earlier versions. They all bear the name The Baptist Faith and Message and are distinguished by the year of their approval: 1925, 1963, and 2000. In 1998 an amendment was added to the 1963 version and this was incorporated into the 2000 version.
Along the way, there have been other confessions and statements. The best known is the Abstract of Principles, the founding confession of Southern Seminary. This abstract was part of Southern’s original charter and all professors are required to sign their affirmation of its teachings, a way of guaranteeing that their beliefs and teachings are in line with the Abstract. When Southeastern Seminary was founded in 1950, it adopted the Abstract of Principles for its statement of faith. The Abstract was written in 1858 so it is much older than the Baptist Faith and Message but despite its influence in multiple seminaries, it was never a denomination-wide statement.
Harwood focuses his attention on the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message section on man (Article III). He argues that Schreiner’s view, though compatible with the Abstract of Principles, is not compatible with the BF&M. Harwood makes much of the fact that the Abstract has never been an official, denomination-wide statement of faith whereas the BF&M has been affirmed by the convention as a whole and by many individual churches, associations, state conventions, seminaries, etc.
Harwood offers a comparison of the BF&M 2000 with the Abstract of Principles. Somewhat surprising, Harwood completely ignores the 1925 BF&M. While he is correct that the Abstract has never been a denomination-wide confession, the BF&M is, and portions of Article III are drawn verbatim from the Abstract. See the table below. I have italicized the most relevant portion. Note the shared wording, particularly between the Abstract of Principles and the 1925 BF&M.
|Abstract of Principles||1925 BF&M||2000 BF&M|
|God originally created Man in His own image, and free from sin; but, through the temptation of Satan, he transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.||Man was created by the special act of God, as recorded in Genesis. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen. 1:27). “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7).
He was created in a state of holiness under the law of his Maker, but, through the temptation of Satan, he transgressed the command of God and fell from his original holiness and righteousness; whereby his posterity inherit a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.
|Man is the special creation of God, made in His own image. He created them male and female as the crowning work of His creation. The gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God’s creation. In the beginning man was innocent of sin and was endowed by his Creator with freedom of choice. By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God. The sacredness of human personality is evident in that God created man in His own image, and in that Christ died for man; therefore, every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.|
Clearly the 1925 BF&M drew from the Abstract, sharing its exact wording about inherited corruption and condemnation. This is not changed until 1963, and the language from 1963 is carried into the 2000 version (the 2000 version also adds new language about gender).
Has an actual change taken place, and what is behind it?
The only significant change between these versions is a slight rearrangement of the phrase under condemnation. The AP and 1925 BF&M clearly locate condemnation with our inheritance: we receive from Adam both the corruption and the condemnation of sin. The 1963 and 2000 BF&M move condemnation after transgression.
At times Harwood seems to be confused about the differences between these documents. In his post he says, “According to the BFM, people do not begin life under condemnation. Rather, ‘as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors.’” Harwood is right that the confessions rearrange condemnation, but the problem is with the portion of the BF&M that he quotes. All of the above confessions agree that people become transgressors after they are capable of moral action. In fact, the portion he quotes from the 2000 BF&M is almost exactly identical to the language of the Abstract of Principles. The only difference in these confessions is the place of condemnation.
I believe the change in 1963 reflects a real shift in the BF&M. My fellow SBC Focus blogger Joshua Breland disagrees. He makes a valid point that Herschel Hobbs, in his preamble to the 1963 BF&M, states that the committee has “in no case… sought to delete from or to add to the basic contents of the 1925 Statement.”1 The preamble says the update is intended to clarify, not change, while adding new sections to address new needs of the day. Since the 1925 BF&M Article III quotes directly from the Abstract of Principles and Hobbs says the 1963 version is not intended to change meaning, it seems that Hobbs would argue that anyone affirming both statements is being consistent.
Although Breland’s point is well taken, I think the change in language represents a definite, though not substantial, change in meaning. Harwood is wrong that the 1963/2000 BF&M closes the door to the Reformed view. What it does is open the door to non-Reformed views, something that was not as easy to do with the 1925 language.
There is another place where the 1963 BF&M shifted from 1925: its article I on the Scriptures. Look at the three editions, 1925, 1963, and 2000:
|1925 BF&M||1963 BF&M||2000 BF&M|
|We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter; that it reveals the principles by which God will judge us; and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds and religious opinions should be tried.||The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. It reveals the principles by which God judges us; and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.||The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.|
Notice the bold parts of the 1963 BF&M: “[the Bible] is the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man… The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” This language is unique to the 1963 BF&M. Despite the faithfulness of many members of the committee working on the BF&M, by 1963 the Southern Baptist Convention was already dealing with liberal or liberal-leaning theology (in fact, the 1925 BF&M was a reaction to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy). The addition in 1963 reflects a view known as neo-orthodoxy and sparked a controversy known as the “Criterion Loophole”.2 Proponents of neo-orthodoxy sought to hold a kind of middle ground between conservative and liberal theology. Many critics have seen neo-orthodox theology as little more than refashioned or softened liberalism.
Most Southern Baptists are aware of the struggle that took place within the SBC between conservative and moderate/liberal theology. Known as the Conservative Resurgence, this was a period of wrestling over the future of the SBC. Paige Patterson has written a helpful little booklet on this struggle, Anatomy of a Reformation. He identifies the Conservative Resurgence as taking place between 1978 and 2004. In his booklet, Patterson addresses some of the changes in the BF&M and how some aspects of the 1963 BF&M were influenced by the growth of liberal influences. Having mentioned some of the additions and changes brought into the 2000 BF&M, he concludes: “Most important, the neo-orthodox language, which had previously been placed in the 1963 version of The Baptist Faith and Message, was deleted, and a more explicit declaration of the nature of Scripture was adopted.”3
Patterson’s observation is helpful for it shows us that even though the 1963 BF&M was a reaction to a new controversy (the Elliott controversy), growing liberal trends in the SBC still managed to influence the language of the BF&M. It has been my contention that these same influences are behind the shift away from a more thorough (and biblical) view of mankind’s fallen condition. Even though people like Adam Harwood are solid conservative theologians, their thinking betrays a slight liberal drift when they seek to improve the picture of human nature. Although Harwood has not gone nearly as far as many theologians, he nonetheless softens the harsh edges of the biblical picture of humanity. This opens a trajectory that leads inevitably to either the neutrality or the goodness of man. Indeed, the recent “Traditionalist” statement of theology goes even further along this trajectory by affirming a measure of natural human ability.
The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message does not present a radical shift from 1925 but it does crack the door to a dangerous trajectory away from the Bible’s teachings. The shift is not so dramatic that it closes the door to Reformed views, but it opens the door to alternative views.
Is the BF&M 2000 incompatible with Reformed views of inherited guilt?
The SBC is an unusual denomination.4 Though we have a common core of theology, a great deal of flexibility is possible within our ranks. We hold many views in common, yet permit freedom on a host of issues. As such, the BF&M is formulated to identify the common core while leaving enough interpretive leeway for views that differ on related issues. Calvinism is one example. We have Southern Baptists who are Calvinists and some who aren’t, and the BF&M provides a framework that includes both, even though there are places where either Calvinists or non-Calvinists must make use of that interpretive leeway.
From the non-Calvinist side, Article IV on salvation requires some explanation. The 2000 BF&M states, “Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.”
According to Calvinists, regeneration and faith, while inseparable, come in a logical order: God regenerates us, and due to his regenerative work in us, we respond with faith. Regeneration always leads to faith; faith is always preceded by regeneration. Non-Calvinists deny that regeneration precedes faith. Despite their rejection, a straightforward reading of the BF&M clearly shows the Calvinist order: regeneration is God changing the heart, and believers respond to God’s regenerating work with repentance and faith. In the BF&M, regeneration precedes faith, something rejected by non-Calvinists.
If not for interpretive leeway, it might be possible to insist that people like Adam Harwood should not have positions of teaching and instruction in any institution that affirms the BF&M since their views contradict the plain reading of the confession. However, people like Harwood can take advantage of some of the ambiguities in the confession in order to apply their own spin to the text.. Some might call this a dishonest approach, but I disagree. I believe the crafters of the BF&M wanted to make it possible for non-Calvinists to affirm the confession.
The same is true for Article III. Although the shift in language reflects a minor shift in emphasis, interpretive leeway remains.5 Harwood insists that we impose certain assumptions on the 2000 BF&M, but those assumptions are not present in the confession. Read the relevant part of Article III again, paying attention to what it actually says, not what Harwood insists it must mean:
Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.
This tells us that mankind inherits “a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.” Nothing is denied in this section. Nothing is specifically excluded except for views that contradict what it affirms. If Calvinists believed that we do not inherit a nature and environment inclined toward sin, then we could not affirm the BF&M. As it is, we do affirm that, but we affirm more than that. We can say what the BF&M says, even though we will say more than the BF&M says. But this is not at all unusual. For instance, the BF&M section on the return of Christ tells us that Jesus will return, and it tells us a few things about the nature of his return, but it says absolutely nothing about specific signs or tribulation or millennial views, etc. The SBC includes people who hold to a variety of eschatological positions, all of which can affirm what the BF&M says, but all of which would say more than it says. We all agree with the BF&M, but our views are typically more specific. We go beyond the BF&M in telling what we believe. The BF&M is not meant to be exhaustive, it is meant to provide the core theological positions of the SBC. Those who can affirm the core, even if they say more, can affirm the BF&M 2000. Without reservation, I agree with the statement that we inherit “a nature and an environment inclined toward sin” but this is not all that I believe about our inheritance from Adam. I say what it says, then I say more.
Looking further at the statement on man, it also tells us that when people are capable of moral action, they become transgressors. Here as well be careful to read the language without imposing assumptions. Someone might insist that this requires a view of age of accountability, but it does not. One Southern Baptist might say that people are capable of moral action from conception onward, while another says moral action is only possible at some sort of age of accountability. What the BF&M requires is that we agree that when people are capable of moral action (whenever that may be), it is then that they become transgressors. People cannot be transgressors if they are not capable of moral action. I affirm all of this. Harwood and I have different views of when children are capable of moral action, but we can both affirm what the statement says.
Finally, the statement concludes that people are under condemnation when they are capable of moral action and become transgressors. This is the only real shift in this section from the 1925 BF&M. The 1925 BF&M and the Abstract of Principles place condemnation with our inheritance rather than with our transgression. All Adam’s posterity “inherit a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.” In other words, we inherit the corruption and bondage of sin and with that inheritance we stand condemned. The change in the 2000 BF&M moves the connection from our inheritance to our transgression. It does not make explicit the nature of our transgression, nor does it say whether or not transgression and condemnation come with our inheritance. As I explained in my view of the condition of infants, babies are born capable of moral action, and babies are born having inherited from Adam the corruption and guilt of the fall. Having been born in Adam, we all participated with Adam in the fall. We transgressed in his transgression. I am condemned because in Adam I transgressed the command of God and am guilty of that first sin as well as sins I have committed since then. None of this is at odds with the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message unless we are required to impose Harwood’s assumptions.
Even for those in the Reformed camp who do not believe infants are capable of moral action until an older age, the revision to Article III is not an obstacle to affirming and teaching the 2000 BF&M. Once again we see the interpretive leeway permitted by the BF&M. The statement does not make an explicit connection between our condemnation and the transgression that follows moral ability. It does not prohibit the possibility of seeing people as condemned before they are capable of moral action. Someone might say, “We are condemned because of the guilt of Adam’s sin, and we are condemned because of our sin. So when a child is conceived, they stand condemned and in need of a savior because of their inheritance from Adam, but they are further condemned when they become capable of moral action and become transgressors.” Either way, Article III does not close the door to the Reformed perspective.
Harwood’s post does not directly call for those holding the Reformed view to step down from their positions, but it is hard to miss that implication. He seems to be joining those who want to exclude Reformed theology from Southern Baptist seminaries and institutions, but his argument will not work. The only way Article III excludes the Reformed view is if we impose on it concepts and ideas that it does not state.