Introducing Southern Baptists©
C. B. Hastings
TOC  Forward    Chapter 1  2   3  4  5   6   7   8  9  Aftward   Appendix  Glossary   FAQ  Bibliography (Start Page)

A Baptist finds his final authority in the person of Jesus Christ

Bishop Charles H. Helmsing in an address to a Catholic-Baptist Dialogue at Wake Forest University in 1973 was reminiscing about a conversation he once had with a notable Southern Baptist of his Kansas City diocese. President Truman was commenting at the table about his well-known penchant for an occasional social drink. The bishop recalled, "He referred to this at our conversation, and said to me, 'You know, the Baptists threatened to excommunicate me, but they couldn't. The only ones who could excommunicate me were my own congregation, and they wouldn't.' I learned then how Baptists understand kornonia, or fellowship, or community, or the local church better than if I had listened to a long lecture on the subject." The conversation turned later to Pope John's recent encyclical, Pacem in Terris, which Truman warmly praised. The bishop concluded, "All of this made me realize that a Baptist, as a totally dedicated Christian, is formed in social action by free response to the Word of God, by personal meditation and prayer thereon, and by listening to commentaries of others on that Word, whether they be preachers or teachers.''!

The good bishop has captured the essence of a Baptist view on authority. Baptists share with other Reformation descendants the primacy of the Scriptures as the external authority.- They have a unique way of basing the inner light of the Spirit upon "the competency of the soul in religion" as the internal authority. And they are more willing today than ever to admit that such twofold authority operates within the arena of a fellowship of believers, whether that be defined as "what Baptists have historically believed" or "what I have always been told."

While the arena may condition the operation of authority, it can never be acknowledged as authoritative. While the inner light of the Spirit is essential to the understanding of the revelation God gives to man, such can never be reduced to an individualism or a mysticism that treats lightly God's revelation in history or ignores those who have a like spiritual endowment. While the Scriptures are the "final rule of faith and practice," they are only the means to the end of bringing the believer under the supreme Lordship of Christ.

It will be the thesis of this chapter, therefore, that the Baptist pattern of authority is dynamic and functional rather than static and abstract. While agreeing about the general pattern, Baptists will continue to disagree among themselves over the specifics of the pattern. According to changing pressures both from within and without the Baptist fellowship, they may now stress one or another pole of the pattern. Faced with any claims of hierarchical authority, they will emphasize the immediacy of their access to God through Christ alone. Confronted with critical doubts about the authenticity of the Bible, they may only take deeper refuge in "The Bible says," oblivious to any charge of circular reasoning. When asked by some to accept any list of "fundamentals of faith" as the touchstone of authority, they are likely to remind their overanxious brethren that "confessions are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience ... and are not to be used to hamper freedom of thought or investigation in other realms of life."2 .The viewpoint of this writer is from the position of one who has served his entire ministry within the fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention. At no point should his remarks be taken as critical of other Baptist groups, nor does his ignorance of their writings intend any slight.

This kind of functional approach to authority is well illustrated by an experience of the writer. The deacons were painting the parsonage when he overheard one complaining to his partner of his stomach ailment. "You might heed Paul's injunction and take a little wine for your stomach's sake," encouraged his partner.

Seeing an opportunity to show off his newfound learning in graduate seminary, the young pastor observed, "Brother White, did you know that verse is not in the oldest and best manuscripts of the New Testament?"

"It's in the oldest and best I got!" And he never missed a stroke of the brush. Deacon White's authority was functioning in a very practical way.

Another distinctive feature of this pattern of authority has to do with its locus of concern. Whereas most systems of authority have to do with certitude of the truth of religion, most Bad fists are concerned with assurance in the experience of religion. Not, how can I be certain I am right, but, how can I be assured I am saved? This does not mean that the Baptist is unconcerned about the pursuit of truth. But suspicious of all claims by men, whether pope or scholar, church or philosophy, to encompass all of God's truth, he is content to order his priorities more modestly: "The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God" (Rom. 8:16; all Scripture quotations are from the American Standard Version, 1901). Because of this inner witness he responds warmly to Paul's "for I know him whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to guard that which I have committed unto him against that day" (II Tim. 1:12).

Now there is nothing distinctive about the fact of the Lordship of Christ. Practically all Christians agree to the fact. It is the way that Lordship operates for the believer that makes the Baptist view unique. Ideally the Lordship of Christ is given as full and complete freedom to operate over the individual conscience as human frailty will permit. Every safeguard is taken to allow it to be undelegated, direct, experiential. In the final moment of decision, which may even be taken in concert with other believers, the soul stands naked before its Lord and cries, "What shall I do, Lord?" (Acts 22:10).

The very fact that the believer asks the question indicates that he is not deriving his authority from his reason or his conscience. It saves him from arrogant subjectivism. In finding the answer, however, the total man is involved: reason and conscience, memory and understanding, human wisdom and spiritual insight.

Now the average believer in the heat of decision-making is not all this analytical, but if he were, his reasoning might proceed something like this. "God, having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by divers portions and in divers manners, bath at the end of these days spoken unto us in his Son" (Heb. 1:1-2). "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.... No man bath seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he bath declared him" (John 1:14, 18). Now the New Testament is a faithful record of those who were "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (Luke 1:2). As "inspired of God [it is] also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work" (II Tim. 3:16-17).

If he is mature and well-taught he will draw upon the understandings of Scriptures both from those who have gone on before and those teachers in whom he has confidence. And Baptists perhaps more than any other major denomination have emphasized continuing Bible study for adults. It often seems like an end in itself or a flight into the first century, but it is ultimately directed toward that moment of truth when the soul needs to answer: "What shall I do, Lord?"

But he does not stop there, even with the finest interpretation of the Scriptures. He knows that as a believer under the New Covenant he has a promise that supersedes all claims to sacerdotal power: "I will put my laws into their mind, and on their heart also will I write them.... And they shall not teach every man his fellow-citizen, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: For all shall know me, from the least to the greatest of them" (Heb. S:1~11). He does not despise the gift of teaching, but he surrenders his mind and conscience to no teacher, pastor or friend, for he knows that he has the same open Bible and the same indwelling Spirit to give him light as they do. "And as for you, the anointing which ye received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any one teach you; but as his anointing teacheth you concerning all things, and is true, and is no lie, and even as it taught you, ye abide in him" (I John 2:27; even concatenating Scripture references is characteristic of his style of reasoning.

Such is a very ancient method, going back to the lectionaries of the first Christian centuries).

Baptists, therefore, read each individual's privileges in the light of the New Covenant and the abiding presence of the Spirit. Believers are "sons of God" (Rom. 8:14), a "kingdom and priests" (Rev. 1:6), the "people of God" (I Peter 2:10). Since this is so, then all ecclesial structure must safeguard this freedom and nurture these privileges. Therefore, ecclesial authority is confined to the local church, which as the prime association of believers has the ultimate responsibility to each individual. Believers then associate together on the basis of a "church covenant." This is not a creed, which binds belief upon pain of excommunication. Nor is it a "confession of faith" which "constitutes 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."3 It is simply a pledge to support one another and the ministries of the church with Christian conduct and love.

Claude Broach has stated the implications of local church authority and autonomy:

This group of believers acts freely, without constraint or supervision from any human authority, to order and govern its own life according to the New Testament. All decisions are made by vote of the congregation, with every member having equal standing and responsibility before God. Here are some of the things the local congregation must decide for itself:

whom it wishes to ordain to the ministry;
whom it wishes to choose as its pastor;
whom it will elect as its deacons;
how to operate its church school and total program of religious education;
how to raise and disperse funds;
how it will receive and care for its members;
the order of service followed in public worship;
committee structure to strengthen parish life and encourage participation in Christian service;
extent of cooperation with other Baptist and Christian groups.4

Consequent to the principle of local church authority and autonomy, Baptists do not delegate any powers beyond the congregation. There is no such thing as "The Southern Baptist Church" beyond the Jones Street Baptist Church or the First Baptist Church of Anywhere. They can say, "The New Testament speaks also of the church as the body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all ages,"5 but they do not conceive of its institutional expression beyond the local church. Consequently, Baptist associations, the first level of cooperation in missions, education, and benevolent work, state conventions, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist World Alliance, are all made up of "messengers" from local churches, who constitute themselves an autonomous body for the purpose of carrying on ministries too difficult for a local congregation. There is no such thing as a Baptist "judicatory," as Truman pointed out. Most Baptists would not even relate the word ecclesially.

By and large Baptists have never been greatly impressed with the claims for or the search for a "true church." Most such movements, as, for example, Landmarkism, which arose in the nineteenth century and held to a kind of "baptismal succession" as the sign of the true church, have proved either divisive or inconsequential. Holding that the only conceptual "church" he has to deal with is the First Baptist Church on the square or the Jones Street Baptist Church, he is more aware of its human composition than of its divine nature. Its fellowship, ministries and worship are no less available to his highest dedication than to those whose Church is the means of their salvation or the continuing incarnation of their Lord. He is much more concerned with whether and how his church and denomination are carrying out the Great Commission than whether his local church is in all respects truly apostolic, holy, one and universal. His criteria are, therefore, very pragmatic: Is this particular church preaching the Bible? Are souls being saved? Is the fellowship warm and satisfying? What can they do for my children? Are they mission-minded? In this mobile age, if the answers to too many of these questions are weak or negative, he is not too disturbed, for he can always keep moving his affiliation.

So far we have approached a Baptist view of authority from the functional and practical standpoint. What do the theologians have to say?

Baptists have an inherited distrust of human reason, even reasoning about their faith. There is the anecdote about the preacher who took two hours with a highly reasoned sermon on the Proofs of the Existence of God. At the door one of his more pious members remonstrated: "Parson, in spite of your sermon I still believe in God!" She was enunciating a deep-ingrained feeling among Baptists: that the heart has its reasons one's mind can but dimly grasp. This does not mean that one reasons as far as he can, then takes a leap of faith into knowledge which is "out there in the dim unknown." Nor does it mean that faith is necessarily opposed to reason. It simply means in the mind of such humble believers that faith, which is more personal trust in the Lord than assent to a body of beliefs, is a more reliable way of knowing ultimate reality than is reason. To label this as "fideism" or "believerism" is to slander the witness of those who have experienced its end result: "peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). Their prayer for all men would be, "Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit" (Rom.

Let us review briefly Baptist confessions of faith, with the limitations to these already pointed out. One of the earliest, which represents the thinking of the two groups of English Separatists in London and Amsterdam, out of which the earliest Baptists arose, is A True Confession, drawn up in 1595. Article 7 reads as follows:

7. That the rule of this knowledge, faith and obedience, concerning the worship and service of God and all other Christian duties, is not the opinions, devises, laws or constitutions of men, but the written word of the everlasting God, contained in the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments.6

One of the most complete statements of the authority of the Scriptures and of the need for inner illumination of the Spirit came from the London conference in 1689 of one hundred and seven Baptist churches. This Second London Confession was a rewriting of one originally issued in 1677 by a group of Baptists to show their general concurrence with the famous Westminster Confession of 1646 (out of the Calvinist churches of England). It begins a long chapter on the Scriptures thus:

1. The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving Knowledge, Faith, and Obedience; although the light of Nature, and the works of Creation and Providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and His will, which is necessary unto Salvation....

5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church of God, to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scriptures; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the Doctrine, and the Majesty of the stile [sic], the consent of all the parts . . . the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, and many other incomparable Excellencies . . . are arguments whereby it cloth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion, and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our Hearts.7

These early Baptists did not trust the Church to pronounce with authority that the Scriptures were true, nor did they rely upon human reason to discern them to be the Word of God. Such requires that the Holy Spirit take the Scriptures and work within the mind and conscience this "full persuasion, and assurance of the infallible truth." Here is both the human and the divine at work, just as in the formation of the Scriptures. The human agency brings the Scriptures in the printed word and in the proclamation, which is both witness—"how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14b} and interpretation: "Understandest thou what thou readest? And he said, How can I, except some one shall guide me?" (Acts 8:3~31). This human factor introduces the possibility of the misuse of the Scriptures. The latter are no proof against being short-circuited for the sake of humanly devised religious systems apart from the Lordship of Christ. Jesus warned his generation, "Ye search the Scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life; and these are they which bear witness of me; and ye will not come to me, that ye may have life,' (John 5:39-40). Even the Scriptures can be perverted. Peter speaks of the writings of "our beloved brother Paul . . . wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unsteadfast wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction" (II Peter 3:15-16).

The divine Agent, the Holy Spirit, working both in the individual and In the community of believers, is therefore equally necessary with the Scriptures. He is "the Spirit of truth" who "shall guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak from himself; but what things so ever he shall hear, these shall he speak: and he shall declare unto you the things that are to come. He shall glorify me; for he shall take of mine, and shall declare it unto you" (John 16:13-14). So both of these Scriptures and the Spirit—lead unto Jesus and his Lordship

The two most widely used confessions of faith in the last two hundred years have been the Philadelphia Confession of 1742 and the New Hampshire Confession of 1833. The wording of the New Hampshire Confession is practically unchanged in that adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1925 and again in 1963:

We believe 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 shall remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds and opinions should be tried.8

While not exactly a confession of faith, a pamphlet entitled "Baptist Ideals" published by the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and drawn up in 1974 by a committee of eighteen, Ralph A. Herring, chairman, describes the threefold pattern of authority. Its summary statements are as follows:

  1. Christ as Lord. The ultimate source of authority is Jesus Christ the Lord, and every area of life is to be subject to his Lordship.
  2. The Scriptures. The Bible as the inspired revelation of God's will and way, made full and complete in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, is our authoritative rule of faith and practice.
  3. The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God actively revealing himself and his will to man. He therefore interprets and confirms the voice of divine authority.

The ultimate unity and direction of movement of this pattern of authority is expressed in the closing paragraph on the Spirit: "The Spirit seeks to achieve God's will and purpose among men. He empowers Christians for the work of ministry and sanctifies and preserves the redeemed for the praise of Christ. He calls for a free and dynamic response to the Lordship of Christ and for a creative and faithful obedience to the Word of God."

From this can be seen the writer's emphasis that a Baptist view of authority is dynamic and functional. Nowhere is the end result seen as true or orthodox doctrines or beliefs, the true church, a rule or deposit of faith, or an infallible agent or agency. The moral and spiritual goal of submission to the Lordship of Christ, while always imperfectly realized under the human predicament, is obtainable practically without the agony of establishing Orally those historically ecclesial issues.

It will surprise no one, Baptists least of all, that such a pattern of authority as we have described is susceptible to all kinds of stresses and strains. They will continue to argue among themselves and with the wider Christian community of scholars over all biblical issues, denominational polity, ecumenical participation, and spiritual movements. There will always be a conservative tendency to enforce confessions of faith, or some "fundamentals," as tests of orthodoxy. As churches and denominations grow and develop highly complex ministries with great financial outlays, the social forces that afflict all institutions tempt individuals and groups to short-circuit the freedoms and the autonomy so long cherished.

The fundamentalist movement has sought to impose a theory of inspiration of the Bible based on claims of infallibility, literally interpreted. With their high regard for the Scriptures Baptists are particularly vulnerable. Hugh Wamble, professor of history, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City' has tried to maintain a balanced view:

The Scripture's authority and infallibility relate to its supremacy as a rule for religious faith and practice. The official records of Baptists, prior to the twentieth century, do not claim that the Scripture's authority is dependent upon its historical accuracy or that it pertains to non-religious areas. There are some individuals, however, who assert that none of the Bible can be authoritative unless all of it is inerrant. Some self-styled Bible-lovers even suggest that it should be thrown away if it has one error. Quite frankly, it is hard to understand how anyone could treasure his theory about the Bible more than the Bible itself.9

Some Baptists will continue to insist on the "plenary verbal Inspiration producing an infallible Bible as being the sum of the Word of God. But even in their own interpretation and use, they do not carry through to the logical conclusion that every word is divinely dictated and on the same level of revelation. Clifton J. Allen, editor of The Broadman Bible Commentary, in his introductory article, "The Book of the Christian Faith," has pointed out the untenableness of such extremism: "Particularly, this view involves the problems of a divine will virtually imposed on the writers of the Scriptures, the submergence of the findings of critical studies as controverting full inspiration, and attributing to God attitudes and actions seemingly out of harmony with his revelation in Christ."'

The goal of religious authority as stated by E. Y. Mullins is worth repeating: "We stand for the free development of human personality, the complete unfolding of all man's power—intellectual, moral and spiritual—in short, for the perfection of man." Baptists believe that the final revelation of God which we have in Jesus Christ is available to all men who may base their adventures of exploration safely there, for such is not the privileged possession of savants, scientists or sacerdotalists.

In closing his commentary on Jeremiah the writer has spoken of what it means to live under that "new covenant" the prophet foretold:

The Church, then, is a fellowship of those who have a common experienc the forgiveness of sins; a common Master—who mediates the new covenant, which we commemorate at every Lord's Supper; a common Spirit—"who will guide you into all truth." These are the only valid reasons for having a congregational form of polity and operating on a democratic basis. Not that the majority is always right, not that pox populi is always vex Dez. But that the congregational polity is the only human guarantee that the Spirit of God has the freedom to speak the mind of God to the people of God."


  1. J. William Angell, ea., Catholics and Baptists ire Ecumenical Dialogue (The Ecumenical Institute of Wake Forest University, 1973), pp. 10-11.
  2. Preamble to the report of the Committee on Statement of Baptist Faith and Message, adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention, May 9, 1963.
  3. Preamble, loc. cit.
  4. Claude U. Broach, The Baptists (New York: Paulist Press, 1967), pp. 16-17.
  5. The Baptist Faith and Message, Article VI, adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention, 1963.
  6. W. L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1959), p. 84. Used by permission.
  7. Ibid., pp. 248 and 250.
  8. Ibid., pp. 361ff. I am indebted for this summary to the address of Dr. J. William Angell, professor of religion, Wake Forest University, to the Baptist-Catholic Dialogue of May 1973, entitled "Baptists and the Authority of the Scriptures." 14
  9. Hugh Wamble, Baptists, the Bible and Authority (Foundations,
  10. Clifton J. Allen, general ea., The Broadman Bible Commentary I (Nashville: Broadman Press), 1969, p. 8.
  11. Advanced Bible Study, April-May-June 1971. Copyright 1971 The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Last updated Tuesday, December 29, 1998

©Copyright 1998 All rights Reserved. C.B. Hastings
Text was scanned and OCRed from Introducing Southern Baptist ©Paulist, Press 1981.
ISBN: 0-8091-2364-9
Library of Congress Number: 81-80052
Contact the Author