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Creedalism vs. Confessionalism: Why You Should Care

One reason I am a moderate Baptist is to avoid creedalism.

Let me define that – as it is meant by my fellow moderate Baptists (and some others).

To me, to us, “creedalism” is the elevation of some extrabiblical statement of belief to a status equal with Scripture itself – authoritative beyond doubt, mental reservation, question or revision.

And church leadership, if not membership, depends on some act of expressing uncritical agreement with, loyalty and allegiance to an extrabiblical doctrinal statement.

Now, of course, there are degrees of creedalism.

Some Christian churches and organizations require leaders only to “sign” (whether literally or symbolically) a statement of faith and then write out any mental reservations they may have about parts of it.

Sometimes, their mental reservations are acceptable and sometimes not. If not, they are either not ordained or hired in the first place or they are “de-frocked,” excommunicated or just fired.

My point (and explaining all the variations on creedalism would take forever) is simply to say that creedalism is the explicit or implicit elevation of some extrabiblical statement of beliefs to the same status of authority as Scripture itself – functionally.

Few Christian groups would admit to doing so explicitly.

An alternative to creedalism that still emphasizes the importance of doctrines is confessionalism. The line between them is not always clear.

To my mind, many Christians who call themselves “confessionalists” are really creedalists. But also to my mind, it is entirely possible to be confessional with one’s Christianity without being creedal (as I explained it above).

Examples are always helpful. Southern Baptists – allegedly the largest Protestant denomination in the world (but let’s not debate that) – have three times written a statement of belief called the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963 and 2000). The second and third “writings” were revisions of the first.

One seminary that I know fairly well requires faculty members and administrators (not students) to sign publicly the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M).

They are threatened with being fired should they ever teach that any part of it may not be true. To me, that is creedalism.

Another Baptist seminary I know well has a written statement of faith that is published as a general expression of the seminary’s “common belief” – consensus of doctrines – that no one is ever required to sign.

Candidates for faculty status are asked whether they are in general agreement with it and permitted to express mental reservations if they have any.

Then, the tenured faculty and administration decide whether the candidate is sufficiently in agreement with the statement of faith to become a faculty member.

Another Baptist seminary I know well simply asks candidates for faculty status to write out their own personal statement of belief (doctrines), which is then examined by the tenured faculty and administration – for general “fit” with the seminary’s ethos.

The second and third seminaries are examples of confessionalism (in two varieties) without creedalism.

I know some moderate Baptists (and probably some others) who would consider both examples of creedalism.

However, they are not because they hold the seminaries’ statements of faith (or implicit, shared doctrinal beliefs) secondary to Scripture.

However, there’s another key difference and it blurs the line between creedalism and confessionalism so that some would argue the line never really entirely holds forever.

The difference (possibly without a distinction) appears when someone points out a flaw exists, biblically or logically, in the statement of faith. That the statement of faith is not entirely biblical or that it contradicts itself. What happens then?

Case study of this: Some years ago, the president of an evangelical liberal arts college published a book in which he argued that any faculty member of any truly evangelical liberal arts college who has mental reservations about any part of the college’s statement of faith should resign and go elsewhere.

Around the same time, however, a student of the college discovered a serious heresy “hidden” within the college’s statement of faith. I have detailed this incident in my book, “Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology.”

When the student pointed it out to the president, the president could not help but agree and change the wording.

Surely, some faculty member had noticed that problem with the college’s statement of faith before the student did. Surely. When I read it, it almost literally jumped out at me.

But, of course, given the college president’s clear creedalism, no faculty members would dare to point it out. And yet, once it was discovered and pointed out, the president changed it.

Did he not then have “mental reservations” about it? Even more; he clearly disagreed with it.

When writing his book and functioning as a guardian of doctrine, that college president functioned as a creedalist.

But upon being shown that one phrase in the college’s statement of faith was heretical, he briefly functioned as a confessionalist. And (so I am told) immediately went back to functioning as a creedalist.

What this incident, and reasonable Protestant commitment to “sola scriptura,” means, of course, is that every extrabiblical statement of faith must be held more lightly than Scripture itself and open to revision in light of fresh and faithful biblical research (and logic insofar as it is demonstrable that it contradicts itself or some other statement of faith held).

I am comfortable with confessionalism but not with creedalism; I also realize the line between them is not clear to everyone. So, I have to make up my own mind about the line in particular cases.

Generally speaking, requiring someone to sign (whether literally or figuratively) an extrabiblical statement of doctrinal beliefs borders on creedalism.

Asking them to write out their own statement of faith for consideration for membership does not.

Creedalism definitely (to my way of thinking) appears when an extrabiblical statement of faith (doctrinal statement) is elevated to belief beyond mental reservation or question.

These are my “rules of thumb” about this matter, but I am open to reconsidering them in particular cases.

My own preference is that each church and Christian organization write out its statement of generally agreed upon (consensual) doctrinal beliefs and publish it on its website and in its brochure.

Then (to my way of thinking, my preference) it should be open to correcting that statement of faith and not imposing it on members or leaders in a way that makes it even functionally “the 67th book of the Bible.”

However, many moderate Baptists are so averse to creeds that they will not do that. I understand their hesitation given the background history and continuing prevalence of creedalism among fundamentalist Baptists.

So, I will settle for a church and Christian organization that prefers not to write out its doctrinal beliefs but still and nevertheless holds them from the pulpit and the lectern without apology.

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.