Monday, February 27, 2012

E. Glenn Hinson on Baptists, creeds, and Christian unity

E. Glenn Hinson
As a Baptist theologian who did much of my early research and writing in patristic studies, I've long had a sense of indebtedness to E. Glenn Hinson, who taught church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for over three decades, retired from the faculty of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, and currently serves as a visiting professor at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I was then one of only a few Baptists who had chosen to specialize in patristics (their number is growing), but I was conscious that Dr. Hinson had blazed that trail well ahead of me in our ecclesial circles. (In honor of that indebtedness I edited a Festschrift issue of the Baptist theological journal Review and Expositor on the theme Patristic Retrieval and Baptist Renewal: In Honor of E. Glenn Hinson [Fall 2004].) That consciousness only continued when my work in the ancient catholic tradition to which Baptists and all other Christians are heirs led me increasingly to devote my attention to ecumenical theology.

While doing research for my chapter on the Baptist tradition in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies, I discovered to my delight Dr. Hinson's article "Creeds and Christian Unity: A Southern Baptist Perspective" in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (vol. 23, no. 1 [Winter 1986], pp. 25-36). Once again, I realized that Dr. Hinson had already made many of the same recommendations I've been making more recently to my fellow Baptists. Below is the précis from this article published at the height of the controversy that roiled the Southern Baptist Convention from the late 1970s through the 1990s:

Historically, Southern Baptists have maintained a firm commitment to the principle of "Scriptures alone" espoused by the Protestant Reformation. The current controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention and the evolution of the denomination toward the "catholic" phase of its history, however, are forcing a reassessment of this position. A fundamentalist faction within the Convention is pressing for a narrowly defined set of "fundamentals" centered on "inerrancy" of the Scriptures. This article argues instead in favor of a reaffirmation of traditionally and universally acknowledged symbols such as that framed at Constantinople in 381, often called "the Nicene Creed," on the grounds that this accords more closely with the traditional Baptist perspective. [emphasis added]

A few additional excerpts from the article follow:

Where it is wrong [i.e., use of the Baptist Faith and Message as a creedal test of fellowship or employment in a denominational agency], if one undertakes more careful historical scrutiny, is in what it points to as essentials and in the use to which Southern Baptists would put them. Better to refer to the great historic creeds such as that adopted at Constantinople in 381, as early Baptists occasionally did, than to posit new fundamentals, recognizing at the same time that no statement can express fully the mystery of God's self-disclosure in history and, therefore, that Christians must trust the Spirit to guide them to true faith and obedience (p. 26).

The view espoused in this article would be very close to the "one-source theory" of Vatican II. It is God's self-disclosure, God's Word, which is authoritative, that is, determinative for faith and practice....Inasmuch as the self-disclosure of God reached its definitive form in Jesus of Nazareth, the writings collected in the New Testament canon hold a superior place in the life of the church, for they contain the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses and participants by faith in the greatest of God's mighty acts on behalf of humankind....Confessions of faith or creeds of whatever kind, therefore, may bear the same testimony, but they must repeatedly revive the memory of the apostolic witness from the Scriptures (pp. 26-27).

Given the normative position of Scriptures, their unique position, the question arises again: Why not Scriptures alone? Why a creed or creeds? The most compelling answer to that question would focus chiefly on the guidance needed in interpretation. As the "Second London Confession" (1677) admitted, "All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all;..." (p. 27).

Over against those who would reject all creeds, therefore, it seems right to acknowledge the legitimate role of confessions of faith or creeds alongside Scripture (p. 29).

...Southern Baptists would do well to adjust their forebears' radical individualism and voluntarism by recognizing that the Spirit can also work through the corporate as well as through the individual will....With reference to the question of creeds or confessions of faith, this would mean that Southern Baptists could acknowledge formal statements and symbols but always with care that they not be used in such a way as to preclude the Spirit's working through the individual will to effect obedience, which has always been at the center of Baptist concern. Here it would be far better to acknowledge and use early ecumenical confessions like the Nicene Creed than those proposed by individuals who are ill-qualified to understand and interpret theology. No one who studies the Nicene Creed can fail to notice how this great confession differs from recent fundamentalist statements as an expression of Christian faith and, at the same time, how much better it accords with historic Baptist perceptions of faith than do the latter (pp. 32-33).

This story is critical for the faith pilgrimage of the People of God. Recited over and over, it molds and shapes their perceptions. The creeds are, as it were, the covenant story in nucleo. Delivered in instruction and baptism or through worship, they make sure the faithful have at least grasped the essence of the covenant relationship....The main purpose of the early creeds or their precursors was not orthodoxy but covenant faithfulness (pp. 34-35).

To all of the above I can only say--and indeed have already said--"yes."


  1. Hi,

    I am wondering what your thoughts might be on Baptists and baptism identified as the key to church membership privileges. More specifically, related to baptism as an ordinance rather than an act of faith and worship. I am currently exploring a sacramental, incarnational ecclesiology within the context of Baptist life. Fiddes has been a good resource. My wondering is a result of my intrigue with the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, the oridances attached to baptism, and the possibilties of how it relates to the church growth movement of the 1960's. I recognize baptism does indiciate being a member of the "body", but the attached oridinances make me suspicious of how they might reflect the church growth movement and "flagship" mentality pushed during the 60's through the 90's. Do I need to let it go, or do you think there is something there?

    Thank you - and I also say "yes" to all of the above.

    Kathy Pickett

  2. Thanks for your comment and questions, Kathy. If you're working with Fiddes' perspectives on the matter, you've begun with a good guide. You might have a look at an article James Wm. McClendon, Jr. published in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies not long after the adoption of the 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message; McClendon more broadly made some observations about its tenor and function along the lines of yours. Some of the most fruitful work on the relation between baptism and church membership has been done more recently within the context of the BUGB (with Fiddes as a leading theological voice), in particular in the BUGB-Church of England dialogue "Facing Unity" (some of this is reflected in the international BWA/Anglican dialogue "Conversations Around the World" as well).