Monday, October 18, 2010

Do Real Baptists Recite Creeds?

As a Baptist theologian, I'm often asked the question addressed in my guest commentary "Do Real Baptists Recite Creeds?" in Baptists Today 22, no. 9 (September 2004), p. 27. The original article is available electronically as part of the September 2004 issue of Baptists Today archived publicly online in PDF (scroll to p. 27). I'm posting a condensed adaptation of the original article here for easier access:

If a local Baptist church were to exercise its congregational freedom by embracing weekly confession of the Apostles’ Creed or “Nicene” Creed, would it be engaging in a non-Baptist practice?

Some Baptists have thought so. In the introductory courses I teach in Christian Theology, I have for several years opened each class session with the singing of a hymn and the recital of the Apostles’ Creed during the first half of the semester and the “Nicene” Creed during the second half of the term. One former student wrote on an exam paper that he had refused to join in reciting the creeds became “I’m a Baptist, and Baptists don’t believe in creeds.” (He had the freedom to make that refusal and reach that conclusion without academic penalty.)

My student’s reluctance to confess the creeds exemplifies a widespread sentiment in our context of Baptist life. One reason many Baptists see the creeds as un-Baptist is the oft-repeated slogan “No creed but the Bible!” Many Baptists take this to be a concise declaration of historic Baptist identity. By 2009 Baptists had existed for 400 years as an identifiable denominational tradition, but it has only been during the past century and a half that some Baptists in the United States have echoed this slogan. Its origins are outside the Baptist movement proper in the work of Alexander Campbell (1788-1866), founder of the Disciples of Christ. Campbell’s aversion was not to the ancient creeds per se — he frequently referenced them in his writings — but rather to the coercive use of more detailed Protestant confessions as tests of fellowship.

Baptists are right to resist this coercive use of either creeds or confessions, but we would be wrong to let this legitimate concern keep us from experiencing the benefits of the proper uses of the creeds. The Apostles’ Creed and “Nicene” Creed are properly used as expressions of worship. They are not lists of doctrinal propositions to which assent is compelled; they are summaries of the biblical story of the Triune God, drawn from the language of the Bible itself. The creeds function as the Christian “pledge of allegiance.” They declare the story to which we committed ourselves in baptism. Reciting the creeds thus regularly renews our baptismal pledges.

Reciting the creeds invites us afresh to locate our individual stories within the larger divine story that is made present to us in worship. Reciting the creeds impresses upon us again and again the overarching meaning of the Bible and so shapes our capacity for hearing and heeding what specific passages of Scripture have to say. Reciting the creeds invites us into solidarity with the saints gone before us who for two millennia have confessed this story with these same words. Reciting the creeds declares our solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Christ in other denominations who today embrace the story of the Triune God.

Having no fixed or mandated liturgy, Baptist churches are free to adopt whatever worship practices they find beneficial. Freely choosing to experience the benefits of confessing the ancient ecumenical creeds is a most Baptist thing for free and faithful Baptists to do.

Condensed and adapted from Baptists Today 22, no. 9 (September 2004), p. 27.


  1. "The Apostles’ Creed and “Nicene” Creed are properly used as expressions of worship. They are not lists of doctrinal propositions to which assent is compelled; they are summaries of the biblical story of the Triune God, drawn from the language of the Bible itself."

    That seems to summarize the issue well. Thanks for your post.

  2. Baptists are certainly free to choose to recite a creed or creeds if they wish ... but one cannot in good conscience reconstruct our faith history to suit one's own agenda.

    I am aware that you anchor your Baptistness on the early English Baptist confessions, which some of your colleagues claim affirm the ancient creeds of the Church. Yet, only one early English Baptist confession even mentions the ancient creeds, the Orthodox Creed (so named at a time when Baptists used the words "creed" and "confession" interchangeably when referencing their confessions of faith), a statement that was signed by 54 men and never affirmed or adopted by any Baptist community of faith.

    On the other hand, early English Baptist confessions frequently affirmed that scripture alone was their source of faith and practice ... and rarely, if ever, recited the ancient creeds in worship. (Which makes me wonder why you seem to want to take Baptists to a place they have never been, historically?)

    From early English Baptist confessions:

    “the Holie Word off God, which onelie is our direction in al things whatsoever.” (A Declaration of Faith of English People, Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland, 1611; section 22)

    “The Rule of this Knowledge, Faith, and Obedience, concerning the worship and service of God, and all other Christian duties, is not man's inventions, opinions, devices, laws, constitutions, or traditions unwritten whatsoever, but only the word of God contained in the Canonical Scriptures. In this written Word God hath plainly revealed whatsoever he hath thought needful for us to know, believe, and acknowledge, touching the Nature and Office of Christ, in whom all the promises are Yea and Amen to the praise of God.” (First London Confession, 1644, sections VII and VIII)

    “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving Knowledge, Faith and Obedience …. The Authority of the Holy Scripture for which it ought to be believed dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church …. The whole Councel of God concerning all things necessary for his own Glory, Mans Salvation, Faith and Life, is either expressely set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new Revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men …. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: And therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold by one) it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly. The supream judge by which all controversies of Religion are to be determined, and all Decrees of Councels, opinions of ancient Writers, Doctrines of men, and private Spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved” (Second London Confession, 1677, Chapter 1)

  3. Apologies to all comment posters on this entry--I'd changed the e-mail address to which comment moderation notices are to be sent, but I never clicked on the confirmation link sent to the new e-mail address. This afternoon I logged onto the blog and discovered that three comments had been waiting since yesterday for my action. Sorry about that, Jeff, Wyman, and Bruce!

  4. Bruce,

    A few responses to various aspects of your comment, in no particular order:

    Part of the essence of being Baptist seems to be having a healthy aversion to overly-realized eschatologies of the church that see some expression of the church as it presently exists as being the full realization of everything the church ought to be (which is why I cannot become a Roman Catholic, by the way, in addition to other things that would preclude it such as my support for the ordination of women to all ministries in the church). In other words, Baptist churches are pilgrim communities that are journeying toward what they ought to be but are quite aware that they haven't gotten there yet, historically or today. Thus, I think that Baptists on this ecclesial pilgrim journey will always have to keep two things in tension: continuity with the good gifts of the Baptist tradition (and it is a tradition, which is why its history is important, and it has a wealth of good gifts to offer) and an openness to the possibility who we may need to become is not bound by what has been before (as Bill Leonard has rightly argued). All that's to say that yes, it's indeed possible that our itinerary on this pilgrim journey of being Baptist may take us to some places in the future we've never visited before, even as it may also lead us to visit again some destinations familiar to us which we may end up re-appropriating in a slightly different way than in previous stages of our journey.

    As to the unquestioned affirmation of "sola Scripture" by the early Baptists, I don't deny or reject that but rather qualify it precisely in the way James Leo Garrett, Jr. did in his Systematic Theology: despite this language, their actual hermeneutical practice might be better described as "suprema Scripture," Scripture as the supreme source of authority that norms other sources that do function, in a way subordinate to the authority of Scripture, as sources of authority for faith and practice. Even if we've not formalized it and fully appropriated its language, the "Wesleyan Quadrilateral" of a pattern of authority Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience was in operation for the earliest Baptists, too, and has been ever since. Baptists are nothing if not a people who, like Wesley, stress the importance of vital Christian experience--which nevertheless remains subordinate to the authority of Scripture. (For what it's worth, Russell Dilday affirmed this notion of a pattern of authority in which the Bible functions in his 1982 Convention Press book on biblical authority).

    As to the question of the relation of early Baptist confessions to the ancient ecumenical creeds, I've treated that question extensively in my article “Baptist Confessions of Faith and the Patristic Tradition” in Perspectives in Religious Studies 29, no. 4 (Winter 2002), pp. 349-58 (a revised version of it is published as chapter 4 of my book Towards Baptist Catholicity and includes a few expansions and clarification, along with a correction or two). By way of illustration for the present purposes, I'll put in the next comment a few paragraphs from that article highlighting the way in which the early Baptist confessions depended on patristic creedal formulations that went well beyond biblical language and concepts to express their affirmation of patristic Christological developments.

  5. And here are the promised paragraphs from the article/chapter on early Baptist confessions and the ancient creeds:

    John Smyth’s Short Confession of Faith in XX Articles of 1609 refers in article 6 to Jesus Christ as ‘true God and true man…taking to himself, in addition, the true and pure nature of a man, out of a rational soul, and existing in a true human body’. This does not stray far from the anti-Apollinarian language of the Chalcedonian symbol. The next article of Smyth’s Short Confession is essentially an expansion of the second article of the Apostles’ Creed with additional affirmations about the life of Christ between birth and passion, emphasizing his humanity:

    That Jesus Christ, as pertaining to the flesh, was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, afterwards was born, circumcised, baptized, tempted; also that he hungered, thirsted, ate, drank, increased both in stature and in knowledge; he was wearied, he slept, at last was crucified, dead, buried, he rose again, ascended into heaven; and that to himself as only King, Priest, and Prophet of the church, all power both in heaven and earth is given. (note parallels to the Apostles’ Creed).

    The Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam (1611) uses the term ‘subsistence’, a common English translation of hypostasis, for the persons of the Trinity, and echoes Chalcedon in the language of its confession of the two natures of Christ:

    That IESVS CHRIST, the Sonne off GOD the second Person, or subsistence in the Trinity, in the Fulness off time was manifested in the Flesh, being the seed off David, and off the Isralits, according to the Flesh. Roman. 1.3 and 8.5. the Sonne off Marie the Virgine, made of hir substance, Gal. 4.4. By the power off the HOLIE GHOST overshadowing hir, Luk. 1.35. and being thus true Man was like vnto us in all thing, son onely excepted. Heb. 4.15. being one person in two distinct natures, TRVE GOD, and TRVE MAN.

    Pneumatological portions of some of these Trinitarian articles also reflect classical creedal language. In particular, the Constantinopolitan affirmation of the procession of the Spirit within the Godhead, in its expanded Western form with the Filioque clause, appears in Propositions and Conclusions Concerning True Christian Religion of 1612-1614, the First London Confession of 1644, the Second London Confession of 1677, and the Orthodox Creed of 1678.

    That's enough for now. I hope this offers some clarification.

  6. If I might fast-forward historically to contemporary global Baptist life, here's a link to the 1978 confession of faith of the rather theologically progressive Bund Evangelisch-Freikirchlicher Gemeinden in Deutschland (Evangelical Free Church Community [Baptist] Union in Germany). This confession is noteworthy for at least three reasons: it is the only Baptist confession of faith that explicitly affirms the legitmacy of historical-critical approaches to interpreting the Bible in the article on the Scriptures; it explicitly rejects supercessionist understandings of the relationship between Israel and the church; and it opens with the full text of the Apostles' Creed as an affirmation of the faith Baptists share with other Christians before moving on to affirmations of distinctively Baptist convictions. The link to the text of the confession that follows is in German, but it should be evident what's going on at the beginning even to the English reader:

  7. Steve,

    I think it fair to say that anytime we Baptists speak of the Trinity, we are dipping our toes into waters traversed and discoursed by the ancient church fathers. The same could be said of many doctrines: we continue to talk about ancient church subject matter to this very day, our words at points intersecting words of the past.

    Yet this does not mean we are, or have been, a creedal people. In fact, Baptists of old went out of their way to avoid being a creedal people.

    I can, for the record, understand your wish to move Baptists to a different dimension of faith.

    And I can understand why the recitation of creeds in worship is meaningful to you, and some other Christians (although most likely most Christians worldwide today do not recite creeds in worship).

    But from a historian's perspective, if you are going to argue that creedal worship has roots in early Baptist history, then your first task is to identify early Baptist congregations and communities that recited the ancient church creeds as a part of their worship experience.

    You've not done that yet.

    So, an agenda (not using this word in a negative sense necessarily) of moving Baptists into new territory is your task. Baptist history is the stumbling block in this task. My advice, thus, would be to openly acknowledge that Baptist history is irrelevant (indeed, this is one of the basic, core arguments in the Baptist Manifesto, it would so seem) to that which Baptists (in your estimation) need to be today.

    - Bruce

  8. Bruce,

    No, I could never declare Baptist history irrelevant--as should be obvious from most things I've written.

    Baptist worship is a work in progress. I'm just guessing that your own church community doesn't follow many of John Smyth's prescriptions for worship, which included an aversion to even having a printed text of the Bible in the service lest it hinder genuine Spirit-moved worship. We've been in a four-centuries-long process of reclaiming some of the "baby thrown out with the bathwater"; the "Charleston Tradition" of worship among Baptists in the American South represents a significant step in that process (and was also a significant step away from the worship of the earliest Baptists in Amsterdam).

    Probably the best treatment of the historical development and contemporary variety of Baptist worship is Christopher J. Ellis, Gathering: A Theology and Spirituality of Worship in the Free Church Tradition (London: SCM Press, 2004). Stephen F. Winward, The Reformation of Our Worship (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1965) made proposals from a British Baptist perspective for the evolution of Baptist worship from its beginnings toward a more liturgical/ecumenical approach to worship that also included the use of the creeds. The fact that there are many Baptist congregations here and there beginning to utilize the creeds as expressions of worship suggests that this sort of evolution is happening now in Baptist worship. I think it's a good thing; others may not; but it's part of my task as a Baptist theologian to say "should" and "ought" now and then with reference to the continued evolution of the Baptist tradition--as it is yours, too, as a church historian, for it's impossible to retrieve the history of the church in order to make proposals about its future without doing theological reflection on history and issuing a few "shoulds" and "oughts," too; we may disagree as to what those might be, but it's inescapable and, I think, a good thing, since as Alasdair MacIntyre rightly points out, if there's not a robust and ongoing argument about the tradition, the tradition's dying or dead. We Baptists should be good at keeping the Baptist tradition alive by contesting it, for that's been part of our distinctive vocation within the larger Christian tradition.

  9. Steve,

    First of all, the Charleston tradition was not a "significant step away" from the early English Baptist tradition, but rather much of the same with some refinements. Scripture, preaching, interpretation, exhortation, the priesthood of all believers, freedom of conscience, testimony, prayer, fellowship all remained central to the gathered worship experience.

    However, we do agree that the use of creeds in worship is a recent (and minority position, primarily among English Baptists, it seems) innovation in Baptist life that is much at odds with (different than) the faith experiences and anti-creedalism of early Baptists.

    You are for this recent innovation; this much is clear.

    However, I remain puzzled that you insist on cloaking innovation in the language of "tradition."

    The only Baptist "tradition" that you seem tethered to is what you call (in Towards Baptist Catholicity) the "Baptist tradition of dispensing with tradition."

    So to ask point blank, why bother to talk the language of "Baptist tradition" when in reality your agenda is innovation? Is the use of the language of "tradition," in your mind, necessary for you to get a hearing in Baptist life for your innovations? That is, is this a tactical measure? Would it not be simpler, and more direct, to acknowledge your dissonance with the grand themes of the Baptist tradition, and issue a challenge for Baptists to move on to (what you consider to be) greater heights of faith?

    - Bruce

  10. Bruce,

    A few quick responses before calling it an evening:

    My point re Charleston was about worship in particular vis-a-vis the earliest Baptist communities rather than their respective embodiments of Baptist identity in general, and I think the point holds true that the Baptist churches in which I tend to worship (which have included, among others, Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth and First Baptist in Raleigh) are more like the worship of Charleston than the latter is like the community of Smyth and Helwys--and the larger point this illustrates is that Baptist worship changed a good bit from its beginnings to Charleston, and it continues to evolve.

    I wouldn't characterize my agenda as innovation, but rather a reclamation of a larger tradition to which Baptists belong and from which Baptists may receive these gifts (my paradigm here is "receptive ecumenism"--see the work of Paul Murray in the UK on this; Paul Fiddes has been a significant Baptist voice in this project).

    I believe that my reference to Baptists having a "tradition to dispensing with tradition" was intended to suggest two things: first, that even that does constitute a "tradition" of some sort; and second, with the implication that tradition isn't such a bad thing to claim, and that perhaps it ought to be a little "thicker" than simply having a tradition of having an aversion to tradition. In other words, I wasn't commending it. (And I believe I was quoting Philip Thompson at that point, so credit goes to whom it's due.)

  11. A good evening to you, Steve. Thanks for the dialogue.

  12. And thank you for the dialogue, Bruce. I've enjoyed it very much. I think we're beginning to make some progress in mutual understanding of one another's perspectives.

    First, a typographical correction of my last comment: "tradition OF dispensing with tradition" rather than "TO dispensing with tradition."

    Now a couple of lingering matters to which I'd like to return: (1) whether tradition, while subordinate to the authority of the Scriptures, has any degree of authority for Baptists; and (2) the importance of freedom for the Baptist tradition.

    Would I be correct in understanding that the primary concern behind the assertion that it is the Bible alone--and not creeds or other expressions of tradition--is the authority for faith and practice is to guard against creeds or other expressions of tradition functioning as sources of authority that are parallel to the Scriptures (rather than subordinate to the Scriptures) and especially to guard against them becoming sources that norm Scripture rather than the other way around? If so, I'm with you, and it may be that my invocation of Leo Garrett's "suprema Scriptura" qualification of sola Scriptura converges with the intent behind your disavowal of any authority for tradition.

    One more observation about our exchanges regarding tradition and Baptist identity: it seems to me that to identify a particular pattern of Baptist identity as the normative pattern of Baptist identity is in fact to invoke the authority of post-biblical tradition, even if the pattern of Baptist identity proposed as normative denies any authority to tradition. So it seems to me that this is in a sense another convergence between our perspectives: we both do in fact have a place for the (subordinate) authority of tradition as something that helps us adjudicate whether a particular pattern of faith and practice is consistent with Baptist identity or broader Christian identity; our divergences may be at the point of the precise content of the tradition we've construed as (subordinately) normative and the manner in which we invoke it. (point on freedom continued in next comment)

  13. And finally, regarding freedom: I, too, think that belongs to the essence of Baptist identity and is chief among the gifts we have to offer the rest of the church (and surely this, too, would be a major point of convergence for us). I noted on your blog the reference to Scott Milam's Baptist Standard opinion piece, which I greatly appreciated. In many ways my perspective is similar to Scott's in that I believe the freedom that belongs to the Baptist tradition is the best place from which to receive the best gifts that other Christian traditions have to offer, a conviction that really guides my work as a Baptist ecumenical theologian whose task is twofold: to help other traditions understand, and maybe even receive gifts from, the Baptist tradition, even while I seek to help my fellow Baptists understand, and maybe even receive gifts from, other Christian traditions. (BTW, this is the context for understanding my commendation of the liturgical function of the creeds in a way that--we both agree--would stretch most Baptists beyond what we've previously and typically done. This use of the creeds in worship is, I think, a gift to be received--or received back--from the larger church, among other gifts we might receive). Coupled with our congregational freedom (and, I should add for the record, the freedom of members within free congregations), the fact that the Baptist tradition has neither normative foundational theologians like Luther, Calvin, or Wesley nor a fixed and mandated liturgy nor a binding detailed account of faith and practice such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church means that, of all traditions (and along with other free church traditions) we are in the best position to be able to receive the best gifts of other traditions and incorporate them into our own, in ways that are locally adapted and appropriate to the life of specific Baptist communities. (An especially significant historic example of this that is formative for the rest of the Baptist tradition is the manner in which the early received some gifts from the Reformed tradition via the Separatists and other gifts via the influence of Anabaptists, while at the same time declining to incorporate some features of both traditions into the shape that the emerging Baptist tradition was taking). In that connection I'm especially fond of Glenn Hinson's principle of teaching "all of church history as the history of us all"--which suggests that Baptists belong to the whole church and the whole church belongs to Baptists. This brings us back to points in our exchanges regarding the importance of history to present-day and future Baptist identity: I think we actually converge in insisting that we cannot dispense with history and base Baptist identity now and in the future on innovation. What my agenda has been about is making sure that the history that informs our efforts in this direction is all of church history, the history of us all, and not only the 400 years of it we've inhabited separately.

  14. Make that, "the manner in which the early BAPTISTS received".

  15. Steve, let me try to respond to your primary points above, and I'm going to number my responses simply to help me keep track of myself. :-)

    1) The historical Baptist aversion to creeds stems from three broad bases, I would argue: a) the recognition that creeds have always divided (and never unified) the body of Christ (that is, creeds have always created an "us vs them" paradigm, forbidding freedom, frequently oppressive, and often with violent dimensions), 2) that all creeds represent human reasoning that (at best!) is necessarily fallible, incomplete, and a product of specific circumstances (time and place), and 3) that the New Testament advocates freedom, not creeds.

    I would argue that the same points are yet valid in the 21st century: creeds continue, by nature, to divide, to perpetuate an "us vs them" paradigm.

    2) Which brings me to my second general point.

    From my observation of your arguments, I see you working hard to move Baptists toward a creedal faith. Yet I see little recognition on your part of the zero-sum nature of creedalism: that is, historically creedal faiths must win, or they will not play. There is no compromise, no give and take, no freedom.

    The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, for example, are not going to acquiesce to move toward the Baptist tradition. Their creeds assure them that they hold the truth, and there can be no deviation thereof.

    Or said another way, creedal faith traditions welcome Baptists to come their way, convert, and speak their language ... but they're not about to step our way and speak our language, in return.

    Why, then, make overtures toward a zero-sum faith paradigm in which your own faith tradition is automatically dismissed? Why trade freedom in Christ for linguistic handcuffs?

    Why not hold fast to our own historical identity, and while so doing, recognize and affirm that people of other faiths can be equally Christian, that we can all work together at some points, but that neither of us need to forsake or capitulate our own faith traditions in order to shake hands and rub shoulders and labor in common in the Kingdom of Christ?

    - Bruce

  16. Bruce,

    Your comment seems to assume that I have in mind a coercively regulative function for a Baptist retrieval of the ancient creeds, when in fact I've emphasized only their liturgical and catechetical functions.

    I'd disagree that the ancient creeds have only served to divide. In chapter 2 of my most recent book Ecumenism Means You, Too, I've sought to show how the purpose of the ecumenical councils and associated creeds was not to divide the orthodox from the heretics but to find unity in the faith.

    I'm the Baptist World Alliance representative to the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission, and our most definitely non-coercive discussions proceed on the basis of the assumption that we at least share the Nicene faith. And as a member of the BWA delegations to our dialogues with the Anglican Consultative Council and the Roman Catholic Church, I can report that neither of these communions approach dialogue with us in the manner you've suggested.

  17. Steve,

    The ecumenical councils were indeed called for the purpose of dividing heresy from orthodoxy. One has to be quite creative with history to deny this.

    Ecumenical councils also served to define proper state religion/theology, for the purpose of fostering peace in the empire.

    The Council of Nicea, for instance, in today's world, would be like Obama calling together religious leaders in America and tasking them with establishing an official religious creed for the United States (and presiding over them as they did so), a creed that would then be used to determine who is a proper Christian and a proper citizen, and who is not.

    Turning back to your own ecumenical efforts, you rejoice in bringing ancient church creeds into the Baptist worship experience. But, I am curious if you have succeeded in leading any Anglican/Orthodox/Catholic congregations into incorporating Baptist traditions into their worship services or catechisms? If not, do you expect your ecumenical efforts to eventually bear such reciprocal fruit?

    - Bruce

  18. Surely, Dr. Gourley, you must be able to see that your own normative use of the distilled abstraction called "The Baptist Tradition" suffers from all the same potential liabilities as Dr. Harmon's creeds. It's fostering an "'us vs them' paradigm" with you and your partisans arrayed against Dr. Harmon and his, it's itself the product of falible human reasoning, and it, as a tool of normativity, could be said to violate the spirit of the New Testament.

  19. Bruce,

    Your comment regarding the ecumenical councils expresses well the caricature of the ecumenical councils that I sought to nuance properly by pointing to an aspect of them the caricature ignores. All caricatures are based on some degree of reality, and--as I do point out in the book chapter I mentioned--it is true that imperial power was involved in ways we must regard as problematic, and it is true that the result was division. But one must distinguish between result and purpose (one can retrieve the purpose and not the result), and--to use Nicaea as a case in point--one must distinguish between Constantine's purpose in convening the council and the purpose of the bishops. Constantine's purpose was more political than theological; the bishops' purpose was more theological than political (though the latter intruded at points for the bishops, too--as it does for any human being involved in deliberations that involve other human beings). The theological purpose of finding unity (not uniformity) in the faith was indeed there and is to be commended; the political purpose and some of the results it produced was indeed there, too, but is to be rejected. (In chapter 3 of Towards Baptist Catholicity, I make a case for the necessity that the tradition be contested and that the "heretic" [here I use the term not perjoratively but descriptively] is not only necessary for the contestation of the tradition but in fact does belong to the community and, as I also point out in that context, must not be treated in the manner in which heretics were treated in the aftermath of the ecumenical councils.)

    It's also worth pointing out the the essence of the creed, whether we're talking about the "Nicene" (Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan) Creed or the Apostles' Creed, antedated Nicaea by nearly two centuries and emerged from the grassroot-up rather than being imposed from the top-down (where was the "top" in the second century, anyway?). The early Christian literature of the second and third centuries is replete with mentions and quotations of the rule of faith employed in baptismal contexts, and with some variation in wording, the Apostles' Creed is essentially there already by common consent of the church and really represents the only expression of Christian teaching (other than the entirety of the Bible itself) that can fulfill the three criteria of the "Vincentian Canon" of antiquity, ecumenicity, and consent (and here I'm emphasizing "consent").

    Like Luther, for example, we can affirm the theological outcome of Nicaea without according it an independent authority alongside Scripture and without endorsing the involvement of imperial political power or the sinful treatment of those who dissented. Luther affirmed Nicaea because it represented a faithful clarification of what's already there in Scripture and regarded it as a wheel that doesn't need to be reinvented. (see next comment for continuation of response)

  20. (continued from previous comment)

    As to approaches to ecumenical engagement: if we take Jesus seriously in John 17, we cannot make the quest for the visible (i.e., discernable by others--"so that the world may believe") unity of the church a tit-for-tat affair ("I'll accept some of the gifts you have to offer only if you accept some of the gifts I have to offer"). An analogue is the Christian practice of forgiveness: our forgiveness of others is not conditioned upon others' forgiveness of us.

    A significant and often overlooked example of ecumenical reception of the gifts the Baptist and free church tradition has to offer the rest of the church is actually to be found in an expression of Roman Catholic magisterial teaching: Dignitatis Humanae, the "Declaration on Religious Freedom" (1965) from the Second Vatican Council (online: In the next comment I'll post a couple of key excerpts. I think it can be argued that apart from the historical influence of Baptists and other free church communities, what is now official Roman Catholic teaching about religious liberty would not be what it is.

  21. Excerpts from Dignitatis Humanae ( illustrating Catholic reception of the Baptist/free church gift of advocacy for religious liberty:

    2. This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

    The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.(2) This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

    [numerous affirmation of the necessity of religious freedom for individuals and their religious communities folow]

    15. The fact is that men of the present day want to be able freely to profess their religion in private and in public. Indeed, religious freedom has already been declared to be a civil right in most constitutions, and it is solemnly recognized in international documents.(38) The further fact is that forms of government still exist under which, even though freedom of religious worship receives constitutional recognition, the powers of government are engaged in the effort to deter citizens from the profession of religion and to make life very difficult and dangerous for religious communities.

    This council greets with joy the first of these two facts as among the signs of the times. With sorrow, however, it denounces the other fact, as only to be deplored. The council exhorts Catholics, and it directs a plea to all men, most carefully to consider how greatly necessary religious freedom is, especially in the present condition of the human family. All nations are coming into even closer unity. Men of different cultures and religions are being brought together in closer relationships. There is a growing consciousness of the personal responsibility that every man has. All this is evident. Consequently, in order that relationships of peace and harmony be established and maintained within the whole of mankind, it is necessary that religious freedom be everywhere provided with an effective constitutional guarantee and that respect be shown for the high duty and right of man freely to lead his religious life in society.

  22. Clarification of somthing mentioned in an earlier post: I did not mean to imply that Luther is an example of how to treat those who dissent--he most assuredly was not, as his support of the persecution of Anabaptists is evidence. That part of the sentence didn't have Luther in mind.

  23. Steve,

    As an apologist for Constantine and the (later) Roman Catholic Church, you do an admirable job (although I would contend that, historically, you are glossing over much of the reality on the ground in order to make your pre-determined point).

    Also, you've not addressed the fact that to this day, the RCC does not allow freedom of conscience within its own fellowship of faith. (Nor does it allow gender equality, etc.)

    And while you labor mightily to bring ancient church creeds into Baptist worship liturgy, it is apparent that you've had no successes in convincing your Catholic/Anglican/Orthodox friends (in return) to incorporate Baptist traditions into their worship and catechisms.

    Indeed, I would surmise that you are not even trying to thus influence Catholic/Anglican/Orthodox congregations to adopt aspects of the Baptist tradition.

    So as much as I can appreciate your desire for ecumenism, I remain puzzled (and disappointed) that your efforts are one-dimensional/directional.

    Again, thanks for the friendly dialogue. I think this discourse has helped further distill the chasm between our two camps.

    - Bruce

  24. Bruce,

    I've pointed to possibilities for convergence toward a differentiated consensus; I wouldn't call it a "chasm."

    In what manner have the above comments--or anything else I've written--offered an apology for Constantine? I think it's pretty clear that I disavowed Constantine in the comment above. As a good, strict church-state separationist Baptist, I cannot retrieve the Constantinian symbiosis. That should be clear.

    It should be pointed out that according to the teachings of Catholic moral theology, there is indeed a "primacy" of the individual Catholic conscience. Regarding issues of the gender of ministers according to the RCC--as you know, I'm on the same page as you on that. But a great many Baptists, historically and today, disagree with you and me on that issue. Are they then not really Baptist, either? By what criterion?

    And no, my ecumenical efforts are not one-directional. What other communions do is not my responsibility or the responsibility of other Baptists involved in ecumenical dialogue. As I said, it cannot be a tit-for-tat matter. It also requires patience, for ecumenical engagement is something that requires small steps in our lifetime that will likely bear fruit in other generations. The church is two thousand years old, after all; it took from the 16th century until 1999 to get to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church (and now World Methodist Council as of 2006), for example.

  25. I would like to join this conversation, As a Baptist from a more conservative church, I feel that sometime liturgical worship would be more meaningful and establish more structure. Now this is one person's opinion. I personally have worshipped in Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox church as a visitor and although their services are beautiful and meaningful in their appearance, they miss out on their way they treat the scriptures and in my opinion they are not balanced and cheat their people in that Personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I mean he is the reason why we meet.I feel that we are ecumenical in a sense and that is that we are brothers and sisters with true Christians that know Christ as their Lord and Savior. I have read the Apostles,Nicene and Athanasian Creeds and somewhat familiar with liturgy and even though I would like more liturgical worship in Baptist churches, I am not willing to sacrifice good Bible preaching and teaching,which can still be done in a Liturgical service and Baptist Christians can still recite the creeds (if they want to). But to me Jesus is more important than form,ecumenism or creedal statements.

  26. "Anonymous," I agree with your final sentence--and I'm convinced that Jesus and "form, ecumenism, or creedal statements" do not have to be mutually exclusive.

  27. Dr. Harmon,

    This is Todd Daniels from school. I actually stumbled onto your blog last night as I was researching for a sermon that I am preaching this Sunday, June 2. Having been a youth minister now for over 11 years, one of the things that I continue to see is a lack of understanding from our youth on what we believe as Christians. Therefore, having been inspired by Martin Luther's "Sermons on the Catechism"(1528), I have taken this, along with the Apostles' Creed, and have began a teaching on this with them.

    My goal in this is that they will memorize it and recite it daily. I love what you said in the above post about how you see the creed as a "Pledge of Allegiance." What makes this interesting is when I introduced this teaching to them, I prefaced it with kids learning the "Pledge of Allegiance" and reciting it daily in school. And how the goal of this, on behalf of the state, was to condition our youth to become faithful citizens of the United States. Therefore, with this thinking in mind, I asked my youth to give me the Christian definition of God. And as you could probably imagine, most of them said God was the Creator or that he is our Savior. None of them, however, said that he was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I then asked them if there was anything they could recite each day that would remind them of what we believe as Christians? Of course I got no answer.

    This is why I have felt convicted to give them something, that the church used and is still using to teach the faith to our children, and for that matter, our adults, too!

    As I mentioned above, I am preaching this Sunday, so I am kind of taking my teaching that I began with the youth, and giving it to the congregation. For me, reciting the Creed unifies us as believers. It is a statement of what we believe as Christians. And as Luther suggests, it helps us respond to the world around us, when they ask us, What do you say about the Father? A: He is the Creator. And what do you say about the Son? A: He is the Redeemer. And what do you say about the Spirit? A: He is the Sanctifier. I find that most Christians can't really articulate a statement of what they believe to the world around them. They know what they believe, but they cannot articulate it. For me, the Creed is the place to start. I feel, as a Southern Baptist, one of the greatest things we can do is embrace and recite the Apostles' Creed every time we gather for worship. Not that the creed is elevated above Scripture, but that it joins us to our past, and connects us with the universal church i.e., Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. And as Rich Mullins said in his song "Creed," which is based on the Apostles' Creed, " I did not make it, though it is making me, it is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.