Another Great “Moderate Baptist” Leader on the Necessity of Doctrines
Recently I quoted at length here a statement by moderate Baptist leader and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship founder Cecil Sherman who argued that “the faith once for all delivered” must be preserved and not tampered with or discarded.
Another hero of many moderate Baptists (neither out-and-out liberal nor fundamentalist) is Edgar Young Mullins (1860-1928). E. Y. Mullins (as he is usually named) was arguably the most influential leader of Southern Baptists in the first decades of the 20th century. He is often credited with coining the phrase “soul competency” which has become a battle cry and a term of derision in the “Baptist wars” of the last few decades.
Many self-identified moderate Baptists have appealed to “soul competency” to defend their right as Baptists to believe whatever they believe without any accountability to anyone but God. As one leading moderate Baptist publicly stated “Ain’t nobody but Jesus gonna tell me what to believe!” This attitude toward belief is often a reaction against fundamentalism that tends to elevate non-essentials of doctrine to the status of dogma. But for some moderate Baptists, especially those who lean in a liberal direction theologically, it is more than mere reaction. It is also (for them) license to remain Baptist and discard Christian orthodoxy altogether.
A relatively new movement among Baptists is what is sometimes referred to as “Baptocatholics”—Baptists who want to emphasize Baptist ties with the church catholic. They wish to retrieve and affirm the Great Tradition of ecumenical Christian doctrines—the consensual tradition of the church fathers and reformers. Unfortunately (in my judgment) some of them go so far as to state (privately if not publicly) that Baptists ought to regard the pope in Rome as the universal cheerleader of worldwide Christianity. This is a reaction to overuse of “soul competency” to excuse and defend unbelief in orthodoxy among Baptists.
Some of these Baptocatholics regard Mullins as a pernicious influence in Baptist life because of his doctrine of soul competency. They are not fundamentalists but, like fundamentalist Baptists, they regard soul competency as dangerous insofar as it is open to abuse. Its abuse, both groups say, is its tendency to “make every man’s hat his own church” (to use an old phrase). In other words, it can be a support for radical individualism in Baptist life.
But what did Mullins himself say? Did he use soul competency that way—as an excuse for radical individualism in Baptist life? Did he think there are beliefs that every Baptist, together with every other Christian, ought to affirm?
Mullins published his one volume systematic theology The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression in 1917—only a decade before his death and in the heat of that generation’s Baptist wars (over evolution and biblical inerrancy). One cannot read that book and come away thinking Mullins believed one could be a true Baptist and discard basic Christian orthodoxy or even make it optional. The very beginning of Chapter VII: The Deity of Jesus Christ is labeled “I. A Necessary Article of Faith.” The first sentence of that chapter is “For the Christian believer the deity of Christ is a necessary article of faith….” But Mullins didn’t stop there. In that chapter the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of the Southern Baptist Convention stated that the Declaration of Chalcedon (451) is the definition “most generally accepted” of Christ’s person. He quotes part of it and says that this definition “most fully gathers up the statements of the New Testament.” (Judson Press, 1964, p. 178)
Many self-identified moderate Baptists or Baptist moderates today would call anyone who said that about the Chalcedonian Definition a “creedalist.” The very same people would appeal to Mullins’ “soul competency” principle to defend the right of a Baptist to deny the incarnation.
My own experience of being among moderate Baptists in both the North and the South for thirty-five years is that many of them tend to be caught in over reaction to fundamentalism. I can understand the reaction, but over reaction, to the point of denying the importance of or passively neglecting basic Christian doctrine is not justified. And yet it is common (not universal) among Baptist moderates. I have known moderate Baptists who, with impunity, openly deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, the ontological deity of Jesus Christ (incarnation) and the Trinity (to say nothing of miracles in general). In my opinion, for whatever it is worth, such people are not true Baptists. They are not even true Christians. (With that I make no judgment about their salvation which is solely God’s business.) They ought to have the integrity to stop calling themselves Baptists and Christians and become Unitarians (if they feel the need to belong to any religious organization).
Now, lest people misunderstand, I am NOT talking about people (Baptists or other kinds of Christians) who are genuinely, sincerely confused about doctrines. To exclude them from being authentically Baptist or Christian would be to empty our churches by half. Some of the most spiritually profound Christian people I have ever known were confused about doctrines. But they did not deny basic, ecumenical orthodoxy or say it doesn’t matter. I am more than willing to admit that, for some Christians, doctrine is just “not their thing.” Their minds don’t work in that way. What I am decrying is something else—a general apathy toward all doctrine and outright denial of basic Christian orthodoxy. The first is probably more common than the second, but the line between them is almost totally indistinct.
Because some readers will respond with “Name names!” I will tell a story about a Baptist church I once belonged to. In fact, it was my first Baptist church as to membership. I will not name it, but I will describe it. People will just have to take my word for it. Immediately out of Baptist seminary (during which I was a member of and associate pastor of an independent Pentecostal-charismatic church) I moved to a large Southern city. I was “transitioning” to becoming Baptist and had already made contact with leaders of a Baptist denomination who were cautiously welcoming me. But their advice was to immediately joint a congregation of their convention as a condition of eventually becoming ordained. I found that in that large Southern city there was only one congregation associated with that Baptist group. I sought it out and joined it. When I met with the deacons and membership committee nobody asked me what I believed. I did think that was a bit strange. I quickly discovered that this congregation was made up almost exclusively of intellectually-inclined people who had grown up in fundamentalist churches where they had been denied the right to ask questions and where they had been required to affirm secondary doctrines not clearly taught in Scripture and not part of historic, classical Christian orthodoxy (e.g., “young earth creationism”).
I remained a member of that self-identified moderate Baptist congregation for four years—even as I served as youth pastor of a church of another denomination and lived in Europe for a year. The congregation was very generous toward me in spite of my lack of ability faithfully to attend and participate. I attended as often as I could and gradually discerned that the only thing the members had in common was a commitment to “inclusiveness.” I will never forget one Sunday morning “worship service” at this Baptist (so-called) church. The pastor was sitting with his new wife. His ex-wife and children were sitting in another part of the sanctuary. Some people in the church were proud that they were “handling this matter well.” The “sermon” was a dialogue between two women leaders of the congregation and the discussion between them was about doctrinal diversity within the congregation. One had been uncomfortable with the total lack of doctrinal norms or standards and the other one felt that, at times, the church had over emphasized beliefs. They eventually agreed that the “wonderful thing” about this church was that people could belong without believing anything in particular.
I am not claiming that that church typically represents “moderate Baptists.” Not at all. In fact, I still call myself a moderate Baptist. I would even say that, among Baptists in the U.S., I am relatively progressive. (I believe strongly in women in ministry and do not adhere to “biblical inerrancy.”) My point is only that people who think wearing the label “Baptist” is some kind of guarantee of doctrinal orthodoxy are wrong. And I discern a slow but steady drift in the direction of that church’s “inclusiveness” among some segments of moderate Baptist church life. I have twice now helped to write very basic statements of Christian belief for moderate Baptist congregations (at the behest of the congregations’ leaders) only to have them rejected by the congregations with the explanation that “the Bible is our only creed” and appeal to “soul competency” and “inclusiveness.”