While filling out a job application today I was asked a question that I have never been asked before, “Which Baptist Faith and Message do you affirm, the 1963 or the 2000?” I get the sense that no matter how I answer this question, someone is going to be disappointed. In fact, it kind of reminds me of a story that my pastor once told,
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, “Stop! Don’t do it!” “Why shouldn’t I?” he said. I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!” He said, “Like what?” I said, “Well, are you religious or atheist?” He said, “Religious.” I said, “Me too! Are your Christian or Buddhist?” He said, “Christian.” I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, Me too! Are your Episcopalian or Baptist? He said, “Baptist!” I said, “Wow! Me too! Are your Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord? He said, Baptist Church of God!” I said, “Me too! Are your Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?” He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God!” I said, “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?” He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!” I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.
The two statements were written for essentially the same reason, the doctrine of the Bible was being subtlely but consciously undermined by certain pastors and seminary professors, using what Ralph Elliot called “doublespeak.” The statements sought to bring clarity by specifically addressing points of difference and making it harder to find loopholes that allowed someone to say the right things while simultaneously undermining the Bible’s reliability and authority.
As I read through these two statements I couldn’t help but think there was more room for unity than for division. At the same time, there are a couple of differences, and partly because a job may hang in the balance, and partly because I want to be like the Bereans who test everything against Scripture to find the truth (Acts 17:11), I offer this comparison.
The Record of Revelation vs. Revelation
The newer confession leaves out two words that make a world of difference: “record of.” These two little words seem harmless enough, but they open up a giant loophole that has been used to dismiss both the reliability and authority of the Bible. That loophole is perhaps best seen in Karl Barth’s teaching, known as Neo-Orthodoxy. Barth distinguished the Bible from revelation itself saying,
Therefore, when we have to do with the Bible, we have to do primarily with this means, with these words, with the witness which as such is not itself revelation, but only —and this is the limitation— the witness to it.
For Barth, God perfectly revealed himself in Jesus Christ and the Bible was an imperfect record of a perfect revelation.
The Bible itself will not let us side with Barth on this one. In 2 Peter 1:16-21, Peter describes the transfiguration of Jesus, which he saw with his own eyes. Peter goes on to explain that to read the Bible’s record of that event is even better than having watched the event with his own eyes. Peter explains that when he saw the event, he had to interpret the event. But when he reads the account of the event in the Bible he is reading something even “more sure,” he is reading God’s interpretation of the event. As Peter says, “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the Bible is not merely man’s record of God’s revelation, it is God’s revelation concerning God’s revelation.
Therefore, All Scripture is Totally True and Trustworthy.
This addition didn’t cause too big of a stir. Some may argue that it seems redundant, especially considering that it follows the phrase “and truth, with any mixture of error.” Still, the fear remained that some would distort the intent of the original phrase. In fact, some scholars have suggested that the Bible’s purpose is to communicate spiritual truth, and that truth is without mixture of error, but on other topics, such as history, the Bible may contain some errors. This sentence was added to make it clear that the all of the Bible is totally true, both in reference to spirituality and in reference to history.
Jesus as Criterion or Jesus as Focus.
The heart of the debate lies in this exchange. A quick search of the Baptist Faith and Message on Google will bring up a slew of critiques of this exchange. One such critique was written by Russell Dilday, the former president of Southwestern Theological Baptist Seminary. He says,
This theological principle, expressed in the Christocentric language of BFM63, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ,” declares that the guiding key to Biblical interpretation is Jesus Christ. Through Him as a criterion, or standard, the Bible becomes unified, self-consistent and coherent. Jesus said, “The Scriptures … bear witness to me” (John 5:39). Therefore, we are to interpret the Old Testament and the rest of the Bible in the light of the life and teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, illuminated by our own direct experience with the living Christ. It is through Jesus as the criterion that we interpret the Old Testament prophecies, the ceremonial, civil, dietary, and moral laws of the Old Testament. As Martin Luther insisted, the Bible is always to be understood from its center – its heart – its Christ.
No one will deny his reference to John 5:39. In fact, this is the very thing that the BF&M2000 tries to make clear. Jesus is the person who the whole Bible is about. Jesus is the central character of the Bible. He is promised in the Old Testament. He comes to earth, dies, and is risen again, in the gospels. In Acts, the message of his death on our behalf is circulated throughout the whole world. The epistles explain in detail both why Jesus died and how we should live in response to his death and resurrection. Then, in the book of Revelation, we are reminded that Jesus will one day come again. Dilday and Luther are certainly right that the whole Bible should be understood with Jesus at the center.
The problem is that to call Jesus the “criterion for interpretation,” is sufficiently vague to be used for entirely different purposes. Al Mohler explains that,
Some who have taught in our seminaries over the past several decades claimed that this allowed them to deny the truthfulness of whatever biblical passages did not rise to their standard of Jesus’ intention. Professors and pastors have denied that God ordered the conquest of Canaan, tested Abraham in the sacrifice of Isaac or inspired the Apostle Paul when he wrote about the family or roles in the church.
Mohler isn’t making this up, I have personally read suggestions that we ignore Paul’s instructions because Jesus would have never agreed with Paul. It is quite common, for instance, to hear someone suggest that though the Bible speaks negatively of homosexuality, Jesus never does. The implication is that the Bible is not a reliable guide for determining the character of Jesus.
This type of argument suffers from an advanced case of circular logic. We know who Jesus is from the Bible, but we know what parts of the Bible to trust based on who Jesus is. This type of logic has allowed many pastors and professors to create their own version of the Jefferson Bible, picking and choosing which passages best reflect Jesus, discarding the others. Not surprisingly, this logic typically leads people to find a Jesus who looks remarkably like themselves.
Jesus vs. the Bible
Still, many people will argue that the moment we rely on the Bible to know Jesus, rather than relying on Jesus to know the Bible, we have found a new god. Dilday quotes another saying,
“This amounts to nothing less than idolatry.” It is pure bibliolatry.” “I’ll bow down to King Jesus, but I will never bow down to King James.”(Quotes from article in Biblical Recorder, July 29, 2000, p. 11)
But this is just a rhetorical slight of hand. No one suggests that we should worship the Bible above Jesus, especially when we have already agreed that the entire point of the Bible is to call us to worship Jesus. Instead, we only argue that God is best known according to the Scripture he inspired. We cannot pick a single picture of God and dismiss the others. We cannot love the Jesus who welcomes the children and hate the Jesus who says “Do not think I have come to bring peace to earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…” (Matthew 10:34-35). We can either accept the Jesus presented in the Bible or reject him, we cannot pick a better Jesus based on our own ideas of what Jesus is like.
In fact, it is much easier to show that to create a Jesus in any image other than the one he presents of himself in the Bible is the very definition of idolatry.
Sometimes We Don’t Have to Scream “Die, Heretic Scum.”
The truth is, I like both statements. That really shouldn’t be a surprise since they aren’t that different. I think the BF&M ’63 was good and served its purpose well when it was written. As time passed, people found some loopholes and used them to discredit the reliability of the Bible. The BF&M 2000 helps tie up some of those loopholes. In a few years I won’t be surprised if some new loopholes pop up. I hope that the BF&M 2025 will continue to tie up these loopholes by defining our historic faith in a way that addresses contemporary concerns.
Dilday’s entire article can be accessed here. Al Mohler’s article can be accessed here.