Defenses of the Creeds in an Alabama Paper

by Evan Musgraves

Baptists, especially Southern Baptists, have a reputation of being anti-creedal ("No creed but the Bible!"). This perception, common among Baptists and non-Baptists like, does not reflect the truth about Baptists historically.

Defenders of creeds and confessions in Baptist life point to early Baptist documents such as the Orthodox Confession of 1678 which states, “The three creeds, viz. Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s creed, and the Apostles creed […] ought thoroughly to be received, and believed. For we believe, they may be proved, by most undoubted authority of holy scripture, and are necessary to be understood of all Christians […] according to the analogy of faith…”[1] Baptists accept these creeds, not on their own authority but on the authority of Scripture with the creeds faithfully articulate.

The anti-creedal turn in Southern Baptist life emerged as a response to the Restorationist movements associated with Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. Contempt of creeds and confessions owes more to Enlightenment individualism than organic theological commitments in Baptist thought.[2] Even so, by the mid-nineteenth century, anti-creedalism was taken for granted by many leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention.  At the founding of the convention in 1845, William B. Johnson, the convention’s first president, declared, “We have constructed for our basis no new creed; acting in this manner upon a Baptist aversion to all creeds but the Bible.”[3]

Though Johnson’s sentiments may have accurately reflected the views of many Southern Baptists at the time, it was by no means the only view. The Alabama Baptist, the news journal of the most “southern” of Southern Baptists, had this to say about creeds in 1879:

A religion without a creed is like a building without a foundation, like a government without a polity...Christianity is a failure if, after two thousand years, it has established no system of principles that may be formulated into a creed...A Christian preacher without a creed is first one thing, and then another, and ordinarily is nothing in the end. A church without a creed is nothing better than a club instituted with no higher purpose than occasional enjoyment and entertainment...It is true that Christianity is more than a group of doctrines; but it is no less true that the doctrines of the Word [the doctrines laid out in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds] are the seeds of life and virtue; that without them we cannot worship acceptably.[4]

In another editorial, The Alabama Baptist warned of two follies when it came to creeds:

A man whose creed is the whole of religion is like a skeleton without flesh and blood. There is no warmth in him…there are many who think they are good Christians merely because they are sound in the creed. They are the stuff of which bigots, not martyrs, are made. They hate heresy worse than they hate sin, and forget that the worst heresy is an ungodly life. They hold truth in unrighteousness. But there is another kind of folly as bad, if not worse. This has no creed at all. All creeds are alike unworthy of respect… They may be true or false, it makes no difference…Creeds and doctrines are their aversions, and they hate them with perfect hatred, or regard them with a sublime indifference…Bishop Ryle recently gave a very fitting description of this sort of religion. He called it ‘a jelly fish Christianity,’ and said that it had not a bone in its body of divinity.[5]

Irenaeus (130-202) sounded a similar warning to Marcianus in the beginning of On the Apostolic Preaching:

[H]oliness of the body is the abstention from all shameful things and from all lawless deeds, while holiness of soul is to keep the faith in God whole, neither adding nor subtracting from it: for godliness becomes darkened and obscured by bodily impurity, and becomes broken a spoilt, not being whole, when falseness enters the soul; but it will be preserved in beauty and due measure, when truth is continually in the soul and holiness in the body. For what use is it to know the truth in words, only to defile the body and perform evil deeds? Or what profit indeed can come from holiness of body, if truth is not in the soul? For these rejoice together and join forces to lead man into the presence of God.[6]

The position of Irenaeus and The Alabama Baptist is one that Baptists of today would do well to emulate. We should strive to be “whole” people by being holy in both soul and body. Creeds, those faithful summaries of biblical revelation, nourish the mind and the soul. But creeds can never be a substitute for living faithfully in the presence of God. As The Alabama Baptist shows, it would not be an innovation for Southern Baptists to return to the creeds and confessions of the Great Tradition. But we should let this return be accompanied with a renewed passion for holiness.


[1] “The Orthodox Creed” in Baptist Confessions of Faith, William Lumpkin and Bill Leonard, eds. (Valley Forge, Judson Press, 2011), 337.

[2] Steve Harmon, “Baptist Confessions of Faith and the Patristic Tradition,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 29.4 (Winter 2002): 349-358.

[3] William B. Johnson, Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention (Richmond: H.K. Ellyson, 1845), 19.

[4] “Creeds,” The Alabama Baptist, February 6, 1879.

[5] “Twin Follies,” The Alabama Baptist, July 13, 1882.

[6] Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching, trans. John Behr (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 40.