Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Is the "Baptist Faith and Message" adequately Trinitarian?

In a recent Dividing Line podcast, apologist James White cites controversy over the contemporary Christian singing group Phillips, Craig, and Dean.  The members of the group apparently come from one-ness Pentecostal backgrounds and have been dogged by charges that they deny the Trinity.  The group recently released a carefully crafted statement (pdf here; sometime in January 2014, though the statement is not dated) in which they deny they are modalists or Sabellian but affirm their “heritage” while never clearly and positively affirming the doctrine of the Trinity.

The odd thing about this is that they further claim to affirm the Baptist Faith & Message (2000) statement of the Southern Baptist Convention.    I grew up among Southern Baptists, went to an SBC seminary, served as a missionary of the SBC’s International Mission Board, and served two SBC afiliated churches.  I even led the latter of these to adopt the 2000 revision of the 1963 BF & M through much blood, sweat, and tears. Hearing of the PC & D controversy reminded me of some of the doctrinal concerns I began to have about the BF & M as I ministered in an SBC context and which eventually led to my leaving the SBC for Reformed Baptist life.

How can PC & D not affirm the Trinity and yet affirm the BF & M (2000)?  Here is chapter two of the BF & M (2000) statement on the doctrine of God:

II. God

There is one and only one living and true God. He is an intelligent, spiritual, and personal Being, the Creator, Redeemer, Preserver, and Ruler of the universe. God is infinite in holiness and all other perfections. God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures. To Him we owe the highest love, reverence, and obedience. The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.

A. God the Father

God as Father reigns with providential care over His universe, His creatures, and the flow of the stream of human history according to the purposes of His grace. He is all powerful, all knowing, all loving, and all wise. God is Father in truth to those who become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He is fatherly in His attitude toward all men.

Genesis 1:1; 2:7; Exodus 3:14; 6:2-3; 15:11ff.; 20:1ff.; Leviticus 22:2; Deuteronomy 6:4; 32:6; 1 Chronicles 29:10; Psalm 19:1-3; Isaiah 43:3,15; 64:8; Jeremiah 10:10; 17:13; Matthew 6:9ff.; 7:11; 23:9; 28:19; Mark 1:9-11; John 4:24; 5:26; 14:6-13; 17:1-8; Acts 1:7; Romans 8:14-15; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 4:6; Colossians 1:15; 1 Timothy 1:17; Hebrews 11:6; 12:9; 1 Peter 1:17; 1 John 5:7.

B. God the Son

Christ is the eternal Son of God. In His incarnation as Jesus Christ He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus perfectly revealed and did the will of God, taking upon Himself human nature with its demands and necessities and identifying Himself completely with mankind yet without sin. He honored the divine law by His personal obedience, and in His substitutionary death on the cross He made provision for the redemption of men from sin. He was raised from the dead with a glorified body and appeared to His disciples as the person who was with them before His crucifixion. He ascended into heaven and is now exalted at the right hand of God where He is the One Mediator, fully God, fully man, in whose Person is effected the reconciliation between God and man. He will return in power and glory to judge the world and to consummate His redemptive mission. He now dwells in all believers as the living and ever present Lord.

Genesis 18:1ff.; Psalms 2:7ff.; 110:1ff.; Isaiah 7:14; 53; Matthew 1:18-23; 3:17; 8:29; 11:27; 14:33; 16:16,27; 17:5; 27; 28:1-6,19; Mark 1:1; 3:11; Luke 1:35; 4:41; 22:70; 24:46; John 1:1-18,29; 10:30,38; 11:25-27; 12:44-50; 14:7-11; 16:15-16,28; 17:1-5, 21-22; 20:1-20,28; Acts 1:9; 2:22-24; 7:55-56; 9:4-5,20; Romans 1:3-4; 3:23-26; 5:6-21; 8:1-3,34; 10:4; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2:2; 8:6; 15:1-8,24-28; 2 Corinthians 5:19-21; 8:9; Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 1:20; 3:11; 4:7-10; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:13-22; 2:9; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 3:16; Titus 2:13-14; Hebrews 1:1-3; 4:14-15; 7:14-28; 9:12-15,24-28; 12:2; 13:8; 1 Peter 2:21-25; 3:22; 1 John 1:7-9; 3:2; 4:14-15; 5:9; 2 John 7-9; Revelation 1:13-16; 5:9-14; 12:10-11; 13:8; 19:16.

C. God the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, fully divine. He inspired holy men of old to write the Scriptures. Through illumination He enables men to understand truth. He exalts Christ. He convicts men of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. He calls men to the Saviour, and effects regeneration. At the moment of regeneration He baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ. He cultivates Christian character, comforts believers, and bestows the spiritual gifts by which they serve God through His church. He seals the believer unto the day of final redemption. His presence in the Christian is the guarantee that God will bring the believer into the fullness of the stature of Christ. He enlightens and empowers the believer and the church in worship, evangelism, and service.

Genesis 1:2; Judges 14:6; Job 26:13; Psalms 51:11; 139:7ff.; Isaiah 61:1-3; Joel 2:28-32; Matthew 1:18; 3:16; 4:1; 12:28-32; 28:19; Mark 1:10,12; Luke 1:35; 4:1,18-19; 11:13; 12:12; 24:49; John 4:24; 14:16-17,26; 15:26; 16:7-14; Acts 1:8; 2:1-4,38; 4:31; 5:3; 6:3; 7:55; 8:17,39; 10:44; 13:2; 15:28; 16:6; 19:1-6; Romans 8:9-11,14-16,26-27; 1 Corinthians 2:10-14; 3:16; 12:3-11,13; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30; 5:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:19; 1 Timothy 3:16; 4:1; 2 Timothy 1:14; 3:16; Hebrews 9:8,14; 2 Peter 1:21; 1 John 4:13; 5:6-7; Revelation 1:10; 22:17.

Notice about this statement:

1.  It never uses the classical theological term “Trinity” in its definition of the doctrine of God.  My guess is that this comes from a basic Biblicist impulse in SBC life, which includes a tendency to use only explicitly Biblical language, however inconsistently this might be applied.

2.  It likewise does not use classical creedal language of “one God in three persons.”

3.  One could see how a modalist might be able to affirm the line at the close of paragraph one:  The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.  In fact, it sounds like the language preferred by some one-ness Pentecostals like T. D. Jakes who speak of God “manifesting” himself as Father, Son, and Spirit.   I was struck as I re-read this by a surprising lack of stress on the unity and oneness of God.  This may seem a radical critique, but I am not sure but that this statement might even possibly be interpreted as tri-theistic.

In contrast, compare the statement on God from chapter two of the Second London Confession of Faith which is explicitly titled:  “Of God and of the Holy Trinity”:

Chapter 2: Of God and of the Holy Trinity

1. The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; who is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, every way infinite, most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him, and withal most just and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

( 1 Corinthians 8:4, 6; Deuteronomy 6:4; Jeremiah 10:10; Isaiah 48:12; Exodus 3:14; John 4:24; 1 Timothy 1:17; Deuteronomy 4:15, 16; Malachi 3:6; 1 Kings 8:27; Jeremiah 23:23; Psalms 90:2; Genesis 17:1; Isaiah 6:3; Psalms 115:3; Isaiah 46:10; Proverbs 16:4; Romans 11:36; Exodus 34:6, 7; Hebrews 11:6; Nehemiah 9:32, 33; Psalms 5:5, 6; Exodus 34:7; Nahum 1:2, 3 )

2. God, having all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself, is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creature which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them; he is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things, and he hath most sovereign dominion over all creatures, to do by them, for them, or upon them, whatsoever himself pleaseth; in his sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent or uncertain; he is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands; to him is due from angels and men, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience, as creatures they owe unto the Creator, and whatever he is further pleased to require of them.

( John 5:26; Psalms 148:13; Psalms 119:68; Job 22:2, 3; Romans 11:34-36; Daniel 4:25, 34, 35; Hebrews 4:13; Ezekiel 11:5; Acts 15:18; Psalms 145:17; Revelation 5:12-14 )

3. In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.

( 1 John 5:7; Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Exodus 3:14; John 14:11; 1 Corinthians 8:6; John 1:14,18; John 15:26; Galatians 4:6 )

Notice about this statement:

1.  The explicit use of the term “Trinity” both in the title and the closing affirmation:  which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.”

2.  Though it prefers to speak of “subsistences” rather than “persons” the classical creedal Trinitarian language clearly undergirds the statement.  Compare the Westminster Confession of Faith here, however, upon which the 2LBCF is based, which more explicitly uses the classical Trinitarian language of “persons”:  In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.

3.   The statement could in no way be twisted to allow modalism or tritheism.


The PC & D Trinity controversy exposes a major weakness in the BF & M as a confessional statement and leaves Southern Baptists open to the charge of not being adequately and explicitly Trinitarian.  It leaves open questions like: Can one deny the Trinity and yet still affirm the BF & M?  Are Southern Baptists classically Trinitarian in their view of God?  Perhaps this will lead Southern Baptists to revisit their confession and strengthen it.  In the meantime, SBC churches which desire to be orthodox would do well to adopt a supplementary statement or confession which explicitly affirms the Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity is an essential test of Christian orthodoxy, and a church is best served by adapting a confessional statement (like the Second London Baptist Confession) which clearly affirms this fundamental doctrine.


AJ said...

We encountered this "slippery" aspect of SBC Statements of faith a few years back in a Homeschool Co-op. We had to sign the Statement of Faith which was the 1925 BFM. I addressed my concern to the board that we had people in the co-op that did not hold to Christian doctrine of the Trinity and that the statement could be agreed to by those that don't believe in the three persons, even Mormons could have signed that statement. The co-op was full of Oneness and Apostolic folks. Amusingly, a gentlemen on the board, an Apostolic Church pastor, was the only guy who had a clue of what my concern was (shamefully, a SBC Pastor was also on the board), and he slyly told me that the Statement had been selected carefully by the original board members (him being one), and would not be changed.

Needless to say, we later informed the board that we could not, in good conscience, continue in that "Christian" co-op.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Thanks for your comment. Been thinking of your family. Interesting. Could a Mormon look at the BFM article on God and affirm it?


AJ said...

I don't know that a Mormon theologian could stomach the language that God is "revealed as the Son", but my point to the board was that the confession was not so specific that a typical Mormon family might find it agreeable enough to stomach. Most Mormons I've interacted with are very difficult to pin down theologically, even to their own articles of faith. They are worst than politicians ;)

And thank you for the prayers and thoughts for the family. I'll keep the updates coming.

God Bless!

mjabate said...

I must say that your article is quite fascinating if not altogether alarming. Now, I'm going to hold my horses a bit in order to say that BF & M of 2000 is quite subtle.

I know that the R. Albert Mohler, Jr. stressed the Abstract of Principles for Southern Seminary. Do you know if that confessional document is strong enough to replace the BF & M of 2000?

I know that the Abstract of Principles is much more Calvinistic than the BFM 2000. This leads me to believe that endorsing the Abstract might cause serious waves within the SBC.

bruce mercer said...

while the word Trinity is not used Triune is used