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ON BEING A FIRST BAPTIST:
BIBLE FIRST BAPTISTS
Preached by Robert B. Setzer, Jr.
Pastor, First Baptist Church of Christ
Macon, Georgia 31201
August 3, 2003
Psalm 119:5-11; John 5:39-47
My wife Bambi and I both belong to a profession with its share of eccentrics, weirdos and certifiable kooks: I am a minister, and she is an artist.
Once while browsing in an art store, Bambi met a fellow who embodied the worst of both our professions. Like the stereotypical artist, his manner and dress were unconventional. And like the church's lunatic fringe, he had all sorts of bizarre ideas about God gleaned from a smattering of Buddhists, Jehovahís Witnesses, and assorted other groups. Among other things, he believed that long ago, people were tall as trees before shrinking, due to sin.
At any rate, it wasn't long before Bambi was trying to politely disengage from this conversation. She did the one thing that usually brings such conversations to a screeching halt. She said, "You'd probably enjoy talking with my husband. He's a minister."
"Oh?," said the man, his interest rising. "What kind of minister is he?"
"He's a Baptist minister."
"Is he really?", the man answered. "I'm a Baptist too!"
Clearly, there are all kinds of Baptists because different Baptists read the Bible in different ways. We like to boast, we have "No creed but the Bible!" Unlike other denominations who must contend with their patron saints, be that Luther, Calvin, the Pope, or whomever, we Baptists claim our last court of appeals is the Good Book alone. But as Bambiís encounter with the self-styled Baptist artist reveals, simply giving people the Bible with no instructions on how to use it, is like putting an 11-year-old boy behind the wheel of a Ferrari. A catastrophic crash is sure to follow.
One answer to this dilemma is a creed, a sort of Cliff Noteís version of the Bible. A creed is a statement or summary of an authorized faith that has binding force. A creed says, "Here is what God-fearing Catholics, Lutherans, or Baptists believe."
Now to be sure, a creed has certain advantages. It keeps people from straying too far from established orthodoxy into serious theological error. But with rare exceptions, Baptists have not cottoned much to creeds. Thatís because the benefits of creeds--theological purity--come at too high a cost, namely the suppression of conscience and the loss of a profoundly personal faith, so close to the Baptist heart.
During the early years of the 19th century, the newly declared Monroe Doctrine was the rage. One gentleman made the mistake of wondering aloud in a crowded tavern, whether this new foreign policy was in the national interest. A mob quickly formed, the perpetrators charging this man was a traitor to his country and a coward to boot. As the menacing mob drew near, the terrorized citizen cried out, "I didn't say I was against the Monroe Doctrine. I love the Monroe Doctrine. I would die for the Monroe Doctrine. I merely said I didn't know what it was!"
The sad history of creeds is that theological purists use them to force compliance. Intended as guides to the interpretation of scripture, they become the only acceptable way to think and talk about the faith. As a result, good people are discredited and destroyed. From early Baptists publically whipped on the streets of Boston for refusing to buy a preaching license, to contemporary missionaries being fired for refusing to sign a creed, theological thought police have a sordid history. As John Leland, an early Virginia Baptist freedom fighter wrote, "It is sometimes said that hereticks are always averse to confessions of faith. I wish I could say as much of tyrants."1
The religious leaders with whom Jesus tangled in the 5th chapter of John were fond of creeds. They distilled the essence of the scriptures down to a binding list of dos and doníts. Anyone who didnít read scripture as they did, ended up attacked, ostracized, or maybe, crucified. Our text comes from one of many occasions when the High Priestís enforcers tried to reign Jesus in. But as menacing Pharisees, pressed in, Jesus fired the shot heard Ďround the religious world: "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (v. 39-40).
This is a vital principle in reading and interpreting the Bible. Here Jesus declares himself Lord of the scriptures, as earlier he declared himself Lord of the Sabbath. The scriptures must be read in the searing light of his glory and grace. The Old Testament points to him, with eager longing. And the New Testament pulsates with the conviction he is the churchís crucified and risen Lord. Thus, the Bible gives us Christ! And true Baptists will accept no paper substitute for him! As the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention declared in 1845, "We have constructed for our basis no new creed, acting in this matter upon a Baptist aversion for all creeds but the Bible."
So then, weíll dispense with creeds as a guide to the proper use of the Bible. What then, shall we offer in their place? This morning, I want to offer three questions that can guide us to the heart of the Bibleís message, rather than twist and distort its meaning like that would be theologian Bambi met in the art store. Richard Foster says of his faith family, "Quakers donít have creeds but queries." That is what I would offer this morning: not a creed, but three queries.
The first query or question is this: When confronting a particular interpretation of the Bible, one should ask, "Is this like Jesus?" Is what somebody is reading into or out of the Bible, worthy of Jesus? If not, then you can bet they are misreading and misrepresenting the Bible. Did not the master tell us, "The scriptures bear witness to me!"?
The Lordship of Christ over scripture is fundamental. We read the Bible in his spirit, in his love, in his light. If we read something in the Old Testament that doesnít measure up to Jesus, the most we can say is that was Godís word for another place and time. But that is not Godís word for us, for we live this side of Jesus. He is the heart of our faith and the standard by which even the scriptures are judged.
It's like the little girl, a new Christian, being needled by her older brother. "What about all those people God killed in the Old Testament?," he demanded.
Momentarily stumped, her brow furrowed. Then brightening, she looked up and declared, "That was before God became a Christian!"
The writer to the Hebrews says it this way: "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son!" (1:1-3).
The Bible is not a neatly ordered handbook of religious truth. It is a wonderfully rich library composed over the course of 2,000 years. In wandering through those sometimes dense, foreboding stacks, we need the light of Christ to help us find our way. Did not our Lord say when looking down the barrel of hallowed religious tradition, "You have heard it said but I say unto you." (Matthew 5:21ff.) Then he modified and deepened Old Testament teaching in light of himself.
Clearly, the principle that Christ is sovereign over the scriptures was not the brainchild of our Baptist forebearers. No, we got this straight from Jesus. This then, is the first question we ask in testing a particular interpretation of the Bible: "Is this like Jesus? Is this understanding worthy of him?"
The second question I would propose is this: "Is this understanding of scripture biblical?" Now that may seem a strange, even stupid question. If something in the Bible, it is by definition, biblical, right? Well, not exactly. As Shakespeare noted, "The Devil can cite scripture for his purpose." In the temptations of Jesus as reported in Matthewís gospel, the devil himself quotes scripture! (Matthew 4:6).
Yet while the devilís words were from the Bible, they were not biblical, not in the sense they were true to the entire depth and breadth of the Bibleís message. Itís not enough to quote an isolated Bible passage, as Satan did while tempting Jesus. No, scripture must be tested against scripture. And the spirit, as well as the substance of the words, probed and pondered.
The one positive thing Jesus said about his opponents in the 5th chapter of John was that they "searched the scriptures" (v. 39). Those who read the Bible aright do not selectively quote it. They know, love, and search the scriptures.
Consider for example, this passage from 1 Corinthians: "Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says" (1 Cor. 14:34). On the basis of passages like this, some argue women should not preach. But earlier, in the very same book, Paul writes, "But any woman who prays or prophesies"--the New Testament word for preaching--"with her head uncovered, disgraces (herself) (1 Corinthians 11:5). While the concern here is for proper attire in worship, the comment reveals women did prophesy or preach in the early church. As does the promise of Pentecost, "And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (Acts 2:17). The church in the books of Acts took that promise to heart for there we read that Philip, the evangelist, had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9). If women are to be denied a God-given call to preach, it is passing strange Jesus commissioned them as the first heralds of his resurrection!
Thus, is it biblical to say that women must "be silent in church"? Those words are in the Bible, yes, but in light of the larger biblical witness, we see those words are meant for a particular place and time. They are not the Bibleís last or only word on the subject of women in ministry. Indeed, the larger biblical witness, and certainly Christís own example, reveals God calls whom he will to proclaim the good news.
Query one: "Is a particular biblical interpretation like Jesus?" Query two: "Is it biblical?," meaning, does this view accord with the whole of scripture? And then our third and final query: "Is it loving?"
In his dispute with the religious authorities, Jesus said to them, "You do not have the love of God in you" (v. 41). That for him, was the litmus test of a living relationship with God: did oneís actions embody Godís love for others? So too, in wrestling with scripture, we must ask, "Does a particular understanding of the Bible deepen our love for others?" If not, then it does not pass muster with Jesusí brand of orthodoxy: "Is it loving?"
In 1861, one of my predecessors in this pulpit, E. W. Warren, preached an eloquent sermon in defense of slavery. Brother Warren was arguably, the most beloved pastor in the history of this church. He preached this sermon immediately following the passage of Georgiaís Act of Succession in January of 1861. It was subsequently published in the Macon Telegraph. Hence, one can read that sermon still today, and it is a chilling defense of slavery. Further, that sermon is full of Bible references for there is a good deal of scripture that can be read to countenance slavery. Even Jesus, who crafted his stories from the world around him, told stories about slaves, though most modern translations politely render the word "servants."
Hence, as shocking as it sounds, one could argue slavery was biblical. Indeed, Brother Warren did that rather persuasively in his sermon of 1861. But was slavery something worthy of Jesus? Clearly not, but then no where does Jesus condemn slavery directly. But as to the last question, "Is slavery loving?," here any defense of slavery comes crashing down. Indeed, it was the realization that slavery could not possibly be loving or just that compelled Americans, north and south, to renounce the diabolical practice .
Those then, are my three queries drawn from Jesusí own words about the nature of holy scripture: Is a particular biblical interpretation like Jesus? It is biblical? And finally, is it loving? Does the attitude or action being espoused deepen our love of God and neighbor that Jesus said was the heart of true religion? If our understanding of scripture meets those three tests, it will be very near the gospel truth.
Those who want others to do their thinking for them, may prefer creeds. But knowing you as I do--true Baptists who cherish the God-given right and responsibility of grappling with the scriptures for yourself--I offer you these queries instead. And I offer them in the hope they will drive you to Jesus Christ, Godís living word, who makes the pages of the Bible warm to the touch of his holy, healing presence. As Puritan divine, John Robinson, said to the Pilgrims, setting sail for the new world, "God yet hath more truth and light to break out of his holy word."
1. Baptist Studies Bulletin, Issue 1, published on the web by The Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University.