Biblical Authority | Baptist Distinctives

Lesson 2: Biblical Authority

One of the primary distinctions that sets Baptists apart from other groups, and especially from Catholic traditions, is their belief that the Bible is the sole rule for faith and practice.

Definition:

The Bible is the final authority in all matters of belief and practice because the Bible is inspired by God and bears the absolute authority of God himself. Whatever the Bible affirms, Baptists accept as true. No human opinion or decree of any church group can override the Bible. Even creeds and confessions of faith, which attempt to clarify the theology of Scriptures, do not carry Scripture’s inherent authority. The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience.


Scripture References

  • 2 Timothy 3:15-16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:13 [W]hen ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.
  • 2 Peter 1:3 According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue
  • 2 Peter 1:20-21 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

Note the Quote: The New Testament is all the Law of Christianity. The New Testament will always be all the Law of Christianity. This does not deny the inspiration or profit of the Old Testament, nor that the New is a development of the Old. It affirms, however, that the Old Testament, as a typical, educational and transitory system, was fulfilled by Christ, and as a standard of law and way of life was nailed to the cross of Christ and so taken out of the way. The principle teaches that we should not go to the Old Testament to find Christian law or Christian institutions. Not there do we find the true idea of the Christian church, or its members, or its ordinances, or its government, or its officers, or its sacrifices, or its worship, or its mission, or its ritual, or its priesthood. Now, when we consider the fact that the overwhelming majority of Christendom today, whether Greek, Romanist or Protestant, borrow from the Old Testament so much of their doctrine of the church, including its members, officers, ritual ordinances, government, liturgy and mission, we may well call this a distinctive Baptist principle.[1]

Baptists normally take the historic orthodox position regarding the Scriptures, believing in revelation, inspiration, and the authority of Scripture. These beliefs can be outlined as follows:

Revelation:

  • General Revelation:
    • God reveals himself in creation and the natural world.
    • God reveals himself through His historic intervention.
    • God reveals himself in man’s conscience.
  • Special Revelation:
    • God revealed himself through the person of Jesus Christ.
    • God revealed himself through the Scriptures (“the word of the LORD” or “thus saith the LORD” are found over 3,000 times in the Old Testament).

The Scriptures are:

  • the words of God (Jer. 1:4-9)
  • the commands of God (1 Cor 14:37)
  • revealed by God (Gal 1:11&12)
  • inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16)
  • the product of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21)

Inspiration is:

  • Verbal – Every word is inspired.
  • Plenary – All of Scripture is involved.
  • Inerrant – without error in the original manuscripts
  • Infallible – All Scripture is unfailing, especially in regard to its purposes.
  • Authoritative – The Bible demands acceptance and obedience.

Note: There is no evidence that Baptists historically have ever required acceptance of any particular version of Scripture as a test of either orthodoxy or fellowship. It’s only been within the last couple of decades that the version of the Bible one uses became a test of faith for some Baptists. Such should not be the case. Baptists have used and do use various versions of the English Bible. The version one uses is not, and should not become, a Baptist distinctive.

Although Baptists are not, strictly speaking, products of the Reformation, they have staunchly held and defended the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura. Simply stated, Sola Scriptura says, “the Bible alone,” and involves at least the following implications:

  • The Bible is the only source necessary for man to find salvation. Most other religions have added some other book or set of teachings to the salvation package, but Baptists have maintained that Scripture alone is sufficient.
  • The Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice (John 10:35). There are various statements of faith and a variety of standards, some of which have significant weight and value; but the Bible is the only infallible rule for both faith and practice.
  • The Bible is sufficient for all that pertains to life and Godliness. Any attempts to make rules or standards of behavior that are not directly rooted in the Bible are illegitimate.

While it is true that the Bible is the sole rule for faith and practice, that fact does not rule out some practices or programs that the Bible says nothing about. Thomas Helwys, an early English Baptist, wrote (in 1611): “[T]here are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and government of the Church which are common to human actions and societies and which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.” In other words, programs like Sunday school, a mid-week service, or children’s ministries are legitimate even though the Bible does not mention them directly.

How does the Baptist viewpoint differ from other Christian traditions? The Roman Catholic Church has historically taught that the Bible is not the sole authority for faith and practice. Catholics believe that church tradition has just as much authority as the Bible does. In fact, they believe that the Catholic Church is the only legitimate institution that has the authority to teach the Bible. The Bible is under the administration of the church, in their view. So it doesn’t matter to them if a practice or teaching has no support in the Bible. If church tradition holds a certain non-biblical teaching (e.g., prayer to Mary, lighting candles for the dead), then that position is valid, in their view. This is one reason for the drastic differences between Catholic churches and non-Catholic churches.

Confessions of Faith

The Bible is the sole rule for faith and practice. But the Bible is a thick book containing hundreds of commands, principles, and examples. So believers have found it beneficial to boil down biblical principles into a brief statement that summarizes what they believe. Such a document is usually called a confession of faith (or rule of faith, creed, doctrinal statement). Baptists have historically produced confessions of faith, and most Baptist churches subscribe to one, although such confessions are not as common today as they once were. One of the most ancient confessions is the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty; and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried; the third day He rose from the dead, ascended into the heavens, being seated at the right hand of the Father, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead; and in the Holy Spirit, holy church, the forgiveness of sins, [and the] resurrection of the flesh.

A confession of faith is beneficial for a number of reasons:

  • helps maintain purity of doctrine
  • helps clarify and publicize exactly what a church believes
  • aids in teaching youth and new converts
  • provides a standard for discipline
  • reminds believers what they believe

John Smyth composed the earliest Baptist confession of faith in 1609 in England. This confession had twenty points and covered many major areas of theology. It reflected a general (i.e., Arminian) Baptist viewpoint. Other confessions followed, many of them written in defense of a theological viewpoint or in opposition to hostile positions. One of the most well known is the London Baptist Confession of 1644. The Philadelphia Confession of 1742 is based on the London Confession and was very popular for many years. These confessions were strongly Calvinistic in nature. The New Hampshire Confession of 1830 expressed a more moderate form of Calvinism, was adopted by many churches and is still popular among Baptists.[2] Pass out copies of the NH Confession.

From the New Hampshire Confession of Faith:

We believe that the Holy Bible as originally written was verbally inspired and the product of Spirit-controlled men, and therefore, is infallible and inerrant in all matters to which it speaks. We believe the Bible to be the true center of Christian union and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions shall be tried.

Conclusion: Baptists believe that the Bible is the sole rule for faith and practice. Whatever the Bible affirms, Baptists accept as true. The Bible demands acceptance and obedience. Baptists have developed confessions or statements of faith summarizing their theological viewpoints.

Discussion:

1. Why is there so much difference between Baptists and Roman Catholics? Baptists see the Bible as the only rule for faith and practice; RCs don’t. They see church tradition as equally as authoritative (more so, really) as the Bible. Also, Catholics base some of their practices on the OT, whereas Baptists look more to the NT.

2. What does Sola Scriptura mean? The Scriptures alone. The saying emphasizes the conviction that the Bible is the only source of faith and practice.

3. What do we mean by biblical authority? The Bible has the right to command obedience because it is God’s Word.

4. What does verbal, plenary inspiration mean? Verbal – every word; plenary – fully; inspiration – authors wrote as they were carried along by God. Thus, every word of the Bible is fully inspired. This is in contrast to those who say that only parts of the Bible are inspired.


[1] B.H.Carroll, Distinctive Baptist Principles.

[2] Calvary Baptist Church subscribes to the New Hampshire Confession with minor modifications. A copy is available on the church web site.