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The Reformation - and the Declaration of Principle


The 500th anniversary encourages Baptist minister John Smuts to revisit the Baptist Union's Declaration of Principle afresh - with surprising results  


Martin LutherLike many others I have been reading up on the Reformation. Digging up church history notes on how much Luther loved beer. Working through new books on the subject. Even listening to lectures online.

As we mark 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg it is only natural to look again at the past in order to view the present with more clarity.
One thing that struck me has been how much the Baptist Union's Declaration of Principle is a reflection of ‘Sola Scriptura’.

(Sola Scriptura is a Latin phrase that emerged as one of the five slogans of the Reformation. Over time these five slogans - often called the Five Solas - have become helpful shorthand for key doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. Sola Scriptura means ‘by Scripture alone’ and claims that the Bible alone holds ultimate authority in matters of church doctrine and practice. It does not mean that all other sources of authority are to be rejected by Christians, rather that the Bible has the last word … it is the ‘norming norm’.)

Now, as any good historian will tell you when examining past documents, it is important to explain what is unusual; to consider what is not there as well as what is on the page.
I hadn’t noticed it before but the first point of the Declaration of Principle has a very strong Sola Scriptura smell to it:
The Basis of the Baptist Union is:

1. That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws.

Ulrich Zwingli, a reformation leader could have drafted that himself! In 1522 he wrote The Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God where he argued that Christ ruled the church, through His Word, not the Pope. (Although, judging from the analogies he uses, he was more of a wine than a beer man himself.)
Of course, in the context of the Reformation, the main contestant for authority was the Church. However, in 1873, when the Baptist Union first introduced the Declaration of Principle, other appeals to authority were widely recognised. Along with the oecumenical creeds and the tradition of the Church, 19th century believers also looked to reason and experience in their pursuit of the truth.
Hence the Declaration of Principle is very significant in what it does not mention. It is the Lord Jesus, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, who is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice. Wow! I hadn’t noticed before how strongly worded it is.
Baptists tend to emphasise the freedom of the local church in interpreting the Scriptures without paying much attention to the limits the first part of the statement imposes. The aim of the church meeting is to discern the mind of Christ, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. We have freedom to interpret them as we feel the Holy Spirit guides us but in so doing we cannot appeal to reason, experience, tradition or any number of other authorities to do so.
The more I think about that the more I wonder how many of our churches are breaking the Declaration of Principle on a regular basis? Including the church where I am pastor! While the Scriptures give no specific commands as to the colour of the carpet or how much to spend on the new projector, we frequently discuss matters directly addressed in the Bible where 99 per cent of the discussion concerns what society thinks of the issue, what science tells us, or what the latest social research demonstrates.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be engaging with all those other sources – it is the weight we give such things in our church meetings that is key. The Reformers did not reject general revelation or the use of reason either. Sola Scriptura simply stated that the authority of the Bible trumped them all.  
And I’m quite surprised by how Sola Scriptura the Declaration of Principle is.


Image | Wikimedia Commons | Public domain 

John Smuts is currently the Pastor of Rayners Lane Baptist Church in Harrow and has previously been a pastor in Scotland and Australia. He is married to Emily (who works at the London School of Theology) and has two daughters.

Baptist Times, 30/09/2017
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