By Gary D. Myers
NEW ORLEANS — Examining the content of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s first doctrinal statement, the Articles of Religious Belief, NOBTS provost Steve Lemke drew a straightforward yet profound conclusion: doctrine matters.
Speaking to the seminary family during the Founders’ Day chapel service Oct. 1, Lemke illustrated the importance of doctrine to the school’s first faculty and urged the importance of doctrinal vigilance today. This emphasis on right doctrine was established at NOBTS before the first class was taught in 1918 with the Articles of Religious Belief, a document which predates the first Baptist Faith and Message by seven years.
The Founders’ Day at NOBTS, held each October, commemorates the official launch of the Baptist Bible Institute (BBI) in New Orleans on Oct. 1, 1918. Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention approved the creation of the school that would become New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1917.
On Oct. 1, 1918 the faculty of the new school convened to inaugurate the first president, Byron Hoover DeMent. During the ceremony, DeMent and the first faculty signed the Articles of Religious Belief as a commitment to teach right doctrine.
Lemke chose to examine and explain the doctrinal statement during the Founders’ Day chapel service as a part of a year-long, school-wide emphasis of the seminary’s core value of doctrinal integrity during the 2013-2014 academic year.
Lemke opened his examination of the Articles of Religious Belief by reading Jude 1:3-4. Lemke called special attention to the phrase “contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all,” noting Jude’s emphasis on the importance of doctrine.
“In the early days of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, then known as Baptist Bible Institute, there was an effort to be sure that we were conveying and communicating the ‘faith once delivered to the saints,’” Lemke said.
When BBI launched in 1918, the board charged DeMent, B.E. Gray, and I.J. Van Ness, with the task of developing the doctrinal statement, Lemke said. Drafts were written and submitted by DeMent and W.E. Denham, a member of the first BBI faculty. After additional work by DeMent, the new confessional statement was approved by the BBI board on Aug. 29, 1918. DeMent and the first faculty signed the document on Oct. 1, 1918. Since 1918, all 397 trustee-elected faculty members have signed the document, Lemke said. In 1925, the Baptist Faith and Message with subsequent revisions in 1963 and 2000, was added as a seminary doctrinal statement at NOBTS.
In his analysis of the Articles of Religious Belief, Lemke searched for possible sources for the document. Borrowing from existing confessions would have been natural. Lemke looked to the New Hampshire Confession and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Abstract of Principles as likely candidates for borrowing. However, Lemke’s search, which included direct comparisons with important Baptist confessions and Google searches of key phrases, revealed little evidence of borrowing.
“I think we can say with some assurance that the Articles of Religious Belief was a new and unique document that was written by the early faculty of Baptist Bible Institute,” Lemke said.
After discussing the history of the confession, Lemke reviewed and analyzed the content. The document contains ten articles covering issues such as the sole authority of Scripture, the triune God, sin and Satan, Atonement, Christ as Savior, conversion, the final resurrection of humans, and the church and its ordinances. The most unique article is the final one titled, “Baptist Loyal to Distinctive Baptist Doctrines.”
Lemke offered three ways to analyze the articles. The focus, he said, must be on what the original writers were addressing in their time, not the issues of present-day Baptists.
“There are three issues that I think were preeminent in their day, the first two more important,” Lemke said.
“The first was the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. The second is the “Baptist distinctives” literature that was very popular at the time,” Lemke said. “And the third … the Calvinist-Arminian distinctions were at least in the background, I don’t think this was in the foreground.”
According to Lemke, some evangelicals began promoting a more conservative approach to Christianity. Two leading evangelicals, A.C. Dixon and R.A. Torrey, produced a 12-volume work between 1910 and 1915 know as The Fundamentals. The volumes explained and articulated five “fundamental” beliefs of the Christian faith. These were biblical inspiration, authority and inerrancy; the virgin birth of Christ, substitutionary atonement purchased by Christ on the cross, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the coming physical return of Christ.
“I believe that the articles affirm all five of these fundamentals,” Lemke said. He pointed to the articles on the authority of Scripture (Article I), the virgin birth of Jesus (Article II), substitutionary atonement (Articles II and IV), the bodily resurrection of Christ (Article II), and the physical return of Christ (Article II).
“The second way of analyzing the Articles is to look at the Baptist distinctives literature,” Lemke said. “This was really important in the early 1900s, as Baptists began trying to articulate and distinguish their beliefs from the beliefs of other denominations. In the Articles there is an immense appreciation for what we would call Baptist distinctives.”
He pointed to Article VIII which expresses the Baptist view of the church including the identification of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the two ordinances of the church. The article also presents Baptist views of the mode and type of baptism: immersion of believers. Contrary to the Catholics around them, the BBI faculty affirmed the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of Jesus’ death and denied the actually presence of Jesus’ body in the bread and wine, Lemke said.
“It is Article X that is most clear out of this Baptist distinctive literature. It is entitled ‘Baptist Loyalty to Distinctive Baptist Doctrines,’” Lemke said.
With Article X, the founders of BBI affirmed that Baptists stand for biblical truths that cannot be compromised, Lemke said. Article X upholds the principle of cooperation with other Christian, but not to the point of denying clear teaching of the Bible.
“The third way of analyzing this is dealing with the Calvinism-Arminianism discussion and I think this was an issue of waning interest in 1918,” Lemke said. “Certainly, the Articles do seem to represent at effort to be somewhere in the middle ground, affirming both the sovereignty of God and the freedom of human beings.
Lemke closed the Founders’ Day chapel by drawing several conclusions.
“Doctrine matters,” Lemke said. “There is a reason that even before the first student came to Baptist Bible Institute, the trustees and initial faculty made it an issue of significance and importance to write out the doctrinal parameters they would teach within.”
Lemke said that NOBTS is a confessional seminary. Students are taught in all areas of knowledge, but faculty members only advocate the particular perspective voiced by the Articles of Religious Belief and the Baptist Faith and Message.
“We are conservative evangelicals and we are Baptist believers,” Lemke said. “We believe in distinctive Baptist beliefs and doctrines. As Baptists we believe some things not because they are historic, but because we believe they are true to what the Bible says”
“We can join in that lineage that goes back to Jude, that we share in this common salvation with many others, but more than that, joining with him to ‘contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all.’ May God bless us as we enter into that sacred effort.”