Theological Triage–Baptism–Abstract of Principles

Posted: October 28, 2010 in Baptism by Immersion, Baptist, Dr. Al Mohler, Dr. Nathan Finn, SBC Issues

Various times in the past we have debated the usefulness of Dr. Mohler’s Theological Triage system.  We have also debated, ad nauseum, Baptism and how it relates to the triage system.  But, we have not addressed the Abstract of Principles that closely and it is this document that I desire to bring into the fray.  Why?  We have two schools that require their Professors to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to the Abstract of Principles and the Baptist Faith and Message”.  With that statement one needs to understand that the Abstract of Principles is not a document that the entire SBC has affirmed as doctrinal standards as we have the Baptist Faith and Message, 1925, 1963, and 2000.  We have two autonomous entities that have chosen to require her faculty to adhere to the standard of theological teaching that is outlined in the Abstract.  While that is an entity’s prerogative, it does not mean that the entire convention has affirmed the document.   With this in mind let’s first look at the Theological Triage System.

Dr. Albert Mohler, when expressing his Theological Triage system states:

The truthfulness and authority of the Holy Scriptures must also rank as a first-order doctrine, for without an affirmation of the Bible as the very Word of God, we are left without any adequate authority for distinguishing truth from error.

This quote, in my opinion, reveals the weakness and glaring flaw with the Theological Triage system.  Dr. Mohler has placed the “truthfulness and authority” of the Bible as a first tier issue.  Before, anyone suggests that I am merely sniping at Dr. Mohler’s system, nothing is further from the truth.  I agree that we should have some basis for understanding important doctrines that may keep us from cooperating with others vs. less important doctrines that can be overlooked for the sake of cooperation.   However, what Dr. Mohler seems to advocate, unintentionally I am certain, is to place the doctrine of inerrancy as something that can be rejected.  Trevin Wax has an excellent article about rejecting the word inerrancy and the baggage that goes along with such a decision.  However, we are not speaking about using the word inerrancy, but understanding that God’s Word is sufficient.  Dr. Mohler’s system is not built on that but brings it into the mix like it is some doctrine that is open for debate.  Without the bedrock principle of God’s Word being sufficient and without error we would not have an understanding of the truthfulness of the Christological, Trinitarian, and Soteriological doctrines.  Notice that without the doctrine of the sufficiency and inerrancy of Scripture we would only have the various councils to ascribe our position.

Because of this flaw of placing inerrancy on the first tier level instead of the bedrock principle, some rationalize a move to cooperate with various groups as long as these doctrines do not come into play.  Thus, if a group holds to the doctrine of the Trinity but does not believe the scriptures are inerrant then we are free to cooperate with them in any endeavor as long as it is not church planting.  For example we are free to cooperate with them in an ecumenical service where they practice the Lord’s Supper because the Lord’s Supper is a second tier doctrine.  This is where the entire system breaks down.

Suppose we go on a mission trip with a group that is made up of various non-denominational and other denominational groups? We are working together to build houses and various other “help” projects around the city.  One night one of the leaders believes that in their worship service it would be good to share the Lord’s Table with everyone.  Many in the various denominations do not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and there are varying views of the Lord’s Supper.  Some view it as we do, a non-sacramental view, others view it as Presbyterians do–it is an aid to faith, another group views it as the Lutherans do–the blood and body of Christ are literally present in the bread and wine but not locally.  While others view it as the Roman Catholics do–the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ. According to the Theological Triage System ascribed by Dr. Mohler, we could and should cooperate with this group in the Lord’s Table because that is a third tier doctrine as we are not trying to plant a church. Dr. Mohler has made it clear that second tier doctrines are where we divide over within a church and even denomination.  However, in this hypothetical group, we have disagreement on the first tier item of inerrancy, but because we are merely building houses we can certainly cooperate on the basis of presenting Christ through acts of kindness.  So, when we get back for our evening worship time then we can participate in the Lord’s Table because it is not an issue of inerrancy (a first tier doctrine) but an issue of interpretation (a third tier doctrine). Which brings me to Dr. Finn’s post.

Dr Nathan Finn, when expressing a desire to work with others we have  various differences states:

In other words, you can be really converted and really love Jesus and really be growing in your faith, yet hold to an erroneous view of baptism. It is a secondary doctrine.

If we ascribe to the Theological Triage System, which Dr. Finn admits, then a glaring question must be answered.  How can an erroneous view of baptism be a secondary doctrine when it violates the very first order of the theological triage system?  We are not speaking of mere interpretation we are speaking of a specific doctrine that is clearly spelled out in Scripture. We are not speaking of a mere denominational difference, we are speaking of a clear scriptural teaching.  Using Dr. Mohler’s triage system, Dr. Finn has advocated that someone with a view of infant baptism has an erroneous view of baptism.  That is were I get off the bus.  It is not an erroneous view of baptism, but an erroneous view of Scripture.  The view that infants are to be baptized is a philosophical view based on presumptions drawn from certain scriptural passages at best.  At the least it is a view that denies Jesus’ command.  Some may say those who practice infant baptism are following Jesus’ command to baptize.  Well, what part of immerse does one not understand?  Then the argument comes that some infant baptizers do immerse.  Well, what part of “repent and believe” does one not understand?

Thus, Dr. Finn as well as Dr. Mohler, use a system that is flawed in the bedrock of their argument.  Why?  Without a clear distinction of the Scriptures being without error we have every other first tier doctrine drifting in the sea of theological garbage.  Have we never understood the clear teaching of the Conservative Resurgence?  It was based on the fact that if we could not affirm the Scriptures were without error then all doctrines that were based on the Scripture were subject to error.  In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity is not a philosophical thought it is based on the veracity and sufficiency of an infallible inerrant text.  However, without the basis of the scriptures then a Trinitarian Doctrine is no more than a group of men that came up with this neat little system to explain what they called the Godhead.

That is why the Abstract of Principles and the Baptist Faith and Message are so important to our seminaries and our convention.  They are documents penned by men, but they are based on Scripture.  For example, notice what the Abstracts says about the Scripture.  Concerning the Word of God the Abstracts reads as follows:

The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God and are the only sufficient, certain and authoritative rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience.

The Abstract of Principles cover many doctrinal areas.  Some, according to Dr. Mohler and Dr. Finn are first tier doctrines while others are second and third tier. It appears, according to Dr. Mohler’s position, Articles, I, II, III, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, & XII. would be considered “first tier”.  Articles XV and XVI deal with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper respectively and as such would fall in the second or third tier of the triage system.  Dr. Finn addresses Baptism in his recent post that is quoted above.  It is in the comments of that post that Dr. Finn reasoned a more neutral policy of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper should be implemented.   Dr. Greg Welty weighed in on the topic affirming the cooperation of different convictions of Baptism but cooperating in areas that did not consist of church membership.  It is in this area that I want to point out, what I perceive is, a flaw in their understanding of the Baptist Faith and Message.  I do not know Dr. Welty’s position on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but Dr. Finn’s is found here.  Dr. Finn personally advocates for a “close” communion which he terms “consistent” communion.  However, he reasons in his recent article that since times and theological positions have changed a majority of SBC churches do not advocated Baptism as a prerequisite to church membership.

Whether a majority of SB advocate this or not seems to be something that is a red herring that is being bantered about.  Why?  The BF&M2k clearly calls for, at best, a “close” communion–baptism by immersion before participating in the Lord’s Table–or using Dr. Finn’s term, “consistent”.  Some interpret the statement as a call for “closed” communion–baptism by immersion in that local church before participating in the Lord’s Table.  Whatever the interpretation one cannot read the BF&M, 1925, 1963, and 2000 without admitting a “close”, or “consistent” communion at the least.  Which brings me to another question.  Where did the framers of the BF&M find the language used in the SBC’s first doctrinal statement?  Simple, the Abstract of Principles.

The Abstract of Principles (Emphasis Mine)

XV. Baptism.
Baptism is an ordinance of the Lord Jesus, obligatory upon every believer, wherein he is immersed in water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as a sign of his fellowship with the death and resurrection of Christ, of remission of sins and of his giving himself up to God to live and walk in newness of life. It is a prerequisite to church fellowship and to participation in the Lord’s Supper.

The Baptist Faith and Message (Emphasis Mine)

VII. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.

One should remember that Dr. EY Mullins was President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when he was charged with heading up the committee that penned the original Baptist Faith and Message in 1925.   Therefore, Dr. Mullins would have intimate knowledge of the Abstract of Principles.  Though one can certainly see a better balance of man’s responsibility versus God’s sovereignty in the Baptist Faith and Message, one can also see Baptism intimately connected with the Lord’s Supper.  One may argue, as we say here in NC, until the cows come home that we need to be more neutral on this statement.  However, one forgets that while the Abstracts clearly were used as a basis for the BF&M the BF&M is the only document approved by the convention on three separate occasions.  One also needs to remember that the language used in the BF&M has never changed on three different votes spanning three different generations.  Also, the language of the Baptist Faith and Message is the language of the Abstract of Principles.

Which brings this Op to a close with one question.  Does an individual, that signed a covenant “to teach in accordance with” but publicly advocates a more neutral position concerning a practice that is clearly presented in both official documents constitute teaching “contrary to the Abstract of Principles and the Baptist Faith & Message”?

  1. Dr. James Galyon says:

    A side note – you stated that it is “an entity’s prerogative” to adopt the Abstract, but “it does not mean that the entire convention has affirmed the document.” Actually, it was the convention which affirmed the document for use at its the seminary.

  2. Dr. James Galyon says:

    Pardon the typo. It should have read, “It was the convention which affirmed the document for use at its seminary.”

  3. Tim Rogers says:

    Dr. Gaylon,

    That is interesting. I presume your are referring to the vote of establishing a seminary. If not, could you help me find that vote. I know SB voted to establish a seminary but that vote did not “affirm” a document it affirmed a seminary.


  4. peter lumpkins says:


    You’ve made some excellent points, one of which is, the issue pertaining to “consistent” or “close” communion and whether one parts with the AP in dissenting from such a view.

    Also, I’d be interested in Dr. Galyon’s response to your clarification. My follow up would be, supposing the SBC did in fact affirm the AP for use at its seminary, would one infer from such a vote, the AP endorsement as the SBC confession of faith?

    With that, I am…

  5. Dr. James Galyon says:

    The process of adopting the Abstract of Principles, including the necessary approval of the convention (and not just the SBC’s Education Committee) has been detailed by Gregory A. Wills.

    Peter, the adoption of the Abstract of Principles was meant to ensure “Baptist orthodoxy” by the seminary’s faculty. However, as you know, the SBC did not adopt an “official” denominational confession until 1925. I believe the approval of the Abstract was a general endorsement for particular use at the seminary, but Baptists at the time were unwilling to adopt a denominational confession. They believed such a confession infringed upon the authority of the local church. Gregory Wills’ book on the history of SBTS also details the work of E. Y. Mullins and others in creating a denominational confession. This section is particularly helpful in understanding the thinking of Baptists at that time in history to doing such.

  6. Tim Rogers says:

    Dr. Gaylon,

    I am presently trying to run this down, but I think there was a confession adopted in 1914 of some sort. Does Wills speak about this in his book anyplace?


  7. Dr. James Galyon says:

    Yes, Wills does touch upon the report of the Efficiency Commission which was adopted in 1914 by the SBC and consisted in large part of a creedal section composed by E. Y. Mullins.

  8. Steve Lemke says:

    The Abstract of Principles draws a disproportionate amount of comment, perhaps because some prefer it OVER the Baptist Faith and Message. NOBTS also faced the dilemma in 1917 of forming a seminary in a confessional denomination that did not yet have a formally adopted confession. So the founders of NOBTS adopted the “Articles of Religious Belief,” which our faculty still subscribes to today, along, of course, with the BF&M 2000. SWBTS adopted the New Hampshire Confession as its initial doctrinal confession, though it does not require it today because the BF&M was so obviously based upon the New Hampshire Confession.

    As Richard Land notes in his article in Whosoever Will, J. Newton Brown’s Baptist Church Manual of 1853, and O. C. S. Wallace’s What Baptists Believe, first published in 1913, and selling an amazing 190,000 copies, along with other widely distriubted Baptist publications, utilized the New Hampshire Confession. Wallace noted that he used the New Hampshire Confession because it was “most commonly used as a standard among Baptist churches.” Wallace included and commented on the Abstract of Principles in the appendix at the end of the book, essentially as a minority position. And so it is today.

  9. Brother

    You have hit the nail on the head. Theological Triage is a system that imposes itself upon scripture and requires us to see certain doctrines as “neutral.” The best system of cooperation has been done for hundreds of years. It is called confessionalism. A confession does not impose itself upon scripture, but instead it is imposed on by scripture.

    Again, excellent article.

  10. Aaron says:

    I have some questions about your post:

    You say, “However, what Dr. Mohler seems to advocate, unintentionally I am certain, is to place the doctrine of inerrancy as something that can be rejected.”

    However, Dr. Mohler says of inerrancy, “These first-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.”

    How does this statement lead us to believe that Dr. Mohler believes a biblical view of Scripture can be rejected? You bring into the conversation a fourth category in the triage called a “bedrock principle” which, as far as I know, is foreign to Mohler’s paradigm. It seems that Dr. Mohler is suggesting that the first-tier doctrines in the triage ARE the bedrock, nonnegotiables of Christianity. Certainly Mohler is one of the leading defenders of the doctrine of inerrancy.

    Concerning baptism as a second tier doctrine: of course it is an interpretation issue. Surely it is clearly spelled out in Scripture, but our inerrantist presbyterian brothers have misinterpreted those passages. To say that someone who misunderstands and misinterprets the Bible’s teachings on baptism has a false view of Scripture goes too far. And to dismiss their understanding as simply philosophical is unfair as well, as if there were absolutely no exegetical or biblical-theological arguments at all. Just because one has the right view of Scripture does not guarantee accurate interpretations 100% of the time. Believing in a perfect Scripture does not automatically cause someone to be a perfect reader and interpreter of Scripture. In fact, if this view is to its logical conclusion, we would have to admit that anyone who ever misunderstands or misinterprets anything in Scripture has a faulty view of Scripture itself – which would mean that everyone has a faulty view of Scripture.

    And in categorizing baptism as a secondary doctrine, I do not think Dr. Mohler is suggesting that baptism is not a clear teaching of Scripture. He is simply stating that you can have the wrong view about baptism but still be a brother in Christ – a brother in Christ who has misunderstood the Bibles teaching on baptism. This is not true of the first tier issues, such as denying the gospel, denying the Trinity. If you get those wrong, it is safe to say that you are not a Christian.

    Furthermore, I am not sure that Dr. Mohler would suggest cooperating with anyone who gets any first-tier doctrine wrong. Those, again, are what he classifies as non-negotiables.

    Finally, I think that Dr. Mohler’s goal is the application of the triage within your own local congregation, not with other Christian congregations. In other words, I don’t think Mohler intends the triage to be applied in your hypothetical situation. His application is the local church.

    He says, “Standing together on the first-order doctrines, Baptists and Presbyterians eagerly recognize each other as believing Christians, but recognize that disagreement on issues of this importance will prevent fellowship within the same congregation or denomination.”

    Again, “Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations.” In other words, I think you can summarize the triage like this:

    Tier 1: Essential Christian Doctrines – What every Christian must believe to be saved.
    Tier 2: Doctrines that are wise to break local church fellowship over.
    Tier 3: Doctrines that we can agree to disagree over in the local church.

    Tier 2 allows you to teach with conviction the truths of baptism in your local church without damning your presbyterians friends to hell. Tier 3 still allows the pastor(s) to teach with conviction their views on these doctrines such as eschatology or Calvinism, without preventing those who don’t necessarily agree from joining.

    Have I misunderstood you, Dr. Mohler, or both?

    In Christ,

  11. Tim Rogers says:

    Brother Aaron,

    “However, Dr. Mohler says of inerrancy, “These first-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.””

    It seems that you forget that believing in the Virgin Birth is not a salvific issue. When was the last time you asked someone as you were leading them to Christ; “now you do believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, don’t you?” However, in order for someone to be saved they must believe the Bible is true. Thus, before one can prove the virgin birth one has to eliminate the possibility that the Bible is full of errors.

    “Concerning baptism as a second tier doctrine: of course it is an interpretation issue”

    Here is where you mis-represent the very Scriptures. Baptism, is not an interpretation issue. One has to deny scripture to baptize by sprinkling. The word itself means “immersed”.

    “Furthermore, I am not sure that Dr. Mohler would suggest cooperating with anyone who gets any first-tier doctrine wrong. Those, again, are what he classifies as non-negotiables.”

    Here is where you exagerate the argument. No one has said anything about not cooperating. What I have advocated in the past and even now, is that we do not cooperate with anyone that does not believe in baptism by immersion to do church plants and other evangelistic work. I have no problem getting together with Presbyterians and Methodists to do food pantries, and clothes closets, and even doing a feeding at a homeless shelter. Where I draw the line is with evangelistic work and planting churches. Oh, I will participate in crusades as long as everyone gets the follow-up information.

    Don’t know if this answers your questions or not, but thanks for the read.