The Doctrinal Trajectory of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the First Thirty Years, Pt. 2 – Soul Freedom

Read the introduction.         

Shurden defines Soul Freedom as “the historic Baptist affirmation of the inalienable rights and responsibility of every person to deal with God without the imposition of creed, the interference of clergy, or the intervention of civil government.”[1] Soul freedom affirms individual choice and moral responsibility before God. Doctrines such as “soul competency” and the “priesthood of the believer” arise from the concept of soul freedom. Shurden appeals to E.Y. Mullins’s book, The Axioms of Religion, to defend the centrality of this freedom for Baptists, “E.Y. Mullins, one of the best Baptist theologians of this century, was right to speak of ‘the principle of individualism in religion.’”[2]

            Mullins explains this principle under the axiom that “all men have an equal right to direct access to God.”[3] This religious axiom, Mullins insists, “simply asserts the inalienable right of every soul to deal with God for itself. … [and] … It is based on the principle of the soul’s competency in religion.”[4] Mullins traces the greatest departure of this axiom in earliest Christianity to the practice of infant baptism. He claims that it was in the advent of infant baptism, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, where the abuse of priestly power was primarily witnessed up to the time of the Reformation. In other words, the abuse of the priests arose from the belief that people were unable to appear before the throne of God by themselves in Christ.  They could only do so with a Roman Catholic priest acting as a mediator.[5]

            Today, the CBF states almost the same thing concerning soul freedom, though it has added a statement essentially equating the priesthood of believers with soul freedom instead of distinguishing between them. “We believe in the priesthood of all believers and affirm the freedom and responsibility of every person to relate directly to God without the imposition of creed or the control of clergy or government.”[6] However, this statement goes far beyond what Mullins intended, as soul freedom is now understood to “even allow for mistaken choices and wrong interpretations.”[7] This is a clear departure from Mullins, who stated that he wrote The Axioms of Religion “to state our case in the light of primary and universal principles, and to show the relation of the ordinance and polity to these principles. … taken from the New Testament. The authority of the Scriptures lies at the basis of our plea. We do not believe any form of Christianity which breaks with the Scripture as the revealed and authoritative word of God can long serve the interests of God’s kingdom on earth.”[8] In other words, Mullins wrote to prevent mistaken and wrong interpretations, not to allow for them. This understanding of soul freedom inevitably leads to theological confusion and an inability for a church to unify around a common confession of beliefs, as Baptists have always done. This becomes especially clear when this principle is combined with the CBF’s understanding of Bible freedom.

[1] Shurden, The Baptist Identity, 23.

[2] Shurden, The Baptist Identity, 26. For the source of this quote, see E. Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion: A New Faith Interpretation of the Baptist Faith (Philadelphia: The Griffith and Rowland Press, 1908), 93. 

[3] Mullins, Religious Axioms,92.

[4] Mullins, Religious Axioms, 92.

[5] Mullins, Religious Axioms, 92-93.

[6] Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, “Who We Are,” 2021. Accessed August 18, 2021.

[7] Shurden, The Baptist Identity, 27.

[8] Mullins, Religious Axioms, 26.   

Note – This article was co-written by Terry Delaney and Dr. Gary Shultz, Jr.

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