E.Y. Mullins may be the most controversial theologian in Southern Baptist history. He is routinely cited by conservative and liberal, Calvinist and non-Calvinist as both friend and foe to the Baptist cause1. Nor is Mullins' role as the primary--if not exclusive--literary architect of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message seriously questioned. Rather it is barely less than universally assumed >>>
Therefore, what Mullins actually meant in the 25 articles he chiefly composed and which Southern Baptists subsequently adopted as their first, convention-wide statement of faith remains crucial if we desire to better understand our brief confessional history as Southern Baptists. Surely it would serve us well were we privy to an article-by-article commentary on the 1925 doctrinal statement by the very man who presumably wrote it. Unfortunately, there seems to be no such document in existence (according to his brief biographical scheme, Mullins' last monograph was 1924).2
On the other hand, a full century ago, Mullins did pen a short book entitled Baptist Beliefs (1912) as a commentary on the 1858 Abstract of Principles, a confession used then and now as an official doctrinal statement at Southern Baptists' oldest seminary, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.3 And, while the 1925 statement of faith claims no allegiance to the Abstract of Principles, it would be a mistake to conclude the Abstract of Principles had no bearing at all on the composition of the 1925 statement. The truth is, some of the language of the 1925 statement bears striking resemblance to the Abstract of Principles, much too arresting to simplistically dismiss just because the 1925 statement cites as its sole model The New Hampshire Declaration of Faith (1833). Note the language comparison between the three different statements of faith under consideration:
As one can see, it hardly bears arguing that, for Mullins, the language of the Abstract of Principles influenced his composition of the 1925 article on human depravity profoundly more-so than did the language of the 1833 Declaration of New Hampshire Baptists. And, just what may we infer?
Not so fast. It may be well worthwhile to first hear Mullins offer his own commentary on Article VI of the Abstract of Principles before we attempt to infer what we are to make of the obvious literary dependence he employed in writing Article III in the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message. We find his commentary on Article VI: The Fall of Man in Baptist Beliefs, chapter four, entitled "The Fall of Man" (pp.24-25). And, since we've already observed the striking language similarities between the 1858 article on human depravity and what Mullins would pen in 1925, it is not unreasonable to suggest that what Mullins concluded about the 1858 article of faith on sinful humanity, he would proleptically suggest about the 1925 article of faith on sinful humanity.4
So, how did Mullins interpret Article VI in the Abstract of Principles, especially the language pertaining to the fall and whether we inherit a sinful human nature or, because we allegedly "sinned in Adam," are under condemnation due to imputed Adamic guilt? Below is the relevant commentary on Article VI: The Fall of Man Mullins wrote on this particular aspect of human depravity (all embolden added):
The meaning of the fall of man is that man sinned against God...The fall was a downward and not an upward movement of man. It involved guilt and transgression. It gave rise to the need of pardon, of grace and redemption. Man came under condemnation as the result of his fall...He was made free from sin and condemnation, and through the temptation of Satan he fell.
In consequence of the fall of man sin has become hereditary... As a result of this sinful heredity of race, all men actually sin when they acquire capacity for sinning. We believe that infants dying in infancy are saved not because they have no share in the operation of the hereditary tendency to sin, but because Christ atoned for all the race, and somehow children dying in infancy, before actual sin, share in the blessing of that atonement. The Scriptures really say little of the salvation of infants dying in infancy, but they say enough to warrant firm belief in that salvation. The grace of God deals with them in a special manner, no doubt, as we must hold if we believe in hereditary sin and at the same time in the salvation of infants dying in infancy.
No one is or can be saved without repentance and faith, who is capable of exercising repentance and faith. This is the clear teaching of the Scriptures. Hereditary and actual sin render men not only corrupt but also guilty and condemned until they are justified by faith in Jesus Christ.
All men are not equally sinful, of course, and no man is as bad as he can be. But all man’s faculties and powers are affected by the operation of sin in his nature, and all are equally incapable of saving themselves. All are dependent alike upon God’s grace for salvation.5
Now, what may we infer from Mullins' use of the confessional language on human depravity borrowed from Southern seminary's Abstract of Principles which is noticeably present in the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message? First, there remains no reason whatsoever to conclude one should necessarily deduce from the Abstract of Principles the alleged biblical concept of imputed sinful guilt. While obviously many have deduced such a reading and continue to do so6, it does not follow, at least from the language itself, that one is required to embrace this noetic notion. Mullins offers no clues in his commentary on Article VI: The Fall of Man in the Abstract of Principles that imputed guilt was a necessary outcome of the human plunge into the poisoned pond of Edenic rebellion. Instead he uses terms like "hereditary," "capacity," affected "faculties," and the "operation of sin in [fallen human] nature" to describe Adam's post-Edenic progeny. Mullins does not hint about the decidedly Augustinian-Calvinistic notion that since all human beings "sinned in Adam," therefore, all humans beings are guilty of Adam's sin (or, another way of saying it is, Adam's guilt is imputed to us).
In addition, Mullins appears to make much out of the term "actual" in describing the sin of fallen creatures, a term appearing in both the 1858 and 1925 statements of faith. Perhaps we do not make as much of this term as we should. For Mullins, it was a necessary term. For example, in Mullins' mind, while infants are universally born with the hereditary disease of a nature corrupted both by the "operation of sin" and the "tendency to sin, " it absolutely inescapably followed that all men "actually sin," but only so when they "acquire capacity for sinning." Nevertheless, infants remained void of a capacity to actually sin. And, since Christ atoned for all the race (including infants dying in infancy), then infants share in the blessing of that atonement before they actually sin.
Therefore, for Mullins--and apparently both Article VI: The Fall of Man in the Abstract of Principles as interpreted by Mullins (Baptist Beliefs, 1912) as well as Article III: The Fall of Man in the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message as not only interpreted by Mullins (Baptist Beliefs, 1925) but actually written by him--hereditary sin brings corruption, and actual sin brings condemnation.
1for a piercing critique of Mullins by a conservative non-Calvinist, see Malcolm B. Yarnell, "Changing Baptist Concepts of Royal Priesthood: John Smyth and Edgar Young Mullins," in The Rise of the Laity in Evangelical Prostestantism, ed. Deryek W. Lovegrove, pp. 248-249; for a piercing critique of Mullins by a conservative High Calvinist, see By His Grace and for His Glory, Thomas J. Nettles, pp. 252-257. For a fiery take on Mullins from a conservative (David Allen) to a moderate (Charles Wade) see An Open Letter to Dr. Charles Wade by David L. Allen wherein Dr. Allen impugns moderates for selfishly exploiting Mullins to sustain their anti-SBC political agenda: "but we should not tolerate the way he [Mullins] has been co-opted by the moderates. You have taken a biblical, Baptist distinctive, placed it upon the procrustean bed of your agenda, and lopped off just enough to justify your opposition to the SBC."
2it stands to reason, however, that papers and private letters could reveal more light on this issue. I only regret, therefore, my present lack of access to them. see footnote 4
3Bill J. Leonard, “Types of Confessional Documents Among Baptists”, Review and Expositor Volume 76, 1 (Louisville, KY: Review and Expositor, 1979), 40
4the fact is, Mullins actually proleptically offered commentary about article 3 in the 1925 BF&M in his 1912 Baptist Beliefs commentary on the Abstract of Principles. The Judson Press reprinted Baptist Beliefs in 1925 undoubtedly to coinside, at least in part, with the new Southern Baptist confession of faith. And, the contents of the 1925 re-edition of Baptist Beliefs--especially for our purposes, chapter four on "The Fall of Man"--were identical to the 1912 version written as commentary on the Abstract of Principles.
5Baptist Beliefs (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1925), 24-25
6nonetheless, as Dr. Adam Harwood has shown, the "official" interpretation of Southern seminary on the Baptist Faith & Message's article on human depravity means "imputed guilt." And, though Harwood does not suggest this, presumably he would conclude that the reason Southern seminary does so remains indicative, at least in part, of their allegiance to an imputed guilt understanding of original sin as believed to be expressed in the Abstracts of Principles