To confess is not to reflect, even to reflect theologically; it is to herald the gospel…. To confess is to testify—and to testify with a bit of noise. ~John Webster
As Reformed Christians, we profess to believe that the confessions (for me, the Three Forms of Unity equally with the Westminster Standards) are a faithful summary and interpretation of the main tenets of the Word of God. The confessions are our roadmaps for the sometimes rugged biblical terrain. If so, we should never shelve the confessions as an obstacle to unity or evangelism or whatever we want to do without those pesky old documents getting in our way–all of these things are both ‘doctrinal’ and ‘practical’ issues.
It strikes me that in our circles in particular, some of us become nonconfessional in a fairly subtle way: we’re all too willing to give up many of our distinctives (i.e. large chunks of solidly biblical Christianity), as long as we get to keep a general notion of the Five Points of Calvinism and predestination, because we assume it’s the ‘kernel’ of Reformed confessionalism that’s important, taken out of the outmoded and unnecessary ‘husk’ of all the other things we “used to believe.” Reformed covenant theology, worship, sacraments, biblical interpretation, evangelism, etc., etc. are often seen to be negotiable.
I think many in our American Churches (even some wearing the Reformed and Presbyterian stripes) don’t think that we can be a strongly confessional Church without at the same time being overly inward and parochial. In fact, it’s been so long for most of our evangelical brothers and sisters since they came into contact with confessional Protestantism that it’s not an issue; in America, we’re not big on being confessional–unless, of course, a hot-button ‘doctrinal’ issue like baptism or charismatic gifts is involved. In fact, some would argue that even my claiming that there are specifically Reformed understandings of these things is already claiming too much; they might say, ‘There is a general Reformed consensus on things like predestination, sure, but this consensus doesn’t (and shouldn’t) extend too far beyond the basics of salvation.’ Too often, however, ‘the basics’ become an excuse for undermining everything not seen as absolutely required for salvation (true faith, the Trinity, etc.) or TULIP. And thus you can say and do almost anything in Reformed or other circles today while claiming the support of the Reformed tradition, and no one else batts an eye. To me, that’s nonconfessional.
It seems especially irksome to many in our circles to respond to a claim with, “But…that’s not really Reformed,” or “But the confessions really don’t say that.” After all, who am I to judge what is Reformed or not? Well, that’s precisely the point: again, the Reformed confessions, as faithful summaries of the Reformed interpretation of Scripture, are a guide for us in what it means to be Reformed. We don’t have to agree with the Reformed confessions, after all–no one’s forcing us to call ourselves Reformed or Presbyterian or Calvinist. So let’s at least be honest enough to admit that rejecting or ignoring the confessions means losing the label attached to these confessional commitments. We all have lenses through which we read and interpret the Bible–but is it the Reformed lens (which I would argue is closest to the Bible’s own lens) or some other lens? If we all come up with our own lenses (with all their idiosyncratic blindspots) we end up, not with fidelity and sincerity, but with individualistic anarchy (like we see among much of the broader evangelical and Reformed world today). In fact, I would argue that we must be confessional in order to faithfully and unitedly maintain our witness and work as well as our beliefs, esp. over the long term. We can’t run on the vague fumes of orthodox faith and practice forever.
Maybe one good way to avoid noncofessionalism among the contemporary Reformed is to cultivate an appreciation for the theology of the confessions as they relate the historic Reformed understanding of Scripture to what we actually- individually- believe. For one thing, the confessions are consensus documents agreed upon by the Church, yes, but they are my confession of faith, too. They don’t contain everything I believe to be contained in the Christian faith, and of course they’re not perfect (they aren’t Scripture itself), but they hit all of the most important things dead on, and in a powerful and engaging way, and they call upon us to do the same…which is one of their most important functions.Another function, as John Webster suggests above, is that when we personally and as a community affirm the confessions, we testify clearly to the redeeming work in history which God has accomplished in Christ and applies to us by the Holy Spirit. By confessing we claim that this basic biblical content, summarized faithfully but not perfectly by this Spirit-led community on our pilgrim journey, answers the questions, “What must I believe to be saved? What is my proper response to so great a salvation?” It is our communal (covenantal) ‘answering back’ after God calls us to himself in Christ by the same Word that we confess in summary in the confessions. It is also our clear and united testimony before a watching world, and within a Church badly in need of biblical and theological grounding.
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