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Why “Confessional”?

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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~B corcpicsmall

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Donna permalink
    13 May, 2007 7:54 am

    Wow….what a powerful summation on Confessionalism. I actually copied and pasted it to my Word program so I can read it again later (at a more thorough pace). I will call you with questions I know I will have when I am done.

    Love, Mom

  2. Austin Britton permalink
    14 April, 2008 9:37 am

    Brannan-

    Hey, its Austin. I am just curious how one might respond to the historical hang-ups people have with calling “confessionalists” necessarily “Reformed”? For instance, I had a conversation recently where my interlocutor believed “Reformed” to really just be the term given to everyone who held to the Solas over-against Rome, hence they were “reforming”. Then, the later Reformed confessions represent different branches under everything that came out of the Reformation. To some degree, I think I realized that maybe this is a more prominent understanding of what it means to be Reformed than I knew. People equate the essence Reformed-thought with Luther, Calvin, and the Solas but not the three forms, nor the Westminster Standards. It seems they see the later standards as different “tribes” under the Reformed “tent.”

    Any help on how one might best correct this seemingly prominent notion of what it means to be Reformed?

    Austin

    p.s. If you don’t want to post answer here, email me at pnkbritton@yahoo.com

  3. 14 April, 2008 9:07 pm

    Oh come now, Mr. Powers, I think you can develop this thought further and send a post to “yours truly.” If you do….we’ll make you famous.

  4. creedorchaos permalink*
    15 April, 2008 7:12 am

    Austin~

    You’re absolutely right about a lot of people equating “Reformed” with something like “everyone not Roman Catholic”; it also depends on who you’re talking to. In American evangelical circles, “Reformed” often means “a caricature of (hyper-)Calvinism”. Over in Britain, it’s quite often the case that “Reformed” means “everyone not Roman Catholic or Lutheran” (and ironically, “evangelical” often still has a traditional Calvinistic connotation!). Even in Presbyterian circles over here, “Reformed” often has little specifically to do with the confessions; it’s pretty synonymous with evangelical — or perhaps ‘conservative evangelical’.

    On one hand, though, the people you’re talking to are right — the confessional positions that grew out of the Reformation-era Reformed tradition are “tribes” under the Reformed “tent”. And as far as classical Protestantism goes, I think it is very important to recognize our fundamental unity ACROSS the confessions in holding to the solas and to our salvation solely through the imputed righteousness of Christ through faith in the gospel, by the Spirit, etc., etc. I think it’s safe to say we’re not known in our circles for any overemphasis on unity in the faith! But when there is real unity — if it’s really confessed and held — then it must be acknowledged and embraced with thankfulness and love.

    On the other hand, a lot of what’s going on, it seems, is the old Reformation vs. the Reformed approach, which refuses to see the Reformed confessional positions as CONSISTENT developments and outworkings of the biblical, theological and ecclesiological gains of the Reformation era. Rather the confessional Reformed statements are often seen as the result of factions and infighting, philosophical and technical hair-splitting that is not really important for the Christian faith and life. Unfortunately, this view is totally right in so many ways about our PRACTICE, even though it’s not right about being confessional per se or what the confessional Reformed views are going for. This confessional vs. nonconfessional approach to the Christian faith is what I’m specifically addressing in “Why Confessional?”

    All that to say, I think you’re right about certain problematic nonconfessional assumptions at play in many of these approaches, and they’re right to suggest that the specific confessional positions don’t corner the market on the Word and the Spirit. And I’m with Phil — you should write something about this for C or C.

    ~B

  5. 29 December, 2009 12:32 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts, Brannan. I used to think the same way, but I’ve done some reevaluating. I think what disturbs me the most is the confessional bullying that I see happening in confessional churches. The confessionalists try to shut down discussion by claiming their opponents are saying something contrary to the Confession. Very often, they are wrong in their claim. And I used to try to point that out to them. But then the debate would center on whose interpretation of the Confession was correct. We’d never get back to the Scriptures.

    How ironic that this happened in Reformed churches where we supposedly believe in Sola Scriptura. How ironic that the Westminster Confession itself told us that all disputes were to be resolved by reference to Scripture, yet it was the staunchest confessionalists who refused to heed that admonition.

    But you know what? There’s no way to bully back the bullies. There’s no way to use the Law of the Confession as a stick to force them to talk to you about Scripture. They just keep coming back to the Confession and saying that their opponents should not be allowed to hold or teach their beliefs but must shut up or leave the church. We could write chapters of rules saying they have to argue from Scripture. We could write even more chapters saying they have to argue with love. It won’t do any good. Law doesn’t give life; it only awakens sin.

    I’m not saying confessions are bad. But where they exist, they WILL be seized upon by bad people. They will become the haven of the Pharisees in any confessing church. We need to argue from the Scriptures and even then, if we do not have love, we are nothing. Too many “Reformed” people think that if we don’t have the Confession, we are nothing.

    Regarding the kernel vs. husk idea that you mention, it reminds me of Charles Hodge’s view. Hodge didn’t think the Westminster Standards had a husk. But he did think they had a kernel. He was of the opinion that one did not hold ministerial candidates to every jot and tittle of the Standards. Rather, one held them to the basic system of Reformed doctrine which was the same in various confessional standards. You’re arguing against that, but I rather like the idea.

    The Reformed confessional standards are far too long and comprehensive to be brilliant at every point. They reflect everything from standard orthodoxy (the Trinity, the deity of Christ) , to new insights brought by the Reformation (Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura) to matters where there was not yet a consensus so compromises were forged and, yse, mistakes were made (the Law) to matters that wouldn’t be in a confession at all if that confession were not also to be used as an instrument of the civil government (lawful oaths and vows).

    We really do need to identify the kernel in all that and deal more tolerantly in the areas where our forefathers saw less clearly. I wish the Reformers could have come together and made a brief consensus statement. (Marburg was where that attempt failed, sadly.) I would have liked something similar in length and substance to the Chalcedonian Creed. They could have said, ok, after all these years, here are the things we can confidently insist must be held by the whole Church and by everyone who wishes to consider himself or herself a Christian. I’d put Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura in there. Not much else.

    If I recall, Calvin’s attitude toward confessions was “the more the merrier.” Sure, write a confession. Write a dozen. But don’t let any of them become replacement Scriptures.

    I’ll close by offering an anecdote from the trial of Lee Irons by the Presbytery of Southern California in the OPC. Irons, as you recall, was on trial for his view of the Mosaic Law. In his defense, Irons pointed out that his view was quite similar to Turretin’s, and essentially the same as that of Samuel Bolton, one of the Westminster Divines. (He also made many arguments from Scripture, of course. But he felt it was worth pointing out that one of the original signers of the Standards had held the view that was now being said to violate those Standards.)

    When the time for debating came, a delegate stood up. He said–and I believe this is an exact quote, because it burned itself into my memory: “It doesn’t matter what Tertullian says!” (I believe he meant to say “Turretin.”) “It doesn’t matter what Samuel Bolton says! What matters is what … THE CONFESSION says!!!!”

    Imagine what Luther or Calvin would think of such a man calling himself Reformed. Imagine what Paul would think of such a man calling himself Biblical. Imagine what Jesus–who had no sympathy for the Pharisees and the human documents they used to interpret the Law–thinks of such a man calling himself a disciple.

  6. 2 January, 2010 10:06 pm

    Bill,

    Good comments, very thoughtful. If you’ve read much of what I’ve written on this site, you’ll probably realize I have little sympathy with the sort of hard-nosed confessionalist approach you’re describing — which is often just as much about protecting one’s favorite culture as proclaiming and defending gospel truth (an uneasy alliance, to be sure).

    As I say in my comment response to Austin above, I believe all those across the confessional divides who hold to the good news of God’s grace alone, all by looking to Christ and his righteousness alone — who therefore believe in the Trinity and incarnation — should be seeking and demonstrating that unity of faith and love that we really do have in Christ.

    The point about being confessional, to me, is not about legalism, which should always be avoided like the plague. The point is simply that Christianity depends upon historical realities accomplished by God himself, interpreted by God himself through his inspired word. That means that Christianity has an intrinsic content and its own historical moorings and ‘flow’ — all the various confessions are doing (or should be doing) is providing a summary of the canonical lenses through which we read the various parts of this word in light of the meaning of the whole. Being confessional means this, and it also means you actively stand in one expression of that historical stream that spans the time between the times.

    You know all this, of course, I’m just laying it out there as a much deeper issue than the fundamentalism you’ve run into. A good thing can be misused by either abuse or neglect.

    Further, I know at least one very staunchly confessional theologian and churchman who heartily desires that all the Reformed churches get together and draft a new confession. It’s not that he sees fundamental errors in the present confessions, it’s just, like you said, they aren’t scripture, and the exegencies of our day call for less of some discussions and more of others.

    There isn’t really a single point I’m trying to make; I’m only saying a few things to demonstrate that I don’t feel confessionalism has to look like what you’re describing. In fact, it shouldn’t look like what you’re describing.

    ~B

  7. Nelu permalink
    28 February, 2010 10:04 am

    Guys your use of ‘confessional’ is very close (in ‘sounding’ but not in the ‘meaning’) with ‘confessing’ used by the German church (and Bonhoeffer). Probably a little more thought about what it means to be confessional, in terms of witnessing (as the German church did) might be useful to the development of your thinking!

  8. 7 February, 2011 1:56 am

    I too am finding the consistency between “every square inch’ thinking, and Reformed confessionalism. Calvin’s Geneva? Failed. The Puritan experiment? Failed. The Moral Majority? Failed. Is it because they all didn’t try hard enough? Is it because they weren’t creative enough? Or, is it simply due to an “oil and water” situation – i.e. God never intended to merge the two now that we have Christ. Isn’t the lack of Biblical texts that tell us to “conquer the world for Christ” very telling? It seems to me that, good intentions aside, we at the very least ought to examine the premise behind cultural change and engagement.

  9. Ronald Failano permalink
    9 April, 2012 8:26 am

    Very well said.

Trackbacks

  1. Confessionalism in Reformed Churches « Water Is Thicker Than Blood
  2. Por que “Confessional”? por Brannan | AME Cristo

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