Confessional Evangelicalism: A Change of Mind (Probably)

Article by   September 2011

 The recent book, Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism has been stirring up some interest on the web.  While I have not yet had the chance to read the whole thing, one aspect does strike me as of potentially particular interest to the Ref21 constituency: R. Albert Mohler's use of the term `confessional evangelicalism.'

It is a term I have used myself, to try to argue for a particular form of Christianity.  I am also a member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, though I think the use of `confessing' rather than `confessional' is significant: we merely confess certain truths together.  Further, as my Alliance commitment stretches to little more than writing for an online magazine (I have surely the worst attendance at council meetings of anyone, specifically `zero' in my six years), I think my hypocrisy, if existent, is minimal.  

Anyway, to return to my use of confessional evangelicalism in arguing for a particular form of Christianity, I use the term `Christianity' here, rather than `evangelicalism' because I am not persuaded that the latter actually exists as anything other than a loose network of non-ecclesiastical institutions (professional societies, seminaries, publishers etc.).  Thus, terms such as `liberal evangelicalism,' `generic evangelicalism,' `open evangelicalism,' and `confessional evangelicalism' all run the risk of mistakenly assuming the real existence of a sort of Platonic ideal of `evangelicalism' in which they each participate.  In other words, they each imply a realist view of evangelicalism; I am increasingly a nominalist in my approach.  Evangelicalism, at least as a doctrinal movement as opposed to a network of institutions, does not possess any real existence beyond the imaginations of those who have a vested interest in the idea.

More recently, despite using the term `confessional evangelical' myself, and being a member of a parachurch group which uses a similar term in its name, I have come to believe that there is an equivocation in the use of the word `confessional' here which needs to be clarified.  

For a church to be `confessional' means for it to adhere to a particular confession or set of confessional documents.  There are two parts to that statement, of course: there is the material statement, in that there are confessional documents involved, documents which teach certain doctrines; and there is the point that the church `adheres' to said documents, i.e., the church has a Form of Government which connects to the confessional documents; as a result, office bearers take vows to uphold certain doctrines as taught in the confessional documents and there are procedures in place to remove them from office should they fail to do so.  

Thus is it in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the denomination to which I belong and in which I hold office.   To be confessional in this context means that I believe and teach in accordance with the teaching of scripture as I see it summarized in the Westminster Standards; that when I attend session meetings I and my fellow elders are often citing the Standards in our discussions, because they shape the very way we think and behave in an ecclesiastical context; they are not just bits of paper or expressions of personal belief; they express how we think and shape how we behave at the corporate level; and if one of us falls out of step with the Standards, we will be dealt with according to the procedures contained in the Form of Government and Book of Discipline.

This is where I have become somewhat less enamoured of the term `confessional evangelical.'  The term `confessional' is really an ecclesiastical category.  It usually means something only in an ecclesiastical context.   To connect it to evangelical is not unacceptable - as I noted at the start, I have done it myself - but it is to use the term in a basically equivocal way.  When I use the term `confessional' relative to churches, I mean confessional documents connected to procedural canons; when I use it to refer to `evangelicalism' I clearly do not imply the second point.   Indeed, for a church to be `confessional,' it has to discipline or expel office bearers who contradict the confessional standards to which their vows bind them.   Not to do so would be to make the term `confessional' essentially meaningless.  I could claim, after all, to be very much in favour of helping old ladies across the road; but if it is my daily habit to push under a bus any old lady unfortunate enough to cross my path, you might well question my commitment to the safe transportation of the aged across the busy highway. 

In short, `confessional', rather like `evangelical,' is a term which is only really relevant when it comes to particulars, in this case ecclesiastical particulars.   It is helpful in the current climate in that it seems to refer to those whose personal beliefs are consonant with those of one or more of the great confessions of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries; but it is of very limited usefulness.  It is vulnerable to the same difficulties as the term `evangelical': when one abstracts it from the particulars of ecclesiastical commitment, one actually shatters its doctrinal content because that content is inextricably connected to both the doctrinal confession and the ecclesiastical order of particular churches.  Thus, to use the term `confessional' for individual believers outside of a specific church context where confessions are upheld by disciplinary procedures is to use the term equivocally and, arguably, in an inappropriate manner.  One cannot be a `confessional evangelical' unless one is in a confessional church; and then one is a confessional Presbyterian, or Reformed, or Anglican or Baptist or Anabaptist.  One is not part of a broader self-conscious movement called `confessional evangelicalism.'

A few weeks ago a friend asked if I would repudiate the title `evangelical.'  My answer was `Well, it depends on how it is being used.'  I will not typically describe myself as such in the American context (back home in Blighty, the situation is somewhat different for cultural reasons); but I have no objection to it being used as a descriptive term if the person using the terms means such things as belief in justification by grace through faith, penal substitutionary atonement etc.   Where it is problematic is when it is used in a way that implies I am somehow part of a wider movement that includes, say, open theists but excludes, say, conservative Dominican theologians.  My inclusion with the former and exclusion from the latter would seem to me to be entirely arbitrary, given that, while I have significant disagreements with both, I am arguable slightly closer to the Dominicans than the radical Arminians.  That is not to say that I look down on either group; it is simply to make the observation that a confessional Presbyterian has some affinities with both but does not really belong to either.

I did think that `confessional' was a helpful way of highlighting one stream of contemporary evangelicalism; now I am not so sure.   Confessions are particular, and I am increasingly comfortable as seeing myself as part of three basic categories: Christian, Protestant, Presbyterian.  Within those categories I am happy to have fellowship with those who disagree with me on many things; I am even happy to be involved in co-belligerent parachurch groups which stress particular theological truths; but I have no need of any hypothetical fourth category, however qualified, in order to understand my location in the current religious scene.

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