A Lethal Difference of Attitude

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The adjective 'confessional' has undergone something of a renaissance over recent years with the advent of the concept of the 'confessional evangelical' gaining some popularity.  This particular conjunction of terms seems to approximate to the meaning of 'conservative evangelical' of previous decades.   As I have noted before, I have used the term this way myself but have become increasingly convinced that 'confessional' in that context is actually a rather equivocal use of the word when placed side by side with 'confessional Lutheran,' 'confessional Reformed' and 'confessional Presbyterian.'  In each of these latter cases, the adjective refers to an elaborate, historic document or set of documents which are connected to churches via specific polities.   In such bodies, the confessional documents do not simply reflect the beliefs upheld; they also impact the way in which the churches operate pedagogically and understand themselves relative to history and to other communions.  Put simply, confessionalism permeates the practical life, culture and self-understanding of such communions in a way that the equivalent statements of faith do not do so in confessional evangelical churches.

Yet even within such historic ecclesiastically confessional bodies, there is a significant issue which must surely be addressed and which in certain denominations is becoming an increasingly pressing issue.  To clarify this point, here is a quotation from B. B. Warfield's inaugural lecture as Professor of New Testament at Western (now Pittsburgh) Theological Seminary on Tuesday, April 20, 1880:

I wish to declare that I sign these Standards not as a necessary form which must be submitted to, but gladly and willingly as the expression of a personal and cherished conviction and further that the system taught in these symbols is the system which will be drawn out of the Scriptures in the prosecution of the teaching to which you have called me. Not, indeed, because commencing with that system the Scriptures can be made to teach it, but because commencing with the Scriptures I cannot make them teach anything else.
Warfield's point is simple: he signs the Westminster Standards (and thereby vows to uphold and to teach them) because he sees them as simply summarizing what the Bible teaches.  That is true subscription.  To use the Latin phrase, Warfield subscribes ex animo.  We might translate that 'wholeheartedly' or 'from the depths of his heart.'

There is all the difference in the world between the one who signs a confession because he passionately believes it to be an accurate summary of scriptural teaching and the one who signs it because, at a pinch, he can just about make it say what he believes the Bible to teach.   The former sees the confession as a place to stand from where he can address both church and world; the latter may at best consider the confession to be an unnecessary appendage and, in time, he might well come to see the confession as a problem, a kind of restrictive cage.  Indeed, he might end up asking himself, 'Well, sure, I can just about sign in good conscience - now, what can I get away with saying or doing?'   For such a person, the confession is (at best) a union card, merely a necessary prerequisite for working on the shop floor; it is not the lifeblood of his ministry.

The difference is practically often difficult to discern.  The public act of subscription is the same in both cases. A vow is taken to uphold a set of doctrines which the subject believes. It is thus arguable that in some sense both types sign with sincerity.   The difference lies not in anything written on paper but in the attitude of mind of the one subscribing; and I would suggest that one of the most pressing problems for confessional churches lies in precisely this difference.  I would also argue that a failure to address this issue will prove lethal to the confessional churches in the medium to long term.  I wonder: do good churches go bad because they appoint closet liberals to the ministry?  Or do they go bad because they appoint good people to the ministry who do not understand the nature and importance of confessional subscription and who will therefore, wittingly or unwittingly, help to water down the very mechanisms established by the church to preserve the gospel for the next generation? 

Confessional churches need to reflect long and hard not simply on the doctrinal nature of their confessionalism but also -- and most importantly -- upon its culture and psychology.

Posted October 16, 2012 @ 9:36 PM by Carl Trueman
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