When Is a Confession not a Confession?

Article by   September 2006

I will delay answering the above question until the end of the article. Instead, I want to start by noting that Father Richard John Neuhaus has some good fun at Protestantism's expense in the latest First Things. In the priceless `While We're at It' section, RJN quotes (page 80) from a recent article in the Nicotine Theological Journal by John R Muether (a sad-funny piece, RJN tells us). I have not seen the original, but RJN quotes Muether on the Cambridge Declaration of 1996, issued as a response to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative, and driven by a desire to affirm justification by grace through faith in the face of what was seen as a watering-down of this crucial evangelical tenet by ECT. The Cambridge Declaration was the founding document of the original Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and thus of some importance to the very e-zine in which this article now appears.

Muether's point (if RJN quotes him correctly, which I have no reason to doubt) is that ten years on the consensus the Cambridge Declaration represented has fizzled, with many of its original leaders having died, moved on, lost interest, or moved to other theological positions, while the world too has changed, with the rise and fall of megachurchdom, the advent of the emergents etc. So far, so fair.

RJN's purpose in all this would seem to be a little gentle mockery of Protestant fads and fashions, presumably in the light of the more historically secure and stable Catholicism which he represents; and perhaps it is no coincidence that the same edition of FT includes the latest ECT document, That They May Have Life, a forthright and helpful statement from a Christian perspective of the `culture of death' which underpins many of the most pressing issues which Christians now face in a world of abortion of demand, embryo research, calls for euthanasia etc. The juxtaposition is, to say the least, suggestive: the Cambridge Declaration lies dead and forgotten; ECT is alive and kicking. RJN then ends his piece with a reference to the fact that the World Reformed Fellowship is working on a new statement of the Reformed faith for the twenty-first century. `So perhaps all is not lost' is his closing statement, the wry smile on his face as he writes this visible to all but the most obtuse reader. Sad and funny indeed; it is hard to disagree.

As always, I find RJN's writings thought provoking; and, as usual, I find myself suitably provoked, this time into writing down some reflections on what he says.

First, in defense of the original Alliance, it seems arguable that ECT has proved as ecclesiastically irrelevant to most Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, as the Cambridge Declaration. That stalwarts such as Timothy George, James Packer, and Kevin Vanhoozer, sign up tells us much about the worthiness of the arguments. But none of these men represents a church; and therein lies the problem. As I said months ago in a review of Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over?, we have an apples and oranges situation: Catholics, with a well-defined and coherent ecclesiastical self-understanding, signing a document with a group of godly evangelicals who may share much with each other, but certainly not an equivalent ecclesiastical identity to counterbalance their Catholic colleagues. The documents are thus fascinating statements, and well-worth careful study, but more as state-of-the-art snapshots on key issues of the last two decades than as signs of meaningful churchly rapprochement between Catholicism and evangelicalism - if, indeed, the last noun has any meaningful external referent when used in the singular.

Second, however, it is worth noting that these documents were never intended as great ecclesiastical statements. That the signatories knew this might raise the question of why they bothered producing them in the first place; but it is nice to note that there is a modesty in the venture built in to the very informality of the overall context of discussion. The ECT documents are valuable - not as some collection of churchly confessional documents aspiring to universal relevance but, as I noted above, as thoughtful and articulate statements of Christian commonality in the context of the nineteen-nineties and the first decade of the twenty-first century. We might, of course, add that the same applies to the Cambridge Declaration. In the tradition of, say, the Helvetic Formula Consensus, composed specifically to address issues in the late seventeenth century being raise by the School of Saumur relative both to universal atonement and to the critical implications of debates about the Masoretic vowel points, this document was never intended as a kind of universal creed but rather as a polemical summary statement of key issues at a crucial juncture. That it seems dated and obscure today is no criticism, for it was never intended to have the perennial durability of a formal church-sanctioned confession.

This brings me to my third point: if the Muether-RJN statement about the World Reformed Fellowship is correct, then the real problem is not that the Cambridge Declaration represents a now-vanished consensus; nor, if I am correct, that ECT is no more than a group of independent religious intellectuals producing helpful documents representing Christian consensus on key issues of our time; rather, it is that a non-ecclesiastical body is attempting to produce a non-ecclesiastical consensus document under the guise, or the misapprehension, that it is producing a confession.

I can well understand RJN's sarcasm when, as a Catholic, he hears of a Protestant non-ecclesiastical organization producing a document with ecclesiastical aspirations. The ECT signatories did not make this mistake; nor did the signatories of the Cambridge Declaration. It is odd, therefore, that the WRF appears about to slip up in this way.

I am tempted to respond to this news with the truism that most, if not all, the movements of confessional revision or, in this case, confessional creation of the last few hundred years have resulted in confessions that are decidedly less catholic in scope than the documents they set out to replace. But history need not always repeat itself; maybe this time will be different. Instead, I can just imagine the questions which someone like RJN might put to the WRF: Who appointed you to write a confession for the Reformed church, if indeed the singular is any more meaningful than that noted above for the unqualified noun `evangelicalism'? Indeed, it is not, at least on the surface, a modest task to set oneself: the production of a new church confession for the new century, particularly when you are not a church. Then, given the eclectic mix of most coalition organizations, what will the confession look like? One of the key theological problems with evangelicalism has always been that its transdenominational nature sacrifices, at the outset, the very possibility of producing a thorough statement of faith. This is surely lethal in the context of any attempt to do Reformed theology, with its traditional high emphasis on the church. I can imagine someone asking of the WRF: Since you have senior members from denominations which allow liberal theology to be preached with impunity from her pulpits, and since you have a doctrinal basis which also embraces adherents of the 1689 London Confession, do we assume that the doctrines of the church and of the sacraments are not to be part of the confession, or that they are matters indifferent? Co-belligerence is a good thing; but it is different from confessionalism. RJN knows that; we Reformed need to grasp the difference too.

That brings me to answer the question with which I started: when is a confession not a confession? When it is not written by the church, and when its very context of composition means that it can contain no full doctrine of the church. Why a group that is not a church should aspire to such a task is strange, and a mistake which neither ECT nor ACE made. Far better to produce statements which can form short-term rallying cries on crucial issues, doctrinal and ethical, than try to supplant real confessions with something that is not a confession. Thus, not for the first time, I have a sneaking suspicion that RJN's sarcasm reflects concerns which I too share. And that might just be a sign of the end times....

When Is a Confession not a Confession?

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