Confessing Christianity: Yesterday's reformation for today's reformation
March 7, 2016
The word 'confessing', I confess, is a little bit vague. We use the word when we are admitting that we could have done better, or when owning that we've actually done wrong. In places where a life dedicated to Christ is unappreciated or even illegal, confessing to Christianity means confessing to a crime - at least the eyes of our opponents.
By Confessing Christianity, I mean something at once more positive and more precise. I am thinking of confessing as professing. I want to make the case for a Christian faith that affirms an allegiance to Christ, but also affirms a body of truth that we love and teach because of Christ. I mean something like "creedal Christianity" and, if I was having better day, I might have picked those words as the title to this reflection. But maybe not. Because a creed is a short statement about the Christian faith and a confession is a longer one - and my main point is that churches today need more truth, not less, to confess.
The great creeds were written in the early centuries of the church, and are almost universally accepted. The great confessions came into their own during the Reformation and, while accepted by a smaller subset of Christians, they enjoy the advantage of speaking a higher quantity of truth. But already I'm talking as though there are only two options! As though each of us, as we reach the end of this article, will have the opportunity to click either for a creed or for a confession. We all know that this is too simplistic, for there is a third option.
For our convenience, I've given the third option a kind of fancy 'in house' label, trusting you'll pardon the professional jargon: this third way is called the "Ten-bullet-points-on-the-website-option." And I'm guessing Reformation21 readers know what I'm talking about: it's a brief list of basic bible doctrines, like believing in the Bible and loving Jesus and four steps to becoming a Christian.
Now these are enormously important bullet-points! And churches that choose to use Ten-bullet-points-on-the-website (or TBPTWOs for our convenience) have this in common with churches using creeds and confessions: they are aiming to be honest, especially about what is most important for us to believe. Honesty is the original impulse behind almost every statement of faith. Cults hide what they believe until you're so far in to the riptide that you can't do anything about it. Honest churches do the opposite: they announce what they do believe and (in the best creeds and confessions) even a few things that they don't. We could say more: the best doctrinal summaries also promote church unity. They help us to identify, through a common set of priorities and teachings, what we have in common with other Christians. And even that is not all. In the third place, these summaries also have the potential to create peace in the church, since people coming to the church will readily be able to see what it teaches, and will be able to compare it with the Scriptures, which is the only basis on which Christian teaching should be built.
Not long ago a friend asked what I'd say if I had thirty seconds with someone in an elevator and had to explain why I think confessing Christianity is important. I've not yet had that happen, but I think I know what I'd say: (1) its honest, (2) it promotes church unity, and (3) it promotes truth. If my conversation partner was heading to the tenth floor, I'd add a fourth reason: (4) that a good confession makes a great teaching tool.
Now to be fair, and as I've already hinted, I don't think that these different types of doctrinal summaries are all created equal. Creeds have the highest chance of bringing people together since they are so old, (the creeds, not the people) and so widely accepted, that almost any Christian can sign on the dotted line.
Website summaries are the least useful for unity. They are like snowflakes. Each of them is beautiful; no two are alike.
Of course traditional creeds and website creeds can be used for teaching, and many pastors will use such summaries to organize an annual sermon series on what the church believes. But although they are much better than nothing, they don't do much for the peace of the church. Although they say what is true, they don't say very much truth. Indeed, they sometimes state only one or two of those truths with any precision. It seems possible that congregations and their leaders would be better served with fuller statements of faith. Among the benefits that we might mention in conjunction with fuller statements of faith, there is this: churches looking for a pastor will be able to say what they want him to believe, and pastors looking for churches can point to what they are eager to teach.
Having said all that, I might as well tell you what I really think. I could be wrong - I often am - but it appears to me that evangelicals have been deliberately minimalistic with their doctrine in order to unite us in what we think are our most important endeavors. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say this as everyone is very much caught up in the current elections, but it sometimes seems that what we truly want are moments of buoyant hope in the political arena, and thus we don't want to be weighed down with too much doctrine in our ecclesiastical settings.
Unfortunately, it takes more than a few doctrinal points hastily battened down to help us survive the storms of life. And what is true on an individual level is also true on a corporate level. The church is often at sea, tossed about by every wave of change. Of course longer creeds are not the panacea to all the church's problems, not least because there are some long creeds that are incorrect. And yet while any 'single-cause explanation' to a problem is suspicious, I do wonder if one of the problems with the church in the English-speaking world is that it has so little weight, no anchor to keep it still so that we can see and analyze and respond to the powerful currents in the culture around us.
Admittedly, the church's experiment with doctrinal minimalism has only been conducted for about a century. Not all the data is in, and the results might look better in a few decades. But perhaps it's time for the church to tinker with theological maximalism. I think the case can be made that we need a confessing Christianity with some real substance.
Yesterday's reformation for today's reformation
That is why this brief reflection has a subtitle: its because I have become convinced that the most useful material for life today can be found in the confessions of the Reformation. As an historian, and as a Christian, I have an appreciation for a number of the classic statements produced during the Reformation, from the mid 1500s to the mid 1600s (all of which are now available in English).
But I've come to identify with one of these confessions more than the rest. The Westminster Confession of Faith, written at the very end of a long Reformation, holds out a large faith for Christians to own. It extends a welcome introduction to the triune God and his work, an unusually robust statement of the gospel of Christ, a celebration of very good news that is not too good to be true.
Now let me be quick to say that in commending this classic creed and commenting on it, I am not writing as someone without sympathy for modern conversations in theology. Nor do I think this confession is flawless. Nonetheless it is very good. It is a text rich in theology, offering a wealth of biblical and doctrinal reflection. It is a text from which all evangelical Christians could derive much benefit if it was carefully studied. It is a text that leads us back to Scripture, back to God himself. And due to the unusual circumstances surrounding its creation, this text has a surprising vitality and relevance for our own ecclesiastical and cultural moment.
But I'm not apologizing for a text produced in 1646. I consider its age to be more of a benefit than a liability; it is good to study texts that remind us that Christianity was not invented during the Bush administration. And the vintage of this text has only given it time to mature, and to be appreciated by millions of Christians around the world who are united by the doctrines it teaches.
Clearly I'm lobbying for the Westminster Confession of Faith, although I think it's the kind of lobbying that evades the force of the Lobbying Disclosure Act: I live near Washington DC but I'm not to trying to get my government to adopt a confession for everyone, only to get more Christians to consider it for themselves.
That said, this confessional text and its catechisms have relevance to those in public life, including those in government. The Confession contains chapters explicitly about communal concerns, such as the civil government, oaths and vows, or marriage. It offers discussions on "Christian liberty" and "church-state relations" - discussions that are better in the American revised version than in the original British version. And then there are theological topics with public relevance as well.
If I may chose an ugly topic, let mention, by way of example, the subject of sin. No ten-line summary of the Christian faith is complete if it does not mention sin as a problem that is solved by Jesus on the cross. Such a summary is true, gloriously true, so far as it goes. For all who will trust in the holy person and sacrificial substitution of Jesus Christ, the guilt and penalty and shame of sin is wiped away; on the judgement day, the accuser will have no arguments to match our advocate, for the wounds of our risen Saviour will eloquently plead our case. That is the best part of the story, but it is not the whole story. Regrettably a fuller summary has to go on to say that it is also the case that a "corruption of nature, during this life, remains in those that are regenerated."
In other words, the problem of sin remains even with the most saintly. It is a simple fact. It has profound implications. It means that Christians have a point of contact with non-Christians. It means that we have a lot in common with people with whom we disagree, and that when we see their faults or their foolishness, we are reminded of our own. Ongoing sin means that if we are on a better course, it must be due to the ongoing graciousness of God and not something for which we should be patting ourselves on the back.
There is so much more that could be said. I could mention the doctrine of creation, and what it means for men and women to be made in the image of God. I could mention the ethics of the Westminster standards - perhaps its reflections on truth-telling, on speech, on deliberately building up the names of others rather than tearing them down. Surely these teaching of Scripture, so aptly summarized here, have relevance for all us - indeed, they have relevance for conversations in Westminster or Washington, and for the way in which people run their campaigns.
I think the WCF is the fullest and finest of confessions. But what about those briefer options? As it happens, many churches use both creeds and confessions, and summarize their main teachings in a few basic points in their promotional literature. This is good. It can even be helpful. Creeds, confessions and TBPTWOs are not mutually exclusive options. Nonetheless, I need to say that our churches are stronger when we hold and teach and a more robust confession. I think it is worth saying that the trajectory of confessional churches tends to trend badly when they permit website summaries to offer, in practice, the only real guiding principles for the church.
It was about 100 years ago, around the time of the First World War, that doctrinal 'austerity measures' were unofficially adopted by leading evangelical denominations. Decreasing the church's doctrinal diet was seen as a necessary step; it would help Christians band together in its battle against declining morals and eroding peace. Interestingly, some of these churches in the early 20th century had a heritage of a confessional Christianity. In minimizing their doctrine they did not get rid of their confessions. But they reduced what was important to believe to a few basic points, and their confessions to a paper fiction.
Without even examining the priorities of Woodrow Wilson era evangelicals, which is a discussion in itself, it seems evident that their "war for righteousness" did not advance as planned. Quite the opposite seems to be true. We've tightened our doctrinal belt for decades and now America is populated by people bored with God, and with truth-starved Christians unable to say or to identify what is right or wrong. We are so theologically impoverished that we think that once we've devoured our congregation's ten points that there is nothing left to chew on.
If you would indulge a moment of personal reflection, this is why I wrote a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. I didn't want myself or others to become so doctrinally emaciated that we'd lose our appetite for God himself. This rich confessional text stirred up a hunger for the One who is "most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him." As I read and wrote, I found myself wondering at the "God who has all life, glory, goodness," and "blessedness, in and of Himself" - the One who "is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He hath made." Eventually, I came to the point where I because concerned with doctrinal summaries that leave us without aspirations; statements of faith that present God as a mere fact, a point one or two on a ten point list.
I'm not expecting everyone to love the Westminster Confession of Faith, or even to like longer confessions more than shorter ones. But I do like historic texts that offer food for doxology. After all, as the Apostle Paul once wrote to the Romans 11, and as a good Confession might remind its readers, we serve the One "of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things." Christians celebrate the One in whose "sight all things are open and manifest," whose "knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent" of anything in his creation." That's why I treasure words that leave me speechless before a Triune God who is "most holy in all His counsels, in all His works, and in all His commands" - the one to whom "is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience He is pleased to require."
Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is the Chancellor's Professor of Historical Theology and Associate Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He is the author of, most recently, Confessing the Faith: A Reader's Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Banner of Truth: Edinburgh, 2014.