The Need for Confessionalism
October 27, 2020 · C.E. Carter
Vagueness is an enemy, and to be indirect is to be unkind.
Throughout church history, at various times the muddledness of a particular theological point caused contention in the church and in the world. In the very early church, there was contention about whether a Christian who was a Gentile needed to be circumcised as their Christian brothers who were Jews were, and this debate was settled at the council of Jerusalem. A few centuries later, there was contention around the Arian controversy, as to whether God the Son was co-eternal with God the Father, and these things were settled at the council of Nicaea in the formation of the Nicene Creed. During the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s and 1600s, the nature of salvation was a contentious subject, and so we had the works of reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and others, come out of that era of darkness and confusion. These works resulted in confessions and statements that became foundational for the Reformed Tradition about 100 years later, like the 1646 Westminster Confession and the 1689 London Baptist Confession. Even recently, theologians and pastors have put out statements regarding social justice, homosexuality, Biblical inerrancy, and so on.
Confessions, creeds, and statements play the role of boiling down scripture to the root of the matter into a document which can be used as a foundation of agreement among brothers and sisters for theological and ecclesiological purposes. They are a way of drawing boundaries around those who are in agreement with a particular interpretation of scripture. These boundaries may be drawn around secondary issues like baptism, in which case disagreement with the document would not necessarily constitute being outside of orthodoxy, but they may also be drawn around issues which are non-negotiable, like the nature of salvation or the Trinity. The first kind of issue serves an ecclesiological purpose; I am a confessional 1689 Reformed Baptist, which means I wouldn’t be able to be a pastor at a 1646 Westminster Presbyterian church (and maybe not even a member of that church) but I would absolutely be able to fellowship with the people of that church as a brother in Christ. To this end, I had to sign a statement of faith to become a member of my current church. The primary differences are a slightly different matter, though related; they are a matter of orthodoxy. I cannot, for example, fellowship as a Christian with someone who denies the Trinity, or denies that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, things which are codified in documents like this. Adherence (or lack thereof) to a confession, a creed, or a statement provides an expedient way to draw these lines, as they canonize the truth of scripture.
American Evangelicals aren’t big on these things. Evangelicalism isn’t a denomination like Presbyterianism, rather, it’s a culture of ecclesiological practice and styles of fellowship. You cannot determine if someone is an Evangelical by looking at their theology, and this is the root of all sorts of confusion. Is Joel Osteen (the most prominent preacher of the prosperity gospel in the whole world) a Presbyterian? No, because he’s not a Westminsterian. Is he an Evangelical? Yes. Er, no. Well…maybe?
Healthy Christianity is confessional, as a means of chivalry: it has clear boundary lines for what is orthodox and what isn’t, so that the flock may have a fence within which it can enjoy a region of safety, security, and freedom. When times of uncertainty or unclarity arise, as we are today, it is the responsibility of theologians to patch the fence. In our case, the church is becoming increasingly unclear on the nature of justice, the meaning and nature of liberty, the role and limits of government, and the role of the church with regards to politics. These things are theologically and Biblically answerable, and the answers ought to be codified for the sake of the church. In addition, it wouldn’t hurt for the church to become confessional in other areas too. Reading a confession of faith is a great way of clarifying your own theological points, and considering the ones you hadn’t even thought about before.