Confessional and Catholic
|“Confessional” Christians are believers who adopt and adhere to the historic Christian faith and practice as that faith and practice are summarized and expounded in the confessional documents (creeds, catechisms, and confessions) of the church body they have associated with in formal membership. For example, “confessional Lutherans” are Lutheran Christians who adhere to the historic Lutheran doctrinal standards and formulations (for example, Luther’s Small Catechism, the Augsburg Confession, and the Formula of Concord) as the confession of their Christian faith. “Confessional Anglicans” are Anglican Christians who adhere to the 39 Articles of Religion found in The Book of Common Prayer used in the Anglican Communion, and whose practice of the Faith conforms to the worship and piety found in The Book of Common Prayer. Likewise, confessional Presbyterians (like myself) adhere to and adopt the historic Christian Faith as that Faith is summarized and expounded in the historic Presbyterian confessional documents (The Westminster Confession of Faith and The Larger and Shorter Catechisms). The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is an historically “confessional” church body, in that it receives and adopts the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.
“Confessional” Christianity in its various denominational and churchly forms is clearly a minority position in the American Christian scene today, and especially within the broader American culture. There are probably many reasons for this, but among the chief reasons for the minority status of confessional churches and confessional Christians I would include the highly individualistic, anti-institutional, and anti-“tradition” mindset of American culture in general, and its resultant “cafeteria-style” (i.e., “pick and choose”) approach to spirituality and religion among most Americans. Many today — perhaps even many conservative evangelical Christians — would view this as a good thing. As a movement, American evangelicalism on the whole seems to have adopted the anti-confessional view which has been expressed in the saying, “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible.!” (Of course, the irony in such a statement is that it is actually a creed of sorts. Ultimately no one can avoid adopting a “creed” of one sort or another, even if one’s “creed” happens to be unwritten and not carefully thought through. Confessional Christians are different from non-confessional Christians in that confessionalists choose to adopt a creed and confession that have been carefully thought out and codified by a community of learned and godly ministers, theologians and Bible scholars laboring in concert as an official church body, rather than relying on their own isolated “wisdom” in formulating a personal creed.) The independent, non-denominational, anti-creedal mindset rules the day in American evangelicalism, and in this environment it is difficult for confessionalism to flourish. But nevertheless, confessional Christianity (and, I would argue, in particular the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian Christian Faith) represents a robust, historically-rooted and biblically-grounded expression of the Christian Faith. In fact, as a confessional Presbyterian Christian and a Minister of the Gospel in the communion of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, I would argue that the recovery of a robust confessional Christianity is the best hope for spiritual renewal and revitalization in American Christianity today.
One potential argument that could be raised against a resurgence of confessional Christianity might be the allegation that confessionalism is parochial, narrow, and anti-ecumenical, and thus opposed to the Christian Faith in its “catholic” expression. Let the reader understand that the word “catholic” is not being used here to mean Roman Catholic. “Catholic” is a perfectly good word which means “universal.” When confessional Protestant Christians recite in the Nicene Creed that “we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church” they are not confessing belief in the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, they are confessing belief in the spiritual unity of all true believers, whatever may be their denominational (or non-denominational) church affiliation. Thus, a potential argument against confessional Christianity might be that it ignores the “catholicity” of Christ’s church. “After all,” it might be objected, “if the identity of confessional Lutherans is so wrapped up in being ‘Lutheran,’ and the identity of confessional Baptists is so wrapped up in being ‘Baptist,’ and the identity of confessional Presbyterians is so wrapped up in being ‘Presbyterian,’ then would that not incline Christians in these various confessional traditions to withdraw from fellowship with each other, in a spirit of sectarianism and separatism, and in opposition to the ‘catholic’ reality of the visible church? And would this not be the opposite of our Lord’s prayer for unity among His followers as that prayer is recorded in John chapter 17?” While there is certainly a danger that confessional Christians could adopt an arrogant attitude of superiority to believers in other confessional (and non-confessional) traditions, and thus could stand aloof from and unnecessarily break off fellowship with true believers in other confessional communions; yet I would suggest that when confessional Christianity is consistently adhered to and faithfully practiced, it actually contributes to and enhances the “catholic” reality of Christ’s church. In fact, I would suggest that it is the non-confessional and independent movements within Christianity which actually tend to undermine true catholicity in the Body of Christ.
Let’s consider the Nicene Creed affirmation, “and we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church”, an affirmation which is confessed by most “confessional” Christians. The church is “one” in that all true believers in Christ are spiritually united in Christ and in a common adherence to the biblical gospel (the good news of salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) proclaimed by the Apostles of our Lord (hence the church is “apostolic” because it is built upon the apostles’ doctrine as recorded in the Word of God). This spiritual unity or oneness is a “catholic” reality, in that it includes true believers in Christ from around the world, and from a wide variety of denominational and independent church traditions. It is possible for confessional Christians to adhere faithfully to the confessional teachings of their own church communion while at the same time recognizing and affirming unity in the gospel and in the Spirit with believers in other traditions.
Along the lines of what is stated above, I regard myself as a confessional Presbyterian. I love the Westminster Standards (The Confession of Faith, The Larger Catechism, and The Shorter Catechism), the doctrinal standards of historic confessional Presbyterianism. In my second ordination vow I affirmed that I sincerely received and adopted the Confession of Faith and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures. I seek to teach and promote the Biblical-Christian Faith that is summarized and expounded in those marvelous documents. But at the same time, I have greatly appreciated confessional documents and theological writings from other confessional traditions. For example, The Belgic Confession of Faith and The Heidelberg Catechism are wonderful statements of Reformed doctrine which I have benefited from reading, even though I have never officially and formally adopted them as my confession of faith. I have benefited from the writings of various Reformed, evangelical, and Lutheran authors. I have enjoyed reading the sermons of Charles Spurgeon, the great Calvinistic Baptist preacher and evangelist. And I am not alone among confessional Presbyterians and Reformed. Furthermore, my confessionalism does not lead me to sever ties with fellow believers from other traditions. I have enjoyed informal Christian fellowship with believers and pastors from a variety of church traditions, and I am sure that this is the case with many of my fellow ministers in the OPC. Thus it is possible to be a “strict” confessional Presbyterian while at the same time recognizing that the boundaries of the universal (“catholic”) Body of Christ extend beyond the bounds of the confessional Presbyterian fold.
Another thing to consider is the fact that when one actually takes the time to read and compare the various historic Protestant confessions and catechisms, one will discover that the historic confessional churches agree on many more points of doctrine than they disagree on. For example, historic Confessional Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Anglicans, and Congregationalists all agree on such doctrines as the full authority and infallibility of the Bible, the Trinity, the full Deity of Christ, His virgin birth, miracles, atonement on the cross, resurrection from the dead, second advent, justification by faith alone, etc. As a confessional Presbyterian I find that I have more in common with Bible believing Baptists and Lutherans and Independents than I do with non-confessional, mainline liberal “Presbyterians.” Now, this is not to say that there are not serious differences among various confessional bodies over important theological issues. Such differences do exist, especially in the areas of how to understand the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, the doctrine of the sacraments, and matters of church government. But nonetheless, most confessional Protestant churches are in agreement when it comes to the basics of the biblical gospel. This gospel unity is evident in the catechisms and confessions of the historic confessional Protestant churches.
So, is it possible to be both “confessional” and “catholic” (in the good sense of that word)? Absolutely yes! When properly understood, confessionalism does not represent a narrow or arrogant stance. Rather, to be “confessional” is to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of past giants in the faith (which is the opposite of the arrogant modern attitude which assumes that our present generation has attained to the pinnacle of historic wisdom, and thus that we have nothing to learn from a bunch of dead guys who lived and wrote hundreds of years ago). Confessional Christians recognize that the Holy Spirit has been active in the church throughout its history, raising up godly men of deep biblical understanding who have penned great catechisms and confessions which concisely summarize the major teachings of God’s Word. Confessionalists recognize that “there is wisdom in many counselors,” and that we have much to learn from the wisdom of faithful ministers, theologians and Bible scholars of the past whom the Holy Spirit has raised up to be teachers in the church. Certainly we do not elevate the historic creeds and confessions to the level of equality with Holy Scripture. The Bible, and the Bible alone, is the only infallible and inerrant written Word of God, and therefore the only infallible rule for faith and practice in the Christian church! But while the men who penned the great confessions of the church were fallible and sinful men who penned fallible documents, they were also (in many cases) the “creme of the crop” of their day in terms of godliness, knowledge of the Bible, and theological acumen. It is the height of folly and arrogance to ignore what they have to teach Christ’s church, and therefore it is anti-“catholic” to be anti-confessional. But as we humble ourselves and learn from the wisdom of past ages as that wisdom is codified in the great creeds, catechisms and confessions of Protestant orthodoxy, we engage in a very “catholic” exercise. And as we embrace and adopt historical confessional Standards (such as the Westminster Standards) as the confession of our own faith, we find ourselves united with a great body of fellow believers, both past and present, who unite together in a common confession of faith and a common witness for Christ and His gospel to a world lost in sin and in desperate need of our Lord’s saving mercy. In my opinion, few things could be more “catholic” than being “confessional.” “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Amen.