Who Needs Confessions of Faith?

A Reformed and Ecumenical Response

Why do we have confessions of faith? There are many reasons. Some are not so obvious. But for Protestants the first and most important reason is simple: We have confessions not because we want to say more than the Bible says. We have them because we do not want to say less. Confessions arise as a result of a crisis in the church that requires a decision to be made. They emerge when the truth of the gospel is consistently contested at a specific point (or points) over a sustained period of time. Confessions, in other words, emerge out of persistent conflict over what the Scriptures teach about the Christian faith and living out that faith.

For example, the church from early on was confronted within and without by groups who denied that God had really assumed human flesh and died on the cross. They believed that Jesus Christ did not really assume human flesh or die on the cross, nor, as the Son of God, could he. To think that he did was offensive, indeed, “foolishness to the Greeks,” who had definite ideas about what deity could and could not do, which is why many said he only seemed or appeared to assume human flesh and die on the cross. These people were known as docetists, which derives from a Greek word that means “to seem” or “to appear.” 

So the church was forced to confess the truth of the apostolic witness and refute this false teaching.This is why the Apostles’ Creed is not content to say that Jesus Christ was “crucified,” but that he was “crucified, dead, and buried.” You might think saying he was crucified was sufficient. After all, if you get crucified, especially by the Romans, you are dead. And if you are dead, one way or another, you usually get buried. But the creed emphasizes the point that he was “crucified, dead, and buried,” as if to say: “Do you get it? Don’t miss the point. He was dead, not just a little bit dead or almost dead, but really dead.” The Creed confronts other misunderstandings and offenses to Greek sensibilities such as when it affirms “the resurrection of the body.”

The Creed eventually served practical purposes as well. It provided a brief summary of the faith and served as a baptismal formula for catechumens. Luther said: “Christian truth could not possibly be put into a shorter and clearer statement,” which is why he recommended Christians say it often, especially in times of temptation. Saying it can clear the mind and give one perspective. But the basic reason the Creed emerged was to witness to the truth of the gospel in face of conflict with falsehood, unbelief, and persistent questioning. The history of dogma suggests every line of the Creed was contested. Every phrase was in one way or another challenged. Thus, the Creed’s primary purpose was to bear witness to the truth about God. 

The Apostles’ Creed did not emerge as some sort of clever marketing strategy. It did not emerge because church leaders thought the time had come when it would be useful to narrow things down a bit and have a short and sweet summary of the faith that might appeal to the masses. Nor did it occur to early church leaders that they were smart enough to come up with one. They knew the Christian faith was far too rich, complex, and beautiful to be reduced to such a truncated little summary. Certainly it proved useful and is to this day. But the Creed emerged not out of convenience or for the sake of utility but out of necessity. It emerged because the truth of the gospel was at stake and the church was compelled to confess.

So also did the Nicene, Niceno-Constantinopolitan, and Athanasian Creeds, the Chalcedonian Definition and other creeds emerge. Each emerged out of conflict. Each was born of blood, pain, and strife. Each emerged because the truth of God was at stake, the truth about God’s being and act in Jesus Christ was persistently contested and, therefore, the truth of the gospel was stake. And lest we think the Nicene Creed was really much to do about nothing or about arcane, abstract, speculative metaphysical theories that are irrelevant as far as “real ministry” is concerned, note in the middle of it the phrase “for us and for our salvation.” The church recognized that nothing could be more relevant to pastoral ministry than understanding and confessing who God is and what he has done for us in Christ.

Christians, of course, were not the first people to talk about God. What Arius and others said about God made a lot of sense to a lot of people. They too had their ideas about God and what he could and could not do. But at the end of the day what Arius and many other pious-minded people said did not make sense of what Scripture says. The church recognized it might seem like only an iota’s worth of difference to some, but the gospel really does stand or fall on the truth of who God is and what he has done in Jesus Christ and if we go wrong here we go wrong everywhere. So in order not to say less than Scripture says, the church realized it had to say more. And there have been many times since when the church has been tempted to say less.

Such was the case in the 16th century. The Reformation was born of a rediscovery of Scripture’s message and authority. In 1516 Erasmus published a Greek New Testament that came into the hands of scholars trained in “the new learning” of the humanist tradition. These scholars quickly realized that they had been taught many things by the church that were not true, according to Scripture. Some were over weighty matters, such as the doctrine of justification, which had been based on poor translations of the Greek in the Latin Vulgate. Other false teachings seemed to have been based on nothing but pure speculation or opinion, yet had been codified in canon law. And do you know what a few of the Reformers did with the church’s canon law? They burned it. It probably felt good to burn it. But that is not how the Reformation was born. 

What Does it Mean to be “Protestant”?

Contrary to popular belief, the word “Protestant” does not derive from the English word “protest.” It derives from the Latin word, protestari, which means to publicly declare, testify, profess, or confess. In 1529 this word became associated with the movement of the 16th century known as the Reformation because the act of confessing the faith was so central to it. Christians in Europe began to confess the faith anew and write their confessions down. They invited others to do the same. This is how the Protestant Reformation was born.

Why did the Reformers put so much time and energy into writing confessions? What did they think they were doing? They did not write them because they wanted to start a new church. On the contrary, they insisted they were committed to the old one, the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.When asked, “Where was the church before Luther?” it is said the early Protestants replied: “Where was your face before you washed it?”[1] Yet as difficult as it may be for us to imagine, the Reformers did not write confessions primarily because they wanted to reform the church.

The Reformers wrote confessions because they believed the truth of the gospel was at stake. It was not because they wanted a better, more informed, effective, efficient, organized, and disciplined church. Sure, they wanted the church to be all this and more. But the primary reason they wrote confessions was because as they studied the Bible they were awakened to the rich, manifold, and compelling truth of the gospel. More and more they realized that the gospel was being vigorously and persistently contested at various points and had been for years. So they were compelled to confess. Their reason for confessing was the same as the church fathers. They confessed not because they wanted to say more than what the Bible says, but because they did not want to say less.

This tells us something basic about what confessions are for. Their primary purpose is not pedagogical (to give people something they can remember). Nor is it therapeutic (to give people something to hold on to) neither is it evangelistic (to give people something they can share with outsiders) nor is it legislative or regulatory (to hold insiders accountable or in line). Confessions serve all these purposes and more. But to fail to understand their primary purpose, or to step over it quickly and move on to more pragmatic reasons, is to misunderstand their reason for being. It is to subvert their authority and drain the life-blood out of them. 

No doubt pragmatic reasons became more prominent the more established Protestants became in Europe. The emphasis of 16th century Reformers was to “confess their beliefs,” whereas the emphasis of 17th century Protestant scholastics was to “believe their confessions.” Both are necessary, of course. But where the latter took priority, the authority of confessions was gradually undermined and their power was lost.

The Reformers confessed their beliefs. Confronted by persistent unbelief, superstition, and heresy, they realized that if they did not they would betray not only the rich, manifold, and compelling truth of the gospel but the very honor and majesty of God. Confessing the faith was not first and foremost about protecting or preserving their little flocks. It was about the goodness and glory of the one true Shepherd whose voice they heard in the pages of the Bible. The result was a passionate outpouring and promulgation of a multitude of confessions that changed the world.

The Reformed Scripture Principle

Yet one can detect from the start differences between the way the two great branches of the Reformation, the Lutherans and the Reformed, approached the business of writing confessions. The Lutherans wrote only seven confessions whereas the Reformed wrote nearly a hundred in the first one hundred years![2] Luther and Melanchthon wrote most of the Lutheran confessions whereas Reformed confessions were written by many authors over an extended (indeed, indefinite) period. This reflects a different understanding of their purpose.

The Lutherans decided in 1580 to put their seven confessions alongside the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds into something called The Book of Concord. When they did, the Reformed expressed disappointment, if not indignation: “A book of what? Concord? It may look like concord to you, but not to us. We want concord with you, to be sure.  But we need it with Scripture first. You folk think you’ve got it now, but there are passages you’re not paying enough attention to. Yet now you seem to think you’ve got the truth of the gospel in your pocket, all wrapped up tidy in your little Book of Concord, as if the work of biblical interpretation was now done, as if the task of critical reflection was now finished, as if the call to be reformed continually by the Word of God was now over, as if the voice of the Holy Spirit was now silent! But now that you’ve got it nailed down so well, how did ‘it,’ the truth of the gospel, become so tame, so manageable for you?” 

Surely in my effort to channel our Reformed ancestors I exaggerate here, but not much.[3] When the Lutherans effectively closed their canon of conviction, the Reformed reacted against something they saw as dangerous, namely, a tendency among Lutherans to absolutize their confessions as timeless expressions of Biblical truth, and treat them as if they had final, absolute, and unconditionally binding authority.[4] More serious is what it implied about the freedom and inexhaustible riches of God’s Word and our ability to interpret it so finally and definitively. The Reformed were not as confident about our ability to do so.

They were committed to the “Reformed Scripture Principle,” the conviction that nothing can compete with the final, absolute, binding authority of Scripture, the belief that no standard, competing insight, or interpretation can rival or stand alongside the Word of God, that nothing has the same rank, dignity, validity, or authority. The Reformed saw their confessions, therefore, as always human, partial, and provisional, and as such only relatively binding as compared to the absolute binding authority of Holy Scripture. They were careful not to usurp Scripture’s authority or bind consciences to anything that might serve as a substitute or even close second to it. And if you have any doubts about this, read Calvin’s Institutes, Book IV, Ch. 9 on “Councils and Their Authority.”  

Subordinate Standards Are Still Standards

Before concluding that Calvin was wrong or that all such qualifications are simply relativistic equivocations that vitiated the authority of confessions from the start, make no mistake: the Reformed saw their confessions as binding too. Because they saw them as human, partial, and provisional does not mean they are not authoritative. They may be only relatively binding, but they are binding. They may be only subordinate standards, but they are standards. The fact that the average lifespan of Calvin’s students who served as pastors in France was only a year or so is a pretty good indication their confessional commitments were firm. 

Confessions for the Reformed are commentaries, human interpretations of Scripture that are “merely provisional, improvable and replaceable offerings.”[5] A confession is thus authoritative only to the extent that it points us to an obligation imposed upon us by the truth of Scripture. But here is the thing: when it does, then despite its human limitations, it speaks in a way that is as authoritative, binding, and obligatory as the truth of Scripture itself. How can that happen? God can make it happen. God can strike a straight blow with a crooked stick. Most preachers know this happens and when it does it happens despite their humanity not because of it.

One might think believing that nothing should compete with the absolute binding authority of Scripture would have made the Reformed reticent to write confessions. But it actually freed them to write more. It also freed them to confess their faith about a wider range of matters they saw incumbent to the faith. From the start they insisted confessions have to do with faith and life. Reformed confessions tend not to separate faith and practice, but stipulate specific ethical demands. For instance, two of the Ten Theses of Berne of 1528––one of our earliest confessions––have to do with marriage. It has been said that for the Reformed “the Confession is not table talk, the mere voicing of opinions, nor edification which imposes no obligation, the expression of nice religious sentiments.”[6] Reformed confessions tend to get into the weeds of everyday life. 

What does all this say about confessing the faith in the Reformed tradition? It says at our best we have tried to acknowledge God’s claim upon our whole life, but we have also been sober about the limits of our judgments. It says we have tried to be open to a fresh new hearing of the Word of God. Sometimes this has made us bold. We have been quicker than most to write confessions. We have been less willing to avoid concrete decisions and obligations imposed on us by the Word of God. In refusing to separate faith and life, we have also not been silent in the political and social realm. Our critiques of society and culture have been sharper than most and we have been often vigilant in affirming truth and rejecting falsehood and injustice in public life. 

What accounts for this vigilance and vitality in our confessional life? Historically, it has had to do with our engagement of Scripture. At our best we have studied the Bible seriously and have been open to a fresh new hearing of the Word of God. But before patting ourselves on the back, it must also be said that in being open to a fresh new hearing of the Word of God, we have sometimes listened to other spirits, to voices other than the Good Shepherd’s. Sometimes we have simply listened to our own voices or to voices that have more to do with the spirit of the times than the Holy Spirit. As a result, we have wrestled with at least three basic temptations over the last several centuries. 

Sometimes Saying More is Saying Less

The first temptation has been to say more than the Bible says for no good reason. Saying more is the risk of every confession, of course. But since silence can be a greater sin than speaking, our tradition has often taken this risk. Yet sometimes our attempts to confess have been premature. We have spoken before we had a clear, clarifying, or necessary word from the Lord. Sometimes we have been guilty of what Luther called “apple-tying.” Apple-tying means attaching one’s own statement of belief to a confession and then saying, “See here, this belief really grows out of Scripture or is a necessary commitment drawn from it.” But it does not really grow out of Scripture nor is it a necessary commitment drawn from it. Rather it is tied on only to make it look like it grows out of Scripture.

We have many examples of this in our history, such as when in seeking to defend Scripture’s authority the Helvetic Consensus Formula of 1675 claimed that the Masoretic texts of the Old Testament were inspired, including the vowel points, even though scholars had begun to demonstrate that the vowel points were not added until after the 8th century! Such overreaching proved disastrous, undermining both the church and its confessions.[7] Other self-inflicted wounds in our history show we have paid a price for saying more than Scripture says notbecause we have ignored the latest science, but because we have drawn conclusions too hastily from it, while ignoring the whole counsel of Scripture. In saying more we have not only said less, but we have gotten ourselves into real trouble. This, of course, has not always been immediately apparent.

Reformed confessions have focused in recent decades on what is popularly known as “social justice.” On the basis of God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ, the Confession of 1967, for example, addresses the sins at root in “racial discrimination,” “enslaving poverty,” “anarchy in sexual relationships,” etc. Given our tradition’s commitment to acknowledging God’s claim upon our whole life and the depth and breadth of these sins in our culture as well as in our own churches, it is hard to see how we could remain silent in face of them.

Yet other confessions, declarations, or statements from Reformed theologians in recent years have addressed many complex social ills. Claiming to be ‘prophetic,’ many tend toward simple moralizing. Some condemn the political or cultural ideologies of others but not their own. Others focus on the sins of past generations (often long renounced) while ignoring what they saw as sin. The recent Sarasota Statement of the “NEXT Church,” for example, denounces bigotry, racism, nationalism, classism, ideology, hatred, brutality, etc., yet ignores the sexual anarchy that C-67 condemns, and says nothing about abortion, euthanasia, divorce, drug abuse,violent crime or other threats to society and the sanctity of life.[8]

Granted, the church has been too often silent when she should have spoken. But the church is not equipped or commissioned to speak about everything that is wrong in the world. Nor is the world likely to listen when the church behaves no differently (“I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed,” Nietzsche said). Yet the church must continually weigh when to speak or remain silent, and face the temptation of saying more in order not to say less. 

The Westminster divines knew about this temptation and said that councils “may err, and many have erred” and “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith and worship.” Moreover, they said: “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”  On the one hand, they warn against speculation beyond Scripture, on the other hand, they talk about “good and necessary consequence deduced from Scripture.” The problem has been deciding the difference. One man’s speculation has been another’s “good and necessary consequence,” and vice versa.

Yet what about Westminster itself? Does it go beyond what can or should be necessarily deduced from Scripture? Presbyterians have debated this before the ink on it in 1647 was dry. Most have said that it does, in one way or another. Many have said that it says too much or too little about many things, which is why affirming its “system of doctrine” rather than strict subscriptionism was long regarded as sufficient for American Presbyterians. But Westminster says so much so well that the thought of anything better could hardly be imagined for another two centuries by most Presbyterians, and for good reason.

Having watched the Reformation flourish around them yet being stifled in England for 130 years, when English Presbyterians finally got the chance to write a confession they had learned a lot about how the faith was being misunderstood and contested, and were determined to set things straight and nail a lot down. The Westminster Confession, as John Leith writes, “states the faith with a perceptiveness of issues, a deftness of nuance, a clarity and precision of definition, a chasteness and economy of words that has seldom been equaled, much less surpassed. It combines in one coherent statement pure doctrine and ethics, theory and practice. In one sense it does the job too well, for its adherents begin to think of it as the final statement of the faith,” which suggests another temptation.[9]

Standing Firm Does Not Mean Standing Still

Whether between the Old Side or New Side, the New School or Old School, nearly all the conflicts of American Presbyterians throughout the 18th and 19th centuries had to do in one way or another with the adequacy of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Some, like the Cumberland Presbyterians, started new denominations because of it. Others, especially in New England, claimed they left the Church or the faith entirely because of it. But the fact that it served to hold so many different people together for so long through so many trials and tribulations is testimony to its remarkable strength. Probably no document had a greater influence on the founding of America.[10] Nevertheless, voices calling for its revision, if not replacement, were raised before the Civil War, increased after the reunion of the New and Old Schools in the northern Presbyterian Church in 1869, grew louder in the 1880s, and reached a crescendo in 1889.

The main concerns were over its doctrine of double predestination, its labeling of the Pope as Antichrist, its reference to dying “elect infants” being saved and silence about the rest, its refusal to affirm God’s love for all, its insufficient attention to the Holy Spirit and silence about the Church’s mission to the world. Old Princeton stalwarts, such as B.B. Warfield, vigorously opposed confessional revision not because they were insensitive to these concerns but because of the precedent they feared it would set and the danger that it would undermine the confession’s integrity.

Fearing such debates might filter down to the southern Presbyterian Church, the aged archdefender of the South’s “peculiar institution,” Robert Louis Dabney defended the Confession of Faith in 1897 on the grounds that it “relies upon Holy Scripture, not upon metaphysics, to support its positions. Nor does it borrow for the moulding of its system the shame of any human school of theology. … the structure which is built exclusively upon this is, like it, permanent.” Therefore, “It is for this reason that the Confession will need no amendment until the Bible needs to be amended.”[11]

Is it not fair to suggest that something basic about the Reformed tradition has been lost here? Is it not fair to say that our sinfulness and the limits of our ability to interpret God’s Word properly and fully have not been accounted for here? More importantly, have not the inexhaustible riches and freedom of God’s Word been forgotten here, as if the Holy Spirit had nothing more to teach us from Scripture and we had nothing more to learn, at least of any real or “necessary consequence”?  

Whereas the first temptation is to say more than Scripture says because one fears it really does not say enough, the second temptation is to say that Scripture says enough but goes ahead and says more anyway; and having said more it is confident that one has said all there is to say. Whereas the first stems from an inordinate restlessness and a lack of confidence in the ability of God’s Word to make itself clear to us in time, the second from an inordinate peace and self-confidence in our ability to interpret Scripture once and for all times. Both stem from pride and impatience, from a lack of attentiveness to and curiosity about God’s Word.

The debate over confessional revision dominated the northern Church throughout the last quarter of the 19th century. Advocates of revision such as George Stewart, President of Auburn Seminary, said the Westminster Confession did not represent the faith of the Church today and “We are not taken seriously when we affirm that it does.”[12] When the final vote was taken in 1902, it passed overwhelmingly. Chapters on “The Holy Spirit” and “The Love of God and Missions” were added and other revisions made. While it was a major defeat to opponents of revision, some knew it could have been much worse as there was more than one powerful force in the Church at the time driving it.

Old Princeton stalwart, Francis Patton, argued in 1889 that confessional revision was being driven not only by liberals, but by “Comprehensionists who are ready in the interests of Catholicity to see the Confession superseded by a shorter creed, or its doctrinal area greatly contracted.” Announcing that “denominationalism” had come to an end (Does this sound familiar?), they were asking, “May it not be that we have outgrown the era of Confessionalism? May it not be that a shorter creed written under the inspiration of the synthetic and irenic conditions of today would be better suited to the practical demands of our aggressive Church?” Here a third temptation in our tradition is suggested.

Essential Tenets Are Not Enough

Who were these “Comprehensionists”? What did they want? Why did it pose such a threat in Patton’s view? They were the Evangelicals who, having assumed that “denominations have outlived their usefulness,” sought to adopt for the sake of unity, authenticity, and utility a short statement of faith or list of essential tenets, that would “strike out everything but what is common to evangelical Christians” and, thus, appeal to more people. Patton warned: “It is the demand for Christian unity; it is the anti-confessional drift; it is the growing spirit of comprehension that is giving momentum to the movement” of “revolution” that now risks “throwing the Confession overboard altogether.”

Was Patton overreacting here or was this a real threat? “The Comprehensionist party,” with their “minimizing tendency,” he said, “suppose that by timely concessions in unessential points they can satisfy the craving for change,” but they are mistaken. Patton did not deny: “the Confession could be improved. Some of the space now given to the Pope might very well be devoted to that modern compound of Hegel and Schleiermacher known as the doctrine of the Christian consciousness.” He admitted: “We are living through a period of theological unrest; but there is … no dogmatic crisis upon us that calls for the reconstruction of theology and new definition.” Patton could not imagine the upheaval about to take place over the next quarter century between the Portland Deliverance of 1892 and Auburn Affirmation of 1924. But he knew no mere statement of fundamentals would overcome it. Perhaps affirming openly contested beliefs might be helpful in an emergency situation, but not as a serious long-term solution. Against the rising tide of unbelief, a Church willing to affirm only a brief, attenuated statement of faith could not survive. “Can such a Church,” he asked, “prove a breakwater to the floods of infidelity?”[13]  

The temptation Patton was seeking to address has been around a long time. American Evangelicals within mainstream theological traditions have been especially susceptible to it. In order to bring more people into the church and fulfill other pragmatic ends, Evangelicals have often adopted shorter, simpler statements of faith. Within mainstream traditions they have often done so in the name of unity and by embracing a generic Pan-Protestant vision. Patton’s plea to them was: This is not enough. To paraphrase, his plea was: Don’t lose your deep-rooted theological identity. Don’t abandon your rich confessional heritage. Don’t neglect your theological inheritance. Don’t exchange your birthright of coherent, systematic thinking or system of doctrine, for a mess (or soup du jour) of evangelical essentials. There is a war on. Affirming essential tenets is not enough. That’s like taking a pocketknife to a gunfight. Sooner or later you will lose and it will be ugly.

Naming essential tenets may be necessary, but they are not a sufficient safeguard against the many threats and counter forces within and without the church today. They do not provide pastors or sessions enough theological warrant or authority to defend against the thousands of false ideas and practices that come up in most congregations on a routine basis in America today. There is simply too much that can go wrong in the church to leave pastors and sessions so defenseless. Too much has already gone wrong in the church for us to neglect the wisdom and witness of those who have gone before us. Likewise, guiding principles, core values, affinity groups, and best practices may be helpful, but they do not have the power or authority to guide leaders through the most stubborn realities of congregational life or the deepest levels of conflict. 

Patton predicted weakening confessional authority in the church would leave a vacuum that would be filled by a stronger emphasis on “polity or the sacraments.” What he did not predict and could not have imagined was the extent to which this vacuum would be filled by personality and the rise of personality-driven ministries throughout the 20th century. Of course, even under formal confessional authority, personality-driven ministries can easily go rogue, but without it they often reign unchecked and go completely off the rails.

Pastors, sessions, and congregations need to be bound together by greater, deeper, firmer, more time-tested bonds of fellowship than brief statements of faith provide. Essential tenets are too thin. We need a thicker description, a deeper, fuller understanding of the gospel and the Christian life. We need confessions. Essential tenets state conclusions whereas confessions tend to say more about how we make them. Essential tenets state points of origin and destination, whereas confessions tend to speak also about the journey and include vital information about the road. Essential tenets are like signposts whereas confessions are more like maps. Sometimes there is no substitute for having a map. Even an old and imperfect one can be better than many clear, bright, freshly painted, accurate signs.

The problem with naming essential tenets is that it can imply all other beliefs may not be. And the church never knows what may turn out to be essential. Who knew fifty years ago what would be contested today? Who knows what will be contested tomorrow? Luther said: “What right, then, have we to make little of doctrine? No matter how nonessential a point of doctrine may seem, if slighted it may prove the gradual disintegration of the truths of our salvation.”[14]

So having described the temptations of repristinating conservatism, liberal progressivism, and evangelical pragmatism, is there a way beyond them? Is there a way beyond the Puritan re-enactors of our day who pretend as if the questions raised in the 17th century were the final questions––despite all evidence to the contrary––and who talk at times as if the Bible is a pretty good commentary on the Westminster Confession? Is there a way beyond the pious platitudes of the progressives, the ecclesial Trotskyites, who think “always being reformed” means “the revolution never ends”? Is there a way beyond evangelical entrepreneurs who, so focused on sucking people in the front door of the church, seem so clueless as to why so many are blown out the back door so unchanged, why singing “Just as I Am,” they came as they were, and left as they came?

Misunderstanding “Mere Christianity”

There may be no way around these temptations, but there is a way through them. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis expressed concern that readers might “suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions––as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.” He explained ‘mere’ Christianity “is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms.” Lewis said it was his desire to bring readers “into that hall.” “But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.”

Lewis’s analogy is not perfect, but it does address the false idea that one can live the Christian life for long in an abstract, general way rather than in a concrete, particular way. Sooner or later faithfulness will demand that concrete decisions be made and a specific room be chosen, Lewis believed. Yet he warns “one of the rules common to the whole house” is: “When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them.” Lewis understood the dangers of doctrinaire confessionalism as well.

But how do we avoid the dangers of cool doctrinal indifferentism on one hand and supercilious doctrinaire confessionalism on the other, between vague, loose creedless Christianity on one side and nit-picking, gnat-straining doctrinal precisionism on the other? Or, to follow Lewis’s analogy, how do we know if we are spending too much time in the hall or in our rooms? How deep can conversations go in a hall, anyway? And who says Christians living in different rooms ought not to sit down and eat together? This is not what the Bible says and is surely where Lewis’s analogy breaks down, as I suspect Lewis knew. Still, the question persists: How do we maintain our particular, concrete confessional identity without compromising our commitment to the church’s catholicity? 

I think this is one of the great challenges the Reformed-Presbyterian family faces today, especially in America and not least for many readers of this journal. It is not an easy challenge. Nor are we the only theological tradition facing it. However, I think one step toward meeting it is to recognize that it is not a new challenge for us. American Presbyterians have been wrestling with it since the Civil War. Patton and Old Princeton were wrestling with it at the end of the 19th century.

By then, however, “Old School Presbyterians” with their concerns about doctrinal integrity were on the ropes whereas “New School Presbyterians” with their concerns about missions, evangelism, social reform, and ecumenism were on the rise in power and influence. Yet there were still many Presbyterians in America in the early 20th century wary of the Pan-Protestant vision. Many wanted to be truly ecumenical but also genuinely Reformed. It turns out, there were Reformed folk around the world who wanted the same thing.

On Being Reformed and Ecumenical

After his break with liberalism and at the beginning of his theological revolution, Karl Barth reclaimed his Reformed heritage and studied Reformed confessions as carefully as anyone in the 20th century.[15] He never shared the vague and illusory Pan-Protestant vision of Liberals or most Evangelicals. And though he was one of the severest critics of the ecumenical movement, he probably contributed to it more than any other 20th century theologian. Barth did not think there was any contradiction in being genuinely Reformed and truly ecumenical. Nor did he think loyalty to the one true church and one’s own particular confessional tradition was a matter of balance or finding a “middle way,” as a good Anglican might think, as if we had access to some standpoint from above or outside where we could assess how close we may or may not be to it.

For Barth the way to true ecumenicity begins not by doubting or criticizing one’s confessional tradition, but by honoring it, as one honors one’s father and mother, according to the Fifth Commandment. It begins by trusting that the same Spirit who spoke to the prophets and apostles spoke through them to our forebears in their particular time and place, and that our forebears listened and responded obediently as best they could. It begins by taking their witness seriously and trusting that the same Spirit who spoke to them can speak to us in our particular time and place and that we should, therefore, take them and ourselves seriously as responsible hearers of God’s Word. 

Being ecumenical for Barth begins not by dialing back our confessional convictions but by owning them. It begins by trusting that the misunderstandings, dangers, threats, and temptations to the faith that our fathers and mothers faced were real and still are, and that their responses to them are still, until better instructed, valid for us, and not only for us but for all Christians. Until better instructed, we sincerely receive and adopt their confessions as our own, trusting that the Holy Spirit led them to say, concretely at specific points, “Here we stand, we can do no other,” and we humbly offer these confessions to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This is the first step in being truly ecumenical.

Barth warned that they are in “flight” from the unity of the church who “try to bring unity nearer by ceasing to take themselves seriously [as hearers of God’s Word], by letting slip the special responsibility which they have, by denying and renouncing their special character for the sake of internal or external peace, by trying to exist in a kind of nondescript Christianity. The way to a self-chosen supra-confessionalism is not by a long shot the way to the unity of the Church, but the way to a new separation, the particular feature of which will be its featurelessness as a Church.”[16]

Of course, there are always great risks. At a meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in 1925, when many were clamoring for a new Pan-Protestant creed, Barth elaborated some of these risks. In an address even J.G. Machen commended, Barth insisted: “The ‘particular company’ must itself become the ‘ecumenical company’ before it can agree honestly in an ecumenical creed.” The way to true ecumenicity, in other words, is by taking the scandal of particularity seriously: not only God’s, but our own. It is by confessing with our forebears in our own particular time and place, “Here we stand, we can do no other” that Christians find each other in the one true church. Yet Barth adds: “We must have found one another mutually, not just in a sentimental brotherly love but in the criminality common to them and to us, and in the pardon for criminals common to them and to us––exactly as pardoned criminals recognize one another.”[17]

Here is the point: Anyone who is proud of being a Presbyterian (especially anyone who is proud of having chosen to be) does not know or has forgotten, literally, the first thing about being one. Being a Presbyterian is not about growing up in or joining some exclusive club. It is about being caught in the criminality of concrete confessional commitments. It is about being moved to confess the truth openly in all its scandalous particularity. It is about standing up and confessing with others, “Yes, we are guilty. We dare to say more than Scripture says here but only because we do not dare to say less. Here we stand, we can do no other.”

“But why can you ‘do no other’?” some might ask. Because true confessions of faith are made not because we want to or think we should, but only because we must.[18] We do not make them on the basis of whether they will have an effect or because we wish to reform the church. True confession is made without regard to consequences or results, but because God’s glory and honor are at stake and the truth of the gospel has been made so manifest by the Holy Spirit that if we do not “the very stones themselves will cry out.”  

True confessions of faith are not made in order to make ‘statements’ about this or that issue that arises in the church or world. The church is not really authorized to make statements about anything. Rather the church is commanded to confess. Making a statement of faith may appear more humble than making a confession of faith (and probably implies that we do not mean it as much), but often enough it betrays a false humility and an unwillingness to take ourselves and our forebears seriously as fully responsible hearers of God’s Word.

So although we may have no warrant for being proud of being Presbyterian, we do have important reasons for taking our tradition seriously. Its understanding of the covenant, Christology, faith, freedom, providence, the relationship of justification and sanctification, worship, the church, the sacraments, the Christian life, and many other doctrines, have served to enrich and strengthen the church’s witness. “You do not have to be Reformed and Presbyterian to be a Christian,” as John Leith said, “but the one, holy, apostolic, catholic church would be greatly impoverished, as well as our public life without this tradition.” “No one tradition exhausts the meaning of Christian faith, and every tradition has its share of false starts, mistaken judgments, and betrayals of its own best convictions. The Reformed tradition has been one of the authentic and powerful ways in which Christian people have lived out their faith.”[19]

Confessing the faith, however, is not about celebrating our heritage or highlighting our distinctiveness. It is not about our preferences or likes. Nor is it about safety or gatekeeping. The primary purpose of a confession is not defensive. By taking our tradition seriously there is always a risk of becoming tribalistic. But confessing the faith is not primarily about our identity. It is about the God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.

Much can be learned in open and honest ecumenical dialogue and, historically, the Reformed have often played a leading role in it. But open and honest means not dialing back or doubling down on our commitments, but rather simply laying our cards on the table face up. Of course, there are many matters of indifference about which Christians of good character and in good faith can and will disagree. But, as Barth said, “Where the question of truth is sacrificed to that of love and peace, we are not on the way to the one Church.”[20]

To be sure, we have a responsibility to revise, amend, or replace our confessions of faith if they are incorrect, insufficient, or unfaithful according to Scripture. There are formal criteria for doing so. Suffice it to say: There are reasons we have a Second Helvetic Confession and not simply a First. There are reasons some confessions still speak and others have been set aside. But before we remove fence posts we ought to find out for sure why they were put there. We may discover we are not as removed from the dangers, temptations, or conflicts of our forebears as we thought or as clear about the gospel and we need now as much as ever to sincerely receive and adopt the confessions they wrote as our own.

For Those Who Want It Simple

I suspect few having read this far need to be convinced that they need confessions of faith. But I know many who remain unconvinced. They ask: “Why can’t we just keep everything simple? Why can’t we just have the Bible?” Here is my answer: “You can. So long as you don’t ask too many questions about the Bible, so long as you are not really interested in talking with people who do, you can. So long as you are content to be in a church where everyone claims merely to register his or her opinion, so long as you never feel forced to make concrete decisions after praying or reading the Bible or want to learn from others who have, you can. So long as you are not concerned that you might misunderstand what the Bible says or need not learn from others who have been, you can. So long as you think your church has never gone wrong and you believe everything that comes out of the mouths of preachers or other leaders, you can. But this is not the type of people we have been. Yet, tell me, where do you think we would be today, where would the church be today, if Martin Luther and his friends had not confessed their faith 500 years ago?


The Reverend Richard E. Burnett, Ph.D., is the Executive Director and Managing Editor of Theology Matters


[1] John H. Leith, The Church: A Believing Fellowship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1981), 38.

[2] See James T. Dennison, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, I–IV (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–2014).

[3] Robert D. Linder, “The French Calvinist Response to the Formula of Concord,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 19:1 (Winter) 1982, 18–37.

[4] “The Lutherans tended to absolutize their Confessions as timeless expressions of Biblical truth, whereas the Reformed Church looks upon its Confessions as historically conditioned and valid only until such time as they should be superseded by a newer and perhaps better Confession” Arthur Cochrane, The Church’s Confession Under Hitler (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 171.

[5] Reformed confessions “were fundamentally intended as merely provisional, improvable and replaceable offerings, never as an authority, as the ‘form and rule’ that the Formula of Concord found in the Augsburg Confession” Karl Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, trans. Darrell L. Guder and Judith J. Guder (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 24.

[6] Karl Barth, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God, trans. J.L.M. Haire and Ian Henderson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939), 182.

[7] “By 1725 all of the Swiss cities except Berne and Zurich had set it aside. The great confessional period of the Reformed churches was at an end” Richard Muller, “Reformed Confessions and Catechisms” in Dictionary of Historical Theology, ed. Trevor Hart (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 484f.

[8] http://nextchurch.net/new-statement-faith/.

[9] John H. Leith, Assembly at Westminster: Reformed Theology in the Making (Atlanta: John Knox, 1973), 111.

[10] James C. Goodloe, “The Influence of the Westminster Confession of Faith on American Culture” in Calvin Studies VIII, ed. John H. Leith, Davidson, NC, 43–57.

[11] Robert L. Dabney, “The Doctrinal Contents of the Confession” in Memorial Volume of the Westminster Assembly 1647–1897, ed. Francis Beattie (Richmond: The Presbyterian Committee on Publication, 1897), 94–95.

[12] George Stewart, “Entirely New Standards Are Demanded At The Present Time: Why There Should Be A New Creed: What Should Be Its Form” in The Creed Revision (New York: Presbyterian Union, 1901), 6–10. 

[13] Francis Patton, “The Revision of The Confession of Faith,” Independent, Dec. 5, 1889, 14–16. 

[14] Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, trans. Theodore Graebner (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 114.

[15] See above The Theology of the Reformed Confessions.

[16] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1:678.

[17] Karl Barth, “The Desirability and Possibility of a Universal Reformed Creed” in Theology and Church, trans. L.P. Smith (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 125; J.G. Machen, “Karl Barth and ‘The Theology of Crisis’” in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D.G. Hart (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 539.

[18] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2:624.   

[19] John H. Leith, Fund for the Explication and Application of Reformed Theology; An Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, revised edition (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 7.

[20] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1:680–1.

Richard Burnett
Richard Burnett
The Reverend Richard E. Burnett, Ph.D., is the Executive Director and Managing Editor of Theology Matters.

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