Thinking Out Loud About My Confessionalism

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I am a confessional Christian, but what does that mean? One of our theses in our edited book is this:

Thesis 15. Evangelical Calvinism is in continuity with the Reformed confessional tradition. 

Evangelical Calvinism fits into the Reformed family of faith as a participant with the confession-making of the Protestant Reformed tradition. Confessions and catechisms are timely voices that mature in different spaces, and due to various occasions wherein the situation calls for a decisive statement to be made by a body of Christians who submit to biblical authority (sola scriptura). Jack Stotts captures well the Evangelical Calvinist perception of the place that confessions have within the Reformed tradition:

The Reformed sector of the Protestant Reformation is one that holds to what can be called an “open” rather than a “closed” confessional tradition. A closed tradition holds to a particular statement of beliefs to be adequate for all times and places. An open tradition anticipates that what has been confessed in a formally adopted confession takes its place in a confessional lineup, preceded by statements from the past and expectant of more to come as times and circumstances change. Thus, the Reformed tradition—itself a wide river with many currents—affirms that, for it, developing and adopting confessions is indeed an obligation, not an option. These contemporary confessions are recognized as extraordinarily important for a church’s integrity, identity, and faithfulness. But they are also acknowledged to be relative to particular times and places. This “occasional” nature of a Reformed confession is as well a reminder that statements of faith are always subordinate in authority to Scripture. (Jack Stotts in Rohls, Reformed Confessions, xi.) [Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, 451.]

Consonant with the above, I wrote this earlier today, off the cuff, on my Facebook wall:

Doesn’t Barth’s axiom of ‘spirit’ of the Reformed faith V. the ‘letter’ [contained in his book The Theology of the Reformed Confessions] logically conclude in the Free church expression instead of those regulated by Confessions?

Unless of course confessions are to be read as theologically material witnesses to Christ from the norming norm of Scripture and not restrictive repristinated Procrustean beds of ecclesiological identity. But then in what sense, ecclesiologically, does being a confessional Christian make if in fact what the confessions purpose is, is not to identify particular denominations and their shared unity, but instead the confessions, theologically are transdenominational and ecumenically unitive insofar as they terminate in their bearing witness to Jesus? Who is Lord not just over the “Reformed” churches, but Lord of His church which is catholic.

It seems to me that the logical conclusion to the spirit of Reformed confession making, in a sense, dialectically displaces ecclesiological unity in particular, and replaces it with Christological unity among all churches, with Scripture as the norming norm and Christ as the reality. So maybe being truly confessional means less about ecclesiological unity and more about Christological unity, which then shapes the ecclesial reality.

One of the reasons I am being pressed to think further about this, is because we have recently begun attending a Presbyterian church (USA), and while the PC (USA) has much more latitude and has theological voices that are disrupt from traditional Presbyterianism (like it is willing to take more of its shape from a Barthian trajectory), it is still ‘confessionally’ located and derived. And so given my upbringing in the Free church tradition, I am really working through what it means to be ‘confessional’ in an ecclesiological way. Ironically, the only reason I ever became open to a confessional type of orientation was because I started sowing the seeds of Barth’s thought into my life and theological development; I say ironically, because unless I had already been part of the ‘Free church’ mindset, I probably never would have been opened up to Barth. And it is the radically christocentric orientation in Barth that resonated with me so much as I first began to engage with him—he was a breath of fresh air. As a result of reading Barth, I moved also to reading one of his best English speaking students, Thomas Torrance. Torrance is much more traditional and classical in some ways; and Torrance places a much much higher premium on the ecumenical Church councils as interpretively determinative for his Reformed identity, and so he is much more ecclesiologically situated by way of method than is Barth. Barth, in my reading, fits better with my sense of things, especially in his kind of mode of Biblicism, and in regard to his understanding of the sacraments (my friend’s Travis McMaken’s PhD dissertation notwithstanding The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth [Fortress Press, forthcoming 8/13]).

So getting back to confessionalism; I am thinking about how that should serve as an identity-marker for ecclesial identity (and in particular, mine). Maybe my association with confessionalism will have to be understood as a dialectic confessionalist; meaning that my association with a tradition known for confession making (the Reformed trad) is its self-referential mode as a movement of the Holy Spirit among God’s people in the world that is a people who consciously unite around the fact that a confession remains flexible, and open to its reality; and that good confession making does not result in commitment to binding recalcitrant pieces of legislated dogma, but that are ever new and ever fresh as the Spirit continues to impinge Himself over against the church as He brings the church into fresh encounter with the reality of Scripture, who is Jesus Christ. And so confession making is something as Rohls above notes, that is constantly capable of being revamped and renewed by a commitment to the living Word, and not an ultimate commitment to confessions and creeds (except insofar as those creeds and confessions serve as proximate placeholders as points where the Spirit moved afresh in the past in concert with His present movement in the church today).

Can you tell I am torturedly attempting to think this through? Good, cause I am. And I thought I would bring you along for the ride.

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One thought on “Thinking Out Loud About My Confessionalism

  1. Please forgive the extreme simplicity of this thought.

    Churches presence Christ in places. Confession articulates the ontological ground of life in Christ in those places, even if, like the Scots Confession or the Thirty-Nine Articles, it is not explicitly about the places. Congregations are less placed than presbyteries, and presbyteries are less “placed” than dioceses; their structures of ministry and use of confessions reflect this. Confessions are less a site for personal agonies as they are more placed.

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