You may be wondering: “Okay, so, what does it mean to be a confessing/confessional Christian in the 21st century?” In my “About” section, I give a brief and concise definition of confessionalism: “To be ‘confessing’ or ‘confessional’ means to adhere and subscribe to certain orthodox doctrines that have been a part of the historic Christian faith over the past 2,000 years.” I would also add the clause, “…and to belong to a particular confessional community”.
I’m personally pretty satisfied with that definition. But to be fair, such a brief and somewhat pithy definition deserves some further explanation, clarification, and nuance. For now, I will say that there are two basic components to being a confessional Christian: 1) a past, historical component, and 2) a present, cultural-contextual component. This present blog post will be concerned with the first.
Romans 10:9 (ESV) says–“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” From its inception, to be a Christian has always included a confession of faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ (i.e. who He is and what He has done). It’s not simply an intellectual acknowledgement, but a statement about our core convictions and our identity as followers of Christ.
In the context of the verse above, confession in the Lordship of Christ (His personhood) entails propositions about His divine nature as well as His right to exercise His authority over our lives. Confession in His salvific work entails propositions about the truth of His death and resurrection, and also the necessity of personal belief for our salvation.
But if that was all there was to confessionalism, then there would be no need for me to write this blog-post (let alone this blog) to make the distinction, because it’s what every Christian by definition has confessed since the first century. So what else is there to it?
“No creed but the Bible”?
The second part of what it means to be confessional has to do with (you guessed it) creeds and confessions. At this point, many of my fellow Christians (particularly of the broadly generic, evangelical variety) may have red flags and sirens/alarms going off in your craniums, undoubtedly at the mention of creeds and confessions; and so a digression is in order.
This reaction undoubtedly comes from a well-meaning “No creed but the Bible” mentality, which itself stems from a misunderstanding of the historic use and meaning of the doctrine “sola Scriptura”. The idea of creeds and confessions is actually not quite as foreign or alien as some Christians may think. If you attend a local church, odds are your church has a “Statement of Faith” that outlines what they believe that Scripture properly teaches. These days, statements of faith can typically be found on a church’s website. Statements of faith are also found at the denominational level (for example, for Southern Baptists, it is the Baptist Faith and Message). The fact is, your church or denomination found it necessary to write a summary of their beliefs down for clarification and to distinguish what they believe, which is highly commendable. That is what the early Church Fathers were doing when they organized the ancient creeds, councils and confessions: they were giving a summary of what they believed was faithful apostolic teaching according to Scripture, especially in response to defective teachings. Part of being “confessional” is to be in line with the insights drawn from them.
Carl Trueman at Westminster Theological Seminary notes that technically speaking, everyone has a “creed”; that is, everyone has their own intrinsic, personal understanding and belief about what the Bible teaches. It’s just that not everyone bothers to formulate/articulate it and write it down. He states:
“The division between Christians is not between those who have a creed and those who don’t have a creed. The division is really between those that have a public creed that is set out for all to see and assess in light of Scripture, and those that keep their creed secret (they don’t set it out in public, and it can’t be assessed in light of Scripture).”
He goes on:
[“No creed but the Bible”] renders the person that claims that phrase unaccountable…I need to know what he believes the Bible says in order to assess whether it’s truly biblical or not. And the standard way of doing that in the Church is to have creeds and confessions. They’re not ‘supplemental’ to Scripture in the sense of bringing more revelation from God. They are summaries of what Scripture teaches–to be normed, to be critiqued, to be revised, in the light of what Scripture teaches.
A Brief History of Confessionalism
33 A.D.–1054 A.D.
Why is this important? Because almost as long as there has been orthodoxy, there has also existed heresy. Pretty early on, there arose aberrant teachings within the Christian community, and from its inception the Church has always been at pains to respond to and correct them. Glimpses of these can be found in the writings of the New Testament epistles. For example, the apostle John was fighting many variations of an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism, which believed (among other things) that the physical world was evil and that therefore Jesus could not have been a physical human being.*
As defective teachings began to spring up here and there, the Church began to meet in councils and develop “statements of faith” in response, to distinguish true Christian doctrine from false teaching. The result was seven ecumenical councils over 700 years and four major “creeds”** to sum up orthodox Christian teaching. Many evangelicals don’t realize that the language that we use to describe the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated by the early Church councils and creeds. It was our ecclesial fathers that drew from Scripture and fully formulated and fleshed out the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Reformers (including Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin) were creedal and confessional. The Baptists of the following century were likewise. That is, they both accepted the conclusions and insights of the early creeds and ecumenical councils; and they developed their own confessions to clarify what they believed were correct doctrines most faithful to the apostolic teachings (i.e. the New Testament) in response to to their cultural context (i.e. medieval tradition). They were well-versed in the creedalism of the early church fathers (in fact, Calvin won many of his debates by quoting the Bible and the early Church fathers in both Greek and Latin).
Here’s the point: They never claimed that the creeds or confessions were on the same level of inspired Scripture or that they had the same authority, but they did acknowledge the deep and invaluable insights that they carried. They only argued that they must always be subject to the authority and scrutiny of sacred Scripture. It was about having a tradition normed by Scripture. This is part of what it means to be semper reformanda (“always reforming”)–to be constantly examining our beliefs and theological “givens” in light of inspired, sacred Scripture.
1054 A.D.–1900 A.D.
The early creeds and seven ecumenical councils were formed during an age and time long ago when the Church was completely unified (before the East-West schism of 1054 and the subsequent Reformation in the 16th century). The creeds and ecumenical councils are where the vast majority of Christians throughout history (Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox) have found common ground. Since then, however, as our understanding of Scripture, theology, and faithful apostolic teaching has continued to develop, there has necessarily been disagreements and divergences on important, key doctrines, giving rise to the various traditions and Christian communities that we see and experience today. Part of being confessional is finding your place among the confessional communities. For example:
- If you’re Lutheran, that means subscribing to the Book of Concord (especially the Ausburg Confession).
- If you’re Reformed, the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Short/Long Confession(s).
- If you’re Anglican, that means the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.
- If you’re Baptist, that means any of the number of 17th-century Baptist confessions (1689 London Confession, Standard Confession 1660, Orthodox Creed 1978).
- If you’re Catholic, that means the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
- And if you’re a United Methodist, that means the Confession of Faith and the Articles of Religion.
Belonging to a confessional community helps you establish what you believe about certain doctrines (and why you believe them), and helps you engage with brothers/sisters of other confessional communities and theological convictions.
A Baptist blogger writes:
“A common objection to confessionalism is that it is divisive, hindering unity. However, when this indictment is scrutinized, it quickly unravels. All confessional traditions established their confessions for the purpose of unifying the body…It allows us to continue the dialogue with other confessional traditions and gain a deeper knowledge of God’s special revelation.”
Concluding Thoughts: Why Does This Matter?
We belong to a continuous community (call it a “great cloud of witnesses”) of faithful believers that has existed throughout the centuries (certainly with ups and downs). Unfortunately, what “no creed but the Bible” often ends up being in practice is disengagement from the historic Church, historic Christianity, and the lessons that we were supposed to have learned along the way–mistakes and all. As the famous adage goes, “Those that don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.” The same is true for the Church. In not having a thoughtful approach to Scripture, anti-intellectualism often results (this is how we get snake-handling in church, people…), and so does constructive, thoughtful engagement with the rest of society. Certain radicals that lived during the same time as the Reformation (but were outside of the movement) used defective understanding of Scripture as an excuse and defense to institute things such as polygamy, taking over cities/villages, and even walking naked in the streets (for the record, I have no idea where they got that last idea, but my point stands).
In one of my previous blog posts, I wrote about how important it is to listen to “voices of the past” in the church, because they have many important things to teach us. These have existed even long before the Reformation (including Clement, Ireneus, Athanasius, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Cantebury, and Bernard of Clairvaux). They weren’t always right, but we have much to learn from them.
In brief, part of being a confessional Christian (and a “confessional Millennial”) is to be a historic Christian. It is simply knowing your place among the ancient, historical community that you are a part of. It’s knowing what you believe and why you believe it. This includes:
- To confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (Romans 10:9)
- To be in line with the early creeds and the seven ecumenical councils, and
- To belong to a particular confessional community
To be a confessional Christian is to have something to confess. So read the creeds. Know your tradition’s history. Have a statement of faith, whether it’s your denomination or just your local church. Being a confessional Christian.
In part 2 of this blog post, we will examine a second dimension to being a “confessing Christian”, one that bears on our particular historical context. In particular, we’ll talk about the contemporary cultural-contextual challenges facing the modern church, and what it it means to be “confessing” in our cultural context.
Til next time.
To be continued…
For further reading:
Book: The Creedal Imperative by Carl Trueman
*Some of these early heretical teachings include variations of Gnosticism (including beliefs that the physical world is evil and that Jesus was not actually human, etc.), Ebionism (belief in the absolute necessity of adherence to Jewish customs), and Arianism (belief that Jesus was the first creature created by God).
**the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene/Nicaea-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasiun Creed