In the previous post, I gave a historical perspective on “What it means to be a confessional Christian“, not least of which is to confess “Christ crucified”. But being a confessional Christian doesn’t just have a past, historical component to it. It also includes a present, cultural-contextual component…and it has relevance for us today. To be a confessional Christian is also to confess or espouse orthodox Christian teaching in response to cultural challenges unique to our own current, contemporary context.
A Recent History of Confessionalism: 1900-present
I wrote previously that as long as there has been orthodoxy, there has also existed heresy and aberrant teachings confronting the Church. And throughout the centuries, confessionalism has always arisen in response to certain cultural challenges toward historical, orthodox Christian belief. That is to say, the Church has always had to face different challenges unique to the context of specific time periods. Modernity (and postmodernity) has been no exception.
For example, a number of German Christian leaders in the 1930’s and 40’s (including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth) drafted the Barmen Declaration to form the “Confessing Church“ and separate themselves from the German Lutheran state-church, which was increasingly becoming a Nazi-sympathetic tool of the state. They were “confessing” because they charged the German Church of having departed and defected from true Christianity in faith and practice. On another front, while the early church focused on defending doctrines like the Trinity and the nature of Christ, the Church in the 19th and 20th centuries found itself fighting against post-Enlightenment modernist attacks on doctrines like the Virgin birth, the resurrection, and the deity of Christ himself (influenced as scholarship was by German higher criticism). In response came intelligent, thoughtful, and confessionally orthodox Christian scholars that found their way to institutions such as Princeton, including the likes of Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, J. Grescham Madchen, Abraham Kuyper, Carl F. H. Henry, Gordon Clark, Meredith Kline, etc.
Every time orthodoxy has been challenged, there have been thoughtful, orthodox Christians to preserve it. And what about today?
Confessionalism and Postmodernity
It doesn’t take long for the observant reader to notice that the tagline of this blog is “orthodox faith in a postmodern generation”, almost by way of contrast. It’s also probably true that many readers will be lost as to what those words actually mean and entail.
Without going into too much detail for the sake of time, postmodernism can range anywhere from complete relativism (the denial that any objective truth exists) to the denial of the idea that we can know objective truth. The result is an increased focus on subjectivism, individualism, individual self-expression and autonomy, and sometimes moral relativism. A common phrase or charge leveled by our generation typically comes in some form of the phrase “Who are you to tell me what’s right or wrong for me?”
Why would this clash with orthodoxy? Why should I feel the need to qualify elsewhere that “you can apparently be a confessional, orthodox Christian and thoroughgoingly millennial at the same time”, as if it “seems to be a contradiction in terms”? Because orthodoxy by definition has to do with historical Christian teaching. In a generation and culture that wants to deconstruct anything that smacks of authority or traditionalism as “power plays” in favor of individual autonomy and self-expression, creeds and confessions are typically the last place we look to steer our lives and give us guidance. As if that wasn’t enough for the postmodern mind to take, the centrally authoritative* Christian teaching is based on 2,000 year old manuscripts about a God that became man in an obscure, ancient Judean to die for our sins–something that sounds antiquated and even primitive.
In another post, I wrote about how the Christian message (that we owe Jesus a life of discipleship) threatens our self-autonomy. The millennial generation especially tends to value individual freedom and self-expression above many other things in life.
Zach Groff, a Christian millennial writing for the Christward Collective, puts it perfectly:
“Confessionalists value unity; Millennials celebrate individualism. Confessionalists cherish tradition; Millennials love innovation. Confessionalists are guardians; Millennials are liberators. The combination of these words seems like an oxymoron.”
The Scandal of the Cross
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul writes about the “offense”, or “scandal”, of the message of the cross. The Corinthians were scandalized by Jesus’ and Paul’s message. And we will be too. For the Jews who valued a God of power, the message of the cross was weakness. For the Greeks who valued wisdom and philosophy, the message of the cross was foolishness. For postmoderns who value individual autonomy and self-expression, the message of the cross is oppressive and distasteful. The message of the Gospel–of “Jesus Christ and Him crucified”–will always, without exception, offend the sensibilities of any and every culture in history in some way or another. And yet, it also paradoxically affirms the deepest, subconscious longing of every culture. As Paul says, Jesus Christ is the true power of God and the true wisdom of God for both the Jews and Greeks. And for postmoderns, Jesus Christ and His work on the cross is the true liberation of the self. Why and how? Because he liberates us from ourselves.
The Confessing Movement
Sadly, this liberating message of Christ crucified for our sins (“the good news”) has often been abandoned by both mainline and evangelical churches alike in the advent of modernity and postmodernity. Many mainline churches became little more than social clubs after abandoning gospel-preaching in response to modernity, and evangelical churches began to trade in gospel-preaching for culturally “relevant” ways of doing “church” in response to postmodernity [that’s a whole ‘nother discussion].
However, in recent decades there has been a slow and steady movement among several denominations, particularly within the mainline, known as the “Confessing Movement”, (including Presbyterians, United Methodists, Episcopalians/Anglicans, etc.) that has called for historic Christian teaching and preaching in our postmodern age. Among Reformed Christians, organizations such as “The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals” have popped up in the 1990’s-2000’s, calling for Christians to remember our heritage and return to historic, confessional roots. In the United Methodist Church, a distinct Confessing Movement has arisen, citing John Wesley’s writings as their inspiration:
“I am not afraid, that the people called Methodists, should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” [italics added]
Among the leaders of the Confessing Methodist movement was the late Thomas Oden, who had previously uncritically accepted 20th-century modernist theological liberalism until he started reading the Church Fathers (e.g. Clement, Ireneus, Athanasius, Augustine, etc.) and became a proponent of paleo-orthodoxy: a return to historic Christian roots.
Likewise, resurgence of Anglicanism is attributed to the establishment of the Anglican Church in North America, which had a robust initiative to preach “Christ crucified” and center on biblical teaching, galvanizing many young Christians towards evangelism.
The Confessing Movement among Christian Millennials
Confessionalism has also started to take root among younger Christian millennials. Much of this can be traced back to the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement that began in the mid-2000’s, but it has since expanded beyond its Reformed roots to include theologically orthodox Christians of other persuasions, including Methodists, General Baptists, and non-Reformed Anglicans.
Zack Groff again writes:
“A Confessional Millennial is no oxymoron. I believe that we will see more men and women, over the years ahead, who fit this description in our churches as my peers continue to come under the formative influence of biblical teaching. Subsequently, they will express themselves in confessional language.”
And of course, I’ve given my own take, differentiating “confessing Millennials” from postmodernism on the one hand and fundamentalism on the other:
“These Christians are looking for a Gospel that does not compromise on essential doctrinal beliefs, yet also does not compromise on moral convictions in the voter’s booth as a means to an end.”
“…I hope to represent another approach that is separate and distinct from these two: one that adheres to orthodox, confessional Christianity (and the God that it professes) but also engages with the culture and cares about social justice.”
Of course, this is always, always to be done in centering around the cross.
A Timeless Tale
At this point in time, postmodern philosophy has purportedly seen its heyday and zenith in the academic institutions and elites of Western Europe, and it’s only a matter of time until the “next big thing” in culture comes up. Until then, postmodernity’s reverberations are still felt far and wide in popular culture, particularly in North America (which tends to lag a bit behind Europe in intellectual developments and perennially plays a game of catch-up), and the Church is still having to address it and pick up the pieces from the fallout. But in contrast to the fleeting trends that ebb and flow in the currents of cultural moments that come and go, the timeless and age-old message of the cross stands firmly planted in the ground at Calvary, having weathered the storms of antiquity, Gnosticism, Greek Hellenism, Platonism, medieval feudalism, the Enlightenment, German Idealism, nihilism, modernity, postmodernity, and whatever else man might conjure up next. If a survey of global Christianity has anything to tell us, I think that the cross is here to stay, whether we like it or not.
*Queue postmodern allergenic sneeze
For further reading:
“Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture,” by Lesslie Newbigin
“Making Sense of God”, by Timothy Keller