Confessing Christianity: Yesterday’s Reformation for Today’s ReformationJuly 10, 2018
by Chad Van Dixhoorn
The word “confessing,” I confess, is a little bit vague. We use the word when we are admitting that we could have done better, or when owning that we’ve actually done wrong. In places where a life dedicated to Christ is unappreciated or even illegal, confessing to Christianity means confessing to a crime—at least in the eyes of our opponents.
By confessing Christianity, I mean something at once more positive and more precise. I am thinking of confessing as professing. I want to make the case for a Christian faith that affirms an allegiance to Christ, but also affirms a body of truth that we love and teach because of Christ. I mean something like “creedal Christianity” and, if I was having a better day, I might have picked those words as the title to this reflection. But maybe not. Because a creed is a short statement about the Christian faith and a confession is a longer one—and my main point is that churches today need more truth, not less, to confess.
The great creeds were written in the early centuries of the church, and are almost universally accepted. The great confessions came into their own during the Reformation and, while accepted by a smaller subset of Christians, they enjoy the advantage of speaking a higher quantity of truth. But already I’m talking as though there are only two options! As though each of us, as we reach the end of this article, will have the opportunity to click either for a creed or for a confession. We all know that this is too simplistic, for there is a third option.
Honesty is the original impulse behind . . . every statement of faith.
For our convenience, I’ve given the third option a kind of fancy “in-house” label, trusting you’ll pardon the professional jargon: this third way is called the “ten-bullet-points-on-the-website-option.” And I’m guessing Reformation21 readers know what I’m talking about: it’s a brief list of basic Bible doctrines, like believing in the Bible and loving Jesus and four steps to becoming a Christian.
Now these are enormously important bullet points! And churches that choose to use “ten-bullet-points-on-the-website” (or TBPTWOs for our convenience) have this in common with churches using creeds and confessions: they are aiming to be honest, especially about what is most important for us to believe. Honesty is the original impulse behind almost every statement of faith. Cults hide what they believe until you’re so far in to the riptide that you can’t do anything about it. Honest churches do the opposite: they announce what they do believe and (in the best creeds and confessions) even a few things that they don’t. We could say more: the best doctrinal summaries also promote church unity. They help us to identify, through a common set of priorities and teachings, what we have in common with other Christians. And even that is not all. In the third place, these summaries also have the potential to create peace in the church, since people coming to the church will readily be able to see what it teaches, and will be able to compare it with the Scriptures, which is the only basis on which Christian teaching should be built.
Not long ago a friend asked what I’d say if I had thirty seconds with someone in an elevator and had to explain why I think confessing Christianity is important. I’ve not yet had that happen, but I think I know what I’d say: (1) its honest, (2) it promotes church unity, and (3) it promotes truth. If my conversation partner was heading to the tenth floor, I’d add a fourth reason: (4) that a good confession makes a great teaching tool.
Now to be fair, and as I’ve already hinted, I don’t think that these different types of doctrinal summaries are all created equal. Creeds have the highest chance of bringing people together since they are so old, (the creeds, not the people) and so widely accepted, that almost any Christian can sign on the dotted line.
Website summaries are the least useful for unity. They are like snowflakes. Each of them is beautiful; no two are alike.
The best doctrinal summaries also promote church unity.
Of course traditional creeds and website creeds can be used for teaching, and many pastors will use such summaries to organize an annual sermon series on what the church believes. But although they are much better than nothing, they don’t do much for the peace of the church. Although they say what is true, they don’t say very much truth. Indeed, they sometimes state only one or two of those truths with any precision. It seems possible that congregations and their leaders would be better served with fuller statements of faith. Among the benefits that we might mention in conjunction with fuller statements of faith, there is this: churches looking for a pastor will be able to say what they want him to believe, and pastors looking for churches can point to what they are eager to teach.
Having said all that, I might as well tell you what I really think. I could be wrong—I often am—but it appears to me that evangelicals have been deliberately minimalistic with their doctrine in order to unite us in what we think are our most important endeavors. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this as everyone is very much caught up in the current elections, but it sometimes seems that what we truly want are moments of buoyant hope in the political arena, and thus we don’t want to be weighed down with too much doctrine in our ecclesiastical settings.
Unfortunately, it takes more than a few doctrinal points hastily battened down to help us survive the storms of life. And what is true on an individual level is also true on a corporate level. The church is often at sea, tossed about by every wave of change. Of course longer creeds are not the panacea to all the church’s problems, not least because there are some long creeds that are incorrect. And yet while any “single-cause explanation” to a problem is suspicious, I do wonder if one of the problems with the church in the English-speaking world is that it has so little weight, no anchor to keep it still so that we can see and analyze and respond to the powerful currents in the culture around us.
Faithful WaitingJuly 10, 2018
by Stephen Coleman