A CALL TO CONFESSIONAL CHRISTIANITY
There are a small but growing number of us in the UK calling for a recovery of confessional Christianity. Some might object, “What’s wrong with biblical Christianity? Isn’t it a return to the Bible that we need? What is the role of a confession?”
Contemplating the crisis in evangelicalism today, our great weakness is the triumph of what we might call emotional pragmatism over doctrinal rootedness; doctrine is made to dance to the tune of emotional fulfilment, severing the roots of our historical theology and attracting us to the changeable feast that pragmatism serves up. Confessional Christianity addresses this crisis by prioritising the confession of what we believe, the distinctives of apostolic doctrine hammered out on the anvil of church history. It deals with our 21st century problem and gets us back to where the New Testament apostles were. In other words, by being confessional we can ensure that we are really faithful to the Bible; biblical Christianity is inherently and supremely confessional.
Indeed, the New Testament is a distinctly confessional book; many of the books of the NT carefully define truth over against falsehood. The letter to the Galatians for example deals with the error of works-based salvation, and the letter to the Romans with the anti-gospel division between Jew and Gentile. This is where being confessional is so helpful to our churches: truth is defined clearly against error, and a boundary is drawn around the truth to guard against the encroachment of false doctrine. This enables a church to be a pillar and buttress of the truth in our own generation.
Our problem today is that we don’t like being confessional because we think (mistakenly) it is not emotionally satisfying—and it certainly does preclude pragmatism. We want to be warm, cosy, inclusive, attractive, successful and seeker-sensitive. However, throughout its history, the church always has been confessional. In the period of the Early Church Fathers, when the great creeds were constructed, many foundational doctrines were clearly defined and explained. The Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Council of Chalcedon amongst others made statements of doctrine concerning God, Christ and redemption that have never been bettered and form the very vocabulary of orthodox biblical doctrine to this day.
This is the faith for which Jude tells us we must contend: but such contending is impossible without first defining that for which we intend to contend! Claiming to champion ‘biblical Christianity’ without clarifying exactly what we mean by ‘biblical Christianity’ CAN become a clever form of self-deception, as we reserve the right to change the details of what we believe under the banner of openness, honesty, and willingness to change our minds. That fits well with the prevailing winds of post-modern pragmatism and tolerance (so-called), but only the confessional position is really honest, robust and faithful to scripture.
Returning to the Church Fathers, they had to contend with errors about the doctrine of the Trinity, modalists claiming that God manifests himself to us in different modes, so we find that there are clear statements in the creeds defining God as one in essence and three in person. There were errors about the doctrine of Christ, with some saying he is human and not divine, others the opposite; some said that he was a mixture, or some kind of super-human. But the creeds give clarity, drawing a clear boundary, specifying that Christ is two natures in one person, fully human and fully divine, eternally joined but never mixed. Having defined these doctrines and exposed what is false, they then call the churches to confess this truth as biblical Christianity, refusing to acknowledge those who will not thus confess.
When we gather together, and declare the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in God the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord … and so on, we are adopting our common confession of the faith. This is the truth which we believe, over against error, and the basis on which we are saved.
We can then fast-forward over a thousand years to the period of the Reformation. During this time, what do we find? The great confessions of the faith were written, as men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, and others, began to define and defend the faith over against Roman Catholic errors. Dangerous false teachings such as transubstantiation, salvation-by-grace-plus…, forgiveness through indulgences, and the sanctifying power of relics were boldly confronted by the Reformers with their emphasis on grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, scripture alone, and the glory of God alone. Then follow the great confessions of the faith, including the Augsburg Confession (Lutheran), the 39 Articles (Church of England), the Canons of Dordt (Dutch Reformed), the Westminster Confession (Presbyterian), the Savoy Declaration (Congregationalist), and finally our own Second London Baptist Confession (Particular/Reformed Baptist), compiled in 1677 and formally adopted in 1689.
All these confessions of faith worked to define the truth over against error, becoming more refined and soundly biblical until we reach what we confess in this volume. We love the picture of our fathers in the faith, gathered around a table with the Bible and all the help available through historical theology up to that point, at the very high water mark of the Puritan period, defining the faith for future generations to confess and contend.
We love this confession and we commend it to you that you might love it, study it, and embrace it too. It is worth its weight a thousand-times-over in gold for the second chapter alone: the Doctrine of God. We have a God who is infinite and magnificent and immutable and holy and glorious and beautiful and loving, the perfection of all that is good, and as we confess him to be such, we are drawn upward together in a doxology wonder, love and praise. We value doctrinal rootedness over emotional pragmatism, not because we are unemotional people, but because we worship a God who transcends our emotions and thereby completely satisfies us, emotions-and-all, as was his purpose when he made us such complex (emotional) beings!
This is confessional Christianity. We warmly commend it to you.