A Confessionalist By Any Other Name

In 1689 the Particular Baptist Association of London adopted the London Baptist Confession of Faith. It was the doctrinal standard of the Particular Baptist Churches of England and Wales and is the doctrinal standard of Reformed Baptist churches today. Of it, C.H. Spurgeon wrote,

This little volume is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be fettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness. Here the younger members of our church will have a body of divinity in small compass, and by means of Scriptural proofs, will be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them.

At the Synod of Dort (1618-19) the Form of Subscription was adopted and was to be signed by professors, ministers, evangelists, elders, and deacons when ordained and/or installed in office. Of those confessional formulations, it is understood that

We, the undersigned, by means of our signatures declare truthfully and in good conscience before the Lord that we sincerely believe that all the articles and points of doctrine set forth in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort fully agree with the Word of God.

We promise therefore

to teach these doctrines diligently,
to defend them faithfully,
and not to contradict them,
publicly or privately,
directly or indirectly,
in our preaching, teaching,
or writing.

We pledge moreover

not only to reject all errors
that conflict with these doctrines,
but also to refute them,
and to do everything we can
to keep the church free from them.

We promise further that if in the future

we come to have any difficulty with
these doctrines
or reach views differing from them,
we will not propose, defend, preach,
or teach such views,
either publicly or privately,
until we have first disclosed them
to the consistory, classis, or synod
for examination. We are prepared moreover
to submit to the judgment
of the consistory, classis, or synod,
realizing that the consequence
of refusal to do so
is suspension from office.

We promise in addition

that if, to maintain unity
and purity in doctrine,
the consistory, classis, or synod
considers it proper at any time
on sufficient grounds of concern
to require a fuller explanation
of our views
concerning any article
in the three confessions
mentioned above,
we are always willing and ready
to comply with such a request,
realizing here also that
the consequence of refusal to do so
is suspension from office.

Should we consider ourselves wronged,

however,
by the judgment of the consistory
or classis, we reserve for ourselves the right of appeal;
but until a decision is made
on such an appeal,
we will acquiesce in the determination
and judgment
already made.

It would seem that having a confession does not necessarily a confessionalist make. Neither do high opinions necesarily make for high views.

But one difference between a confessionalist and an evangelical seems to be how one views confessional formulations. The confessionalist speaks of ecclesiastical statements in terms of them being “binding and authoritative.” The evangelical speaks of them as “an assistance and guidance,” stopping well short of suggesting they have any sort of real, binding authority. It is not as if the confessionalist knows nothing of limitation. But his inclination is less to the evangelical left whereby he is in danger of castrating the forms and more to the Roman right whereby he is in danger of ascribing to them inspired infallibility. Despite the protestations of the evangelical who, not only mistakes mere high opinions for high views but also mistakes high views for infallible ones, the status of infallible is reserved for the Scripture alone.

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34 Responses to A Confessionalist By Any Other Name

  1. John Yeazel says:

    Zrim,

    This seems to be a very important distinction between evangelicals and those who call themselves confessionalists. Those who adhere to confessional standards speak with much more conviction and force and therefore less seeker friendly. The gut reactions become much more pronounced and defined and greater things seem to get accomplished with the use of confessions.

  2. Interesting. Thanks Zrim!

  3. dgh says:

    And for what it’s worth, the New Side Presbyterians who swooned over Whitefield made sure that American Presbyterians would follow Spurgeon more than Dort on matters of subscription.

  4. Zrim says:

    Darryl,

    Bingo.

    (I’m also thinking of your recent post at OLTS here.) We collectively wonder what gives with the Baptist identification with the Reformed. One answer that RSC offers is that of theft on the Baptist’s part. That certainly has merit. But I am more inclined to lay blame at our own door. It seems to me that we are at least as guilty of loaning out the name (due to being razzle-dazzled by certain credo-celebrities?) as the Baptist is of stealing it, probably more.

  5. Randall Perkins says:

    Hmmmm… folks, you really should stop blasting “reformed” baptists. Many of us are nearly identical in our confession, in our concepts of the covenants, fans of Voss, Ridderbos, Gaffin, M Kline, Horton, VanDrunen, and Clark (including 2 kingdom theology). Sure some of us are a little more eschatological in our concept of baptism; however, if you really wish to marginalize yourselves to a “TR” camp of the Presby type, it is your choice as it is for the “general” baptist folks who would look down their noses at you. I really love the reformed faith and history both in the Presby and Baptist traditions and consider both to be of one mind save the difference identified.

    I am a former member of the OPC and have become a member of a baptist church in my area because there are no other alternatives near my home. Now, as a baptist, I have continued to love my reformed brothers and sisters in the Prebyterian churches and read with great interest the ongoing light of truth coming out of WSC. I plead your charity for our common cause of the gospel when we identify ourselves as “reformed baptists”.

  6. Todd says:

    Randall,

    I hear you. As a fellow author on this blog I consider Zrim’s confessionalism too high, while he considers mine too low. Hey, maybe we W2kers have minds of our own after all!

  7. Zrim says:

    Randall,

    Believe it or not, I’m one of those “sectarian Reformed radicals” who appreciates what you’re trying to say. I hesitantly converted but happily married into a credo family and trekked to the dark paedo side a few years in. So if anyone understands what it means to negotiate the delicate waters of strict ecclesiastical dogma while maintaining happy civil relations with those who dissent, I think I might qualify. That said, I do not compute how you gloss over “the difference identified.” Ironically, I think I feel more at home with my credo family who refused to attend our children’s baptisms. On the one hand, I have a great deal of respect for those who take their sacramentology seriously even when it’s not mine. On the other, I consider such a refusal a bad way to exercise that seriousness and maintain happy civil relations. I’m more inclined to think that maintaining a high ecclesiology while also making an effort to attend their child dedications (as we have) goes farther to meet your plea for charity. There’s a way to be serious without being a jerk.

    But I am curious since you bring it up: were there really no Lutheran churches in your area?

    Todd,

    I just do what the voices tell me.

  8. Randall Perkins says:

    Hi Zrim,

    LOL…. I really have more in common with the reformed baptists than the Lutherans (I actually bacame a christian at a Catholic VBS when I was 9 when our teacher thought it would be a good idea for all the various kids to study the founding of the church they attended regularly. My mother, who married my Lutheran step-dad for a time (another long story) started taking us to a Lutheran church, so I studied Martin Luther…. grace, grace, marvellous grace!!!

    I also consider the refusal on the part of your family to attend the baptism of your children as a serious lack of charity! Ironically, I attended my grandson’s baptism (6 months old) in Louisianna) this past weekend at an Episcopal church which was performed at the urging of my son’s inlaws! Charity can go a LONG way! I will also hold my son and his bride to uphold their vows!

    The importance of the common tenets of our faith really does allow me to “gloss over” the differences my friend.

    By the way, I really appreciate your blog! Keep up the good work.

    Peace.

  9. John Yeazel says:

    That exchange between Zrim and Randall was very impressive- if we could all learn to be so gracious while maintaining our convictions. “There is a way to be serious without being a jerk.” Unfortunately, I probably fail more then succeed at this- but you Calvinists are much more self-controlled than us Lutherans. I could not resist that one.

  10. elnwood says:

    What is the biblical basis for making the confessions binding and authoritative?

  11. Zrim says:

    Elnwood,

    There’s the apostolic command that in the churches all things are to be done decently and in good order (1 Cor. 14:40); there is the example of continuing “steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42); there is the teaching that “He who hears you hears me, he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16); there is the teaching on the keys of the kingdom, “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18); there is the Great Commission to teach those who are made into disciples to obey everything Jesus commanded.

    But if we’re looking for the verse that says, “Confessional formulations are binding and authoritative, but not infallible like the Scripture,” there isn’t one that I’m aware of.

  12. Todd says:

    Zrim,

    I don’t see how those verses support a binding confession any more than the early church who applied those verses without a binding confession for hundreds of years.

  13. sean says:

    You know really this is the great sociological, economic test of our time and probably our children. Is the global community sustainable? If we answer no, and I really do think that is the likely outcome, then ethnic or local, think parochial, arrangements are going to lend itself more to a strict confessionalism. If however the the national and multi-national institutional constructs continue to hold sway, you’re going to continue to see this flattening out of cultural distinctives and a continued moving away from religious and social particularlism(new phrase-just invented it). Just see the PCA and the attempt at duplicating the Keller success in church growth, and how vanilla and flat that whole landscape has begun to look. Thus the strong appeal of such “agrarian” attempts like the fv and Doug Wilson despite their obvious faulty theological formulations.

  14. Zrim says:

    Todd,

    Perhaps one needs to come to the texts with a high instead of low view of confessional formulation to see the connection?

    But if the early church didn’t have a binding confession what exactly were the ecumenical creeds? Were they just really good assists, or did they also mark orthodoxy from heterodoxy?

  15. Zrim says:

    Sean,

    I don’t know if this is what you mean, but one of the benefits as I see it of high confessionalism is an increased diversity and a decrease of the vanillaism.

    The CRC is a good example. The efforts to overcome the homogenous ethnicity is to adopt all sorts of PC efforts while also making efforts to downgrade the FOS. The result? More Dutch evangelicals on top of existing Dutch evangelicals, and a lot less non-Dutch confessionalists.

  16. Todd says:

    Zrim,

    A creed can be a guide and help to mark orthodoxy without there be a binding promise to them. My point is that the Scriptures call us to maintain the unity of the faith and contend for the truth. Binding ministers to a confession can be one way the church chooses to secure such an objective, but it is not the only way, nor is it a necessary conclusion from the texts you cited.

  17. sean says:

    Zrim,

    Yeah I agree. One of the great indictments against the recent manifestion of our religious culture, is that we’re boring. Insult me, confront me, shock me, but please stop putting me to sleep. Winsome has come to mean, inconsequential, shallow, trivial. Ethnic and/or parochial arrangements have their own drawbacks, racism and elitism, but the alternative of the big tent is worse-we’re amorphous, we have all the weight of air. This is the height of irrelevance.

  18. Zrim says:

    Todd,

    Well, in response to Elnwood’s question, I tried citing some verses that might help. Short of citing verses that teach explicitly a high but fallible view of creeds and confessions, that’s the best I can do.

    But I wonder if Scripture’s employment of marriage analogies might be of some service. When you say “A creed can be a guide and help to mark orthodoxy without there be a binding promise to them,” I wonder how well that logic works in the ordinary course of marriage. If I told my wife my vows to her were good guides to help mark my way in our marriage, but they weren’t binding promises, something tells me I might get a frying pan in the head, which seems fitting. Does the OPC really say you needn’t worry so much about flying cook ware?

  19. Todd says:

    Zrim,

    Well, a minister vows to God, not a confession. You could just as easily vow to teach and defend the truth using the confession as a guide as binding yourself to the confession. History has demonstrated that neither strict nor loose confessionalism protects the church from apostasy and false teaching. It still comes down to good men knowing their theology well and loving God and people sincerely. A good confession helps of course.

  20. elnwood says:

    Zrim, you wrote:
    “Perhaps one needs to come to the texts with a high instead of low view of confessional formulation to see the connection?”

    Isn’t that presupposing your conclusion?

  21. sean says:

    Todd,

    You’ve hit upon my main criticism of confessional maximalism. It tries to perpetuate a uniformity without enough regard to ability or aptitude of it’s practitioners. There is a glaring lack of competence within the community of “reformed” pastors and it’s gonna take nothing less than the hard work such as T.David Gordon prescribes in “Johnny can’t Preach” to overcome it. However, Confessionalism and even high confessionalism does have the opportunity to point out and offer a realistic alternative to the impossible and failed attempt of a larger than local religious culture. It’s in praxis that high confessionalism has the most to offer.

  22. Zrim says:

    Todd, I am genuinely curious here. Does the OPC not have something like the FOS in the post? If I’m not mistaken, whereas the continental Reformed traditions ask both ordinary and extraordinary members to do so, the American Presbyterian tradition only asks of its officers to make such vows. What sort of vows did you take? Did they look like those above?

    Also, in the same way I vow to my wife before God, aren’t ecclesial vows to the church before God? And I’m not sure strict subscription has in view that it will protect the church from apostasy in some magic way. Sort of like of capital punishment isn’t in place to curb criminal activity (because it doesn’t) or insulate us from criminality. It’s just what should be done. Apostasy, like criminality, will always be amongst us because they reside in the human heart. And how do we know if good men “know their theology well” without having a standard by which to not only measure that but take action if they don’t?

  23. Zrim says:

    “Perhaps one needs to come to the texts with a high instead of low view of confessional formulation to see the connection?”

    Isn’t that presupposing your conclusion?

    Elnwood,

    I suppose that is what some would say, yes. But when asked to provide a biblical reason for a particular view (which is certainly fair) why does it always seem like what is really being asked is, “How is your presupposition better than mine”? I tend to think this is less an argument about what Scripture teaches and more a battle of presuppositions.

    I mean, I could ask you to provide a biblical reason for a less than binding and authoritative view on confessional formulations, but no matter how much Scripture you cite you’re really up against my presuppositions. To add wrinkle upon fold, the difference may be between presuppositions about presuppositions: one is a suspicious of bias, the other isn’t.

  24. Todd says:

    Zrim,

    I’m not sure the thrust of your OPC question. We take vows. My point is that strict subscrition to a confession cannot be deduced from Scripture, nor is it necessary. And though you may be defining it differently, the OPC has never held to strict subscription for its officers. Hart has a good article on why this is, but I can’t remember where to find it.

  25. Zrim says:

    Todd,

    I suppose the point of the post was more to contrast the evangelical outlook with the confessional one, not so much to parse out the finer distinctions amongst the latter (e.g. system versus strict subscription).

    So, even the lower views amongst the confessionalists seem higher than those of the evangelical. And this seems to be at least one way to distinguish the one from the other.

  26. RubeRad says:

    You might be interested in this

  27. Pingback: Don’t Go Changin’ « The Confessional Outhouse

  28. elnwood says:

    Zrim,

    You are right that it is a battle of presuppositions. I guess what I’m getting at is if the battle is over presuppositions and we acknowledge that Scripture does not clearly support one view over another, we should be charitable to those who hold to a “lower” view of confessions.

    Speaking of which, that terminology bugs me a lot because it implies that a “higher” view is better or more reverent towards it. For example, it is common in Reformed circles to refer to memorialists as having a “low” view of the Lord’s Supper, but no one would ever refer to the Lutheran or Catholic view as having a “higher” view of the Lord’s supper.

  29. elnwood says:

    Todd argues about the similarities between Roman Catholic traditionalism and Reformed confessionalism. However, I believe we have an even closer parallel in the Bible itself.

    My argument against binding the conscience to a confession would be the Pharisees and their fence laws regarding the Sabbath. Unlike the Roman Catholics, and like the Reformers, the Pharisees really were trying to derive their laws from Scripture. Also like the Reformers, they also recognized that Scripture was supreme, and not their interpretations.

    In many ways, what the Pharisees did was helpful. The Pharisees diligently studied the Scriptures, and sought to apply the Scriptures to their lives, and were very careful not to break any of the laws. We see their laws in the Mishnah.

    However, the Pharisees also tried to bind consciences to these laws, and rejected those who didn’t follow their traditional interpretation. Jesus, of course, rejects this.

    I believe the Reformed community can fall into the same trap as the Pharisees when they draw up confessional interpretations, bind consciences with it, and reject other churches because they do not hold to the same doctrines.

  30. Zrim says:

    Elnwood,

    I guess what I’m getting at is if the battle is over presuppositions and we acknowledge that Scripture does not clearly support one view over another, we should be charitable to those who hold to a “lower” view of confessions.

    My aim, such as it is, is not to be uncharitable. Rather, it is to try and demarcate what the difference may be between a confessionalist view of these things and an evangelical one. You may not think it very useful, or you may disagree, but I don’t that necessarily means it’s uncharitable per se.

    Speaking of which, that terminology bugs me a lot because it implies that a “higher” view is better or more reverent towards it. For example, it is common in Reformed circles to refer to memorialists as having a “low” view of the Lord’s Supper, but no one would ever refer to the Lutheran or Catholic view as having a “higher” view of the Lord’s supper.

    How about if we characterize the Catholic view as over-realized and the memorialist view as under-realized? That may not do much to quell your bug, but it seems to me that what all groups involved mean to say that their view is indeed superior to the others, which are inferior. The Catholic would say the doctrine of the real presence is inferior, but that doesn’t bug me because he’s supposed to say that. What would bug me is if he didn’t show much understanding of it and then cast aspersions.

  31. Zrim says:

    Elnwood,

    The danger you describe is always lurking, of course. And I get the effect it lends an argument to suggest it is Pharisaical.

    The problem, however, is that an interpretation is always demanded. And those who accuse others who take their interpretation seriously seem to always miss the fact they, too, have an interpretation they use to mark orthodoxy from heterodoxy. I am sure you confess that there is one God and three persons, and that Christ is fully human and fully divine. And I am willing to bet you reckon those who don’t to be outside the pale. What do you say to them when they accuse you of unduly binding a conscience, since the Trinity and Nicene christology aren’t spelled out in Scripture?

  32. elnwood says:

    Zrim,

    You wrote that “interpretation is not always demanded.” I don’t believe this to be the case. For example, the confessions don’t demand a position on eschatology, and very rarely do I hear it argued that it should.

    At some level, we need to determine what is essential, and what is not. I believe we should bind consciences when the Scripture says to bind consciences. Gal. 1 says if another preaches another gospel, they are to be anathema, damned, cut off, etc. I believe Christology is central to the gospel message.

    I don’t see any precedent to bind the conscience to things not essential to the gospel, and see precedence for not binding the conscience for things like the Sabbath (Col. 2:16).

  33. Zrim says:

    Elnwood,

    You make a fair point. And I think it’s one both Rube and I have tried to make as well. We have to decide what is essential, and then bind consciences. The problem isn’t binding consciences, it’s binding them to the correct thing. Often I get the sense that the resistance to seeing the forms as binding and authoritative really is a way to say one disagrees with the substance of a doctrine. Other times I get the sense that it’s resistance to making anything binding and authoritative.

    I’d be up for making eschatology more essential than who wrote Hebrews.

  34. elnwood says:

    Zrim,

    I am resistant to making something binding and authoritative when it is not a gospel essential and the implication is suspension from office or even excommunication from the “true church.”

    Gal. 1 makes it clear that denying the gospel is at this level, but I don’t see why Sabbath, eschatology, or authorship of Hebrews should be raised to this level. Col. 2:16, Romans 14, and Philippians 1 teach that we are not to judge on secondary issues as long as the gospel is preached.

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