Over the last ten years, at least, there has been a rise in the prominence of confessions of faith in Reformed and Evangelical churches. They have even been pushed to the forefront of parachurch associations and even, in some cases, general marketing and promotional strategies. The odd-sounding adjective “confessional” (which is quite a different thing than the noun!) has even become something of a commonplace description for a certain sort of churchman, as one will now read about “confessional” Anglicans, Presbyterians, and even Baptists.
There is a lot that is undeniably good about this, to be sure. For a church or collection of churches to be familiar with and even proud of their historical heritage is a good thing, and to use official statements of faith as boundary markers for credentialing is also a helpful measure of accountability. This is far better than the early and middle of the 20th century, where those various church bodies had confessions but never made use of them or even much talked about them.
And yet there’s still something odd about the nomenclature. When I see someone refer to themselves as a “confessional theologian” or, worse, a “confessional blogger,” I have my reservations. What exactly does the adjective mean beyond the simple fact that the confession of faith is used as an accountability tool for ecclesiastical leadership or general denominational orientation? Some analogous use of modifiers in such a fashion would clearly be confusing. Consider, for example, a “constitutional” American or a “Bylaws-ish” Chairman of the Board. Those are either redundant or emphatic, signifying the idea that the person is “really” what he claims to be rather than a half-hearted representation or an outright imposter.
I suspect the “emphatic” connotation is actually close to the mark in our church worlds. Proponents of such terminology would no doubt want to argue that they are “confessional” because they believe their particular confession to be an accurate distillation of the Bible and thus a shorthand way of relaying the faith itself. They are clarifying their hermeneutical framework by making use of the adjective “confessional.” But the fact is that a “confessional Presbyterian” in the mainline PCUSA is going to look and reason quite differently from a “confessional Presbyterian” in the very conservative and more uniform Orthodox Presbyterian Church. And the two bodies have, at least ostensibly, the same confession of faith! The same thing is true for “Confessional Anglicans” of the “Continuing Anglican” variety as compared with the Reformed Episcopal Church. The Articles are the same, but core doctrine is quite different. Their making use of confessions as church bodies does not necessarily mean that they understand those confessions in the same way, nor does it tell outsiders all that much about what to expect.
This sort of diversity was even true of a few of the gatherings which created historic confessions of faith. The debates at the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly were famous in their intensity, and the subsequent understanding of their “consensus” was contested in various regions across the country. The range of interpretation only grew broader as these religious traditions branched out across the globe.
To complicate matters further, the major Protestant confessions themselves contradict any argument that traditional ecclesiastical artifacts ought to serve as presuppositional theological axioms or hermeneutic lenses by which the Bible is itself read (which would be a rather postmodern twist, by the way). The 6th article of the 39 Articles of the Church of England states, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” The Belgic Confession says, “We receive all these books and these only as holy and canonical, for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith. And we believe without a doubt all things contained in them— not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God” (Article 5). And then, in the Westminster Confession of Faith, we are told:
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (WCF 1.9-10)
Ironically, the most “confessional” way to use the Protestant confessions of faith is as secondary and subsidiary authorities, subordinate to a historico-grammatical exegesis of the Bible.
An uncritical use of the “confessional” moniker runs two risks. There’s the perpetual temptation to rally around personalities and name-brands, “‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos’” (1 Cor. 12). This is a species of pride, and it is pretty ridiculous in the case of various confessions of faith which share the essential but differ on secondary and tertiary matters (Where have all the 2nd Helvetic or Tetrapolitan confessionalists gone?). And then, secondly, there is the added irony of self-refutation, of using the confessions in ways in which the confessions themselves reject. A lot of “confessionalists” might actually be violating the teaching of their confession.
None of this means that we cannot or should not make good use of traditional confessions of faith in our ecclesiastical credentialing process. It does not even mean that we cannot use confessions as pedagogical devices or introductions to Christianity in general. But it does mean that we should be careful in how we use our terms, especially newly coined ones, and it means that we should be on guard not to miss the spirit of the confessions in our desire to recover and promote their respective letters.