In the past I’ve written about why I find the adjective “Confessional” to be of limited value. I just don’t think the word does what it is commonly thought to do. I was reminded of this recently when an older article by Dr. Mark Jones surfaced in my social-media feed. I’m a big fan of Dr. Jones. He is one of the more insightful writers at Reformation 21, and he has also just joined the board of The Davenant Trust alongside my friends and me (I may have been the first one to nominate him, as I recall), and so this post is not intended as a criticism of him. In fact, my working assumption is that Ref21 has a quota for the term “Confessional” which must be reached–“Confessional” is the new “Covenantal,” it would seem–, and so Dr. Jones really can’t be blamed for it at all. I was, nonetheless, unable to go without making some comment.
Dr. Jones’s post was actually a very good one which explained why the term “Puritan” is itself an overused and often-inaccurate term. As its title indicates, Jonathan Edwards ought not be called a Puritan. Further, “Puritan” doesn’t even identify a singular theology or position on church party. There were “Anglicans” who were also “Puritans,” and there were “Puritans” who were themselves more or less heterodox. This is helpful and necessary qualification.
After all that good stuff, and right at the end of an essay about the need to not use broad-brush strokes, Dr. Jones adds this line, “But if there is one label that ought to stand the test of the centuries it is ‘Confessional.'”
This sounded rather odd. What is “Confessional” supposed to mean in this context? Just consider the various theologians listed in the post itself: Jonathan Edwards, Matthew Henry, John Goodwin, Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, John Bunyan, John Howe, John Milton, John Cotton, John Eaton, and Richard Baxter– are all of these men also “Confessional”? If so, what does that tell us about the usefulness of the term?
Now, I suspect that a few of these men might not actually be “Confessionalists,” as they were themselves taking issue with the particular confession of faith with which their church had formerly been associated. But if we just take a few of the less controversial characters, then our experiment should still hold. Let’s take Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, and John Bunyan, and then let’s add a couple of other Puritans– how about William Perkins and Samuel Rutherford?
So, considering Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, John Bunyan, William Perkins, and Samuel Rutherford, one could perhaps call each man a “Confessional” theologian. And yet there would have to be at least three different confessions represented by this group, and possibly a fourth (if we’re generous). Goodwin and Owen were both more partial to the Savoy Declaration than the Westminster, though Goodwin had earlier been a delegate to Westminster. Perkins was mostly loyal to the 39 Articles and the state of the Church of England in his day, including its polity (as Bryan Spinks and W. B. Patterson have shown). Samuel Rutherford was a de jure divino Presbyterian and thus a confessor of Westminster (as well as the National Covenant). Bunyan actually died just before the London Baptist Confession would have been available, but we can presume that his sympathies would have been with it, though he may have objected to having to “subscribe.” Still, one could find Baptists who did “confess” it, as one can find Baptists who do so today.
“Confessional” only gets less specific if we expand our scope to other confessions. How about the early ecumenical creeds? Or what of the Middle Ages? The Lutherans have their “Confessional” groups, and I have even heard Al Mohler referred to as a “Confessional Baptist.” On its face, the term “Confessional” can only mean that a person holds to a particular Confession of Faith, and this can be critically evaluated by considering whether or not he holds to the confession of which his ecclesiastical body is traditionally associated. Further, one could ask whether or not the individual is appropriately and honestly interpreting his confession, but thanks to the animus imponentis, that question is often subordinated to the particular denominational consensus at any given time in history.
In other words, it is not at all clear to me that “Confessional” has less liability than “Puritan.” It seems to be capable of much greater fluidity.
It is not my desire to have the term “Confessional” wholly stricken from the conversation– and I have no pretenses that my writing will really slow it down at present– but I would hope that careful readers will pencil a little question mark after each instance of it that they come across. What is it that the particular author hopes to communicate by using “Confessional” and can it do so without a number of other assumptions, spoken or unspoken?
I would also hope that our estimation of the adjective would not prevent us from considering new confessions in the future or the possibility of combining older ones. For myself, I prefer to pair the Westminster Confession of Faith with the Heidelberg Catechism. This is an innovation of sorts, and it does open up new diversity on certain topics (the Sabbath, for instance), and yet it is still a reasonably following of tradition as well. Perhaps a bigger question is who has the authority to make such decisions. Within an ecclesiastical body, the answer is found in the specific church government, but I am actually not interested in mediating all theological conversation and thinking through specific polities (especially smaller ones of which I have never had an affiliation).
Am I a Confessionalist? I’ll have to leave that up to the interpreting bodies to decide.