Caveat Credor: The Hazards of Confessionalism
According to Wikipedia, Confessionalism is “a belief in the importance of full and unambiguous assent to the whole of a religious teaching. Confessionalists believe that differing interpretations or understandings, especially those in direct opposition to a held teaching, cannot be accommodated within a church communion.” It is not an unalloyed blessing. Confessionalism arises in times of theological pluralism, as an attempt to define the borders, and to mark the boundaries of orthodoxy. In this sense, the Bible itself promotes confessionalism. The apostolic gospel summary that Paul provides in 1 Cor. 15 is a least common denominator, apart from which one cannot be a follower of Jesus. And at the start of the Galatian epistle, Paul excoriates those who preach a different gospel from the one he previously announced to them. You cannot hold this “other gospel” of justification by works of law and be considered a follow of Jesus. That sort of boundary-marking is Scripturally endorsed, and not problematic. In a day of pluralism, the appeal to mark off what is and is not orthodox is great. But confessionalism can also create an artificial confidence. If you look at the early examples of the regula fidei or rule of faith, you see not detailed explanations of various doctrinal points, but broad outlines of what on must believe to be considered within the Christian faith. When confessionalism moves beyond that, to fine-grained delineations of a faith community, then we encounter the problems of it.
Confessionalism can diminish the mysteries of the faith.
When I use the word mysteries, I am not equating that with mystagogy. It is not hocus pocus (hoc est corpus meum – this is my body – morphed into hocus pocus by those who viewed transubstantiation as some magical transformation of Christ’s body.) Nor do I mean the biblical definition of a truth that was keep hidden in the counsels of God, but later revealed to us. (“which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”) I mean those theological paradoxes, or putative paradoxes that we, by our nature want to solve, but which remain unexplained in Scripture. How can God have planned from eternity past that Jesus would be put to death on the cross, and yet hold mankind responsible for this? “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23) Or the perennial example of how God is sovereign over all his creation and creatures, and yet he has given them choice and will to act. Attempts to solve these paradoxes have resulted in confessionalism, which while defining the borders, nonetheless can reduce the counsels of God to what we understand. We are uncomfortable with a prolonged – perhaps lifelong – tension between these things. Paul writes at the end of Rom. 11, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Confessionalism in some way says, “we have searched his judgments and at last found out his ways.” In some areas, I still feel the need to say “I don’t know.” Be careful that confessionalism isn’t back door hubris about the things of God, a different way of saying “there are no ambiguities.”
Confessionalism can be a pretext for division.
I tread carefully in this area because it’s exceedingly important to note that the truth does divide. “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three.” (Luke 12:51-52) But the division Jesus speaks of is between those who accept him, and those who reject him. This is a division between the children of God and the children of the devil. Distinction and division of this kind is important. That is not what I refer to. Elsewhere the Twelve come to Jesus saying “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:38-40). The one casting out demons was doing so in Jesus name, and Jesus says do not prevent him. The objection was, “he does not follow us.” He is a follower of Jesus, but not in our group. I don’t think it’s difficult to see a warning of when confessionalism could become sectarianism. I should add that I think it’s proper for a church to require consistency among leaders. (But we easily come into issues of membership, constitution, by-laws, and other things about which Scripture does not speak). If a leader holds strongly to a premillennial position, but the church as a whole does not, it may well be right that this leader not teach his view from the pulpit, in classes or home groups. And before coming into leadership, those discussions should take place. What I’m speaking of is more general, perhaps restricted to one’s attitude. Confessionalism may arise when one joins a local church, but even if one signs on the line in such an instance, (and I don’t say this is wrong) it need not mean that you are taking your input only from denominational or confessional sources alone. Indeed, it should not mean this.
Confessionalism can stunt theological understanding and engagement.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if confessionalism is shaping your view of Scripture in potentially unhelpful ways. Do you read books, or listen to sermons and podcasts only from your confessional camp? It’s important to engage with opposing viewpoints on big theological issues. Confessionalism can lead to an echo chamber, which leaves you with an impoverished understanding. Creeds are general and non-specific, but confessional documents get to more detail and if those documents are elevated to authoritative status, it is a warning sign. The same holds true for our theological heroes. Do you disagree with your theological champions on anything? The collected writings of (fill in the blank) are never the final word on anything. If you find yourself agreeing with everything a person wrote, that, too is a warning flag.
Confessionalism appears to offer certainty in a time of confusion. When those around us are abandoning fundamental doctrines of the faith, then the attraction of planting our flag with a particular community is real. Evangelicalism is in a state of flux if not crisis, and many are casting about for something definitive. But one should be careful when your sole input is from one confessional viewpoint. One can learn a lot from confessional documents, but if you are tuned to one channel only, turn the knob once in a while.