Don’t Be Caught without a Confession

Article by Dr. Michael Reeves. president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford, England. (Original source here)

Christians have always written and cherished summaries of their beliefs. The Bible records the earliest of these confessions of faith (1 Tim 3:16). Then, the early post-Apostolic church produced definitive statements of essential Christian belief, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, still considered benchmarks of orthodoxy. In the centuries that have followed, Christians have continued to produce confessions: the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1562), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689), and so on. The church has never been without a confession or creed.

THE RECIPE AND THE PUDDING

However, for all their defining importance in Christian history, confessions of faith have met with mixed reactions from Christians. While many believers have used confessions enthusiastically, others have claimed that confessions replace a vital relationship with God with a desiccated list of doctrine, replacing the Spirit with the letter, leaving only a husk of dead, dull orthodoxy. However, to understand confessions this way is to mistake the recipe for the pudding. Confessions, like recipes, are descriptions of the vital ingredients in the Christian life of faith, not to be confused with the reality itself. That does not mean the description is unimportant: different ingredients will make a different pudding. But, if you try to eat the recipe card rather than the pudding, you will be sadly disappointed.

There is a deeper, more sinister reason for our distrust of confessions. It started in the garden of Eden when Adam and Eve refused to listen to God. Ever since then, mankind pretends that God has not spoken to us. If we admit that God has spoken, we must also admit that we knowingly disobey Him—an admission that we are not the lords and gods we daily pretend to be. Vagueness about what the Bible teaches and a lack of specificity in matters of theology maintain this Edenic error. Without confessions of faith, we are speculating in the dark, denying that God has spoken His revealing light into the world (John 1:1–5). Undisturbed by the harsh light of divine revelation, we are free to dwell in the shadows, fashioning idols to our hearts’ content, crafting a self-made religion out of comforting experiences, moralism, or whatever we choose.

History is replete with this tendency. Consider an example. In seventeenth-century England, a group of theologians called latitudinarians, tired of the never-ending theological debates that flowed from the Reformation, sought a Christianity shorn of most of its doctrine. Doctrine became a dirty word. For them, Christianity was essentially morality—the less doctrine it had, the more people could agree and unite. The problem was that this unity was built around the standards of morality rather than Christ.

In many ways, the latitudinarians were heralds of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment skepticism toward all doctrine epitomized by Edward Gibbon. In his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon looks despairingly at the doctrinal disputes of the early post-Apostolic church as nothing but irrelevant bickering. For example, Gibbon dismisses the Arian controversy’s debate over whether Christ is truly God (homoousios) or merely an exalted creature (homoiousios) by saying, “The difference between the Homoousion and the Homoiousion is almost invisible to the nicest theological eye.”1 For Gibbon, it was an immaterial debate over the single letter i. Yet the argument was over far more essential matters. The controversy was about whether Christ is God, whether He is to be worshiped as God. That single i divided orthodoxy from heresy, with one side claiming Christ as Creator, while the other saw Him as nothing more than a created being. Gibbon’s blithe indifference to doctrine could just as easily argue that the difference between Christianity and Islam is merely one of numbers: one (Allah) or three (Father, Son, Spirit). We know, however, that doctrinal precision matters.

HAS GOD SPOKEN?

When natural, Edenic inclinations and mainstream Western intellectual history stand together against confessions, it is easy to see how a love for confessions has become an unthinkable offense. God’s revelation, objective truth rather than subjective sentiment, offends modern culture.

That is precisely the intent of a confession—it refuses to go along with the pretense that God has not spoken. A confession asserts that God has spoken clearly and specifically. Holding to a confession is an act of humility, admitting that we are not, as we would wish, the final arbiters of truth. Instead, in our confessions we proclaim that God has given us absolute, nonnegotiable truth. Confession is our obedient response to what God has spoken. It is an acknowledgment that God is God, and that we are not. Continue reading

Six Ways a Church Should Use a Confession of Faith

Article by Jeff Robinson (original source here)

Particular Baptist churches planted in the tumultuous soil of 17th century England grew up and bore fruit under a nasty set of doctrinal and methodological accusations, including that they subscribed to libertarian free will, denied original sin, that their pastors baptized women in the nude, and were opponents of church and crown.

Perhaps their most virulent and colorful opponent, Daniel Featley—a separatist persecutor deluxe—derisively dismissed our Baptist forebears, writing in a venom-filled pamphlet, “They pollute our rivers with their filthy washings.” Such was Baptist life under Charles I.

These nefarious charges and numerous others arose from leaders of the state church and led to decades of grinding persecution for Baptists. Seven churches returned fire, but not by brandishing the sword of steel or by hurling theological invectives. The seven carried out their war for truth by wielding the sword of the Spirit. The product was the most comprehensive expression of orthodox Baptist theology ever written—the Second London Confession of 1689.

The signers of that venerable confession lived and moved in an age in which most local congregations wrote confessions of faith for a number of reasons, one of them to demonstrate their commitment to the historic Christian faith. Additionally, they sought to manifest their solidarity with the prevailing forms of Calvinistic orthodoxy as well as to expound the basic elements of their ecclesiology. The Second London Confession also aimed at refuting popular notions associating Particular Baptists with the radical wing of the Anabaptist movement on the continent.

Of primary importance, they saw biblical warrant for the practice of confessionalism in texts such as 1 Timothy 3:16, where the apostle Paul’s inspired pen produced a brief but beautiful display of the mystery of godliness:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

Fast-forward to 2016 and many Baptist churches continue to have statements of faith “on the books” as a part of their foundational documents. Yet, I’ve found that many churches do not know how useful the confession can be beyond establishing subscription to certain core doctrines. This raises a fundamental question: How should a local church use their confession of faith? Here are six ways a church might use a confession of faith. I owe at least four of these to my friend Sam Waldron’s fine work, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Evangelical Press). Confessions of faith should be used:

1. As an affirmation and defense of the truth. The church of the living God is called to be the pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). It is to “follow the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) and to “earnestly contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Insofar as a confession reflects the Word of God, it is useful for helping the church discern truth from error. Many of the great confessions in church history have affirmed biblical truths while simultaneously condemning unbiblical expressions of the same. Paul called Timothy to guard the good deposit entrusted to him (2 Tim. 1:14), and likewise, faithful Christians are called to keep a close watch over it. A part of this stewardship is clearly articulating the truth and defending it in the face of error. A more recent example of this is the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. Southern Baptists, rightly, revised their confession, adding article XVIII to address areas where feminism had begun to encroach on the church and Christian family.

2. As a baseline for church discipline. In 1 Timothy 5:16, Paul famously admonished Timothy to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” As a matter of stewardship, church purity, and love to neighbor, a faithful pastor, a faithful elder board, a faithful church member must keep a close eye on the life and doctrine of those within their congregation. Church discipline (Matt. 18:15-18) is a key part of this. The confession of faith forms the baseline for determining whether or not a church leader or member has strayed from orthodox belief or orthodox living. It provides an objective standard for both accusation and restoration in church discipline.

Andrew Fuller wrote of the care that must be taken in church discipline and the role of the confession if that pursuit:

“If a religious community agrees to specify some leading principles which they consider as derived from the Word of God, and judge the belief of them to be necessary in order to any person’s becoming or continuing a member with them, it does not follow that those principles should be equally understood, or that all their brethren must have the same degree of knowledge, nor yet that they should understand and believe nothing else. The powers and capacities of different persons are various; one may comprehend more of the same truth than another, and have his views more enlarged by an exceedingly great variety of kindred ideas; and yet the substance of their belief may still be the same. The object of the articles is to keep at a distance, not those who are weak in the faith, but such as are his avowed enemies.”

3. As a means of theological triage and Christian maturity. Which doctrines must be believed for one to be considered a genuine follower of Christ? Which doctrines represent denominational distinctives? Which doctrines are tertiary and may be relegated to the category of “good men disagree?” A solid and effective local church confession takes an unambiguous stand on doctrines that should mark the genuine Christian. It also rings clear on denominational distinctives. But a wise and well-articulated church confession also avoids unnecessary sectarianism by refusing to take a hard line on so-called “third-tier” issues such as the timing of Christ’s return, specific details of the millennium, preferred English Bible translations, and those similar.

4. As a concise standard by which to evaluate ministers of the Word. The apostle Paul told Timothy to entrust the great truths of God to faithful men (2 Tim. 2:2). Faithful men are faithful to sound doctrine, faithful to the Scriptures. When calling a new pastor or a new elder, the church’s confession provides the doctrinal standard by which his fitness is to be judged. It also provides a crucial baseline by which to measure his theological solidarity—or lack thereof—with the body that is considering him for ministry.

5. As a doctrinal basis for planting daughter churches. Churches typically speak of potential offspring as “having our DNA.” A confession of faith establishes a key part of the genetic structure that is to be passed on. As a historical example, the Charleston Association used a slightly revised version of the Philadelphia Confession as the doctrinal standard for church plants across the Southeast. My family remains involved in church in north Georgia planted by Charleston under the Philadelphia Confession in 1832.

6. As a means of establishing historical continuity and unity with other Christians. The framers of the Second London Confession aimed to show that Particular Baptists were not given to theological novelties, but stood with two feet firmly planted in the historic Christian tradition. They subscribed to the Trinitarianism of the early creeds, the Christology of Chalcedon, the five solas of the Reformation, and much more that comprises evangelical orthodoxy. Local churches do the same when they proclaim where they stand on these core theological doctrines.

A healthy church is one that knows what it believes, preaches what it believes, teaches what it believes, sings what it believes, prays what it believes, confesses what it believes, and seeks, by God’s enabling grace, to live what it believes. In other words, a healthy church is a confessional church.

This We Believe

Article by by Carl R. Trueman (original source here)

Many evangelical Christians are instinctively suspicious of the whole idea of creeds and confessions, those set forms of words that certain churches have used throughout the ages to give concise expression to the Christian faith. For such people, the very idea of such extra-scriptural authoritative statements of faith seems to strike at the very heart of their belief that the Bible is the unique revelation of God, the all-sufficient basis for our knowledge of Him, and the supreme authority in matters of religion.

Certainly, creeds and confessions can be used in a way that undermines the orthodox Protestant view of scripture. Both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches invest such authority in the declaration of the institutional church that the church creeds can seem to carry an authority that is derived from the church’s approval rather than conformity with the teaching of Scripture. Evangelicals are right to want to avoid anything that smacks of such an attitude. Yet I would like to argue that creeds and confessions should fulfill a useful function in the life of the church and in the lives of individual believers.

First, Christians with no creed simply do not exist. To declare that one has “no creed but the Bible” is a creed, for the Bible nowhere expresses itself in such a fashion. It is an extra-biblical formulation. There are really only two types of Christian: those who are honest about the fact they have a creed and those who deny they have a creed yet possess one nonetheless. Ask any Christian what they believe, and, if they are at all thoughtful, they will not simply recite Bible texts to you; they will rather offer a summary account of what they see to be the Bible’s teaching in a form of words which are, to a greater or lesser extent, extra-biblical. All Christians have creeds — forms of words — that attempt to express in short compass great swathes of biblical teaching. And no one should ever see creeds and confessions as independent of Scripture; they were formulated in the context of elaborate biblical exegesis and were self-consciously dependent upon God’s unique revelation in and through Scripture.

Given this fact, the second point is that some Christians have creeds that have been tried and tested by the church over the centuries, while others have those that their pastor made up, or that they put together themselves. Now, there is no necessary reason why the latter should be inferior to the former; but, on the basis that there is no need to reinvent the wheel, there is surely no virtue in turning our backs on those forms of sound words that have done a good job for hundreds of years in articulating aspects of the Christian faith and facilitating its transmission from place to place and generation to generation. If you want to, say, reject the Nicene Creed, you are of course free to do so; but you should at least try to replace it with a formula that will do the job just as effectively for so many people for the next 1,500 years. If you cannot do so, perhaps modesty and gratitude, rather than iconoclasm, are the appropriate responses to the ancient creed.

Third, the creeds and confessions of the church offer us points of continuity with the church of the past. As I noted above, there is no need to reinvent Christianity every Sunday, and in an anti-historical, future-oriented age like ours, what more counter-cultural move can we as Christians make than to self-consciously identify with so many brothers and sisters who have gone before? Furthermore, while Protestants take justifiable pride in the fact that every believer has the right to read the Scriptures and has direct access to God in Christ, we should still acknowledge that Christianity is first and foremost a corporate religion. God’s means of working in history has been the church; the contributions of individual Christians have been great, but these all pale in comparison with God’s great work in and through the church as a whole. This holds good for theology as for any other area. The insights of individual teachers and theologians over the centuries have been profound, but nothing quite matches the corporate wisdom of the godly when gathered together in the great councils and assemblies in the history of the church.

This brings me to my fourth point: Creeds and confessions generally focus on what is significant. The early creeds, such as the Apostles’ and the Nicene are very brief and deal with the absolute essentials. Yet this is true even of the more elaborate statements of faith, such as the Lutheran Augsburg Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith. Indeed, when you look at the points of doctrine that these various documents cover, it is difficult to see what could be left out without abandoning something central and significant. Far from being exhaustive statements of faith, they are summaries of the bare essentials. As such, they are singularly useful.

Evangelicals should love the great creeds and confessions for all of the above reasons. Yet we should ultimately follow them only so far as they make sense of Scripture, but it is surely foolish and curmudgeonly to reject one of the primary ways in which the church has painstakingly transmitted her faith from age to age.

Why do Reformed churches use creeds and confessions?

Short article by Joe Vusich

1) They help Christians make sense of the Bible by highlighting what is important and summarizing its essential message (if the Bible is the world, the creeds and confessions are the road maps).

2) They help the faithful memorize the essential beliefs of the Christian faith (especially regarding the work of the Triune God to save us).

3) They promote universal and apostolic unity (connect us to the past and to other churches by summarizing what true Christians around the world have confessed since the days of the apostles, not just what we believe in our local congregations).

4) They provide specificity to our faith and help distinguish us from false teachers and sects (the original purpose of the Nicene and Athanasian creeds).

5) They provide structure for Christians to publicly confess their personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (the original purpose of the Old Roman Creed, which eventually expanded to become the Apostles’ Creed).

6) They are useful for apologetics (equip Christians to give succinct answers for the hope that is within them).

7) They delimit church power (establish where the doctrinal authority of the church begins and ends, and make that authority transparent to all).

8) They clarify the content of our faith to those who may ask (“these are formal summaries of what we believe and teach”).

9) They provide distilled, well-tested theological judgments that fence our thinking and help us not to stray from the biblical faith.

10) Confessing creeds is a biblical practice. The Old Testament saints daily confessed, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5); and the New Testament church was founded on Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-18). Early Christian churches began formulating faithful summary statements of the faith even while the apostles were still alive; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Timothy 3:16.

Why Creeds?

sproul877Article by RC Sproul: Avoiding Theological Anarchy (original source while the creeds are norma normata (“a rule that is ruled”).

Historically, Christian creeds have included everything from brief affirmations to comprehensive statements. The earliest Christian creed is found in the New Testament, which declares, “Jesus is Lord.” The New Testament makes a somewhat cryptic statement about this affirmation, namely, that no one can make the statement except by the Holy Spirit. What are we to understand by this? On the one hand, the New Testament tells us that people can honor God with their lips while their hearts are far from Him. That is to say, people can recite creeds and make definitive affirmations of faith without truly believing those affirmations. So, then, why would the New Testament say that no one can make this confession save by the Holy Spirit? Perhaps it was because of the cost associated with making that creedal statement in the context of ancient Rome.

The loyalty oath required by Roman citizens to demonstrate their allegiance to the empire in general and to the emperor in particular was to say publicly, “Kaisar Kurios,” that is, “Caesar is lord.” In the first-century church, Christians bent over backward to be obedient to civil magistrates, including the oppressive measures of Caesar, and yet, when it came to making the public affirmation that Caesar is lord, Christians could not do so in good conscience. As a substitute for the phrase, “Caesar is lord,” the early Christians made their affirmation by saying, “Jesus is Lord.” To do that was to provoke the wrath of the Roman government, and in many cases, it cost the Christian his life. Therefore, people tended not to make that public affirmation unless they were moved by the Holy Spirit to do so. The simple creed, “Jesus is Lord,” or more full statements, such as the Apostles’ Creed give an outline of basic, essential teachings. The creeds summarize New Testament content.

The creeds also used that summary content to exclude the heretics of the fourth century. In the affirmation of the Nicene Creed, the church affirmed categorically its belief in the deity of Christ and in the doctrine of the Trinity. These affirmations were seen as essential truths of the Christian faith. They were essential because without inclusion of these truths, any claim to Christianity would be considered a false claim.

At the time of the Reformation, there was a proliferation of creeds as the Protestant community found it necessary, in the light and heat of the controversy of that time, to give definitive statements as to what they believed and how their faith differed from the Roman Catholic Church’s theology. Rome itself added her creedal statements at the Council of Trent in the middle of the sixteenth century as a response to the Protestant movement. But each Protestant group, such as the Lutherans, the Swiss Reformed, and Scottish Reformed, found it necessary to clarify the truths that they were affirming. This was made necessary, not only because of disagreements within Reformed parties, but also to clarify the Protestant position against frequent misrepresentations set forth by their Roman Catholic antagonists.

The seventeenth-century confessional statement known as the Westminster Confession is one of the most precise and comprehensive creedal statements growing out of the Reformation. It is a model of precision and biblical orthodoxy. However, because of its length and comprehensive dimension, it is difficult to find two advocates of the Westminster Confession who agree on every single precise point. Because of that, churches that use the Westminster Confession or other such confessions, usually limit requirements of adherence by an acknowledgment of “the system of doctrine contained within.” These later Protestant creeds not only intended to affirm what they regarded as essentials to Christianity, but specifically to clarify the details of the particular religious communion that would use such comprehensive confessions of faith.

In our day, there has been a strong antipathy emerging against confessions of any stripe or any degree. On the one hand, the relativism that has become pervasive in modern culture eschews any confession of absolute truth. Not only that, we have also seen a strong negative reaction against the rational and propositional nature of truth. Creedal statements are an attempt to show a coherent and unified understanding of the whole scope of Scripture. In that sense, they are brief statements of what we historically have called “systematic theology.” The idea of systematic theology assumes that everything that God says is coherent and not contradictory. So, though these creeds are not created out of pure rational speculation, nevertheless, they are written in such a way as to be intelligible and understood by the mind. Without such confessions, theological anarchy reigns in the church and in the world.

The Ligonier Statement on Christology

In all good conscience I am happy to affirm along with its affirmations and denials.

Firstly, some introductory words from Dr. R. C. Sproul:

Who is Jesus? Nearly every adult person has formed some opinion of Jesus. These opinions may be superficial, uninformed, or downright heretical. The truth about Jesus, not mere opinion, matters . . . and it matters eternally.

Those who bear the name Christian profess to follow Christ as His disciples. They hold a Christology—a doctrine of Christ—that reflects their view of Christ. This Christology may be articulated implicitly or explicitly. It may represent the depth of biblical revelation and historic Christian reflection on Scripture, or it may be novel and disconnected from God’s Word. But no professing Christian lacks a Christology.

Since following Christ is central to Christianity, the church has labored for centuries to proclaim the Christ of history and Scripture, not the Christ of our imaginations. In such historic statements of faith such as the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession, Christians have articulated the biblical teaching on Christ.

Today these statements are often neglected and misunderstood, resulting in widespread confusion regarding the person and work of Christ. For the glory of Christ and the edification of His people, the Ligonier Statement on Christology seeks to encapsulate the historic, orthodox, biblical Christology of the Christian church in a form that is simple to confess, useful to help teach the church’s enduring faith, and able to serve as a common confession around which believers from different churches can rally for mission together. This statement is not a replacement for the church’s historic creeds and confessions but a supplement that articulates their collective teaching on who Christ is and what He has done. May Christ use it for His kingdom.

In the name of God’s Son incarnate, our Prophet, Priest, and King,

R.C. Sproul
Spring 2016

THE LIGONIER STATEMENT ON CHRISTOLOGY

We confess the mystery and wonder
of God made flesh
and rejoice in our great salvation
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

With the Father and the Holy Spirit,
the Son created all things,
sustains all things,
and makes all things new.
Truly God,
He became truly man,
two natures in one person.

He was born of the Virgin Mary
and lived among us.
Crucified, dead, and buried,
He rose on the third day,
ascended to heaven,
and will come again
in glory and judgement.

For us,
He kept the Law,
atoned for sin,
and satisfied God’s wrath.
He took our filthy rags
and gave us
His righteous robe.

He is our Prophet, Priest, and King,
building His church,
interceding for us,
and reigning over all things.

Jesus Christ is Lord;
we praise His holy Name forever.

Amen.

Affirmations and Denials

Explanatory Essay

Confessional Subscription

Tom Chantry has written a series of very helpful blog articles on the subject, “Words and their Meaning: Confessional Subscription and Divine Impassibility.” In part 1 he writes:

Confessions of faith are intended as tools of doctrinal unity within a church or an association of churches. To “subscribe” to a confession of faith is to claim it as a summary of your own theological convictions. Thus when many people subscribe together to the same confession, they profess that they believe the same things about those matters addressed in their confession. Such subscription is necessary at some level; otherwise we would be forced to cooperate with those who have defined Christ and the faith differently than ourselves.

Various approaches to subscription have been taken. Historically, churches that have attempted a generalized “system” subscription have demonstrated the error of such an approach: when subscription to a confession does not mean subscribing to its particular doctrines, then it means nothing. System subscription has proven to be a highway to apostasy. Some have followed a stricter approach, but allowed for various “exceptions.” In most cases there is an agreed-upon list of doctrines to which one may take exception, but defining “acceptable” exceptions may become a far messier process than many would imagine.

Associational Reformed Baptists have followed an approach called “strict” or “full” subscription. This does not mean accepting the Confession as inspired truth in a word-for-word sense, but rather an agreement with every doctrine found in the confession as a true and biblical doctrine. Individuals have voiced objections to certain wordings but have confessed agreement with every doctrine taught in the confession.

However, in order for such subscription to mean anything, one other principle is necessary: we must subscribe to the doctrines intended by those who wrote the confession; otherwise we subscribe to a malleable confession – a living document which might be twisted to mean anything. Just as constitutionalism requires constitutional history, so confessionalism requires historical theology. We cannot knowingly confess unless we know what we are confessing, and for that we must know what the writers of our confession meant by their words.

It is when we find that we cannot subscribe to the words of a confession as its writers intended them to be read that we find ourselves outside of a confessional community. This is why new confessions have been written. If we were at liberty to press the words of our confessions into new meanings, we would never need to separate from an old confession and write a new one. Of course, subscription would once again be meaningless.

As an example, consider the Westminster Confession of Faith. The framers of the Second London (1689) clearly respected the work of the Assembly. Why did they not merely adopt its confession? You know the answer: they were Baptists by conviction. But does that really mean that they could not adopt the words of the Westminster Confession? I realize there are other differences, but probably the key difference is found in Westminster 28:4, which reads:

Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.

Is it really so difficult for a Baptist to confess those words? What if we were to argue that in our understanding this paragraph were teaching that the spiritual children of believers – i.e. those whom they led to faith – are to be baptized? Such a reading is at least plausible. Paul spoke in Galatians 3:7 of those who shared Abraham’s faith as his children, and that principle applied more broadly than only to Abraham. In I Timothy 1:2 he called Timothy “my true child in the faith,” clearly meaning a spiritual descent. Oh, you say, but the framers of the confession covered that by speaking not only of children, but of infants! Except that in I Corinthians 3:1 Paul called immature Christians “infants in Christ.”

Boom!

Why don’t we just confess the words of the Westminster Confession, but say that in our understanding 28:4 means that Christians and all whom they lead to faith, even if they be spiritually immature, should be baptized? What Baptist couldn’t confess that? And after all, we’re using Paul’s own eminently biblical language to say it. Honestly, think about this question: why write a new Confession of Faith?

The reason is that of course we all know that immature spiritual children in the faith is not what the Westminster Assembly meant. As such, it would be dishonest on our part to pretend that we hold their Confession when we neither believe nor practice in accordance with their own meaning of their own words. It would be silly to pretend otherwise. To subscribe to WCF 28:4 we would have to believe what the Westminster Assembly meant by 28:4; our own plausible re-interpretation of their words simply won’t do.

I am not arguing for “historical subscription”, but merely for a sane form of “full subscription.” I did not say that we must be exactly like the framers of our confession in every way; only that we must believe the same doctrines they were talking about when they wrote the confession.

Consider, I do not say that we must be just like them in practice. (Most of them sang no hymns.) I do not say that we must be just like them in every detail of theology. (The Confession does not address the Millennium.) I do not say we must be like them politically. (They were monarchists, of course, which played a role in forming the 1689, chapters 23, 24, and also – if you know the history – 25.) We do not need to adopt their philosophical systems, their form of clerical dress, or (thankfully) their hairstyles. But to subscribe to the 1689 Confession, we must believe what they intended by the words they wrote. That’s really a pretty obvious fact, without which full subscription means nothing at all.

Where it seems less obvious is simply where our knowledge of historical theology wanes. If we didn’t know what the Presbyterians believed about baptism, perhaps the faux interpretation of their words offered above would not seem so absurd. To interpret a Confession, then, we need some historical background; otherwise how will we know what we are subscribing to?

At times, discovering the original meaning of the confessional text even serves to make it easier for us to subscribe. Many Baptists have taken issue with 1689, 26:4, particularly the language, “…but is that antichrist, that man of sin, etc.” To the modern ear, this sounds like an identification of the last, apocalyptic antichrist at the end of the age, and many have balked at assigning that designation to the papacy. Most, though, upon further reflection on the confessional meaning, find themselves easily subscribing. The 17th century did not obsess over the apocalyptic antichrist, being more concerned with the “spirit of antichrist” which, we are told, is already in the world. To them, the word “that” did not indicate a shift from the general antichristness of the pope to some form of eschatological specificity. Once we know what they meant, the phrase becomes a lot less problematic. Continue reading