This was the topic for the Sunday School class I taught this past week - to which I'd like to add a few comments here. At the beginning of the class I commented that "Confessionalism" is generally not a popular idea in today's evangelical world. The great confessions that came out of the Reformation are often seen as dusty, old, irrelevant, lifeless, useless documents that should be put onto the shelves of Christian history for study, and nothing more.
R.C. Sproul articulates this contemporary mindset well:
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 (Table Talk, April 2008, p. 7).
This type of mindset does not bode well for confessionalism.
Many also would suggest that the traditions of men are a dangerous thing to build a church upon. Jesus made this argument quite strongly in Matthew 15:1-3:
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat." He answered them, "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
Tradition is a very bad thing if it's not a biblical tradition. This was the Pharisees problem. They ignored the rule of God's word in favor of their own traditions. But biblical traditions, biblically speaking, are to be commended and passsed on. Paul makes this abundantly clear in his letters:
1 Corinthians 11:1-2 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.
2 Thessalonians 2:15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
These passages of Scripture signify for us the danger of holding to unbiblical tradition (Jesus' words to the Pharisees), and the importance of holding to and passing on biblical tradition (Paul's letters to the churches). One of the goals we have as a confessional church is to pass on what we believe to be biblical tradition, beliefs, and practices. And we do that in part through our confession.
One ray of hope for orthodox, Reformed, confessional Christianity today is that many, many people among the new generations are increasingly becoming disillusioned by the generic and bland styles of Christianity that have so often been promoted in recent decades. R. Scott Clark suggests, "A remarkable number of postboomers are demanding preaching and worship that is substantial and confessional" (Recovering the Reformed Confession, p. 6). This move can be tangibly seen in the increasing popularity of contemporary hymns that are much more substantial theologically than much of the worship music that came out of the 70's and 80's (for an example of this, see the PCA's college ministry worship music website, RUF Hymnbook Online). In the void of a solid confessional theology within evangelicalism, the cry among many in the younger generations is now, "Give us a deep, historical, confessional, Reformed, joyful, traditional, time-tested, biblical theology!"
This is why we are a confessional church.
We are ultimately a confessional church because the Bible is important to us. The Bible commands us, after all, to teach sound doctrine (1 Tim. 4:6; Tit. 1:9; Tit. 2:1), and that is what the confessions set out to do.
As R. C. Sproul says, "Without such confessions, theological anarchy reigns (Table Talk, April 2008, p. 7). And no one, of course, wants that.
Or do they?
For more read:
- The Westminster Confession of Faith
- Recovering the Reformed Confession, by R. Scott Clark
- Truths We Confess: A Layman's Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, by R. C. Sproul