Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Value of Confessions of Faith


    Contemporary Christianity faces an intellectual crisis of faith that, regrettably, equals its ethical deterioration. By “contemporary Christianity” we do not mean Christianity inclusive of Catholic or liberal churches but rather contemporary evangelical and Protestant churches including Baptists. By “intellectual crisis” we do not refer to a mere dearth of scholarship at the seminary podium or in the parish pulpit; rather, we mean an intellectual crisis in the typical church wherein the average member and, too often, even the pastor, remain ill-informed about their theological roots and historical identity. For over a century and, more especially in the last fifty years, Christianity has homogenized theologically, resulting in a willful yet unconscious ambiguity about a given religious group’s ecclesiastical and theological ancestry. One wonders if such ancestral forgetfulness results from embarrassment about our religious past or perhaps stems from our desire to excuse ourselves from explaining to parishioners who we really are. Such ecclesiastical denial falsifies many churches’ claims to religious non-affiliation and deceives their membership into believing “we are just a Christian church; we don’t want to be labeled,” when the truth is that, except for extreme cult groups, almost every so-called non-denominational church has a history traceable to a specific theological movement and denominational identity.
    Preeminent among such non-affiliation groups would be the so-called “Bible” churches. What could be simpler, more honest, truer, and more innocent than to say merely that we are a “Bible church”? Certainly, such a claim has been tremendously successful for “Bible churches” since the mid-twentieth century. But the truth is that presumably non-denominational “Bible churches” are in fact quite denominational, though not in name, and easily identifiable in theological and ecclesiastical terms as descendants of the Plymouth Brethren movement, doctrinally characterized by Dispensational Premillennialism and modified Calvinism (viz, refined Arminianism). The same holds true for major non-denominational, “Bible church” seminaries, such as Trinity Evangelical and Dallas Theological. Other, more specific and outstanding examples of this de-identification with ecclesiastical and doctrinal history would be Saddleback Church, California; Lakewood Church, Houston; and Cornerstone Church, San Antonio; who respectively are tethered to historical Southern Baptist, Pentecostal, and Assembly of God traditions. Arguing that denominational tags represent an obstacle to “seekers,” many Baptist pastors, especially those for whom numerical increase of their congregation is a primary goal, follow this trend to disassociate themselves from their denominational identity.
    While most Protestants may reject the Roman Catholic emphasis upon Holy Scripture and tradition, the fact is that, whatever its theological faults, the Roman Catholic Church maintains a loyal respect for tradition that has sustained its identity for many centuries. Except for conservative Episcopalians and Presbyterians, such vivid and consistent identity is not the case with the majority of Protestant churches whether liberal or conservative, especially Baptists.
    One of the major contributing factors to the Baptist denomination’s identity crisis is its polity, its form of ecclesiastical governance, specifically congregationalism. Unlike other conservative groups whose confessional history is highly respected and guarded by a ministerial hierarchy of bishops, presbyters, and elders who govern paedobaptist congregations, the Baptists, wedded to their congregational form of government, are more vulnerable to the shifting opinions, biases, and attitudes of the broader culture from which they draw their membership. This is most especially true of American Baptist churches. In contrast to their European or British counterparts for whom tradition is paramount and where elders and even monarchs still rule, American Baptists inherently have a disdain for tradition and hierarchy, fostered by the political philosophy of the broader culture. In other words, American Baptists too often allow their political opinions to influence and even compromise their ecclesiastical identity and theological convictions; the theory that “all men are created equal” now permeates the intellectual life and ecclesiastical setting of most Baptist churches to the extent that they tacitly believe that “all opinions are created equal”; thus, in terms of doctrinal belief, almost anything goes in a typical Baptist church: “Well, I know what you think” or “Well, I know what they thought,“ but “This is what I think and your opinion is no better, and certainly not more important, than mine.” Such existential subjectivism has resulted in a doctrinal amalgamation of “all things evangelical” within the Baptist denomination so that broad and even antithetical opinions about cardinal doctrines can comfortably coexist within the same ecclesiastical body, shaping it not to look like the unified body of Christ but rather an ecclesiastical smorgasbord that proffers almost every theological morsel to its banqueters. More than this, churches who retain the “Baptist” name are ashamedly unfamiliar with historic Baptist confessions that grounded Baptists historically and shaped the destiny of their denomination. The present writer’s opinion is that the Baptist denomination would do well to recover a confessional grasp of its historic identity, the potential benefits whereof follow.
    First, a valid, time-tested confession of faith represents an historical repository of the declared faith of specific churches, religious organizations, and their leaders, and tethers a contemporary church or pastor to a legitimate ecclesiastical ancestry. One sees such an attempt today among the Founders Ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as among “reformed” Baptists. The Founders group, for instance, typified by such leaders as Albert Mohler and historian Tom Nettles, strongly argues for a return to the original faith of the Southern Baptist “founders,” epitomized in historic declarations of faith such as the New Hampshire, Philadelphia, and First and Second London Confessions. The Founders point not only to the original architects of the Southern Baptist Convention as the rightful heirs of those confessions, but also to the most notable theologians in their history, such as B. H. Carroll and J. P. Boyce. Beyond their own organizational history, Mohler and his cohorts cite the theology of early American Baptists such as John Clarke, Isaac Backus, and Obadiah Holmes as proof of a strong confessional, Calvinistic strain predominant among original American Baptists. An even more conservative group known as “reformed Baptists” led by Albert Martin, Walter Chantry, and others, also strongly emphasizes baptistic confessional history, especially the confession of faith embraced by John Gill and “the prince of preachers,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the Second London Confession. To the point, both the Founders and “reformed Baptists” seek to vindicate and legitimize their theological convictions by tethering themselves historically to ancestral confessions of faith. At the local-church and denominational levels, such historical tethering could potentially fortify a pastor’s or congregation’s claim to orthodoxy, especially in times of doctrinal ambiguity, controversy, or schism. If heterodoxy, heresy, or serious theological questions arise in a denomination or church, reference to a biblically-based, historically influential, and well respected confession of faith provides a touchstone of comparison and contrast by which to discern the “faith of our fathers” reposited in confessions and declarations of faith, strengthening our ability to “mark them that causes divisions” and empowering us to “fight the good fight of faith.”
    Presuming its theological integrity, a confession of faith could also serve as an anchor, compass, and lighthouse for the contemporary church. Paul warns the church that, like a wayward ship, she is not to be tossed about by “every wind of doctrine,” and Jude refers to false teachers and their deceptive doctrine as “raging waves of the sea.” One might convincingly argue that many “ships” upon the contemporary religious sea have been driven off course by the fickle winds and waves of unstable doctrine, and are therefore in need of a weighty anchor, an accurate compass, and a bright lighthouse. A confession of faith represents such an anchor, compass, and lighthouse.
    Solomon teaches us that, “in the multitude of counselors, there is safety.” That proverb affirms the wisdom we derive from others. Certainly, we may cautiously look to contemporary leaders and their preaching, writing, and teaching for guidance, but God’s Word teaches us that we should “seek the old paths, wherein is the good way.” Time-honored, time-tested confessions of faith mark those “old paths” and map out the “good way.” A confession of faith is a repository for the collective wisdom of our elders – antecedent theologians, preachers, pastors, and churches from centuries path who, “being dead yet speak” to us as a “multitude of counselors” in whom the contemporary church can find “safety.”
    A confession of faith also provides an effective tool for the sanctification and edification of pastors, individual Christians, and churches. Arguably, Baptists do fairly well with two-thirds of the Great Commission – Evangelize and Baptize – but we often struggle and even fail in our responsibility to its third commandment – Catechize. Certainly, nothing replaces the study, preaching, and teaching of God’s Holy Word; however, we should not neglect to read and profit from ancient documents that our holy and wise fathers have authored as aids to faith for their generation and ours. Alien to the frequent mediocrity and shallowness of contemporary commentaries and religious literature, a biblically tethered, well written confession of faith is, no doubt, the soul’s best guide outside Holy Scripture. Yet almost the entire Baptist denomination neglects that rich vein of theological gold, choosing instead to erect its intellectual edifice with the bendable aluminum of the moment and the pliable plastic of the present. If we would teach, that is, catechize, our children well and, more importantly, the children of God, we could do no better than to return to those old confessions that nurtured our forefathers in their youth – Spurgeon, Bunyan, Gill, Keach, and other great divines.
    Moreover, a confession of faith might result in an unpleasant but healthy reduction in congregational numbers. In a religious generation that has abandoned radical repentance and authentic faith characterized by holy living, a unified confession of faith could separate sheep from goats, wheat from tares, and purify the church ethically and intellectually. But such a confessional revival in the Church would necessitate a radical shift in how pastors interpret their basic philosophy of church ministry, specifically, that the principal aim of the New Testament Church is not numerical but spiritual growth; intellectual unity, not intellectual diversity; and moral accountability, not moral permissiveness coupled with an easy forgiveness that requires no hard repentance.
    A confession of faith is also a window to the past and a mirror of the present. If we would know who Baptists were, we need to peer into history; the most translucent medium through which to look at Baptist history is the windowpane of historic confessions. And if we truly want to see ourselves as we really are, or as we really should be, confessions of faith reflect not only the image of our ecclesiastical forefathers but also an image of ourselves, either convincing us of our rightful inheritance of identity with historical Baptists, or convicting us that who we are does not correspond with who they were.
    Finally, returning to a confession of faith could unify contemporary Baptists. The Apostle James tells us that “a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” If instability characterizes the double-minded individual, how much more does it destabilize that collection of individuals known as “the Church.” Paul’s mandate to the church is that she should embrace “one faith” and “speak the same thing” in “the unity of the faith.” Absolute Truth does not respect, tolerate, or encourage diversity of opinion within the body of Christ but rather seeks to “bring every thought captive to Christ,” resulting in actual fulfillment of the biblical mandate that the Church should “earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.” But if we speak different shibboleths, we are destined to fall before our enemies, turn upon one another, and find ourselves confused in the tower of theological Babel.
    In summary, the current ecclesiastical trend toward doctrinal homogenization has resulted in an identity crisis in contemporary Christianity. No group suffers more from this malady than Baptists, who have almost completely lost connection to their most influential and noble forerunners whose faith was defined by formal confessions. Severance from our theological ancestry not only obscures our historical identity, it also threatens our claim to orthodoxy as we incautiously follow the popular trend of religious homogeneity. That is an unsafe path, for not only does it lead to compromise and error, it also ensures the “dumbing down” of our congregants for whom we are responsible to “sanctify” by the Truth, casts aspersion upon our forbears, and forebodes the continuing intellectual regression of the entire Baptist denomination (is that possible?). Although a renewed emphasis upon our confessional history might be an enlightening and edifying development for contemporary Baptists, it might also result in a modern exodus from our churches when our congregants, or even our pastors, find out who we really are; however, whatever collateral damage a confessional revival might inflict upon the Baptist denomination, the Bible teaches us that two cannot walk together except they are in agreement, that a divided house or a kingdom must eventually fall, and that even Gideon’s few or David’s outlaw band, when unified, are much more usable to God than a mighty army marching unattuned to their commander’s voice and out of step with their comrades’ strides.

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