What do CliffsNotes, Auto Mechanics for Dummies, and our church confessions have in common?
They are all examples of summaries. Each takes a novel, a brake job, or the voice of the living God in the Bible and condenses it to what the authors believe to be most important.
Summaries are helpful. When an exam looms and you’ve run out of time to read The Grapes of Wrath, those notes are just what you need.
But summaries are also limited. If you read only a summary of Steinbeck’s epic, you cheat yourself of the experience of being caught up in a grand narrative, of discovering insights into Depression-era life and human nature. You may pass the exam or write a paper that gets the grade you need, but you’ve missed out on a rich, possibly life-changing, experience.
We rightly treasure our confessions for their clarity of thought and their emphasis on the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We honor the experiences of those who forged them and the way they have shaped our faith for many generations.
As a confessional church, though, we have an uneasy relationship with new information that informs our faith. For example, our Form of Subscription for officebearers in the Christian Reformed Church outlines a detailed process for anyone who has ideas that may be at odds with the statements in our confessions. But it effectively puts our confessions on a high shelf behind glass and says, “You may believe and teach, but not touch.”
While this does promote allegiance and conformity, it does not encourage active dialogue and engagement with our confessions. When there is no freedom to ask, wonder, and challenge, we may lose confidence in our confessions and leave them on that high shelf.
I hope that the new Covenant for Officebearers, which would replace the old Form of Subscription if approved by synod, will strike a healthy balance between respect for our confessions and freedom to hear and follow our living Lord who still speaks through Scripture today.
Here are some cautions and concerns we need to consider:
1. The confessions are no substitute for the story.
The Bible is a story of unpredictable twists and turns: Who would ever have thought that Abraham would pawn off his wife Sarah when they were in Egypt? Rahab was a what? Jesus commended the accountant who scammed his master? These stories are not just background or supporting material for a doctrine of grace available to sinners. As narratives they twist and turn the grace of God into our hearts and convince us that God can call and use and save us too.
I know a young man who has strayed far from the faith that his parents, church, and school did their best to instill in him. He has been taught from the time he learned to talk that Jesus loves him and that Jesus died for him and rose for him. But that good news somehow never stuck with him. Lately, however, he has finally started to read the Bible for himself.
He is amazed at the stories. The messiness and the loose ends and the great, wild acts of God in those old stories of pillars of salt, towers of Babel, and brothers who hate each other are bringing the good news home to him.
2. The confessions may be too “tight.”
The Reformers loved to reduce and enumerate. But sometimes their lists may be a bit too condensed. The Heidelberg Catechism’s summary about living under the care of our providential Father is beautiful and comforting (Lord’s Day 10). We can be “patient, thankful, and confident.” On the “patient when things go against us” point though, the catechism references only Job and James and recommends a passive response to the hardships of life.
Patience certainly has its place, but the catechism at this point seems to forget the voice of the psalms, which teach us to cry out openly and actively to God. Could this be part of why we have lost the life-giving habit of lament?
There is value in trying to put the essence of our faith into words—we see that in Scripture itself—but it may also be that the broadness of the Bible is healthy and necessary for us.
3. The confessions impact how we hear the words of Scripture.
When Lord’s Day 2 of the catechism teaches us about our alienation from God, it says, “I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.” Lord’s Day 3 adds that we are “so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and are inclined toward all evil unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.” This teaching stands on the solid ground of Romans 3 and John 3. We are rightly cautious about any tendency to play down our sinfulness.
We must also be cautious about reading the catechism (or the apostle Paul) too quickly back into the narrative of Scripture.
Our congregation spent Advent to Ascension Day in the gospel of Luke. On the first page we met Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments blamelessly.” That is pretty high praise. What do we do with it?
Some commentators and preachers say, “But they were not really upright or blameless, because no one is.” Yet Luke tells us that Jesus comes into the world for sinners and for those who were “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (2:25).
We need to let the Bible be the Bible. If we do, we may find that God affirms his own created goodness in us more than we have come to expect.
4. Confessions have a context.
I can still remember where I was sitting when my grade-eight teacher taught us that there is no such thing as pure objectivity. This does not mean that everything is up for debate and that there is no real truth to be found. Rather, it means that nothing comes to us in a vacuum and that every writer writes as a person of his or her time and context.
Christopher Hitchens, writing today against the Christian faith, and Ursinus and Olevianus as authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, each come from a particular context.
The catechism authors had a particular kind of confidence in the strength of logical argument and the power of reason that was in the air they breathed. Today we value their strengths (their appreciation for the seriousness of sin, for example), but we might not articulate the faith in the same way now. Our context is different. In Scripture God speaks into our wired, pluralistic, hyper-frightened context today. We hear the voice of the living God as our confession writers did, but we hear God with ears tuned to qualities, tones, and even themes they may not have noticed or been able to hear in their day.
5. Confessions need refreshing.
In the 500 years since the Reformation, the church has lived, learned, and suffered much. Biblical studies have swung in various directions and influenced the church in many ways. It is likely true that our confessions have helped to keep the church faithful to the gospel through times of change.
But here’s the rub. A great deal has been learned in recent years about the aims and claims of Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods, the Jewishness of Jesus, and how the gospel writers are “doing theology” rather than simply providing long introductions to the passion narratives. Today’s software tools alone help any student of the Bible to see and hear Scripture in ways that were unavailable just a few decades ago. In any other discipline, new information is allowed to supplement and enhance what has been traditionally believed and understood.
It is interesting to note that while our Reformed tradition places great value on the life of the mind and dares to lead scholarship in the humanities and sciences, when it comes to theology and our formulations of faith, we are less courageous.
Not New Concerns
It is one of the constant challenges of the church to listen to God in Scripture and to “re-form.” Jan Bonda, a Dutch Reformed pastor who died in 1997, wrote, “If the fathers of the Reformation emphasized one thing, it is our responsibility to search the Bible for ourselves, to see whether what has been transmitted to us by former generations does indeed harmonize with the Word of God.”
At this point Bonda references Christian martyr Guido de Bres, author of the Belgic Confession: “We must not consider human writings—no matter how holy their authors may have been—equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else. For all human beings are liars by nature and more vain than vanity itself” (Article 7, Belgic Confession).
Bonda goes on to say, “Therefore the church will always have the duty, while praying for the promise of the Spirit, to examine what has been taught by previous generations in the light of Scripture. If the church discovers that the Bible teaches something else it must have the courage to follow the Bible and abandon tradition. Respect for and gratitude to earlier generations does not free us from this task. In fact, this is precisely what they have charged us to do. Only if we do this will we deliver the faith of our parents and ancestors to the next generation as a living faith” (The One Purpose of God, Eerdmans, 1998).
To live well with our confessions we need the humility to keep actively listening to God in Scripture, the courage to be open with each other, the wisdom to be discerning, and the creativity that comes from grace.
- How would you define Braun’s argument in a sentence? Do the same for Luth’s argument. Are these opposing positions or just different positions?
- What idea in each argument brings you peace and joy? What idea makes you fearful? Why?
- How can the church determine the best way to use our confessions?
- What words of Jesus guide us as we discern the way ahead?
- How can our confessions reflect the time and context in which we live?
About the Author
Rev. John Luth is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of St. Albert, Alberta.