Monday, July 18, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Confession As Constitution

Ways of holding on to the confession

A Reformed Church holds to the historical catholic creeds and the Reformed confessions. But what role do these have in the life of the church?

There are couple of ways these doctrinal statements could be understood and used in the life of the church. They could be treated as summaries of correct doctrine (Paradigm 1). They could be treated as historical documents to be honored (Paradigm 2). They could be treated as guidelines towards greater truth (Paradigm 3). They could be treated as basis for godly living (Paradigm 4). Or they could be treated as the doctrinal constitution of a church (Paradigm 5). All of these can be listed as follows:

  1. Confessions as doctrinal summaries
  2. Confessions as honored history
  3. Confessions as signposts
  4. Confessions for godliness
  5. Confessions as constitution

If the creeds and confessions are treated as summaries of correct doctrine, then the creeds and confessions are data-mined for doctrinal propositions. Such a practice is more likely to occur in what are called "fundamentalist" churches. These propositions are abstracted from their original context and then taken to be transcendental truths. That might work for most statements, but sometimes this does not work. For example, Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 21.8 states that we must on Sunday rest from "worldly employments and recreations." If one takes the confession-as-doctrinal-summary position, then one has to believe that playing any game with family and friends on Sunday should be prohibited, not even board games with family and/or friends. But this I would assert is an incorrect way to read and practice the creeds and confessions.

The opposite error is treating them as historical documents to be honored, paradigm 2. Such a practice is found in many mainline Protestant churches especially those who were Reformed (and who might still consider themselves reformed). Such churches treat the creeds and confessions as showing us the work of God in their particular historical contexts, and mark how God has worked mightily at that time. Therefore, the creeds and confessions are to be honored, maybe even read during a worship service, but the content of the creeds and confessions may or may not be important. What is important, such churches assert, is the "spirit" of the creeds and confessions, which seems (and is) vague and ambiguous.

Those who hold on to paradigm 2 might also hold to paradigm 3, but those holding to paradigm 3 might not hold to paradigm 2. Paradigm 3, the confession-as-signpost position, takes the creeds and confessions as pointing a trajectory towards greater truth and knowledge. This paradigm is associated with a Hegelian and modernist view of progress, and is found whenever optimism in human progress can be found. Therefore, it is associated with Liberal churches and those who hold to liberation theology on the one end (left-wing), and it is also associated with churches in the Charismatic "New Apostolic Reformation" on the other end (right-wing). In either case, if any of these churches hold to the creeds and confessions, it is to use them so as to go beyond them; the creeds and confessions are just stepping stones towards "final" orthodoxy.

The fourth paradigm, confession-for-godliness, sees the creeds and confessions as primarily to provoke godly living, to provoke general growth in godliness. This paradigm can be found in Pietist and evangelical circles, and sometimes overlap with churches who hold to the first paradigm. For those who hold to paradigm 4, the particular doctrines may or may not be important, but what is important is that the confessions lay the framework for godliness. The emphasis among its advocates will be on practice, and thus they will emphasize parts of the confessions and catechisms dealing with the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. Needless to say, the same issue with WCF 21.8 applies here.

The fifth paradigm, confession-as-constitution, hold the creeds and confessions as the doctrinal constitution of the church. As constitution, they hold normative authority for all teaching and doctrinal discussions. As constitution, they are general and not specific laws. As constitution, they function as the "system of truth" constraining discussions on doctrine on the one hand, and allowing diversity within the system of truth on the other hand.

Problems with other ways of holding to the confessions

The problem with the first paradigm is that it treat the creeds and confessions as being specific instead of general. One problem for this paradigm is making a specific case law (e.g. WCF 21.8) into a general prohibitive principle. Another problem for this paradigm comes when something not discussed in the creeds and confessions come along. If one takes the creed-as-doctrinal-summary position, there is no way the creeds and confessions could be used to address anything not found or discussed in the creeds and confessions, at least no legitimate way according to this paradigm.

The problem with the second paradigm is that the "spirit" of the creeds and confessions cannot be divorced from the actual contents of the creeds and confessions. Also, "honoring" the creeds and confessions without actually following them is paying them lip service and treating them like sacred relics rather than actual documents with statements in them. The problems with the third paradigm are the same as those with the second paradigm, with the extra problem that one is imposing an unbiblical narrative of "progress" on the creeds and confessions.

Concerning the fourth paradigm, it partakes of the problems with the first paradigm, while it also has the problem of imposing an unbiblical frame of prioritizing the "practical" aspects of the creeds and confessions more than their other parts. In their desire to make the creeds and confessions law instead of constitution, both the first and fourth paradigms ignore the category of "case laws" and thus impose strict practical constraints on believers.

Confession as constitution

The Reformed churches at their healthiest see the creeds and confessions as their constitution. They are there to set the standard for teaching and doctrinal discussion, drawing a line in the sand of what is tolerable and what is outside of the bounds of orthodoxy. The way they are structured also shows us the way our doctrinal discussions ought to be structured, so that we would not veer towards unbiblical ways of thinking.

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