A podcast listener, Lauren Balozian, writes in to ask about confessional Christianity: “Dear Pastor John, I’m a fan of your podcast. My question is this: Do you subscribe to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith? If not, why not? And in general, what are your thoughts on the confessional movement and associations?”
Well, before I declare myself with regard to the 1689 Baptist Confession, just some general thoughts, some encouraging, hopeful thoughts about confessional Christianity:
Of confessional Christianity I think, Christianity that is unified around a written confession of faith, at its best, is the best Christianity. In other words, all other things being equal, it is a good thing for a people to be united around a written summary of biblical truth. Four reasons come to mind:
1) Paul, when he was saying farewell to the elders in Ephesus, declared, “I am innocent of the blood of you all, because I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27). The phrase “whole counsel of God” points to some kind of unified summary of essential biblical truth. And Paul said to Timothy in another place similarly, “Guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20). So there is some kind of apostolic deposit that is put down that you should guard and hand on — some kind of body of unified truth. We see the same thing in Romans 6:17. Paul said, “You who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.”
So we have got the phrases “standard of teaching,” “deposit,” “whole counsel of God,” and those all ask: Have you done that, John Piper? Did you deliver to Bethlehem Baptist Church the whole counsel of God? Is there a deposit of truth that you gave there? And I think that points us towards: Yeah, we need something like that summarized or written down for us.
2) Without a written summary of biblical truth we tend to be vague about what we believe. Some people think that avoiding confessions of faith provides greater Christian unity, because writing things down requires precision and clarity and explicitness and all of those precipitate disagreements and arguments.
But the alternative is to obscure those disagreements under a cloud of vagueness, and the effect of that so-called unity is that it constantly depends on keeping clarity of truth at a distance. You can’t see it with precision up close and it lets you down in the end when crucial applications and decisions have to be made on the basis of truth, and it has now been kept obscure all this time and we don’t have it there to apply in crucial cases.
3) The slogan “No creed but the Bible” conceals the fact that in almost any group, crucial biblical statements will be properly understood by some and misunderstood by others. In such cases, it is naïve to say that the Bible unites us. It may not be uniting us at all. It may be a vague cloak for significant disunity. And that doesn’t honor the Scriptures.
It was a great education for me to do a study of Athanasius and realize that in the debates that he had with the heretic Arius, both sides affirmed the authority of Scripture and both sides did extensive quoting of the Bible. And so “No creed but the Bible” in that case would simply be used to cover the fact that the denial of the deity of Christ doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. And somebody has to stand up and say: That is not what the Bible teaches.
4) Confessional summaries of biblical truth really do help us in our faith, because I think faith thrives on deep, true doctrine that is brought out of the Scriptures, properly summarized, applied to peoples’ lives, and in our souls, in our families, in our churches, even in society. That kind of clear, doctrinal truth is healthy for life and for obedience to Jesus.
I know that there will always be pharisaic misuses of doctrine, of biblical truth, which turn them into a vehicle of pride and abuse of God’s people, but those kinds of misuses of truth should not stop us from the right use of truth, which is to treat it like kindling thrown on the fires of love for God and love for people. That is the way it has functioned in my life over the years anyway, that clear, faithful, doctrinal teaching has been an inflaming means to my faith and my love for God and love for people. So, yes, I am in favor of churches and schools and ministries being defined by robust affirmations of faith.
One of the practical effects that had on me was after about 15 years of my serving Bethlehem Baptist Church, the elders, with my encouragement, worked their way for about four or five years to the point of composing and agreeing upon The Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith. And that affirmation of faith now governs the church and desiringGod.org and Bethlehem College and Seminary.
There are advantages and disadvantages of composing a new affirmation of faith. I realize their dangers. The great danger is that we might be trendy or idiosyncratic or selective, based on our own preferences. The advantage is that it can be expressed in language that is more understandable and can deal with issues and terms that we are facing today that need to be dealt with doctrinally and ethically. So we tried very hard not to be trendy or idiosyncratic and we tried to send out the affirmation of faith in its process of coming into being to Christian leaders across the country and get feedback. So that was our approach.
Now here is the deal with the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. I didn’t choose to go that route, even though it is a good, solid, Reformed Baptist version of the Westminster Confession. And there are several reasons why. Here they are:
1) The language is somewhat foreign. Its vocabulary is like reading the King James Version. And I think it is probably a mistake to try to enshrine that today as the one if you expect families to use it without any updated form.
2) While I am able to affirm that Genesis 1 refers to literal 24-hour days, I had a hard time thinking that I should make that a matter of confessional faithfulness to Christianity, and so I stumbled over that section.
3) The understanding of the Sabbath is, perhaps, more rigorous and narrow than my understanding of the implications of Jesus’s teaching about the Sabbath.
4) There are certain historic categories of theology, like the covenant of works and others, that have proved useful, but you might wonder: Shall I make that the structure of the theology I am going to present?
5) This is going to sound so piddly — and yet you can’t be piddly in a confession — little things like saying that bread and wine are prescribed in the Lord’s Supper. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that wine was used in the Lord’s Supper. That comes as a shock to a lot of people. It doesn’t say that is what was used.
Now I suspect it was. I suspect it was wine, but it always uses the term cup or fruit of the vine and, therefore, if you get into a knock down battle and say we are going to settle this confessionally and you go to the 1689 Confession, it is going to say wine is what you are supposed to use. And I would say: Well, that is just unbiblical, because that is not what the Bible says, even though that is totally legitimate and maybe even preferable, but not at all required.
So I think the 1689 Confession of Faith is a glorious, wonderfully faithful expression of biblical truth. I fellowship down to my toenails with people who love that doctrine. But there are enough little things like I have mentioned here that made me say: I think probably for us we would want to go another direction.
But my main point here that I want to say and leave Lauren with is I think affirmations of faith are very important and that churches should not shy away from them, but patiently over time work their way toward a unified expression of biblical faith for the sake of the preservation and the vitality and the mission of the church.
A hearty amen to that! I can hear followup emails piling up already in the inbox on creation, Sabbath, and wine.
So can I. Oh my, what have I done?