Confession and History: Doctrine Divides, Historical Patterns

Years ago I attended a seminar promoting a new study Bible with notes aimed at fostering deeper relationships.  At a break, I asked the author of the notes why basic theological points were so conspicuously absent.  “Oh,” he replied, “that’s because doctrine divides, and we don’t want to divide Christ’s body!”  Dejected, I returned to my seat, knowing he had missed the obvious point: doctrine is supposed to divide.

As I thought about the angst that many Christians have about doctrine and its supposed divisiveness, I was reminded that God often providentially uses theological controversy as the catalyst for clarification, codification, and preservation of biblical truth from error.  The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) met to resolve “no small dissention and debate” over the role of the Mosaic law.  Here the Church was able to “come to one accord” and found a solution which “seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole Church,” which it then disseminated in writing.

As unsettling as doctrinal disputes can be, it’s important to keep in mind that polemics is an essential function of the Church because it helps believers to preserve the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).  Most Christians are familiar with the importance of apologetics – defending what we believe – but many believers today seem oblivious to the necessity of polemics, which is the other side of the coin, where the ever-reforming Church pro-actively refutes error.

What history teaches us about confessions is that frequently the result of this necessary polemical function is a creedal statement.  Passages like 1Timothy 3 and Philippians 2 demonstrate this “controversy-to-clarification-to-confession” pattern.  And in church history, we find more examples of the pattern.  The Fourth Century Arian dispute over the person of Christ led to the Nicene Creed, and in the Fifth Century, disputes about the nature of Christ produced the Chalcedonian Creed.

This pattern is also clearly discerned in the Reformation era.  The decades following the 1555 Peace of Augsburg (the agreement ending hostilities between Roman Catholic and Protestant forces) experienced such a proliferation of creedal documents that historians have termed it the “Era of Confessionalization.”  Ironically many confessions were the result of internal clashes within various Protestant branches.  Minor disagreements within the Reformed communities contributed to the production of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), while the intense dissention within the Lutheran community following the reformer’s death led to the Book of Concord (1580), which systematized Lutheran thought into Lutheranism

This historical pattern teaches that the Church that is ever-reforming is also ever-vigilant.  Keeping in mind that the ever-reforming Church is really the ever-being-reformed-by-the-Word-of-God Church, it must always be alert for deviations from the apostolic pattern preserved in Scripture.  Paul’s warning in Acts 20 to the Ephesian elders to “be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock” against men who speak “twisted things” is an apt reminder that vigilance is key to protecting the Church by guarding sound doctrine. But Paul’s admonition has an important tactical component: he not only warns that savage attacks will come from outside the flock – an obvious threat – but he also cautions church leaders to be vigilant about the less-obvious internal threats, which will arise “from among your own selves.”  This very sobering truth is an alarm to the Church to attentively look back to the faith once delivered to the saints, to look around to assure that everyone is holding fast to sound doctrine, and to look ahead for what errors are lurking on the horizon.

History also tells us that a sign of a vigilant Church is the appearance of new ways of re-affirming and refining biblical truth that has been long-preserved in the older Confessions.  Since the spirit of the age brings different challenges for each new generation, the Church must respond with greater precision and clarification of the truth it’s protecting and passing on.  The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), which was a response to Modernism’s assaults on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture stands as a contemporary example of the “controversy-to-clarification-to-confession” pattern held to by a vigilant Church. 

Confessions are helpful historical reminders that Christians should praise God that the Church in the past has faithfully contended for the faith and has been diligent to separate truth from error.  May God graciously grant that our generation will leave for those who come after us a testimony of faithful vigilance for the pure truth of God as confessed by the Church of all ages.

James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.

James Rich