Confession and History: Heroes Who Confessed
In our day, the spirit of the age bombards us with the message that something newer is inherently better. Yet, for the Christian who holds to old confessions, we are reminded that the Christian faith is decidedly rooted in history. We are not holding our beliefs because they are new but rather because they are grounded in historical events and the confession articulated which has stood the test of time.
First, while confessions are statements of doctrine and have a clear theological component, we also need to be reminded that confessional Christianity is rooted in historical events. The early church confessed that Christ both died for our sin and rose again according to the Scripture (1 Cor. 15:3-4). History and theology are intertwined. Christ really died and truly rose again from the dead. Paul is adamant that if Christ did not rise again we are still in our sins and our faith is worthless (1 Cor. 15:14, 17, 19). The theology that Christ bore our sins is tied directly to the history that Christ died and rose again.
Take for as example the early creeds of the church. The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene-Constantinople Creed both confess things that Christians believe actually happened. Without historical events, there is nothing to confession. Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, he was handed over to Pilate, he was crucified, buried, and rose again from the dead on the third day. While the Chalcedonian Creed focuses on the hypostatic union, this union is not possible if the eternal Son of God did not himself step down into history. He was “in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood.”
The confessional statements of the 16th and 17th century show the same rootedness in history. Admittedly, these confessions are longer and broader in the scope of theology they cover. However, we say again that if Christ did not die and rise again there would be no Christian confession. Chapters 4-8 of the Westminster Confession are concerned with the basic Biblical flow of history: creation, fall and redemption. Chapter 7 helps us understand the ordering of God’s covenants that have been revealed in history.
When we think about the relationship between our confessions and history, another important aspect is that the documents themselves are a product of historical events and circumstances. Part of the Christian's task of understanding our doctrines and our confessions is understanding the role that they played in certain historical circumstances. It is hard to understand the importance of the Nicene Creed without understanding the background of the Arian controversy. We believe that the Nicene Creed reflect faithful Biblical doctrine but we also wisely recognize how the circumstances of its age brought about its construction. Indeed, if it had not been for the Nicene Creed and those who faithfully defended it the true worship of Christ might be largely lost today.
Similarly, as confessional evangelicals we owe our existence to the Reformation. The Confessions come as a product of brave men and women who risked their lives to oppose the false teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and stand for the teachings of the Bible. The Confessions were constructed on the shoulders of these spiritual forefathers. Furthermore, these Confessions have stood the test of time and have bore spiritual children and fruit.
As we think of the church today, we greatly need to recover the perspective of history and longevity. We need to avoid seeking the immediate gratification of the moment. Our confessions serve to tie us to history. As we teach our doctrines, confessions, and catechisms to our young people, we ought to show them a bit of the history to which they relate.
In our day it cost very little to confess these truths. The time is coming, and is here, when confessing Christian truths will prove costly. It is in this climate that we need to understand our heritage. It can be encouraging and inspiring to point to brave men and women who risked and lost their lives for these same doctrines. Every Christian forefather has sins and flaws, but who is not inspired by the courage of Athanasuis, the boldness of a Luther, or the bravery of a David Brainerd? Better understanding how confessions are tied to the history of the early church or the Reformation just might give today’s generation the perspective and courage to stand for something greater than themselves against the spirit of the age. At least we can recognize that while today’s world might think we are ‘on the wrong side of history,’ in our confessions we have history and historical heroes of the faith on our side as a great cloud of witnesses.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.