Confession and History: Listening Backward and Looking Ahead
If there really has been a trend (resurgence? revival?) recently toward recovering the truths of reformed theology then it is most likely and not hard to miss that there has been a millennial flavor to that trend. Of course, all believers in every age have their own cultural moorings which they bring to bear upon their religious life and practice; it’s unavoidable. And this is why all Christians ought to strive to be heavenly minded and by the power of the Spirit be conformed more to Christ than to the world around them. They are to be in the world but not of it.
But if I can speak as one inside that younger, millennial-flavored tribe who cherish the Gospel as expressed in historic reformed theology, and no doubt I have my own blind spots being in that tribe, one of the things I’ve seen as deficient among “us” has been a detachment, well, from history. Generally speaking, we don’t ask “why this?” enough, or better yet, “where did this practice come from?” In our proclivity to be restless (because we’re young and western?) we are attracted to and quickly buy into the new, the now, and what we think works - even if we identify as Reformed. Perhaps this can explain why we get trapped in debates about the pro’s and con’s of multi-site church’s rather than exploring the benefits and theology of the regulative principle?
Though the founding of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals began just before the arrival of all these new Calvinists (and very likely was a huge factor in many of our coming to Reformed convictions through the ministry of James Montgomery Boice), there was real wisdom in first grounding the Alliance’s platform in the Historic Confessions of Reformed Protestantism. Indeed, it is a “a coalition of pastors, scholars, and churchmen who hold the historic creeds and confessions of the Reformed faith and who proclaim biblical doctrine in order to foster a Reformed awakening in today's Church.”
This seems to me to be the right balance that today’s millennial reformed believers need most, - a focus on the historic confessions within the context of the local church. Why do I think this? Here are three reasons.
First, reading and thinking through the historic creeds and confessions of the Reformed faith forces me to know my history and understand better the historical development of the doctrines I hold so dear. Yes, I’m convinced by Scripture alone that what we call reformed theology, it’s doctrines and practices, are true and biblical. But those doctrines were hammered out and finally found their confessional expression only after long debate and within a certain historical context. Paying attention to that historical context enables me as a “millennial” to step out of my current zeitgeist and to hear those helpful voices from the past as I read and apply God’s word. Confessions like the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 are a consensus of wise and godly teaching concerning the truths of Scripture. I can read God’s word “by their side”, as it were, and not fall into the trap of having to reinvent the wheel. Indeed, a good historic Confession can act as a time-tested tutor looking over my shoulder and helping me tie together the truths of Scripture.
Secondly, being a part of a church that aligns itself with an historic confession is being in a church that aligns itself within an historical identity. In other words, the church is saying that they are not coming up with anything new. They are saying that God’s people have always been bigger and older and broader than just their local and current context. They are saying that they openly align themselves with other churches who subscribe to or align with the same historic creeds and confessions. This has the benefit of showing younger members and visitors that history matters and that they’ve thought hard about where they fit within that history.
Thirdly, and kind of tying together points one and two, is the understanding that a church’s subscription to a good historic Confession not only connects it to the past, but is also building a foundation for the future. When a church teaches their children to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which of course is there to help them better understand the Confession of Faith, it should go without saying that the church is ultimately hoping to bring its children to faith in those truths the church already confesses. Thus the younger generation can be girded up in faithfulness and in a strong understanding of Scriptural truths in order to be a blessing to future generations. Historic confessions then are not just about looking to the past, but are very much about looking to the future. Indeed Calvin made this exact point in a now often quoted line from his letter to the Lord Protector of England where he said, “Believe me, Monsignor, the Church of God will never be preserved without Catechesis.” A confession thus grounded in history, tried and tested by time, can be trusted to serve the church on into the future.
Again, from what I can see within my own generation, a generation somewhat obsessed with the here and now, and seemingly blinded to the past and future, historic confessions are a good thing. They help to orient our hearts and minds to bigger truths, showcasing for us an older church that has gone before us, a church which served us well by putting together these confessions. But they also help us prepare for the generations to come, tools by which to train them up to Confess the faith, to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered” (Jude 3) and to likewise teach those truths to still future generations “being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you yourselves have followed” (1 Timothy 4:6).
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.