Confession and Orthodoxy: Explaining and Experiencing God
In the late 1890’s B. B. Warfield, along with several other men, wrote against “the impatience . . . with the effort to define truth and to state with precision the doctrinal presuppositions and contents of Christianity.” Such impatience was possessed by many who confessed to be Christians, even as it is today, who were in fact not Christians at all. Of course, some who are intellectually confused about the need for doctrinal precision for Christian living need to be distinguished from those who are morally corrupt, and both reject and attack Christian doctrine in the name of upholding it. The latter is done by those who lack Christian faith altogether, who do not have the Lord Jesus’ life through the power of his Spirit. In order to truly confess Christian faith one must be born-again from the spiritual dead; have one’s thinking illumined and will enlivened by the Holy Spirit so that one regards God as he has revealed himself in his word written and made flesh—lovely and worthy of praise. In short, there is an organic union between what one confesses to be true and what one identifies as orthodox.
The term orthodox is a compound word that many want to affirm means right or straight belief, but is perhaps more accurately identified as right or straight praise. The dox part of orthodox comes from the Greek term doxa that means praise or glory. Our term doxology helps make the point. It is a compound word that refers to a word or song of praise. It is correct to identify orthodoxy with right or straight thinking, however, because God is intrinsically or inherently praiseworthy or glorious. To think rightly about God or have correct theology always leads to doxology, or praise of God, because he is gloriously praiseworthy.
To affirm that God is gloriously praiseworthy is to confess truth about God, but in the Christian faith such a confession is only regarded as credible, or the true condition of our soul or heart, when we act consistently with it. I can say God is gloriously praiseworthy but the real issue in the area of Christian confession is whether I actually praise God for who he is as revealed in what he has done, is doing and will do. Among other things, this unavoidably raises questions regarding how we know the truth regarding God and what it means to praise him. Needless to say, these issues have been and will continue to be intensely debated. Christian confession affirms that God’s word written and made flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ, is how we know who God is, and that true praise of God is living obediently to him. After all, perhaps the simplest Christian confession is: “Jesus is Lord.” Since he is Lord, he is to be obeyed. It is why Jesus asked on one occasion: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). Yet, such obedience is also intimately and unavoidably joined to love for God. As Jesus also said, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15).
Complete obedience to God’s commands, however, is precisely what we as sinners cannot do. This too is part of what comprises Christian confession. We are incapable of confessing what we ought and need to confess. Sin affects our whole being. While our thinking, affections and choices can be distinguished from one another, they can never actually be disconnected from each other. When we address orthodoxy in the Christian faith we can never think that we are merely addressing our thinking narrowly considered, and in isolation from our desires and actions. Thinking, feeling and doing are certainly three ways of identifying functions we engage in as humans, but ultimately, as God’s word reveals, these functions are united. Love for God does go with obedience to him and both are united to whether one knows the truth regarding God. The Christian life is doctrine and Christian doctrine is a life, a life of praise to and of God. When we in the church confess our common faith we are not reciting it. We are not merely speaking words we have memorized. Instead, our confession of faith in the Lord Jesus is our conviction that what we say in that confession is eternal truth that is the gospel that saves from sin and reveals God as gloriously praiseworthy.
B. B. Warfield, “The Right of Systematic Theology,” in Selected Shorter Writings vol. 2 ed. John E. Meeter (Phillipsburgh, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1973), 221.
David P. Smith, M.Div. (Covenant Seminary), Ph.D. (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.