Confession and Theology: Five Theological Affirmations Without a Wink and a Nod

Today theology has fallen on tough times and that includes confessional theology.  Listen closely to contemporary conversations, because depending on the participants the discussion will usually include a wink and a nod, as if to say, the narrative, of which these confessional documents are a part, was a power move exercised by authorities within the church.  Consider this quote, “Chalcedon, I think, always smelled a bit like a confidence trick, celebrating in Tertullian-like fashion the absurdity of what is believed, and gave hostages to fortune which post-Enlightenment fortune has been using as well.”[1]  Or how about this quote from the same author and article, "After fifteen years of serious historical Jesus study, I still say the creed ex animo; but I now mean something very different by it, not least by the word “god” itself.  The portrait has been redrawn."[2]  Who is the author of these statements?  N. T. Wright.  But what Wright admits is not far from the practice of others.  There seems to be a crossing of the fingers and a slight knowing smile, which says, "Yes, I believe the creed - as I interpret it."  Now, any confessional believer will cringe at this sort of affirmation, if indeed, that is what it can be called, which I doubt.   

So, in this brief article I want to contend for five affirmations with which any confessional believer - let alone any gospel minister - would be happy.  First, the historic confessions (Westminster, Heidelberg, Belgic, etc.) are safe.  Now, I can just see the eyes of some begin to roll.  But here me out.  Scripture governs the historic confessions.  They are norma normata or the rule that is ruled by the norma normans or the rule that rules. The Scriptures shape historic confessions and are therefore Biblical, which means they are also safe. 

Second, the historic confessions are authoritative.  The question of authority has always been part of the discussion with regard to the confessions of the church.  In what sense are they binding upon the minister and people?  Two terms have been used to describe the authority of confessions as they relate to Scripture.  In other words, are we to subscribe to the confessions because (quia) or in so far as (Quatenus) they accord with the Word of God?  Now, good men on both sides of the aisle have argued for either of these positions and some have felt fiercely about their position.  However, the point is, both sides have understood the confession to be authoritatively binding on the minister of the gospel because they are documents formed and governed by the Scriptures.  The confessions are authoritative.

Third, and this almost goes without saying, confessions are Biblical.  I say this for a very simple reason.  There is none-sense afoot claiming that a logical presentation of Biblical truth is not a faithful presentation of Biblical truth.  It seems to me that those who render this sort of criticism forget two things: 1) that historical formulation is a method of presenting Biblical truth, and 2) that the Bible itself uses logic!  Confessions are Biblical, their method is Biblical, and that method of presentation is in need of recovery.

Fourth, confessions are communal documents.  This is not to say that they are democratic.  Yes, they are consensus documents; they are documents that ask, "How far are we able to walk together in agreement?"  However, the Bible determines community and not the other way around.  In other words, it is the Spirit of God and the Word of God that bring unity of mind and unity of fellowship. 

And fifth, confessions are pastoral documents.  These documents are an aid to any pastor seeking to be a faithful shepherd to God's people and the pastor will do well to learn the content of these documents that he might apply their Biblical teaching to the wounds and sprains of His sheep.  What is more, these documents easily enable the people of God to hear and organize the Biblical truth they encounter in preaching and teaching.  Brothers and sisters, any pastor worth his salt ought to happily believe in and accept the teaching of the historic confessions as being based upon the Scriptures and he ought to be able to do so without a wink and a nod.     

Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995.  He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the Managing Editor for Place for Truth.

[1] N.T. Wright, “Jesus and the Identity of God,” [cited 2/14/2008].  Online:

[2] Ibid.    


Jeffrey Stivason