Confession and Theology: Guardrails & Comprehension

Some folk seem to have the misapprehension that holding to a confession and catechisms (as do Presbyterians, the continental Reformed, Reformed Baptists, Lutherans, and Anglicans, just to name a few) thrusts a straightjacket on the theologian or the average Christian precluding freedom to follow Scripture wherever it leads and/or that it kills spiritual vitality. Nothing could be further from the truth. To be confessional (here I am using the expression “confessional” and its related terms in the sense of holding to a particular historical confession such as the Westminster Confession of Faith or the London Baptist Confession of 1689 rather than in the broader sense of believing in Christian or biblical orthodoxy in general) is to believe that the Bible teaches something and the Christian faith embraces specific teaching.

Confessions and catechisms, Carl Trueman frequently reminds us, are publically accessible articulations of what a specific Christian denomination believes the Bible teaches. If you are interested in learning about and possibly joining a Presbyterian church you will need to reckon with the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. These give you a good idea of what you are getting yourself involved in before you join. It is much like the dating and courting process before marriage. You don’t rush headlong into marriage without knowing something about the man or woman you intend to marry.

The Westminster Standards provide me with a baseline for what I can expect to be taught from the pulpit, lectern, and in the counseling session. Another way to put it is to say the confessional standards provide me with guardrails and comprehension. As a minister of Word and Sacrament, I know that my preaching, teaching, and counseling needs to consist with and cohere with the doctrinal or confessional standard to which I have signed my name. This is not to suggest that everything the Bible teaches or addresses is expressly contained in the Confession and catechisms of your church. Even the Westminster Standards, while comprehensive are not exhaustive. Rather, the confessional standards provide guardrails. The standards show the parameters (or perimeters!) of confessional integrity. That is, they point out the boundaries or limits of Christian orthodoxy. If you find yourself outside the guardrails you will likely fall off a cliff or wander into the forest. Doctrinally you will be in error or worse, heterodoxy. This is similar to saying that if you find yourself embracing or advocating for a view that no Bible commentator (or a questionable commentator like Pelagius) has ever considered let alone has considered and rejected, you are in trouble.

Confessional standards also provide comprehension. Many churches and parachurch organizations settle for doctrinal bullet points. This is certainly better than a church failing to articulate what it believes the Bible teaches on the important topics. However, a more detailed articulation serves the church better than a laundry list of doctrinal topics. A comprehensive confessional standard illustrates the systematic nature of Scripture’s teaching. Some seem to think the Bible, due to its collection of varied styles and genres, is a hodge-podge of doctrinal bricolage. I remember years ago reading a collection of essays on Old Princeton’s Charles Hodge (no relation to the aforementioned podge) that he was one of those old fangled theologians who believed the Bible actually taught something. My eyes almost fell out of their sockets! There is one Triune God who is divine author behind the many human writers of Scripture. He is not confused about what he intended and intends to reveal about himself and his will for our salvation. Every doctrine relates to every other doctrine. You mess with one; you have messed with them all.

An adequate confessional standard will tell us what this particular church believes about God, his means of communicating with us, man as created and then fallen, redemption, the Christian life, and the future. As I say, confessions provide guardrails and comprehension. But if you think being confessional requires marching lockstep with everyone else in your church on every last minute detail, you should visit a presbytery meeting or witness a synod or general assembly. Another way to think about the relation of a confession to theology is to think of it as creating the healthy, loving family environment in which theology can and ought to be done. Lone Ranger theology is usually a dangerous thing.

If you are a budding theologian (and we are all theologians), don’t fall for the silliness of thinking confessions and catechisms are some sort of straightjacket. On the contrary, confessions and catechisms are nothing but the articulation of what the Bible is believed to teach. Confessions and catechisms draw on the wealth of knowledge that the church has garnered throughout history under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Behind the confessions and catechisms of the church lay exegesis, biblical theology, church history and historical theology, practical or applied theology, apologetics, systematic theology, and pastoral concern.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington