The Nature of Confessionalism (Part 1 of 4)

Confession of Faith
Confession of Faith
The Nature of Confessionalism (Part 1 of 4)

It’s been a while since I have posted on the blog or dropped a podcast. Throughout October and early November, I took a step back to focus on denominational responsibilities and lead Redemption Hill Church into a new Sunday morning location. By God’s grace, both responsibilities went well, but now I am back in the saddle!

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting on why Redemption Hill Church is confessional. The term confessional has lost its luster over the last 100 years, but prior, most churches held to a confession of faith. I want to show in these blog posts the value of confessions and why a local church should be confessional. The next four blogs on confessionalism will be about 1) The Nature of Confessionalism, 2) The Parameters of Confessionalism, 3) A Vision of Confessionalism 4) the Subscription to a Confession. If you are new to confessionalism, or the term is foreign, that’s ok. The purpose of is to introduce people to new concepts, terms, and theological ideas.

These four blogs on confessionalism have been adapted from a paper I submitted to the elders of Trinity Fellowship Churches in preparation for Theology Day before our General Assembly. In this first blog post on the nature of confessionalism, I focus on why confessions are written down, the historical aspect of confessions, and the uniting effect of confessions.

Confessions are Written Down

It has become fashionable for many non-mainline Protestant churches to be vague about theology and doctrine. And the traditional mainline protestant churches have jettisoned their historic creeds and confessions. If not on paper, then with function. The reasons for the ambiguity are numerous. However, what is trendy is not historical. For most of church history, denominations and churches had robust creeds and confessions. These creeds and confessions provided clarity, which helped guard against heresy and doctrinal confusion. Throughout history, creeds and confessions were polemical and divided denominations from each other, but they also united local churches to one another. Creeds and confessions could guard against heresy and join like-minded churches because creeds and confessions are written down. It is popular to hear a local pastor or church member say they do not need a confession or creed because they have the Bible. “No creed but the Bible!” is declared. However, the declaration falls on deft ears. Carl Trueman affirms, 

I do want to make the point here that Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true.

– Carl Trueman 

All Christians live by a Creed. The fundamental difference between confessional and non-confessional churches and Christians can be summed up in one question: How can you know what a pastor and church believe? Answer. Doctrine is written down. The benefits of holding to a Confession of Faith that is written down are outlined in these blog posts. Nevertheless, suffice it to say, part of the nature of being confessional is that a document explicitly states doctrine. 

Confessions are Rooted in Tradition

The second aspect of confessions is their rootedness in tradition. As J.V. Fesko points out, the word tradition derives from the Latin word traditio, which means “to hand over.” I have already established that creeds and confessions are written down. Because confessions are written down, they can be passed down from one generation to the next. Holy Scripture is the precedent for this practice. So we read in 1 Corinthians 15.

I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures… 

– 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

The Apostle Paul handed down the essentials of the Christian faith. Of course, the essentials of the Christian faith are grounded in Scripture, but confessions explain and express what is being handed down. In Jude, we read,

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. 

– Jude 3

The essentials of the faith have been handed down from one generation to the next. The “delivering” of the faith continues through creeds and confessions. The handing down of a rule of faith stretches back to Ignatius of Antioch (35 AD-107 AD) and Tertullian (155 AD–220 AD). It was Tertullian who coined the phrase, rule of faith. (Greek: κανών της πίστεως, Latin: regula fidei). The rule of faith is a set of doctrines of the Christian faith handed down from one generation to the next. Early creeds, like the Nicene Creed (325 AD) and the Athanasian Creed (Date unknown), are early examples of the rule of faith. Within Protestantism, confessions have been used since the Reformation. A few of the more common confessions include The Belgic Confession (1561), The Heidelberg Confession (1563), and The Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). These three confessions are called the Three Forms of Unity. These confessions continued to be used. Two additional Protestant confessions have stood the test of time. They are The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) and the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. In keeping with the nature of being confessional, I believe that churches that seek a confession end up maintaining a rootedness with tradition. For Redemption Hill Church, additions and changes are necessary to the 1689 to contend wtih issues that this generation faces. However, the substance of 1689 can be strongly affirmed, taught, and defended. 

Confessions Unite Elders and Churches

The nature of confessions also unites elders and local churches. The nature of a confession does create a necessary wedge with potential pastors and churches, but the nature of creeds breeds unity through the truth.

Story Time

I’ll never forget that my first pastorate lasted less than a year. I won’t get into all the details of my tumultuous time at the church, but I’ll share the tipping point of why I handed in my resignation. During a staff meeting, the interim pastor (who did not hire me) said that he would not seek to unite the church around the truth. If not around truth, then what? I recall sitting in stunned silence. I was green to being a pastor, but my knowledge of Holy Scripture and my instincts told me what I needed to do.

Local churches should not unite around a personality or even around methodology. People and methods constantly change. However, the truth of God’s Word expressed in creeds and confession is timeless and has the potential to leave a lasting legacy.

Among many reasons for leading Redemption Hill into embracing a confession of faith is to leave a legacy of faith for generations to come. May our children, and our children’s children, rejoice in the gospel of Jesus Christ. May our faith be living and active. And I pray our confession of faith is a cornerstone for faithful growth.

Shawn Powers is the lead pastor of Redemption Hill Church. You can follow him on Twitter at shawn_DSM.