Statements, confessions, “here-I-stand”s; what do they achieve?

Sep 19, 2017 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

We’re approaching the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous action which lit the fuse for the social, political, cultural and religious revolution later known as the Reformation. The milestone has led over the past few months to a number of commemorative events, books, and new statements about faith. The latest of these is “A Reforming Catholic Confession” (RCC), drafted by a committee of theologians mostly from the USA, and signed by hundreds of academics and pastors from around the world.

The Confession aims to refute the idea increasingly taking hold in some quarters that the Reformation was based on unsound principles, harmful and to be regretted. Some (for example here ) claim that by rejecting the authority of pope and institutional church, the new Protestant movements have allowed the primacy of individual interpretation to lead to endless fragmentation and division. But according to the drafters of the Reformed Catholic Confession,  the competing denominations of Protestantism and sometimes aggressive sectarianism are not a result of the basic principles of the Reformation – a return to apostolic Christianity – but “their imperfect application due to human finitude, fallibility, and the vagaries of historical and political circumstance”.

The problem with Protestantism, according to the drafters, has not been lack of centralised human authority (the Roman Catholic critique), or prioritising one’s own opinions about religion over love and civility (the liberal Protestant critique). Rather its has been the failure to recognise often enough the essential unity that comes from shared beliefs in the same basic doctrines.

This Confession states what these doctrines are in a familiar form, similar to many an evangelical ‘basis of faith’: a short summary of orthodox doctrine about God, Scripture, humanity, fallenness, Jesus and his work, the message of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit, the Church, Sacraments, discipleship (called ‘holy living’), and the last things. Statements like this are truly ‘catholic’: they are not inventing a new religion, but are expressions of the faith of the universal church down the ages. They are a means of recognising existing unity, trying to be as broad as possible so that for example, Arminians and Calvinists, Baptists and Anglicans, charismatic egalitarians and reformed complementarians, evangelicals from the political left and right can sign in agreement with primary issues while leaving others secondary or ‘adiaphora’.

Unity is a good thing, prayed for by our Lord and commanded elsewhere in Scripture. To what extent are Statements of faith like this one helpful in encouraging Christian unity and inter-denominational cooperation and witness? There can be no doubt that the process of senior leaders sitting round a table and/or emailing draft after corrected draft of documents with deeply thoughtful and highly educated people from different backgrounds of denomination and church culture is very good in itself for relationship building as well as teasing out theological agreement and disagreement. As to the final document, it is always inspiring to read summaries of our faith, elegantly and concisely expressed, which the majority of Protestants across the world can affirm, even though some may say “I would express that clause differently…”. The RCC no doubt fulfils its somewhat limited aim of showing the amount of unity there is amid the diversity of thousands of denominations.

But at the same time, the reaction of some to this new credal statement, which has obviously taken a lot of time from a lot of clever people, is one of thinking “yes, and so what?” Precisely because it aims to be so uncontroversial and not say anything new, it is perhaps in danger of being redundant. This becomes especially apparent when it’s compared with other similar confessions of faith. The best ones have been produced at a kairos moment, often a time of crisis in church history, so they have a clear context into which they are speaking. The Nicene Creed was drawn up specifically to counter the Arian heresy, and to establish clearly the divinity of Christ. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were not cool and polite general statements on ecclesiology, but a furious protest against specific serious errors in the doctrines and practices of the medieval church and its leadership. Likewise the Anglican 39 Articles address particular problems of wrong belief in the church at the time, as well as setting out a summary of basic biblical doctrines.

So the best creeds have addressed the wrong ideas threatening to destroy the church as well as setting out what Christians should believe: the nature of Christ in the 4th century, the means of reconciliation with God in the 16th – in the 21st it’s the nature of humanity as male and female, sexual morality and holiness. The recent Nashville Statement focuses on this issue alone and makes its affirmations by means of contrast and antithesis: “we believe this; we don’t believe that” (I personally find this helpful). The Church of England Evangelical Council recently added two clauses to its basis of faith to clearly delineate orthodoxy on marriage and sexuality. The Gafcon Jerusalem Statement and Declaration contains the same insistence on biblical anthropology as a first order issue, and as well as articulating key aspects of orthodox faith, the Declaration says that those leaders who have abandoned this faith have forfeited their spiritual authority (Clause 13).

But because the authors of the RCC were keen to promote Protestant unity rather than get involved in controversies of Gospel vs culture, they have deliberately avoided mentioning the main issues on which the church is divided and on which orthodox Christianity is most under pressure in the secular West. So while the document is a useful summary of what Christians believe, it doesn’t address the ‘elephant in the room’. The authors may argue that a biblical doctrine of sexuality is not central to credal orthodoxy, but many leaders of mainline Protestant denominations, trying to hold together conservatives and liberals through ‘good disagreement’, would agree wholeheartedly.

Another criticism of ‘statements of faith’ is that they can be dry documents, consisting of propositions to which we are asked to intellectually assent. Many have pointed out that the Bible and the Christian life are not like that: while we are called to “believe the Gospel” cognitively about Jesus Christ we are also called to turn away from sin and enter a relationship of trust with a Person. This summary (link here) of a recently produced suggested theological system incorporates the emotional, relational and dynamic as well as the intellectual. Any ‘creed’ is in effect a systematic theology, articulating doctrine based on Scripture, but Scripture itself is not a system but a story, a drama about God’s redeeming love for frail and wayward humanity from creation to consummation. Flowing out of grasping truth about God should come worship: enjoying his presence and honouring his person; and discipleship: living as pilgrims in obedience to him and in service to neighbour. So the best creeds are not just statements of truth. They should correct error, and help us to live life in all its fullness.

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