Home > Uncategorized > An Introduction to Confessional Theology

An Introduction to Confessional Theology

What is the purpose of age old confessions and creeds in the church today?  

As some of you know, I am a big fan of church creeds and confessions.  Being within the PC(USA), which is a creedal church is part of that, but I also have tremendous respect for the theological contributions of those who have preceded us.  However, before I begin I should start by defining some terms.

Creeds – these tend to be short statements of belief, such as the Nicene and Apostle’s Creed.
Confessions – these are longer and more systematic statements of belief.  Examples include the Westminster, French, Scot’s, and Second Helvetic Confessions.
Catechisms – These are set in question and answer form.  Examples include the Heidleberg Catechism and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.  

My first year of seminary I took a course from Dr. Charles Partee entitled the Creeds of Christendom.  It was a good class that examined the various creeds, confessions, and catechisms in their entirety.  This term I am taking a similar course from Dr. John Burgess which examines the confessions doctrine by doctrine.  So, we read from each confession every week the section that corresponds to the topic for that week.

So far we’ve covered 1) Revelation/Scripture 2) God 3) Humans/Sin and this week we’re examining Jesus Christ.  What I have suspected but am now being convinced of is that the church, if it is to be faithful to its calling in the coming century must not disregard the confessions of its past as antiquated documents.  Rather, we must return to them in order to understand where we have come from.

What I am not calling for is a return to the subscriptionalism of the past, where those who wanted to be ordained (Ministers, Elders, and Deacons) had to subscribe to the Westminster Confession and declare any scruples or disagreements that they had with it.  In fact, such a return would be impossible, as the Presbyterian church now recognizes no less than 10 different creeds/confessions/catechisms which don’t always agree in full.  What I am advocating for is the use of a “Confessional Theology” in order to frame our theological discussions and to give us a sense of where the church has been in order that we might better discern where God is leading us in the future.

A “Confessional Theology” also does not seek to be the last word in theological discussion.  I am not saying that we should synthesize the confessions and then declare that to be the truth.  Again, I view a true “Confessional Theology” as a discussion starter, not a stopper.  Let’s seriously examine what the Confessions say about Jesus Christ.  Let’s examine our confessions to see what they say about biblical interpretation, etc.  

We may, and in fact should view these confessions with a critical eye.  But before we start criticizing our confessions for their faults we must develop a proper “histo-theological” lens by which we read the various confessions.  For example, one must properly understand the issues surrounding the Council of Nicea to fully understand it and the significance of the message.  Again, it is helpful to understand the theological and historical issues at hand when John Knox and company penned the Scot’s Confession.  I say this because the Scot’s confession is often highlighted as example of confessions gone awry for its awful assessment of the role of women in the church.  But, when viewed in light of the historical times and the theological issues that were present one can come to a better understanding of why the confession was written like it was.  

To put a little more meat on what I mean by a “histo-theological” lens, let me use the Theological Declaration of Barmen as an example.  Read apart from its context, Barmen comes across as an aggressively Christological statement But, when understood in context one’s depth of understanding increases greatly.  Written in the late 1930’s, Barmen was written as a call for churches in Germany to remember that it is Jesus Christ, not Adolf Hitler, who was (and is) head of the church.  Thus, the issue at hand was of utmost importance and called for the aggressive language that was used.

We also should not expect complete agreement amongst the confessions; in fact, we should expect that there will be areas where they differ.  As noted above the Scot’s and Second Helvetic Confession hold a view of women that contemporary confessions (Confession of 1967 and A Brief Statement of Faith (1983)) disagree with in full.  Again, this is why a “Confessional Theology” isn’t meant to be limit and binding, but rather a place to begin our theological discussions.  

We will also find that over time the church has changed how it has articulated its message to reflect different times.  The early creeds read quite different from the Reformation era documents.  And, one notices quite a few differences between the Reformation era documents and the more contemporary confessions that were written during the 20th Century.  Here we see real life examples of how the church has altered its language without altering its truth of that message, something that the church seeks to do in every time and place.  

As I continue to develop my thoughts on “Confessional Theology” and what it looks like I will post them, but I am eager to hear people’s feedback, especially if you’re still reading and didn’t fall asleep bored.  

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. R E LANGFORD JR, the rev'd, FAPC, ELCA pastor, retired
    May 20, 2008 at 2:11 am

    Friend, as I can barely see, thisbeing so small, I simply wanted to say, “Thanks.” It’s been a puzzle for me for some time as to whya person would bother to write a ‘new’ confession of faith. Your comments indicate an approach I’d never dreamed of as possible. My LC-MS friends tend to write ‘Brief Statements’ and such, but I’ve never thought them useful as they appear to create more problems than they solve. It’s bad enough that we ELCA types have forever to be monkeying about with our constitutions because of changing social or other situations.

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