To be confessional is to ask what the Standards say and intend? What are the implications of the Standards for one’s theology, piety, and practice? What did the framers, in their context, intend for the churches to say and do? Ask yourself this: if your favorite, dearest practice was found to be contrary to the Standards would you give it up and reform your practice to conform to the language and intent of the Standards? A confessional Presbyterian is willing to be corrected by the Standards. What does it mean to do something in good faith? It means to act with “honesty or sincerity of intention.”
Becoming Self-Consciously Confessional
When I was introduced to Reformed theology, piety, and practice I do not think that very many people were talking about being “confessional.” Indeed, the idea of creeds (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed etc) confessions (e.g., the Westminster Confession or the Belgic Confession), and catechisms was unknown to me until I began attending St John’s Reformed Church in 1980–81. [Speaking of St. John’s please pray for pastor Lee Johnson, who needs your help. Read more». St John’s is a faithful congregation but not wealthy]. Of course, in the early months and years of my Reformed journey everything was new. There was a great lot to sort. As I began read more and even in seminary, where we discussed the confessions and where I took two courses covering both the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity (i.e., the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort) I do not recall hearing a lot of discussion about being “confessional.” Typically we distinguished between “conservative” and “liberal.” We were taught to think of ourselves first as evangelicals and secondly as Reformed.
In this period I was, shall we say, schizophrenic. In some ways my practice of ministry was pragmatist (largely under the influence of the church-growth literature). I believed and loved the Heidelberg Catechism but there were ways in which my theology, piety, and practice was out of sync with it. The authors, and framers of the catechism assumed, taught, and interpreted Scripture in light of the Luther’s distinction between law and gospel. I did not. The authors and framers of the catechism correlated the covenant of works with law and the covenant of grace with gospel. I did not, at least not consistently. I was a legal preacher. I consistently put the congregation back under the covenant of works while simultaneously trying to push them toward contemporary worship, so that we could grow and be “successful.” Under my leadership we gave up the evening service in favor of Bible studies. In the providence of God, it was a study of Galatians that helped to open my eyes to some of the mistakes I had been making but still I was mostly assuming that whatever I was thinking of doing was at least not contrary to the catechism. It was not yet shaping my thinking. Had you asked me whether I agreed with Heidelberg 65 and the Reformed doctrine of the due use of the means of grace I would have said yes but my actions were contradictory. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
During my post-graduate research, for which I spent much time reading and translating primary sources from the sixteenth century Reformed theologians and a good deal of secondary literature (i.e., books and articles about the primary sources, authors, and settings) I began to see some dissonance between the way I learned Reformed theology and the way it had been understood during the classical (i.e., formative) period. My sense of that dissonance grew as I began teaching Reformed theology first at the undergraduate level and then in a seminary context. Teaching courses on the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms gave me an opportunity to learn the documents, and their background, and intent more deeply. I continued to become more aware of the tension between the way the framers of our confessions looked at Reformed theology, piety, and practice and the way we tend to look at them.
Somewhere between the time I began my post-grad research in 1993—was it reading D. G. Hart’s PhD diss. on Machen? It is still the best-written PhD diss. I have ever read—and c. 2006 I came into contact with the language of “being confessional.” It was in this period that I began to see that there was a difference between assuming that whatever I thought must be what the catechisms and confessions intended to say and being confessional. There is a difference between nominally affirming the catechisms and confessions and actually allowing them to shape my theology, piety, and practice. In this period I began to hear and read the word confessionalist. It was against this background that I wrote Recovering the Reformed Confession, in which I tried to share what I had learned and to invite the reader to join me in the recovery process.
In Statu Confessionis
I am confident that I am not the only pastor who was guilty of assuming more than knowing that my theology, piety, and practice were deeply informed by the church’s confession of God’s Word. The denomination that I served from 1987 to 1998, for most of my time, used only the Heidelberg Catechism. I had read and studied the Belgic and the Canons but they did not live in my bones, as it were. As I began to teach them, however, they began to affect me and my theology, piety, and practice. I began to see that my assumptions were not theirs. My concerns were not theirs. E.g., the classical Reformed theologians tended to move from their doctrine of God to worship. The rule of worship was not the product of a censorious spirit (as I had assumed) but their understanding of the holiness of God. Somehow I had come to assume that, in the late twentieth century, Reformed theology had matured beyond the Reformed theology of the classical period but my assumption of superiority was ill-founded. I found that they were the teachers and I was the student. My posture changed rather dramatically.