Holding to so-called “man-made” confessions in our day and age of personal independence is somewhat of a social and religious taboo. On the one hand, holding to a religious confession seems too wooden and static for our modern style of fluidity. On the other hand, confessions are often too arcane for those living in this post-Enlightenment age.

Whatever the case may be, confessions have fallen on hard times in many of our churches. There are a few reasons for why this is, some of which have already been mentioned. But I want to explore those reasons a bit further below before I move to attempt a definition of confessionalism, which I will argue in favor of toward the end of this article.

Dropping the historical confessions

As humans, we are intelligent creatures when compared to the rest of biological life. We have the powers of reason and can therefore show concern for the truth. In searching for truth, we are free to doubt that which seems irrational in favor of that which seems most likely to be true. A particular emphasis was placed upon the human powers of reason during the enlightenment period of the 18th century.

This emphasis on man’s intellectual superiority gave rise to an age of doubt. It was in vogue to doubt the paradigms which were taken for granted prior to this influential turning point. Some, like David Hume, seemed to doubt for the sake of doubt.

While this is by no means an exhaustive or sufficient historical survey tracing the historical origins of the contemporary church’s tendency to reject historical confessions, it must be said that prior to the Enlightenment, tradition meant something for both biblical and philosophical reasons.

Some comparisons between now and then are in order. Today, the historical confessions are often downplayed for many reasons. A couple reasons I have personally encountered are as follows: (1) because of our progress in anthropology and archaeology we can better discern the historical context of the Bible. We possess information today that the Reformers, the Puritans, and those prior to them did not. (2) Because our cursory studies on the Scriptures have led us to believe some areas of the historical confessions are false or unlikely to be true.

I will address both of these reasons below when I formulate an argument for confessionalism.

Defining confessionalism

What is confessionalism? Definitions abound.

Some would say to be confessional one must simply hold to any “orthodox” statement of faith. Perhaps this is the broadest notion of confessionalism. Others would say that confessionalism would mean holding to bits and pieces, or even significant parts, of various historical confessions. We may accept a few chapters in one confession while doubting others.

The definition I will argue for below is this: Confessionalism entails full subscription to one of the historic protestant-Reformed confessions. Now, this is not to say every Christian must be confessional to be saved, or anything like that. I know many dear brothers who reject various parts of these confessions and would therefore not be considered confessional on the grounds of this definition. What it does mean is that these Christians are not confessional.

One of the purposes of the historical confessions was to prevent a type of chronological snobbery wherein we depart from certain confessional truths just because a newer innovative theology appears more appealing. The confessions were designed in order to show both historical and contemporary unity of believers. The doctrine within the historical confessions are not novelties or significant breaks from historical orthodoxy. Each one can be traced back to the ancient origins of Christ’s church.

A few reasons account for why this is. First, the Puritans were committed to the Reformer’s teaching. Second, the Reformer’s teaching was, in large part, derived from men like Athanasius and Augustine. Men like Athanasius and Augustine derived their theology from earlier men like Ignatius, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Clement and—eventually—the Apostles. There is, then, a concern throughout the historical church to carry on the development of theology not in terms of innovation, but in terms of historical preservation and exposition.

Each church-generation’s task is not to develop new theology, but to explore and exposit theology already revealed by God in His Word and subsequently observed by generations past. This is one of the ways the church can obey the words of the Apostle, “Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you (2 Tim. 1:14).”

One last item left for us in defining confessionalism would be to answer the question: What are the historic Reformed confessions?

There a four historic confessions, which largely agree with one another and differ from one another in only secondary ways. Moreover, these four are observed to be the accepted Reformed confessions because they seek to develop existing theology. They are not novel by any means. And each, moreover, seek to show unity—one with the other—rather than disunity. These confessions find unity not just with one another, but with the historical church and, ultimately, with Scripture.

These four confessions are The Belgic Confession, The Westminster Confession of Faith, The Savoy Declaration, and The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. There other confessions, such as the First London Baptist Confession which are not recognized as Reformed confessions. In this particular case, the First London is not recognized as a historical Reformed confession because it came to be seem by many as not wrong but incomplete.

The Second London was, in part, drafted in order to supply that which was missing in the First. Moreover, some of the framers of the First were also involved in the completion of the Second. So, the Second could be seen as a revision of the First—making it unnecessary for the First to be adopted by any particular local congregation.

Another reason the First is not seen as a historical Reformed confession is that it’s purpose was different than the Second. The purpose of the First seemed to be to distinguish true Baptist churches from Anabaptist churches (which is a great goal, to be sure). Unity was more or less neglected in this confession because distinction was emphasized over and above unity. The Second’s purpose, however, was to distinguish but also to show the great unity enjoyed by both Particular Baptists and Paedobaptist Christians. This is why the Second largely follows the flow of The Westminster Confession—unapologetically I might add.

An argument for confessionalism

Before I begin my line of reasoning, I must note that this argument does not argue for the necessity of confessions in terms of whether or not a church is orthodox or heterodox. It argues on the basis of prudence aimed at the general well-being of the local church. It’s responsible to adopt a historical Reformed confession. If one does not want to adopt one of the historic Reformed confessions, that decision should be intellectually justifiable.

Creeds are distinguished from confessions in that creeds are much briefer and typically focus in on one area of theology, like theology proper or Christology. The earliest Christian creeds were formulated in order to define what Christians are to believe about any one area of the Christian faith. For example, the creedal theology in the Nicene Creed was formulated in order to define the right understanding of the Son of God. This was necessary because of false conceptions of Jesus propagated by men like Arius.

The earliest creed we know of is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. Paul writes:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Paul is simply repeating doctrine he received from others. There are a few reasons scholars think this is a creed. First, the terms Paul uses for “received” and “delivered” are the Greek equivalents of the Hebrew terms indicating the passing on of a tradition. Second, the greek terms “kai hoti” (trans. “and that”) function as quotation marks. If every “hoti” were to be removed, the grammar would still be correct. Third, the language is extra-Pauline. Terms like “third day,” or “our sins,” or “the twelve” are absent in the rest of Pauline literature. Fourth, there is an organized four-fold pattern of death-burial-resurrection-appearances. [1]

The creeds represent the base principles behind confessions. In fact, creeds embody a form of confessional theology albeit less sweeping than the later Reformed confessions. However, defining the Christian faith has been a principle in practice since the 1st century church.

As defined above, confessions build off the foundation laid prior to their existence. The job of a confession is to organize and articulate an interpretation of the Scriptural data. So, Scripture is the foundation of the confessions and confessions merely articulate a particular interpretation of Scripture.

Confessions are, moreover, guided and informed by the great churchmen who lived prior to the formulation of those confessions. Standing on the foundation of Scripture, guided by tradition, confessions help the church recall what she believes. Without them, she forgets. This is historically demonstrable and even our contemporary situation testifies to this (cf. Christianity before and after the 1st & 2nd Great Awakenings).

So, to recap: creeds are biblical; creeds are confessions; the church needs creeds/confessions in order to remember sound doctrine.

To add one more premise in strengthening our case: since confessions are defined as those documents which seek unity by way of building off pre-existent theology––rather than inventing new theology––they are integral to preserving the church’s historical integrity.

In other words, without confessions, the church will be blown around by every wind of doctrine and will be theologically estranged from the generational church. Augustines church would not recognize Calvin’s church if Calvin had not sought unity with those who had gone before him. This would be counterintuitive in light of Jesus’ promise, that He would build His church (Matt. 16:18).

To summarize the argument for confessionalism:

  1. Creeds are biblical
  2. Creeds are confessions
  3. So, the principle of confessionalism have existed since the beginning of the New Testament church.
  4. The church needs confessions since, historically, the church has lost its way while rejecting them.
  5. Confessions seek historical and contemporary unity by building off pre-existent theology.
  6. Since confessions seek historical and contemporary unity by building off pre-existent theology, they work to preserve the church’s doctrine.
  7. Therefore, for the sake of remaining biblical, responsible, and the preservation of sound doctrine, every local church ought to adopt a confession.

At this point, it’s important to recall the definition of confession. Confessions are documents which seek to build off pre-existent theology. This eliminates mere statements of faith since statements of faith could be anything. If a statement of faith is said to be a confession it needs to be shown how this is the case. How does said statement of faith represent historical and biblical theology more accurately than the Reformed confessions? If this question cannot be answered, there is no reason to think said statement of faith is a sufficient confession.

Earlier in this article, I offered to reasons why many have relinquished total belief in any one historic confession. The first had to do with modern advancements in archeology and anthropology; the second had to do with personal interpretation of Scripture. First, modern advancements in archeology and anthropology has done almost nothing to change our understanding of the redemptive sense of Scripture.

Perhaps our advancements in those areas have resulted in a deeper understanding of biblical theology (i.e. the historical context of the biblical authors). But God did not keep His church from the truth merely because they didn’t have the archeological tools to advance their understanding of His Word. That is to say, the Scriptures may be understood sufficiently without archeological advancements in the 21st century.

Second, some have found personal interpretation to be sufficient to the exclusion of the confessions. However, it is an arrogant and dangerous thing to place our personal autonomy over and above our historic lineage as a church. We have no reason to doubt the confessions until we can sufficiently demonstrate their falsehood in an intellectual manner. Those who have relinquished belief in the confessions have hardly made an attempt to meaningfully interact with them in their writings.

The pros of confessionalism outweigh the cons (if there are any). Modern theological method just hasn’t shown that it’s interested in interacting with these wonderful documents. This simply is not enough. To do away with the confessions, the church must offer reasons as to why it’s doing so. Confessions ought not be religious taboo; rather, they ought to be the practical norm for the church.

[1] Ryan Turner, ‘An Analysis of the Pre-Pauline Creed in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11’

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