Confessions are interpretive units designed to systematize a particular understanding of God’s special revelation.
Notice the term unit, there. Even the term confession assumes a singular document; similar to how a creed is a creed because it is to be adopted and confessed as a singular creedal statement.
Confessions, in the 17th century, were not seen as candy-store-like documents from which a person could take some from one, some from the other, and still some from another, and formulate their own theology in isolation from a historical church tradition. That way of thinking is relatively innovative from the perspective of ecclesiastical history. Surely, fringe individuals have existed at all times throughout church history, but the scope and fervor of their subjective choosiness has never been so explosive until now. Confessions are purposed to define the doctrinal position of Presbyteries and congregational associations; they are systematic summaries outlining specific interpretations of aggregate biblical data. Confessional documents do not consist of novel theology or extra-biblical content to be seen as equal to Scripture. Rather, they serve to outline a particular interpretation of God’s Word.
The Extent of Confessionalism
It is a popular exercise these days to take exception at various points of a confession for the sake of a newer or more preferential theology––regardless of whether or not all positions have been adequately wrestled with. Some of these exceptions are small, others are rather large. Note, we are not talking about partial agreement with any one confession. As orthodox Christians, we should be able to agree with those foundational elements contained in every orthodox confession. Confessionalism, however, is a different animal. The question is not, “Do I agree with a confession?” but rather, “What constitutes confessionalism?”
Is one allowed to take any exception and still be considered confessional? Are we really not confessional if we fail to believe the Pope is the antichrist, as some confessional documents have stated (including the 1689)? Admittedly, the answer to this question is not always easy, and there are many dear brothers who would consider themselves confessional while at the same time not holding to every jot and tittle of any one document (though, I would disagree with their approach). Yet, it is an important question. We cannot let the winds of subjective individualism drive the train of intellectual inquiry when it comes to our doctrine. We must not only ground ourselves in the Scriptures, but must also strive to find essential catholicity with the church-historical.
The Significance of Confessional Terminology
Because it is such a difficult question, we may begin with understanding an important distinction: the letter (words) and the substance (sense or meaning). In the philosophy of language, one can find many different meanings for the same word. The letter, therefore, can mean different things. When exploring our confessional documents, we must ask ourselves, “What meaning did they intend by their use of this or that word?” If I were to say something like, “Put it in the trunk!” I could be communicating my want for someone to put something in the trunk of a car. Alternatively, I could mean the trunk at the foot of the bed. Thus, “Put it in the trunk!” requires some context in order to achieve clarity. When the 2nd London, for example, says something like, “a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions… (2nd LBCF, 2.1),” we need to understand what they meant by those terms. How would’ve the framers of our Confession understood terms like passions or pure spirit within their theological-historical context? Understanding the distinction between letter and substance (or signs & things) will help us formulate a definition of confessionalism.
The problem with today’s exceptionalism is that it destroys value of meaning in the process of abstracting certain confessional terms from their intended meanings. For example, the word immutability is just a word according to the letter, but there is substance or meaning behind the word. What is that substance? The habit for some is to replace the substance while retaining the letter. For instance, there are modern redefinitions of immutability and impassibility undermining the classical understanding of those terms. So, the letters have been kept while their original substance has been changed. In Augustine’s words, the signs remain the same, while the things behind them are shifted or mutated. But to play such a game is fatal. For the substance determines the significance of the letter. If the substance is so easily changed, then there can’t be much significance ascribed to the letter.
Changing the Substance
If I take a word like love, and arbitrarily change the substance from something like, “an affection of the heart from one person to another,” to, “a desire to hunt pheasant,” the letter—having an apparently inconsequential meaning—loses its significance. We could replace the substance of love with nearly anything; but in doing that, we diminish the intuitive significance of the word. Part of the reason our nation’s sexual ethic is so irrational is because of the redefinition of love. It has been reduced from indicating an affection involving the whole person (choices and all) to being a flippant passion, a single emotion driven by lusts of the heart.
When classical terminology is changed in order to accommodate a particular belief, then those terms lose their rhetorical and objective value. Therefore, one cannot consider themselves confessional if they refuse to adopt the original substance along with the original letter. This by no means excludes one from being a true Christian; it just means they are not fully committed to any one of the historical confessional documents. Agreement is a different question altogether. As alluded to above, one can agree with a confession without fully subscribing to it. But a mere partial agreement with a confession renders one non-confessional.
This is vitally important for the sake of theological clarity. If I consider myself confessional, yet take exception, I run the risk of confusing my peers as to what I believe. The framers of the 1689, for example, were abundantly clear in their ‘Letter to the Judicious and Impartial Reader’, prefacing the Confession. Their purpose in the 2nd London was to clarify their beliefs so as to avoid confusion. As the church, we are a people of order, not a people of confusion; we ought to be cautious when considering whether or not we are truly confessional. If we find ourselves retaining words while adopting a-historical definitions, we ought to stop short of calling ourselves confessional. It doesn’t necessarily mean we are outside the faith, it just means we aren’t confessional.
While I would caution against being non-confessional, that is a different discussion which can be taken up at a later time. For now, I’ll simply conclude that, since words have meaning, and since confessions are designed to be taken as units, there is no place within the scope of confessionalism for exceptionalism.