In his excellent book on the doctrine of the church, Sojourners and Strangers, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Gregg Allison argues that one of the characteristics of the Christian church is that it is confessional, or “united by both personal confession of faith in Christ and common confession of the historic Christian faith” (132).
As a Baptist and having grown up in churches of the low-church tradition, the first time I read this I found myself very familiar with the former aspect—personal confession—and very much a stranger to the latter element—common confession of the historic Christian faith. In the churches I grew up in, not much emphasis was placed on the common confession or on the historical aspects of the faith. Faith was largely individualized to my own personal experience with Jesus here and now in the twenty-first century, disconnected from the faith of the saints who have come before me. The churches I grew up in did not often (ever?) engage in the corporate recitation of any creed, catechism, or statement of faith in their services. The general sentiment is reflected well in the phrase: “No book but the Bible; no creed but Christ.” Why bring in unbiblical language to refer to biblical realities? Why have any confession more specific than, “Jesus is Lord”?
Allison argues that while “certainly, ‘Jesus is Lord!’ is a necessary confession for Christ-followers … it is not a sufficient confession; given two thousand years of historical development, the church’s confession must be much more robust” (136, emphasis mine).
In support of Allison’s assertion, John Piper argues from the early church’s conflict with the Arians that the warding off of heresy requires the use of non-biblical language: “the slogan, ‘the Bible is our only creed’ is often used as a cloak to conceal the fact that Bible language is used to affirm falsehood.” This is what the Arians did in the third and fourth centuries. The Arians denied that Jesus was fully God. They said that he is an exalted and dignified creature and was in fact God’s first and best creation, yet he is not the uncreated Creator; there was a time when the Son was not. The early church tried to counter this heresy, but soon found that they could not do so simply by quoting the Bible, for whenever they would produce a verse that indicated Christ’s deity, the Arians would say that they agree with the verse and wholeheartedly affirm it—but they put a different spin on the meaning of the Biblical phrases. R. P. C. Hanson notes that the “theologians of the Christian Church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself.” Piper summarizes: “The Arians railed against the unbiblical language being forced on them. They tried to seize the biblical high ground and claim to be the truly biblical people—the pietists, the simple Bible-believers—because they wanted to stay with biblical language only—and by it smuggle in their non-biblical meanings.” This is why the early church came up with fancy-sounding non-Biblical language like the Son is “of one substance [homoousia] with the Father”: not to get beyond Scriptural language like, “[The Son] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3), but to clarify the meaning of Scriptural language in the face of heretics who still used the language of Scripture while, in fact, denying the teaching of Scripture. Allison is right: after 2,000 years of church history—and heresies!—our confession must be much more robust than “Jesus is Lord.”
Okay, okay. We get it. It’s understandable and right that the church has come up with specific confessional documents to clarify what Scripture teaches. But why should we recite them together in a church service?
I’m glad you asked. While he is not advocating a “particular creed” or a “particular confessional format or style” (137) and warns that we guard ourselves against lapsing into a thoughtless rote repetitionism (136), here are Gregg Allison’s six arguments for “a regular and thoughtful corporate confession of the Christian faith—whether that is a traditional creed, a denominational confession of faith, a statement of faith as developed by a local church, or some other concrete manifestation of the commonly held belief—in ways that retain vitality in the public act” (137):
1. Corporate confession of the faith stimulates and demonstrates the unity of the body of Christ.
“If there is to be any substantive continuity between today’s churches and those from past centuries, it seems that this [confessional] element must be recovered in those churches that have drifted away from it or even repudiated it. Such confessions of the faith serve ‘to maintain coherence, integrity, and, in effect, Christian identity.’ Thomas Oden urges such a recovery in order to experience ‘the joy and power of confessing the faith with the whole intergenerational church over all times and places.’ To voice a common confession of faith as the church assembles together and in continuity with the church throughout the ages stimulates and demonstrates the unity of the body of Christ” (137).
2. Corporate confession provides personal assurance that the faith that its members confess is indeed the true Christian faith.
“We are all aware of genuine Christians who are plagued by doubts about their salvation. While many factors may contribute to this lack of subjective assurance, one that is often overlooked is doubt about the actual content of belief. This unsettledness may manifest itself in questions like, ‘Is what I believe true?’ or, ‘Is this anything more than a mere parochial and existential commitment?'” Allison quotes Pannenberg: “Since confession is public, a basis exists for the possibility of common confession that involves agreement with the confession of others. Assurance as to the common nature of faith reaches its goal with such common confession” (138).
3. Corporate confession contributes to the cohesiveness of the members of a church.
“A possible reason for the weakened bonds between church members is the absence of a common confession of faith binding the community together.… A possible contributor to the splintering of churches is the lack of a church confession providing the framework for working out their internal problems. One way that a confession could operate in this way is to call the attention of church members to the essentials of the faith that powerfully unite them; put into perspective, then, all other matters are secondary or tertiary and pale in comparison with that which binds the church together” (139).
4. Corporate confession deepens trust in the faith and personal commitment to it.
While corporate confession is a communal act, it still has a “self-involving” aspect. Each individual chooses to lift up their voice with the congregation. Therefore confessions, in the words of Thiselton, “declare a content, but they also serve to nail the speaker’s colors to the mast as an act of first-person testimony and commitment.” Allison writes that “accordingly, personal faith is deepened; Christ-followers develop a disposition of belief” through this regular “nailing one’s colors to the mast” of corporate confession (139).
5. Corporate confession helps ward off destructive heresy.
“While not a panacea that guarantees doctrinal faithfulness, the corporate confession of the faith can stand against a fall into heresy, a slide that is tragically facilitated by the loss of historic consciousness in many churches and denominations.” Allison then quotes Martin Marty—and I find this to be the most striking sentence in this section—”the confessing group and its symbols serve to call believers out of isolation and anarchy into the beginnings of a shared life.” Beautiful. Marty continues: “A confession serves to define and thus to delimit the boundaries of belief and shared life.” Allison spells this out: “an explicit confession of the common faith entails an implicit rejection of whatever constitutes ‘anti-faith’; ‘this requires that one stand necessarily against whatever is opposing to this standing within [the community of faith]. There is no confession without some presupposed understanding of the truth, and hence disavowal of contrary untruth'” (139–140).
6. Corporate confession provides a hermeneutical framework for the church and its members.
“Hermeneutics” is a big word used to describe principles of interpretation. What sort of rules do we go by when we read and try to understand and apply Scripture? We must have some over-arching principles that guide how we read. Otherwise, how do we explain why we, as Christians, are not obligated to abstain from pork or shellfish, even though the Bible says both are unclean and are not to be eaten? (Lev 11:12; Deut 14:8). This is a hermeneutical question, and it requires a hermeneutical answer: the Bible is a story that finds its fulfillment in Christ, and we must read all of Scripture in light of him.
Corporate confession, then, helps provide a hermeneutical framework for the church by acting as “a résumé [summary] of the Christian faith,” providing a “hermeneutical grid through which the believer could interpret both the ampler witness of scripture and the Church and also its own religious stance” (140). It enables us not to come to the Bible with the wrong pre-conceptions or expectations, but with the right ones.
I am glad to be a member at Cities Church, where we regularly recite creeds, catechisms, and other confessional documents as part of our corporate worship. I have found it upbuilding and helpful to me personally, for all of the above reasons (and others)—especially #1, 3, and 5. If you’re wondering what are good “confessional documents” to go with, I would recommend the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Heidelberg Catechism (esp. Q&A 1!).
What do you think? Any other suggestions for materials? What about suggestions for how to implement them in ways “that retain vitality in the public act”? Feel free to share these or any other thoughts you might have in the comments.
Image source: Greg Wilson via Flickr.