Confessing the Faith Faithfully

John ArmstrongChurch History, Church Tradition, Emergent Church, The Church

It should be apparent, if you have read my previous three posts, that confessing the faith is important business. It is not to be taken lightly by the individual or the church. Jaroslav Pelikan, in his magnum opus five volume work, The Christian Tradition, says in volume one that Christian doctrine is "what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches and confesses on the basis of the word of God." He says in a later book (Credo, 53), that the proper emphasis should be seen in the subtitle of his work: "A history of the development of doctrine." The real point he wants to make is that the Christian faith must be taught, that is, passed on by and through faithful confessing. Thus Pelikan's emphasis in his last great work on doctrine was on "confessing the faith" (Credo, 53).

The relationship between believing and confessing is both close and complex. Yale theologian Volf Miroslav Volf (photo at right) puts this well: "Without personal identification with Jesus Christ, cognitive specification of who he is remains empty; without cognitive specification of who Jesus Christ is, however, personal identification with him is blind" (quoted in Credo, 53). Read that again. It is rich.

But just as believing has multiple meanings, as we saw the last few days, so confessing does too. The attempt to present a proper understanding of these multiple meanings led the great doctor Thomas Aquinas to classify the multiple meanings of confessing by three distinctions: (1) A confession of the truths of the faith, which bears on the end of faith; (2) A confession of thanks and praise, which is the virtue of faith; (3) A confessions of sins, which is the real end of the virtue of penance. Augustine, in his famous Confessions, says confessio means "accusation of oneself; praise of God."

I am quite sure of one thing in this doctrinal development: what is to be "confessed" and "believed" is Jesus Christ as Lord. We are right back to Romans 10:9-10. It seems that Paul may have actually been developing doctrine within this statement in the Roman Epistle. Early Gnostic heresy separated "Jesus" from the "Christ" as two different entities. For Paul this clearly was not possible. 1 John 5:1 (as well as 4:2-3) make the same point I think. Tertullian would later say that the object of our worship "is the one God" and such confession is crucial to the faith that is in Christ.

But confession and confessing are not the same. In the twentieth century this became apparent in Germany where Karl Barth, in the now famous Barmen Declaration, was quite right to make such a distinction in the face of a German church that was saying a confession but not making a clear, biblical confessing faith position the center of their life together. A confession, in modern usage, can easily become a declaration of one's articles of belief (there again is that hard word in English).

In the modern era churches in formerly non-Christian cultures and lands have begun to grapple with this matter in whole new ways. Can a church, say in India, declare a faith that is one with the historic church yet at the same time "undertake its own grappling with the problems of [the] faith, without of course losing contact with all that comes to her through the age-long wisdom of the Church Universal" (cited from an Indian theologian by Pelikan, Credo, 63).

Karl-barth-sketch This is precisely where the whole debate with the so-called "emergent church" movement gets interesting to many of us who care deeply for the renewal of the church and the mission of Christ. I, for one, welcome all emerging movements that are faithful to the "the age-long wisdom of the Church Universal." I believe the West has moved so far away from what it means for most Christians to be truly "confessing" believers that undertaking a "grappling with the problems of [the] faith" is welcome and truly needed. I also believe in generous orthodoxy if I can use a term that can be used and abused. But this "generous orthodoxy" must be carefully rooted in orthodoxy. It must confess the faith faithfully, which means it must be deeply sensitive to the confessions of faith from the past, especially those that come from the first seven centuries. The problem, it seems to me, is not that the church and its mission emerges in new times and contexts, the problem is whether or not this emergence is both orthodox and emergent. This is why the Barmen Declaration, in my opinion, is so crucial to us right now. What Barth and Bonhoeffer were doing in Germany in the 1930s was serious theology in an emerging context, a context that was radically departing from those roots put down in Reformation German soil centuries before. 

I heard early church scholar Christopher Hall say last week that 95% of his students at Eastern University are heretical in their faith at some very basic and critical places. Most of them, he said, were Sabellians or tri-theists. Few were real trinitarians. I have found the same to be true all over America in churches and schools. We are so far removed form the ancient faith of the church that what we are now confessing is both unhealthy and unfaithful. The emergence that I long for will be missionally edgy yet confessionally faithful. The categories of conservative and liberal, at least as we used them over the past 150 years, might not be adequate for this new context. We need new wine and new wineskins, which means words that we use must be used carefully and wisely. Given our propensity for the quick fix I wonder if we have the wisdom and patience to do this as we ought.