Confessions: Old or New?

Article
03.17.2016

So, it’s a statement of faith you want, is it? You’ve come to the right place. Here are some gorgeous vintage models—an 1833, a 1742, even a 1689. That one’s not for everyone, but it sure has a devoted following.

What’s that? You want something that’s brand new? We’ve got some of those too, but there are a few things you should know about these newer models . . .

OLD OR NEW?

A statement of faith is a means by which a church publicly confesses its faith, works for unity in the truth, instructs its members in sound doctrine, and, when necessary, enacts discipline for gospel-denying error. Given all that, I think formal statements of faith are a good idea, and if you’ve made it this far, you probably do too.

But if you’re an evangelical pastor looking to give a statement of faith a more meaningful role in your church’s life, one of the questions you’ll have to ask is, “Old or new?” Should you look for a historic confession that your church will align with, or adopt something written recently—or even write your own?

In this article I’ll suggest a few pros and cons of using an older statement of faith—say, one written at least 150 years ago. Then I’ll do the same for new ones, and conclude with a few practical suggestions for whichever route you choose. In this article I’m assuming the points Jonathan Leeman makes about thin vs. thick statements of faith. So if you haven’t, you might want to read his piece first.

OLD STATEMENTS OF FAITH: PRO

These pros and cons of old statements of faith won’t be true of every confession, or for every congregation. But here are a few pros worth considering.

1. Stood the Test of Time

First, an older statement of faith has stood the test of time. If enough churches have found it a useful tool for confessing their faith that it’s still around, there’s probably a reason why. If the wheel ain’t broke, why reinvent it?

2. Strength in Numbers

Second, there’s strength in numbers. I don’t exactly mean “If it’s good enough for First Baptist, it’s good enough for us”—though again, we should consider what has proven helpful for other churches. Instead, by “strength in numbers” I mean the number of brains that helped craft the thing.

Most historic statements of faith are the product of many church leaders pushing and pulling and pruning and polishing until they found language that satisfied all parties. They usually guard against multiple errors on multiple fronts. They’re dense and tight because many minds have subjected them to scrutiny.

Also, many historic statements of faith have roots in statements yet more historic. So, the 1833 New Hampshire confession has roots in the 1742 Philadelphia Confession, which revised the 1689 Second London confession, which revised the 1658 Savoy Declaration, which revised the 1646 Westminster Confession, and so on. Unlike some modern statements of faith, many historic ones that are still around didn’t start from scratch.

3. Sign of Unity

Another “pro” of older confessions is that they are a sign of unity with the church throughout time. They offer one church-wide way to resist chronological snobbery and listen to the democracy of the dead. Our generation didn’t invent Christianity. And in a culture obsessed with youth and novelty, to confess our faith in the same old way lots of Christians before us have makes an important point about the unchanging faith we confess.

4. Sometimes Rough Edges Are Good

Finally, sometimes rough edges are good. If historic confessions make claims that seem to us at best marginal and at worst flat-out wrong, it’s worth slowing down to ponder the friction. Might it be that we’ve actually drifted away from key commitments that virtually all Christians throughout the ages have affirmed?

Doctrines such as divine simplicity and impassibility are often rejected by evangelicals—sometimes, I’d suggest, due to simple misunderstanding. But these doctrines were crucial to the early church’s doctrine of the Trinity, were affirmed by the Reformers, and are articulated in classic Protestant confessions.

It may be that at a few key points we’ve simply come unstuck from the church’s mainstream theological tradition. Patiently learning from these confessions, and leading our congregations to the point where we can confess these truths together, might make our theology more catholic in the best sense, and therefore all the more evangelical.

OLD STATEMENTS OF FAITH: CON

A few cautions about older statements of faith.

1. Difficult Language

First, many older statements of faith use archaic or technical language that will be difficult for many contemporary Christians to understand, especially new believers and those who speak English as an additional language. Certainly learning richer, tighter doctrinal language can be an aid to discipleship, but a ladder isn’t any good if you can’t reach the bottom rung.

2. More than your Congregation Can Chew?

With some older confessions, it’s not just the language but the doctrinal and practical substance that might be more than your congregation can digest. Some historic statements, especially the more expansive ones, might call for a greater degree of doctrinal unity and specificity than your congregation can reasonably hope to attain. On more practical lines, some historic statements of faith will prescribe stances, such as on Sabbath observance, that your congregation is unlikely to follow.

If you’re a pastor who eats a lot of red-meat theology for breakfast, I wouldn’t at all discourage you from discipling your people with sound doctrine. But be careful not to push for a statement of faith that will prove a burden too great for them to bear.

WHAT ABOUT NEW? 

What about new statements of faith? I won’t repeat the flip side of the points I just made. As I see it, the primary gain with newer statements of faith is that they may speak more clearly and pointedly to issues that are contested today but weren’t a hundred or three hundred years ago.

Further, a newer statement of faith, particularly one you write or heavily adapt, might provide a lot better “fit” with your congregation’s cultural context and spiritual situation. That said, beware of thinking about that context and situation in minute-by-minute terms. What will serve your church three generations from now?

One pitfall of newer statements of faith is adopting something that wasn’t originally intended to be a church’s statement of faith. For instance, some churches use The Gospel Coalition’s Statement of Faith as their own. But one problem with adopting a parachurch statement of faith as a local church’s is that certain practical distinctives that churches need to agree on are deliberately left open. Will your church baptize only believers, or infants too? Will your church admit persons “baptized” in infancy to membership and the Lord’s Supper, or not? The TGC statement deliberately doesn’t say—because it doesn’t need to.

WHAT TO DO?

So then, what to do? If this is a decision on your plate, here are a few possibilities to consider.

If you adopt an older statement of faith, consider whether a few brief edits or supplements might fit it better to your context. Even our Presbyterian brothers—the American ones, at least—changed the Westminster Confession in 1788 to remove the civil magistrate’s involvement in church affairs. Confessions of faith are standards, but standards subordinate to Scripture. I don’t see any problem with saying, “We subscribe to a lightly modified version of the __________ Confession,” as long as your modifications are indeed light.

If you’re inclined to adopt an older statement, but are concerned about archaic language, consider simply modernizing, and perhaps abridging, a well-worn statement of faith.

If you adopt a newer statement of faith, or even write your own, I would highly recommend that you find tangible ways to affirm your church’s unity and continuity with those who have confessed the faith throughout history. You might decide to corporately recite some of the classic ecumenical creeds in worship, or teach through them in Sunday School classes on doctrine.

In addition, like Third Avenue Baptist and others have done, you can explicitly affirm your church’s commitment to one or more of the ecumenical Trinitarian and Christological creeds, in addition to your more modern, explicitly Protestant and evangelical statement.

THE POINT OF EVERY CONFESSION

The question of old vs. new is not necessarily either-or, all or nothing. I pray God would give you wisdom to navigate these decisions, and to remember that the point of every confession, old and new, is to aid the church’s living act of confession. As John Webster puts it in Confessing God, “Before it is proposition or oath of allegiance, the confession of the church is a cry of acknowledgement of the unstoppable miracle of God’s mercy.”

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