Ancient Answers for Modern Questions

Why would a guy born in the 1970s lead a church born in the 1740s to adopt a confession of faith born in 2010?

There can be little doubt about the value of corporate confessions. One might argue that believers have “no creed but the Bible.” But the very nature of the Bible demands that we summarize its truth as clearly and comprehensively as possible. Otherwise when someone asks what the Bible teaches, no other option is available except a weeks-long study of the question from one end of the Bible to the other. Not only is such a method impractical, the data overwhelm us like the toys scattered around my daughters’ bedroom, begging for someone to collect and organize them for ease of access—not to mention sanity.

No wonder, then, that the Scriptures themselves employ confessions of faith. Paul writes to Timothy, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen of angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, received up to glory” (1 Tim. 3:15). Here is the life of Jesus worked into six pithy, portable sayings. This confession does not include every detail of his life, but it offers a framework for everything that is true about Christ while countering false notions that had arisen.

Church history is replete with confessions that organize biblical truth and ward off heresy. When our congregation incorporated as the First Baptist Church in the City of New York in 1762, our founders adopted the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. Since then our church has completely rewritten its articles of faith twice and significantly revised the statement once.

One might wonder why a church like ours would change its doctrinal statement. Could it be a desire to make Christianity more palatable to the world? Certainly! But given the consistent fidelity to the Scriptures evident in each of our confessions, one must conclude that other factors were in play.

1. New challenges to the faith require fresh statements of biblical truth for contemporary audiences.

Such was certainly the case in 1935 when our church adopted our current confession. The preceding statement assumed but did not assert Jesus’ bodily resurrection. The modernist denial of the supernatural necessitated a clear statement on the point.

2. A church may change its thinking about secondary theological matters.

A case in point is the application of Old Testament Sabbath principles to New Testament believers. So also is the “manner of receiving persons” into the church’s fellowship, a point detailed in our 1839 confession but deleted in a revision two years later.

3. A church recognizes the need to clarify its theological stance.

The oversight of Christ’s resurrection in our 1841 statement exemplifies the point, as does Francis Beckwith’s persuasive argument that the doctrinal statement of the Evangelical Theological Society leaves room for Roman Catholics to join.

For these reasons I am leading our congregation to consider replacing our articles of faith. While some friends suggest that we return to a historic confession of our past, my recommendation is to adopt (with minor revision) The Gospel Coalition Confessional Statement. This confession has the following advantages:

1. Contemporary. TGC’s Confessional Statement addresses issues with which the church today wrestles. For example, its authors address the challenge of open theism in the first article, postmodern deconstructionism in the second, and homosexuality in the third. The confession tacitly refers to contemporary challenges by explicitly articulating biblical truth.

2. Evangelical. Since The Gospel Coalition represents a wide swath of Protestantism, the Confessional Statement avoids some of the denominational cul-de-sacs that often receive the heaviest treatment in narrower confessions. The focus here is on the “deep and broad consensus [that] exists regarding the truths of the gospel,” as the Preamble states. While individuals and churches certainly believe more, the statement keeps the gospel as the functional center of our lives and churches without succumbing to an unthinking ecumenism that erases biblically drawn lines in the name of a gospel-less unity.

3. Affably complementarian. The third article treats the creation and design of humanity in greater detail than most confessions of faith, developing the equality that women and men enjoy before God, the unique blessing (and consequent non-interchangeability) of the sexes, and so on. On each point the Confessional Statement reflects a complementarian understanding of Scripture. But complementarians often present biblical teaching in terms of what is disallowed rather than celebrate the diversity of the sexes and the God who brings glory to himself through both men and women.

4. Biblical-theological. The confession quotes the Bible freely and uses Scriptural phraseology wherever possible. Furthermore, its theological method makes room for matters given significant biblical treatment but often left untreated in confessions. In this respect most notable is Article 10 on the kingdom of God. Central to Jesus’ teaching, this topic has enormous ramifications for our ecclesiology, eschatology, and indeed our soteriology.

5. Doxological. Some otherwise orthodox confessions read like the conclusions of a detached, analytical scientist, rather than the warm-hearted, God-glorifying devotion that such truth ought to stir. How much better would it be for us to theologize coram deo, that the product might redound to his glory. Here again the Confessional Statement is exemplary. Regularly recurring through the statement is the phrase from Ephesians 1, “to the praise of his glorious grace.” The one true God has done all things for our joy and his glory, so our theology  should always result in doxology.

The Gospel Coalition Confessional Statement is not a perfect document, and within a hundred years (or sooner!) another generation of believers will opt for something different to help them understand the Scriptures and face their world. Nevertheless this statement is a helpful guide to biblical truth and will, I hope, be an instrument by which the Lord keeps his people faithful to him until the next generation arises.

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  • David

    Excellent post. Now if we could just get that GC Confessional Statement a bit more missiological!

    • Collin Hansen

      That may very well be a valid critique, David, but I would encourage you to check out our Theological Vision for Ministry.

  • Ross

    Matt, thank you for this. #1-5 are helpful. You’ve said elsewhere that “Baptists are credobaptist in practice and congregationalist in polity. They may be more than this, but one cannot be less than this and still wear the label.” [“On Being Baptist”] I agree. The TGC statement doesn’t include such distinctions for obvious reasons. Do you plan to include these twin distinctions in the minor revision, perhaps better fitting it for local church use? If not, I’d benefit from hearing your rationale.

    • Kyle Grant

      I agree. It seems to me that the TGC confession is fine for a self described ‘center bound’ organization that exists not as a church, but to serve churches. However, a church is almost certainly going to be more boundary bound, at least on polity if not the sacraments and other issues. Matthew mentions the need to clarify its theological position as one reason a church would want to update its confession. I haven’t read his church’s current confession, but I would hazard a guess that it makes more precise statements regarding polity, the sacraments and probably other issues than the TGC confessional statement. If that’s the case, then moving away from the current confession to the TGC confessional statement would be a move away from, not toward theological clarity. I would think it would need some serious addition, rather than minor revision to work as a church’s confessional statement.

    • Matthew Hoskinson

      Ross, thanks for your comments. Yes, the revisions we plan are on these very matters (polity and sacrament), with likely a few other matters as well. Overall, though, I think it better to revise a statement crafted by many minds rather than write one myself for our church.

      Kyle, perhaps my preceding comment answers part of your question. As for our church’s current confession, it reflects the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century. It is evangelical and Baptist, to be sure. But it is also surprisingly reductionistic at times. The whole thing fits on a half-sheet of paper. So TGCCS is a considerable upgrade for our church, but in need of a few revisions to reflect our congregation’s understanding a bit more precisely.

  • Jamie Bickel

    Anybody know if the GC has the statement with Scripture proofs available?

    • Matthew Hoskinson

      I’ve been working on that. It certainly would be helpful if the drafters had it, though.