Bound to the Past and to A Living Confession

A Heidelblog Classic from January 8, 2007


In reaction to Rick Phillips’ critique of Steve Wilkins’ responses to his presbytery, one of the proponents of the Federal Vision made the following argument:

… Surely, we all know there’s a difference between how we use terms in systematic theology or in writing confessions and how the biblical writers use terms. This seems to me to be so very foundational. I learned this from all of my instructors in seminary and in graduate school. The whole point of analyzing the way the 17th-century divines crafted their theologies and wrote confessions is so that we, 500 years later, can appreciate their insights without being naively bound to all of their formulations. Or are we to become the equivalent of an historical reenactment club, never changing, never improving upon Puritan theology (as if it were monolithic in the first place)?

This is a significant statement because it summarizes a widely held approach to the Reformed confessions. As Bob Godfrey has pointed out somewhere the fundamental mistake of this approach is that confuses the confessions with systematic theology. It fails to reckon with a fundamental difference between the two. A systematic theology is private enterprise. Documents such as the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity are public documents. They are selective statements by Christ’s church. We may be “sympathetically critical” toward a systematic theology, but not toward the church’s confession.

Embedded in the approach summarized in the quote above is the notion that our confession belongs to the past. This is false. The confessions are not mere historical relics. They are the living confessions of OUR churches. Its what we believe and confess together right now. They are not just a snapshot of what we confessed once upon a time but the living testimony of what we actually confess today.

They are the living voice of the church because we adopt them heartily and intelligently now as a statement of what we believe now not merely as statements of what we believed in the 17th century. We teach them in our congregations and we require our children to memorize them and we preach from them or use them to guide our afternoon/evening sermons.

What we need today is not to further marginalize the confessions by suggesting that they are merely historical relics borne of reaction to specific circumstances and thus fatally conditioned by their historical circumstances. To see the effect of this approach to the confessions one has only to look back to the Briggs trial in American Presbyterianism in the 19th century. It’s just as possible for conservative folk to do this as it is for liberals to do it. That’s why, speaking strictly, we are neither conservative nor liberal but confessional.

To be sure, we side most often with the conservatives, but CONSERVATIVE IS NOT ENOUGH. Darryl Hart’s The Lost Soul of American Protestantism is a brilliant expose of the differences between confessional and non-confessional Christianity. It is also a little surprising to see a minister in a confessional Reformed denomination speaking exactly as our mainline brethren do. If you doubt me, read the introduction to the PCUSA Book of Confessions.

This is the language and logic of the mainline not the sideline Presbyterian churches. What we need today to take up those confessions faithfully and to re-acquaint ourselves with them. We must stop contenting ourselves with being pious or conservative. The fights of the last fifty years tended to revolve around the poles of “conservative” and “liberal.” Fine. We need to keep the ground we gained or held, but it’s time to re-embrace our confessional identity. The confessions are not only the past of the confessional churches they are the future. If they are not the future, then we do not have a future as Reformed churches because it is the confessions that define what is it be Reformed. If not, then the word Reformed has as many meanings as there are people who identify with the word. We might remain “conservative” and predestinarian, but those things do not make one Reformed.

The confessions are systematic accounts of the Christian faith, but they are not systematic theologies. First, they are not exhaustive but selective. Second, and more importantly, they are the public, ecclesiastical constitution of our churches. They are how we have agreed together to read the Word of God. They are the boundaries for our churches and their theology, piety, and practice. They are a sort of covenant among us, to which we have all voluntarily subscribed and vowed submission as accurate summaries of the teaching of God’s Word.

Were they created in specific circumstances? Yes. Do we need to know that those circumstances were? Yes. Can we interpret them properly without knowing those things? No, not really. As I always tell my students, “they didn’t drop out of the sky.” They had a beginning in a given time and place.

Is there a difference between the way terms are used in systematic theology and in Scripture? Sure there is. Scripture is not a systematic theology, but that’s not to say that there is not a system of truth in Scripture! Quite to the contrary! Scripture does contain a system of truth and the Reformed confessions summarize that system of truth as confessed by the churches.

As to being “naively bound” to them, well there’s no need to be naïve about it (as to the time, place, circumstances, and intent of the confessions) but we are bound to them by our ordination vows. They are not something which we merely “appreciate,” they are documents to which we submit, which we defend, which we teach, and which confess our faith. If one can no longer do these things, then one has a choice: challenge openly the teaching of the confession in the courts/assemblies of the church(es) or, if one is unwilling to do this then is no longer Reformed and should admit this fact and act accordingly. In the case of the covenantal nomists/moralists, the CREC has shown itself a willing home for wayward Reformed and Presbyterian ministers.

As to the Reformed churches being an “historical reenactment club,” well, the answer to the present as well as to any future crisis is not repristination of the past. The answer is to be Reformed in our time. It is not necessary to being Reformed to dress as the Westminster Divines did but it is necessary to confess the same faith. At the same time, one is struck by the fact that when calling God’s people to repentance and faith, Yahweh frequently invokes covenantal relations inaugurated long before:

Hear this word that the LORD has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt (Amos 3:1)

In this sense, the churches of Christ are necessarily historical re-enactment clubs! We are a society bound together by the grace of Christ, under his Word, which is a Word from the historical past and an eternal Word from the trans-historical “past.” When we baptize and commune, we are involved in historical re-enactment. The question is not whether we shall be involved in historical re-enactment, but how and according to which confession: the new confession of the covenant moralists or the old confession of the Protestants and Reformed?

As to our relations to “puritan theology,” well, as any scholar of Puritanism can tell you the movement was not monolithic, but there was a great unity among the Reformed puritans in Europe and Britain and the existence of the Westminster Standards illustrates this unity as it was composed by members with three different ecclesiologies (Independents, Anglicans, and Presbyterians) who wrote the Standards in the light of earlier European confessions (e.g., the Three Forms of Unity and the Second Helvetic) and to be consonant with them, but to speak to issues that had arisen since.

The repeated suggestion by the Federal Visionists to an alleged lack fundamental agreement in Reformed theology in the 17th century is without basis in fact. The Reformed theologians of Europe recognized the Westminster Standards as an excellent expression of the same faith they confessed. Clearly, anyone who does not see the fundamental unity of Reformed theology in the 17th century is unfamiliar with the basic texts of the period. Perhaps it would be well for the covenantal moralists/nomists to set Tom Wright aside for a moment (man doth not live by Wright alone) and take up some of the representative texts of the period to see this remarkable harmony for themselves.

The Reformed confessions are historical documents, but they are also our documents. Let us take them to hand again and put them to the use for which they were intended.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. It is good to see that you believe in “republication”!

    One small suggestion for the Presbyterian wing: It can be helpful to refer more to “The Confessions and Catechisms of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (or PCA/ our Church)” and less to the Westminster Confession of Faith. While there is nothing wrong with the latter title the former reminds our congregations that this is our living confession and not merely a matter of historical interest.

  2. Good point, David. That’s why we call even the Heidelberg Catechism “Our Catechism” and the Belgic Confession “Our Confession/Articles of Faith” and the Canons of Dordt “Unsere Lehrregel” (our standard of teaching) here in Germany.

    Scott, good case in point for your thesis: “To be sure, we side most often with the conservatives, but CONSERVATIVE IS NOT ENOUGH.” – To be conservative is quite relative. What is “conservative” in Europe might well be quite “liberal”, and what is “liberal” in the U.S. might still be considered “conservative” elsewhere. Ecclesial confessional standards, however, can quite easily transcend cultural and political barriers, and often do!

  3. When the OPC was born, it was a mixed bag of those who wished, as Machen put it, to have a true Presbyterian church (i.e. a confessional church) and those who wished to have a conservative evangelical Presbyterian church.

    In the providence of God, the most of the latter left a year later.

    Those who stayed, whether of American Old School, or Scottish, or Dutch Reformed, all wanted a confessional Reformed church. And worked to make the OPC just that.

    May God help us preserve what that generation gave us, and lead us to make her more Reformed than she has ever been before.

  4. Thanks for dusting this off and reposting it. A clear, concise statement of the Recovering the Reformed Confession theme.

    Especially good to point out some folks are running down the Charles Briggs trail.

    Even better: labeling the federal vision as covenant moralists, covenantal nomists; not as coventantally reformed.

  5. From my Lutheran days, I remember the words: “We believe, teach, and confess…”

  6. In the CanRC we would heartily endorse what Dr. Clark has said above about the confessions not being dated, time bound documents, but rather the living confession of the Church of Christ. We take subscription seriously!

    On June 30 in a comment under “The Cost of Doing Nothing…” (a post on this blog) Dr. Clark wrote concerning unity talks with the CanRC.

    “We need to determine as federations that we really do confess substantially the same faith before we begin working on songbooks, church orders etc. To begin doing that work assumes facts not in evidence.”

    But in my ears there is a dissonance between what he wrote about “confess[ing] substantially the same faith” and his distinction between systematic theology and confessional doctrine.

    It seems to me that Dr. Clark doubts that those of us who hold to the nuances of secession covenant theology as worked out by men like Hulst, Boer, Beuker, Hemkes, Ten Hoor, and Heyns (I have J. Faber’s essay American Secession Theologians in hand here). We stand in the tradition of Kampen, Apeldoorn, and Grand Rapids. We count among our fathers, Brummelkamp, and Helenius de Cock, Lindeboom and Wielenga, Bavink, Schilder and Veenhof. In Grand Rapids the work of Beuker and Ten Hoor, and Heyns stand prominent for us. But we see among all these men, theological nuances ; men struggling to work out in their systematic theology what they subscribe to in their confessions.

    Dr. Jelle Faber’s call to us at the end of his essay still rings true to me.

    We should regard God’s covenant and baptism as our treasures, also theologically and ecclesiastically, and we should do so together. At the same time we should remember that Christ is not gathering a church of theologians or church historians, but of believers.

    He continues…

    [Let us then] continue working in the confessional and therefore non-sectarian line of Secesssion, Union, and Liberation. God’s catholic church is being gathered, not in the unity of a perfect theology—however eagerly we should endeavour to obtain it—but in the unity of true faith, faith in the triune God of the covenant, the God of our baptism.

    It seems to me that Dr. Clark wants to have everyone subscribe to his systematic theology and over and above the confessions. And that sounds odd to me coming from a man who is striving to recover the Reformed Confessions. In fact it sounds sectarian to me and not ecumenical at all.

    • John,

      1. It has yet to be determined what the “secession” covenant theology actually was. I doubt that at least some of the names you list actually taught the idiosyncratic covenant theology associated with K. Schilder. I believe that some of what Schilder taught was anticipated in the late 19th century but whether it goes back to the early 19th century is not at all clear.

      2. It has to be determined by the URCs whether the distinctive views of covenant theology associated with KS are confessional. That may be assumed in the CanRC but I don’t know that everyone in the URCs assumes or accepts that premise.

      3. Once more, formal affirmation of the confessions is not sufficient. If one formulates a covenant theology that ends up being at odds with what we confess one’s formal affirmation of the confession isn’t worth much is it?

      4. We subscribe to the same confession but do we understand it the same way?

      5. I’m not asking anyone to subscribe to my systematics but the URCs have taken public, ecclesiastical positions on a variety of issues in an attempt to be faithful to the confession. So far the response from the CanRCs has been mixed. If the URCs have adopted positions at synod that’s not Clark’s dogmatics or systematics is it?

Comments are closed.