“Bound to the Past” and to a Living Confession

An HB Classic

In reaction to Rick Phillips’ critique of a response by a Federal Visionist to his (then) 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 approach summarized in 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.

See D. G. Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism on this. It’s a brilliant expose of the differences between confessional and non-confessional Christianity. See also Recovering the Reformed ConfessionIt 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.

[This post first appeared on the HB in 2007]

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. “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.”

    Exactly. This seems like one of the most glaring blind spots within our Reformed circles generally. It is as if there is an assumption that “conservatism” is somehow invulnerable to waywardness in ways that “liberalism” isn’t. The ideological nomenclature has to be abandoned for that which is theological.

  2. Hi Scott,

    I think that the sentiment that we can divorce our words from their historical usage and thereby use words however we feel like it leads to nothing but confusion in the present as evident in the final Leithart ruling.

    “We do find examples in the Record where TE Leithart’s views are confusing and, perhaps, contradictory.” (SJC Ruling in the Leithart’s case, page 4 line 10

    If his teachings are by their own admission “confusing and, perhaps, contradictory,” then how can they rule on whether or not his views are hostile to the confessions?

    I think that the ruling is confusing and contradicts itself as worded.

    For those pastors and teaching elders that don’t place it as their priority a high view of clarity and an abundance of caution in expressing historical reformed views and thoughts (as so very excellently stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith), there will be nothing but a wellspring of confusion being proclaimed in the churches that provide safe harbor for them.

    I am so very grateful that the Session of my church, five years ago, guarded our church against these subtle yet dangerous views and today still continues to uphold the Westminster Confession of Faith in their teaching.

    May to God be all the glory given,
    Ginger Zagnoli

  3. To anyone interested, if you are not a student at UC Irvine, but are a resident of California, you should be able to visit one of the school libraries and read the writings in Latin of the Reformers and of counter-Reformation writers. I was told by a librarian there that CA residents are able to do research in the library (I’m fairly sure for free, and other UC campuses as well), and I noticed an electronic collection of writings by the Reformers and their opponents. Just be sure to call before you visit to know how you can do it.

    Here is the library website with different resources listed. Look for Digital Library of Classical Protestant Texts.

    Here is what I guess is the specific service the school uses.

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