If You Want To Know What P&R Christians Believe, Read The Confessions

HB readers frequently write to ask, “What do Reformed Christians believe about x?” It really does not matter what x is. It might be predestination (it frequently is) or it might be baptism (it is frequently is) or it might be about eschatology. Often this category of question comes from those outside the Presbyterian and Reformed (hereafter, P&R) churches, from a broad evangelical context. From the perspective of that setting I understand why people write such a question. In broad evangelical (including charismatic and Pentecostal congregations) what a Christian believes is an entirely personal matter. In some contexts, what a congregation believes is decided by the local pastor so that with every new pastor comes (potentially) a new beliefs. Most broadly evangelical Christians operate on a largely individualist paradigm. One’s faith and convictions are regarded as largely a private or personal matter. The only things, in that context, that matters are two: has one a personal experience of the risen Christ and is one behaving in the approved way. Often times, the rest of the Christian truth and practice is regarded as secondary or tertiary.

The P&R churches operate on a different paradigm. For us, the Christian faith though personal is not private and it certainly cannot be reduced to two points (experience and behavior). We certainly believe and confess that a Christian ought to have a rich personal experience of the risen Christ and we certainly confess that there divinely-revealed behavioral standards to which all professing Christians must adhere. Those standards are revealed throughout God’s Word and summarized in Deuteronomy 5, Exodus 20, Matthew 22:37–40, and often in the second half of the Pauline epistles, among other places. Nevertheless, there is much more to being Reformed. Further, the Reformed faith is not determined individually. It is determined by God’s Word as confessed by the P&R churches in formal ecclesiastical assemblies. Through the centuries, the Reformed churches have sent delegates to assemblies and those assemblies have either received a confession or spent the time (sometimes years) to draft, adopt, and subscribe documents which summarize what the Reformed churches confess on a whole range of biblical truth. You can see some of those confessions here.

The P&R churches begin with God’s Word as the sole, final, magisterial authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. The slogan we have used since the early 16th century to summarize that conviction is sola Scriptura, according to Scripture alone. Contra the Roman communion, we confess that Scripture norms the church and that the church cannot obligate believers to any doctrine or practice not taught or necessarily implied by God’s Word. So, when we speak about “confessions” and “catechisms,” (a little book of questions and answers)  these are important ecclesiastical summarizes of God’s Word but their authority can only derive from God’s Word and be subordinate to God’s Word. Should our confessions and catechisms be found to be contrary to the Word in some way, they should be (and have been) revised.

Sometimes, in broad evangelical circles, one has the impression that one’s pastor or perhaps even one’s own self has just recently discovered the Christian faith. Sometimes the impression is given that the true faith might perhaps be found in the 19th century. P&R churches, however, do not imagine either that we are the first to read the Bible or to confess the faith. We understand that we come from a long line of brothers and sisters who went before us. The historic Christian faith is much older than even the 19th century. The earliest post-apostolic Christians spoke of the “rule of faith,” which became what today is called the Apostles’ Creed. We know that the Apostles themselves did not write the creed but that it developed and was largely mature by the mid-4th century. We also confess the Nicene Creed, which was drafted at the Council of Nicea (325 AD) against the Arians (who wanted to make the Son subordinate in being to the Father) and at Constantinople (381 AD). We also confess the Definition of Chalcedon (425 AD) on the person of Christ and the Athanasian Creed (perhaps from the 5th century) on the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. These are called ecumenical (universal) or catholic (universal, not Roman) creeds. These were carefully written and widely received short ecclesiastical summaries of God’s Word on essential issues.

The confessions and catechisms of the P&R churches emerged from the sixteenth-century Reformation, when pastors and churches returned to God’s Word (sola Scriptura!) as the ruling authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life and Reformed the church from its various doctrinal and practical corruptions. From earliest decades of the Reformation the P&R churches confessed their faith as churches (not just as individuals) on the essential matters of the faith. The most famous of the confessions are what I have sometimes called the “Six Forms of Unity” (in chronological order): The Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort (1619), and the Westminster Standards (confession and two catechisms) (c. 1647).

In these documents, the churches (as corporate bodies) and her members confess before God, the church, and the watching world what we believe. Our faith is a public matter with personal consequences. These documents have authority that personal expressions, e.g., a systematic theology or some other treatise, does not and cannot have. Thus, as important as Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology or Mike Horton’s Pilgrim Theology might be, we do not confess them. They are true insofar as they are faithful to the Word as confessed by the churches but they cover things that we do not confess. Where we do not confess there is liberty. So one author might disagree with another on matters not confessed. This is a wonderful benefit of having formal confessions and catechisms. We have an agree theology, piety, and practice. Outside of that agreement, we have freedom to take this view or practice or that. That there are confessions also means that there is a core set of convictions and practices that binds us together. We are not tossed about by every wind of doctrine nor are we bound to the idiosyncrasies of a given theologian.

The Heidelblog is dedicated to exploring the Reformed confession both in the narrow sense of the ecclesiastical documents and the broad sense, which includes the broader Reformed tradition. Recovering the Reformed Confession was written as a starting point, to help the P&R churches to recover their own confession and to help those who are just discovering our theology, piety, and practice.

Making a paradigm shift can be challenging but it can also be thrilling as one discovers a world of theology, piety, and practice (and a way of reading God’s Word) hitherto unknown.

Welcome friend! Come on in.

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  1. Just curious if the omission of the Irish Articles (1615) from your list is deliberate and if so why?

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