Postmodern Confessionalism?

The relationship between biblical authority and ecclesiology has always been interesting. The Reformed commitment to sola Scriptura was never biblicism, as if it were solo Scriptura.1 The Reformed tradition from its outset was at the same time devoted to the Bible’s ultimate authority as well as a churchly movement, holding to authoritative confessions that never departed from Christianity’s ecumenical heritage. The church, not merely as a collection of individual believers but as the corporate people of God, interprets the Scripture, and Reformed churches recorded our understanding of the Scripture’s teaching in our confessions. This places some authority—not infallible or unquestionable but nonetheless real authority—in the church as that divinely-instituted community that receives the Scripture and interprets its meaning.

This post is not so much about considering that intersection of biblical and ecclesiastical authority in historical terms as it is about evaluating it in light of modern hermeneutics. “The Great Tradition” is presently an en vogue category, and rightly so since the premodern methods of exegesis did greater justice than modern critical approaches do to the Scripture’s divine authorship and Christ’s presence as mediator throughout the Old Testament period. Interest in premodern exegesis has hit the mainstream (i.e., nearly popular level) of theological discourse, placing emphasis back on theological interpretation of Scripture in the academy, churches, and even on social media. But even with these positive developments, whatever aspects need to be considered mutatis mutandis, hermeneutics as they relate to biblical authority and ecclesiology have been a crucial topic of discussion for some time. So, we finally turn more directly to our specific topic of interest for this post.

In 1984, George Lindbeck published his pivotal work The Nature of Doctrine, marking the “cultural-linguistic turn” in biblical interpretation.2 Lindbeck’s point was at least partially to move away from Liberalism’s outright rejection of biblical authority by incorporating an appeal to postmodern philosophy. In brief, one aspect of postmodernism is that people interpret the world within their cultural locations.

 As a digression to set the stage for engaging Lindbeck’s view, we may need to look at postmodernity a little more— feel free to skip ahead if you feel well equipped on this front. Although colloquially postmodernism has come to connote full relativism—not entirely without reason—some more high-level applications of postmodern thought are attempting to make responsible sense of how different cultures legitimately communicate differently. In the US, holding up two fingers signals “peace.” Where I live in the UK, it means the same thing as holding up your middle finger in the US. Even in that explanation, you can see how I defaulted to my own native standard of communication to make sense of differing non-verbal signals. Is the “truth” that two fingers means something very kind or something very rude? Postmodernism tries to make sense of this difficulty by saying that truth is shaped by cultural reasoning—full relativism comes by applying the same model at the individual level. Historians deal with the same complexity by reckoning with what Quintin Skinner has explained as the apparatus of rationality—namely, a culture or era’s web of ideas, assumptions, beliefs, and practices that make the belief under consideration fully reasonable given these factors that were in place when an author wrote about his or her view.3

Now, orthodox Christians rightly and almost easily explain this difficulty by appealing to cultural convention and historical consciousness. In some ways, cultural convention is grounded in God’s work at the tower of Babel where he confounded human language. We then expect that people use different words and nonverbal signals to convey the same content. Linguistic translation is possible because full relativism is untrue. Historical consciousness also changes as we learn more, cultural patterns shift, and varying assumptions are in place. This too is expected for Christians, since we assume an eschatological perspective that history is not static and God is driving the world’s events forward. Neither issue relativizes the abiding obligation of God’s moral law for every creature that bears his image—such truth is objective and fixed. The only relativity to this claim is our relationship to God and every human being is related to God either by the covenant of works or covenant of grace, neither of which nullify or displace God’s moral commands. Still, the situation in which we live means we must reckon with what postmodernity has put upon the church.

Back to Lindbeck. Lindbeck argued that the church is the community who uses the Scripture to shape its cultural “grammar” or identity. This community shaped by Scripture then shapes the individual, placing Christians in a culture that forms them in a certain way and somewhat resembling a postmodern structure. It sounds fairly orthodox to state that the church is the community who uses the Scripture to shape its grammar. As Kevin Vanhoozer has pointed out, however, Lindbeck’s move actually locates authority in the church rather than in Scripture.4 The church rather than Scripture has authority because the church, in Lindbeck’s model, chooses to use the Scripture to shape its identity. The Scripture is not inherently the authoritative text but has been selected by the community, which by effect essentially has ultimate authority. The parallels to the Roman Catholic view of the church’s relationship to Scripture, wherein the church produces Scripture rather that being the creatura verbum, are quickly obvious.

The issue to tackle on the Heidelblog—as a resource for recovering Reformed theology, piety, and practice—is whether the church using the Scripture to shape its grammar or identity describes confessionalism. In other words, does confessionalism adumbrate postmodernism, or at least Lindbeck’s postmodern theology, by using Scripture to produce its constitutional documents that very much are the cultural grammar of confessional denominations?

This point is critical in our times because there is a growing clash over the authority of confessions supposedly versus sola Scriptura. It is not difficult to find debates about the doctrines of divine simplicity, impassibility, or whether the Son’s eternal relationship to the Father is equality or submission. Those who deny simplicity, impassibility, and the Son’s eternal personal equality with the Father quickly appeal to sola Scriptura, demanding “detailed” exegesis of biblical texts to prove these doctrines, and accuse those who believe that the confessional tradition correctly expresses the biblical view of rejecting Scripture as the ultimate authority. Are we being postmodern by going with our confessions, believing them as adequate summaries of biblical truth, or even in having confessions at all?

Obviously, the answer argued here will be no. Nevertheless, it is fruitful to reason our way through this issue to strengthen our understanding of confessionalism. The category we should clarify is the difference between use and response. Lindbeck’s model poses the church as using the Scripture to shape its identity. This model, however, suggests that there are options available to the church community. If my bookshelf breaks and I need to reattach the lateral shelf to the vertical support, I can choose to use nails and a hammer, screws and a screwdriver, or even super heavy-duty glue. Some options work better than others but still all are open for use unto the same purpose. On the other hand, if the police arrive at my home, I do not really have the option to use anything but must respond. Now, I could respond in submission or rebellion but nevertheless have recourse only to respond.

This distinction between use and response gets at the heart of the difference between postmodernism and confessionalism. The church does not exist abstractly, namely, disconnected from God’s Word, and have the option to look around for alternatives to use to shape its own identity. The church is the community addressed by God through his Word and must respond. Confessionalism is the attempt for the church to respond correctly to God’s Word and preserve and propagate that response to succeeding generations of the church.

What then of biblical authority and the call for detailed exegesis from doctrinal revisionists? Is it a neglect of biblical authority to insist upon the church’s traditional position to the exclusion of new views that claim to have the support of sola Scriptura? Again, the answer is no.

Part of Vanhoozer’s response to Lindbeck was to insist that sola Scriptura is a practice more than an abstract principle.5 Apart from the particulars of how Vanhoozer explained this concept, the principle of sola Scripture as practice is certainly relevant. Because sola Scripture is a matter of, not using only Scripture to prove our points, but submitting to the Bible’s teaching for faith and life.6 Ironically, those who call for doctrinal revision insist upon using only Scripture to prove a point, making them resemble the exact postmodern structure of Lindbeck’s theory of doctrinal construction. Undoubtedly to their own consternation, revisionists reason like rationalists who can know everything individually because they chose to use the appropriate resource.

On the other hand, confessionalists embody sola Scriptura as a practice by continually seeking submission to divine mysteries that may not be immediately obvious to us. Did I understand how the Bible teaches impassibility the first time I heard the doctrine taught? No. Was my reaction to reject it until someone could present sufficient evidence that measured up to the standard of qualification that I set? No, because I am not a rationalist. Rather, our position should be to listen longer when the church has come together to state—to confess—our understanding of the Scripture. Individuals in the church learn submission to sola Scriptura by not pretending that we can exhaustively interpret every teaching of Scripture by ourselves, knowing instead that we need the collective wisdom of the ages and of the saints to come together to teach us. So again, we see that we do not use Scripture to prove a point but sit under it—even as taught by others—to learn.

Confession is not simply a document but is first an action.7 In other words, confession is a response to God’s Word. Because true confessionalism is not choosing one resource from among many to shape our cultural grammar. Rather, it is assuming that the authoritative text of the Bible has inherent meaning to which we need to learn to correspond and to confess publicly as the church.

©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.


1. Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, 2001), 237–54.

2. George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984).

3. Quintin Skinner, “Interpretation, Rationality and Truth,” in Visions of Politics Volume 1: Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 27–56; Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” in Visions of Politics, 57–89.

4. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 10.

5. Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 16–17.

6. For expansion of this point, see Harrison Perkins, “Sanctification, Submission, and Scripture’s Authority,” Modern Reformation 29 no. 4 (July-Aug 2020): 34–43.

7. John Webster, “Confession and Confessions,” in Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London: T&T Clark, 2016), 69–83.


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