Our age is a rapidly moving one. Historically detached and cynically predisposed to despising tradition, we are a people marked by a kind of uprootedness. Some may consider this an asset of the twenty-first century and not a burden, as if the institutions and beliefs of yesteryear are shackles of which we should consider ourselves fortunate to leave behind. However, far from living in liberty, the historically unrooted Christian does not actually know what he is missing. He is like the man G.K. Chesterton describes as “the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard” (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man).
Over and against this disposition stands J.V. Fesko, who considers the creeds and confessions of the Christian traditions to be wings that put the soul to flight, to escape the imposing and suffocating mustiness of a tradition-despising modern malaise. Fesko is the Harriet Barbour Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at RTS Jackson, and is one of today’s most prominent advocates for retrieving the Theology of Christian history‘s creeds and confessions. In this interview, Credo editor Samuel G. Parkison is joined with Credo Fellow J.V. Fesko as they discuss his recent book, The Need for Creeds Today: Confessional Faith in a Faithless Age (Baker, 2020).
Would you mind sharing with Credo readers how this little book came about? What was the occasion, and what are you hoping to accomplish with it?
In my childhood, my Christian experience was marked by a solid grounding in the Bible, but my foundation was disconnected from the church throughout the ages. When I went to seminary and began studying church history and the Protestant Reformation I discovered the trove of catechisms and confessions, documents in which Christians codified their convictions for their own generation, in concert with convictions of past generations, and written down for future generations. I learned how important it was to profess, not merely my own faith but the faith once delivered to the saints—to join hands with the church throughout the ages and confess our triune God and the salvation he has wrought.
I regularly taught a course on the Westminster Standards and documented my research in a book, The Theology of the Westminster Standards (Crossway, 2014). I was also asked to speak at a conference that was on the importance of creeds and confessions. The conference gave me the opportunity to reflect more upon confessions of faith and to document my thoughts in my book, The Need for Creeds Today.
Some defend confessionalism by appealing to the many benefits of being rooted in a particular tradition, or by noting how the historic confessions are faithful summaries of biblical teaching. And while you certainly do the same in The Need for Creeds Today, you go a step further and actually argue that Scripture instructs the Church to write her own creeds and confessions. Care to explain?
I think that many believe that creeds and confessions are ultimately foreign to the life of the church—doctrinal walls that the narrow-minded erect to keep out theological riff raff. And, yet, God gave his people a confession of faith in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). Israel was supposed to confess their faith and teach it to their children (Deut. 6:6-7). This confession acted as a doctrinal wall to keep Israel from engaging in idolatry, but this isn’t narrow-minded thinking but rather confession in the service of love and fidelity to God.
The apostle Paul similarly encourages the church to confess its faith in Christ when he commends trustworthy sayings: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15; see also 1 Tim. 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Tit. 3:8). The trustworthy sayings were brief summaries of the teaching of Christ. The church put Christ’s truth into its own words and confessed it. Their trustworthy sayings were accurate such that Paul incorporated them into his own divinely inspired letters. Just as Christ taught us to pray and we use our own words, and as the Scriptures instruct us to sing and we create hymns with our own words, and the Bible tells preachers to herald the word in their own words, so too the Bible tells us to summarize biblical truth in our own words and pass it on to others. At the same time, our prayers, hymns, sermons, and confessions are all subordinate to the authority of Scripture and must trace its truth and never deviate from it.
How do you typically respond to the objection to confessionalism that insists that the proliferation of creeds and confessions hinders the kind of catholicity and unity Christ seemed to envision in his high priestly prayer (John 17)? That is, the objection that confessions too narrowly restrict believers within their respective traditions?
Robert Frost once wrote a poem called “The Mending Wall,” where he famously wrote that, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Confessions or not, this side of glory the church has been, is, and will be splintered and divided for a host of reasons. While people have used confessions further to divide the church, at the same time, rightly used, confessions of faith are beneficial. Confessions of faith assist different churches with identifying areas of both agreement and disagreement. Among confessional Presbyterians, who profess the Westminster Confession, and confessional Baptists, who profess the 1689 Confession, there are large areas of agreement, and their respective confessions demonstrate where this agreement lies. There are unquestionably areas of doctrinal disagreement, but the confessions pinpoint where these areas lie so that Baptists and Presbyterians can eventually work towards understanding and perhaps resolving their differences of opinion. But apart from confessions, people of different theological conviction might eschew informal or formal fellowship because of not knowing what a different church believes. Confessions, therefore, foster trust, understanding, and even a degree of principled ecumenism—a unity that does not sacrifice truth in the name of love. Confessions foster trust, understanding, and even a degree of principled ecumenism—a unity that does not sacrifice truth in the name of love. Click To Tweet
For some in the Reformed world, the word “scholastic” conjures up all kinds of dreadful feelings. They pit the Reformers against the Post-Reformers and insist on the former in rejection of the latter. You take this narrative head-on in your book and insist that “scholasticism” is not the boogieman it is often made out to be. Would you elaborate for us?
For many Christians, the Reformation is the garden and scholasticism is the fall. The inheritors of the reformers’ legacy couldn’t resist the siren call of academic respectability and thus sold their inheritance in biblically pure doctrine for a bowl of scholastic lentils, or so the old canard goes. Scholastic theology is not a form of theological rationalism or a devolution of Reformation theology; a scholastic theologian is someone who taught in a school. Thus, scholastic theology, plain and simple, is theology taught in the schools, which stands in contrast to catechetical theology, doctrine for the instruction of children and new converts, homiletical theology, doctrine delivered in the form of a sermon, or pastoral theology, doctrine employed in the context of pastoral ministry. First and second-generation reformers forged doctrine but in the wake of the Reformation, a threefold need arose to protect, perpetuate, and promote Reformation theology.
First, the reformers needed to codify their beliefs, hence the need for confessions and catechisms. Second, Reformed churches needed to teach future generations of ministers Reformation theology, and so schools arose to fill this need. But schools require a different form of theology, neither catechetical, homiletical, nor pastoral theology, but scholastic theology—doctrine suited for instruction. That is, students needed to learn the scriptural foundation for doctrine, different positions on various questions, where the Reformed churches stood on various issues, and fine-toothed distinctions to defend the truth. The characteristics of scholastic theology never left the Reformation but appear in the works of Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Bullinger, and Zwingli. Granted, the scholastic method became more prominent in the post-Reformation era, but it was only to serve the instructional needs of a new generation of students; it was not the invasion of rationalism or speculation as some erroneously claim.
As you describe the advent of anti-confessionalism, it is clear that the contributing factors to our historical amnesia are many and varied. It seems like there are more than explicitly ecclesiological factors that contribute to the antipathy towards confessions; rather, there are broader cultural and sociological concerns as well (what Charles Taylor called, “social imaginaries”). It seems to me that the current anti-confessional climate and our present social situation are mutually impactful—our culture impacts our view of history, and our view of history impacts our culture. So, in this kind of context, which comes first: the chicken or the egg? Should we be focusing on bringing confessions back into the church or preparing and conditioning the church to receive confessions again?
The temptation with questions like this is to force one’s self into an either / or approach: either we bring confessions back into the church, or we prepare the church to receive confessions again. I think we reject the choice as a false dichotomy and we do both. We should bring confessions back into the church. Depending on the ecclesiological context, this might mean drawing upon a different confessional tradition. For historically Reformed churches, this places the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort), or the Second Helvetic Confession as options, among others. I know of a Bible church that transitioned from having no confession to adopting the Three Forms of Unity and aligning with a Reformed denomination. If one is in a Baptist context, this might mean employing the 1689 Second London Confession or James Boyce’s Abstract of Principles, for example, as confessional resources. At the same time, just because a church adopts a confession doesn’t mean that it truly understands it. This means that we must continually prepare, condition, and maintain the church for and in its confessional stance. Such an ethos requires that leaders instruct their churches in the history of their origins, their cultural milieu, and the truths that confessions embody. But it also means continually teaching their churches the vitality of their confessional faith lest the acids of culture erode the church’s confessional commitment.
Related to the last question, what kind of unique benefits do you think await the non-confessional church today in receiving the creeds and confessions of the past?
Many of today’s Christians are sincere, love Christ, and treasure their Scriptures, but their faith is only as old as their profession of faith—it has no historical root. We need to remember that the church of Christ is not confined to the people who are walking about, alive, and breathing, but also consists of all of the saints from the past. Confessions therefore afford us the ability to join hands with our ancestors and profess the faith once delivered to the church. We can engage in what G. K. Chesterton once called, the democracy of the dead. We can consult the wisdom of the ages when we try to understand the Scriptures and tap into the creeds and confessions of the past lest we wander off the path of truth. Many of today’s Christians are sincere, love Christ, and treasure their Scriptures, but their faith is only as old as their profession of faith—it has no historical root. Click To Tweet We can also see that many aspects of our faith have deep and broad currents. When we profess that Christ is light of light and very God of very God (language from the Nicene Creed), we join a chorus of Christians that goes back nearly fifteen-hundred years, and we sing in unison with Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Our confession of Christ’s divinity is not merely a personal conviction, it’s a conviction of all professing Christians.
What would you say to the pastor in a low-church tradition, who is thoroughly convinced by your argument? What might it look like for a non-confessional church to increasingly become more confessional (without forcing a church split in two-week’s time!)?
Baby steps. I mentioned a church that transitioned from being a non-denominational Bible church to becoming a confessional Reformed church. This was a transition that the leaders made over the course of more than a decade. We must resist the microwave, instant-credit, immediate change impulse of our culture and seek to disciple people in the truth with love and patience. Church leaders can begin this process by slowly introducing confessional teaching, commending the utility and value of confessions, quoting confessional documents in sermons, Sunday School lessons, Bible studies, and taking small groups through confessions of faith. Rather than using the latest pop-theology book, grab a confession and study it. I think with this approach, people will see the beauty and importance of confessions and be drawn to them and ask for their use and formal adoption. Move too fast and force change too quickly, and you might get your church into a confessional denomination but lose many of the people in the process. We must remember that the church is the people, not the building, denomination, or sign out front. Thus, work patiently with the people in your church.
Going back to the earlier question regarding Scripture’s direction in writing creeds and confessions, is this incumbent for the Church still? Should the Church continue to write creeds and confessions today, or should she contend herself with what is written already?
The simple answer is, yes, we should continue to write creeds and confessions today. But to write new creeds and confessions takes a lot of studied effort. J. Gresham Machen was correct to say that we do not live in a creed-making age. Before we engage in confession-writing, therefore, we have to train a generation of pastors, theologians, and people in the church so that we can begin the process of writing new confessions. Some may say this is much too long to wait, but the truth is, better to have steady, wise, and knowledgeable hands on the tiller that will sail us into smooth waters rather than shipwreck the church on a reef of false doctrine. Moreover, the desire to write new confessions should never be driven by arrogance or what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’. Namely, what is new is better than what is old. Rather, writing new confessions is about sharpening our understanding of the Bible’s teaching, clarifying our doctrinal expression, and personally and corporately owning doctrinal truth. Therefore, we are not presently ready to write new confessions, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare.