My four-point defining feature of confessionalists, in distinction from evangelicals and pietists, is that they are
- Church oriented, grounded in the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Reformed traditions arising from the Protestant Reformation in the 16th-17th centuries.
- Church forms matter and are central for spiritual life, especially liturgical and doctrinal formulations, along with polity.
- Spiritual practice orbits the public worship of the church, with emphasis on preaching, the sacraments, and prayer.
- Ordinary life in the world is good and welcome.
In Reformed and Evangelical Across Four Centuries: The Presbyterian Story in America (2022), historians from four different American Presbyterian churches wrote on the subject of the intersection between Presbyterians and evangelicals…
I was pleasantly surprised to see this recent post by ECO’s Synod Executive, Dana Allin, about going beyond ECO’s Essential Tenets. He celebrates the Essential Tenets, but wonders whether “perhaps we should desire more from our leaders than simply ‘Adhering, receiving, and adopting’ the Essential Tenets.” What prompted this was a series of spiritual conversations where Allin realized that the Essential Tenets were simply too basic to provide enough thoughtful direction.
Why was this a pleasant surprise? Because, as I have previously written, ECO’s confessionalism is too simple and underdeveloped to guide pastoral and theological conversations. They need something more robust, like the historic confessional approaches of the Reformed tradition. A public recognition from ECO’s main leader that the Essential Tenets are inadequate to the task of confessing ECO’s biblical faith to the world is a good first step in that direction.
What is sin? Sin is many things, but at its core sin is lack of conformity to and violation of God’s law (cf. WSC 14, WLC 24). Doing what God forbids is sinful and not obeying what God commands is sinful. Christians often disagree about what God has required in his word, which is why confessions of faith are valuable. A confession of faith is a statement of belief about what God’s word teaches. For the EPC, we believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith with the Larger and Shorter catechisms contain the system of doctrine found in the scriptures. We confess that these documents faithfully represent the truth of God’s word. Other churches may disagree with us, and some in the EPC may disagree with parts of these documents (more on that in a minute), but this is the chief role of a confessional system: affirming what the church believes God has revealed to us about himself and our duties towards him.
The EPC’s motto includes “In Non-Essentials: Liberty”. The idea in the motto, and very much the reality in the EPC’s culture, is that we foster liberty towards one another in areas of non-essential doctrines. People have the freedom to not only disagree with each other on these non-essentials, but are also able to have different non-essential practices. The most notable example of this is the ordination of women…
British historian David Bebbington famously provided his four-point sociological taxonomy of evangelicalism in 1989. While the edges and applications have been debated on and off, the framework of the Bebbington Quadraleteral still proves useful. Evangelicalism is characterized by,
- Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages).
- Crucicentrism: a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
- Conversionism: the belief that human beings need to be converted.
- Activism: the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort.
Wheaton professor Timothy Larsen similarly provided a five-point definition in his introduction to the 2007 Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology…
I recently became aware that J. Gresham Machen authored a counter-affirmation to the Modernist Auburn Affirmation (see Stonehouse’s biography of Machen, page 357). The second and fourth points neatly dovetail into the case I’ve been making about the EPC and confessional interpretation. While the doctrines under consideration in the EPC do not strike at Nicene Christianity, and thus the stakes are lower than in the 1920s, the contours of the debate are similar: Who should interpret the church’s doctrinal standards, and what should that interpretation be? Machen’s counter-affirmation, reprinted below, could be helpful.
A Counter-Affirmation designed to Safeguard the Corporate Witness of the Presbyterian Church to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We the undersigned, ministers of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, having been made cognizant of an Affirmation signed by one hundred and fifty ministers in protest against the action of the General Assembly of 1923, and being convinced that the Affirmation will have an effect detrimental to the unity and corporate witness of the Church, desire to make the following answer:
I. The constitution of the Church, though it does not claim infallibility for itself, clearly does claim it (in the pledge required of all officers) for the Scriptures. This fact is ignored and in effect denied in the Affirmation.
II. The right of interpretation of the Scriptures and of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession does not mean that any officer of the Church may interpret the Scriptures or the system of doctrines described in the Confession as he pleases. Every interpretation must confirm to the meaning of the Scriptures and of the system of doctrine contained in the Confession where the meaning is clear. The interpretations for which toleration is asked in section IV of the Affirmation, on the contrary, reverses the plain meaning. Thus the Affirmation really advocate the destruction of the confessional witness of the Church. To allow interpretations which reverse the meaning of a confession is exactly the same thing as to have no confession at all.
III. In section IV of the Affirmation, the five points covered in the pronouncement of the General Assembly of 1923 are declared to be “theories” which some of the signers of the Affirmation regard as satisfactory but which all the signers unite in believing not to be the only theories allowed by the Scriptures. This means that the Scriptures allow the Virgin Birth, for example, and the bodily resurrection of our Lord to be regarded both as facts and not as facts. We protest against any such opinion. The redemptive events mentioned in the pronouncement of the Assembly are not theories but facts upon which Christianity is based, and without which Christianity would fall.
IV. We believe that the unity of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America can be safeguarded, not by a liberty of interpretation on the part of the officers of the Church, which allows a complete reversal of perfectly plain documents, but only by maintenance of the corporate witness of the Church. The Church is found not upon agnosticism but upon a common adherence to the truth of the gospel as set forth in the confession of faith on the basis of the Scriptures.