Submitted by Prof. Renihan
Overall, the state of our churches seems to be healthy. But I cannot say the same about the state of Evangelical Christianity in general. When I look there, I have deep concerns.
Doctrinal error continues to invade churches and schools almost unchecked. Working in higher education, I see young people sent off to historically Christian colleges only to be exposed to unbelieving professors. I wonder if parents and pastors know what their children are being taught at these schools?
When I read some important theological journals, I am amazed at two things. First, there seems to be a willingness to question every doctrine historically identified with evangelical orthodoxy. Second, much scholarship has fallen into a morass of minutiae. The two concerns are not unrelated. In almost every case, a scholar (often young and perhaps seeking to make a name for him/herself) will suggest a new and creative way to exegete a text, and draw conclusions from it contradictory to received doctrine or practice. And what is printed in Journals often becomes canon for other scholarship, and even for practice in the church.
The most obvious example of this is the stunning reappraisal of the role of women in the church. Much of evangelicalism has given in to mounting pressure on this issue. But this is not the only issue. Most of us are familiar with the recent proposals and debates about Justification. Along with this the very nature of Scripture has been questioned as has the traditional doctrine of God. Molinism is becoming an acceptable alternative to Reformed predestinarianism. A simple amendment to strengthen (at a basic level) the doctrinal basis of an Evangelical scholarly society was defeated by its members. We live in a day of doctrinal confusion, reappraisal and even defection. What is the remedy?
While some will roll their eyes and accuse me of being simplistic, I am convinced that honest and rigorous confessionalism is the answer to the problem. Confessionalism does several very positive things. First, it causes us to embrace doctrinal humility. I notice that the reappraisals and defections come as a result of individual inquiry. When I set myself up as the doctrinal authority (or rely on some other individual to do the same), I set myself up as the standard and criteria for judgment. How often have I heard someone say “I have studied this matter and here is my conclusion . . . .”, a conclusion often novel or out of harmony with received doctrine. When I submit myself to the wisdom of the church, gathered over the ages, I am kept from assuming a place of authority. In reality, I am in a position of submission. At this point, someone will protest, but what about Scripture? Isn’t it an authority over the Confession? Well, of course, and it always must be so. But the problem is that I never read Scripture apart from my own gloss on Scripture. It is too easy for me to think that my reading of the Bible is necessarily the correct one.
Secondly, confessionalism ties us to the church past and present. A good Confession of faith will express doctrines always believed by Christians. This was one of the great issues of the Reformation. The Reformers viewed themselves, not as innovators, but as recoverers of the tradition (read this as doctrine and practice as in 2 Thess 2:13-15) of the apostles and their successors. I think it was Anthony Lane who wrote that the Reformation was, in one sense, a dispute over the proper interpretation of the Fathers. This is a brilliant observation, pointing up a very important aspect of Reformation thinking: the truth is not new, it is old. When we adopt a Confession, we are identifying with every group of Christians which has confessed the same doctrine, all the way back to the apostles. Confessions keep us from theological and practical novelty.
In my studies of the 16th and 17th centuries, this fact was driven home time after time. Our forefathers were extremely careful about innovation and deviation from tradition (properly understood). Do you remember how RC Sproul presents Luther at the Diet of Worms? Not as a bold and self-confident pioneer, but rather as a cautious and self-doubting student. I think RC gets it exactly right, and this should be our demeanor as well. Submission to a Confession teaches us this kind of inter-generational humility.
Our day is full of innovation. We have lost the fear of novelty; in fact it seems like a virtue. Our culture, which exalts the cutting edge, has invaded the church, so that historical realities have been overturned. While our fathers were extremely cautious in their adoption of change, we criticize those who call for conservation!
The remedy for us must be conservation. God is immutable; His truth is Immutable; His purpose is the same whatever century His people may live in. Rigorous and strict confessionalism is the best answer for the way ahead. May God help us.