Discontent often arises from a thin notion of catholicity. If we minimize the confessions of our churches, wouldn’t a larger united church emerge? Wouldn’t a brief and generically evangelical statement of faith attract the greatest interest? Warfield argued that this approach was like “building a great house around a divided family.” The unity of the church never comes at the expense of its maturity in the faith. “We should consider well,” he adds, “whether this liberal pathway leads not in the end to tyranny.”
what confessions do
These expressions of confessional disaffection underscore the widespread confusion in our day about the nature and purpose of church confessions. Again, Warfield is helpful here. He observed that confessions, rightly employed, provide three services to the church: they are tests, texts, and testimonies.
Confessions are tests when candidates are examined for church leadership. They form the basis of a church’s confidence of one’s fitness for office. This test binds the candidate’s faith—can he vow ex animo (from the heart) and will he commit himself to teach what the Bible reveals about, for example, the federal headship of Adam or the virgin birth of Christ?
Confessions are texts when they instruct the faithful in theology. Catechisms (confessional statements in question and answer form) are especially effective discipleship tools. Often based on the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, they provide the means of training both the young and old in the Christian faith. Churches weaken their confessional identity when they neglect their duty to perfect the saints through catechesis.
Confessions are testimonies when they are the declarations of the faith of the church. This function includes the church’s corporate witness to a watching world and to other Christian churches, but it is especially seen when the church offers corporate praises and thanksgiving to God in its liturgical life. This entails the regular reading or reciting of portions of confessions in worship, but that is not all. The church’s confessions should shape the hymnody of the church. Public worship requires congregational song. When that is replaced by special music by professional performers, the church has robbed its flock of the privilege of confessing its faith. Moreover, the song of the church cannot be reduced to expressions of individual experience. The testimony of the church should not be “I Surrender” but rather “We Praise You Our God, Our Redeemer, Creator.” It is a hollow confession of faith whose theologically rich grammar does not shape the character of the church’s praise.
Tests, texts, and testimonies—these functions allow confessions to serve as the backbone for the confessing church, and they turn the argument about confessions and unity on its head. Far from undermining the cause of catholicity, confessions serve it. More often than not, Presbyterian splits have resulted from a departure from confessional fidelity. Without confessions, churches are tossed about by every wind of doctrine, disconnected from others by idiosyncratic interpretations and untethered from the Reformed tradition by fleeting concerns.
confessions as wide places
In Psalm 18, David praises God for setting him in a broad place (v. 19) and a wide place (v. 36), language that is found elsewhere in the Old Testament. What is this broad place? Often associated with the promised land, it is a place of safety, freedom, and prosperity.
Confessional churches are often viewed as narrow places, where tightly held doctrines allow little deviation, leading some to fear a theological claustrophobia of tyrannical uniformitarianism. To be sure, confessions can be and have been misused. They can be reduced to hammers to enforce rigid uniformity in church courts.
But confessions in the history of the church reveal a different story. They can be a gift through which the church is called to maintain eager and cordial unity among its members and fellowship with the broader church. In Richard Muller’s words, a confession “provides boundaries for theological and religious expression, but it also offers considerable latitude for the development of varied theological and religious expression within those boundaries.” The greatest seasons of theological prosperity in the Reformed tradition have been characterized by heightened attention to its confessions. Far from being an impediment to the flourishing of the church, creeds and confessions are vital to the church’s unity, holiness, Apostolicity, and catholicity.