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THIS IS PART 3 IN A SERIES ON THE CREEDS AND CONFESSIONS BASED ON A PAPER PRESENTED AT THE PRODIGAL LOVE OF GOD CONFERENCE AT DORDT COLLEGE.

Just as the Reformation was a return to the sources, and a rediscovery of the biblical ground-motive, it seems we may be in need of such a rediscovery today. In many ways, the idolatrous and dualistic ground-motives of the world have found their ways back into the church, subverting many people’s understanding of a Christian worldview and wreaking havoc on the church’s ability to faithfully fulfill its public witness.  

In a recent article entitled, “We All Live in Marx’s World Now,” Carl Trueman provides a helpful commentary on the effects of Marx’s philosophy: We now live in a world where “the cultural imagination is gripped by the idea that everything is political.”[1] This absolutizing of the political aspect of the temporal horizon is but one expression of the contemporary idolatry to which the church has been taken captive. The same could be said about the aspects, or spheres, of biology, economics, education, or even faith.

If not rooted in the biblical ground-motive, the church can all-too-easily become complicit in the misdirected structures of creation, and led astray from the true faith and her mission in the world. In the case of politics, churches align themselves with political parties at the expense biblical fidelity. Professing Christians become functional adherents to the numerous pseudo-religious ideologies and their eschatological expectations—their blueprints for the future—which often stand in conflict with the gospel.[2] Division, suspicion, and derision crop up as opposed to unity, trust, and love, causing the church to mirror the world rather than reflecting the coming kingdom.

Similarly, it is the influence of dualistic ground-motives and their distorted views of nature and grace that have led many churches to lapse into readings of Scripture, and perspectives on gospel and mission, that skew towards individualism and an emphasis on going to heaven with no concern for the world today.

Both of these problems must be addressed within the church before we can faithfully go out into the world and seek to engage the culture in ways that seek to redirect the created structures of the world toward God’s purposes for them. Here, again, the confessions are fertile ground for reorienting our churches to the biblical ground-motive; strengthening her public witness and giving shape to her cultural engagement:

  1. They present the shape of Creation, Fall, and Redemption in their basic structures, and challenge worldly allegiances in their discussion of the lordship of Christ and the symbolic logic of the sacraments;

  2. They contain points of doctrine that explicate a properly reformed sense of the relationship between nature and grace;

  3. In their sections on the church, government, the law, prayer, and last things, they call Christians to action, shaping the cultural imagination of the church for a healthy public witness and cultural engagement.

 When it comes to application, the institutional church has the opportunity to address these issues by incorporating these documents into her two most formative activities: corporate worship and discipleship.

The regular practices of gathered worship should both stretch us backwards—to remember God’s works throughout history—as well as orient us to the future—as we look to what lies ahead: the new heavens and the new earth. As Christians, we belong to a story and people much bigger than ourselves and our contemporary situation.[3] The creeds and confessions are windows into this reality. They are vital connections to other times and places in the redemptive story; testimonies of God’s work in ages past that, when read, repeated, prayed, and sung, point us back to, and connect us with, those who wrote, read, and confessed them throughout history. Furthermore, they can provide our congregations with a shared language with which to know and speak about God and His works, for participating in His ongoing mission, and in creatively imagining the future. This unity can present a powerful witness to a world fractured and torn apart by its idolatry of the temporal aspects.

I believe there are ways we can weave the creeds and confessions into corporate worship that go beyond the evening sermon: setting them to music, using them to frame prayers, utilizing them in responsive readings and meditations, or artistic expression. When coupled with the covenant renewal rhythm of our worship, we can begin to see the biblical story formed in the hearts and on the minds of our members, and the culture of the church reoriented in a healthier direction for fulfilling its task in the world.[4]

As for the confessions and discipleship, I believe we must recover and reform the practice of catechesis. This can be a tough task in a culture driven by pragmatism, immediacy, and youth. Mastering and memorizing a body of content written hundreds of years ago can seem counterintuitive. Yet, one of the most significant ways we learn and grow in maturity is by listening closely to others within the community of faith, allowing their knowledge and experience—their authority—be a formative force in our lives. Ellen Davis puts it this way: “The experience of one person, no matter how hard-won, is never enough; it takes a tradition, the accumulated experience and insight of a people, to produce wisdom.”[5]

With this in mind, our goal in catechesis should not be to convert our children, as Kuyper put it, into memorization machines[6], but rather to form intergenerational learning communities in our churches, in which young and old strive to learn from one another as they learn from, and are shaped by, our creeds and confessions. Catechesis is for everyone because everyone needs to be instructed in truth, trained to ask questions of, and be questioned by, both scripture and culture, and find one’s place in the community of faith and larger tradition. We will be well served by our historic creeds and confessions, but in a globalized world of declining biblical literacy, rapid cultural shifts, and ever-changing ideologies, new catechisms and confessions that reinterpret these standards in ways that tackle the cultural challenges of our age may prove equally valuable. The question is: Who will write them?[7]

[1] Carl Trueman, “We All Live in Marx’s World,” The Gospel Coalition, March 19, 2019, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/live-marxs-world-now/.

[2] Johannes Verkuyl, The Message of Liberation in Our Age, trans. Dale Cooper (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), 89-91. Dr. David Koyzis’ book, Political Visions and Illusions, is another helpful resource on critiquing political ideologies from a reformational lens.

[3] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 159. 

[4] On the creative implementation of the confessions in corporate worship: Howard D. Vanderwell, “The Belgic Confession in Q&A Format,” Reformed Worship, Vol. 58, 36-37. 

[5] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God (Cambridge, MA: Crowley Publications, 2001), 89.

[6] Kuyper, The Implications of Public Confession, 43. 

[7] In recent years, Sam Shammas and Tim Keller’s The New City Catechism, and the RCA’s “Great Lakes Catechism on Marriage and Sexuality,” have proven the usefulness of new teaching tools, and the CRCNA’s “Our World Belongs to God,” is an example of a document intended to reinterpret the truths of the Three Forms of Unity in order to engage and address contemporary issues facing the church.

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