We continue our series, this week examining what it means to express an evangelistic confessionalism.
e·van·ge·lis·tic (iˌvanjəˈlistik/)--adjective referring to one who zealously advocates a particular cause or belief.
con·fes·sion (kənˈfeSHən/)--statement setting out essential religious doctrine (or, as Carl Trueman writes, "a public statement of what a particular church or denomination believes that Scripture teaches in a synthetic form. ")
As a member of Trinity Christian Reformed Church, I belong to a denomination that declares itself to be confessional. By this, I mean, churches in the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) point to three documents as witnesses to the gospel and summarize the teachings of Scripture: The Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Yet, I cannot help but notice that many within our denominational house (and some of those in our neighborhood) seem to be confessionally confused.
In an article entitled, Buried Treasures: On the Riches of the Reformed Tradition, James K.A. Smith uses an architectural allegory to make this same point. He describes a person who is invited to a friend's house. But this is no ordinary house, it is a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Smith articulates the excitement of anticipation one experiences at the prospect of visiting this house and witnessing its incredible craftsmanship, quality, and design. "Imagine your surprise when, entering the house, you find something starkly different", writes Smith. He continues:
A garish linoleum covers the precious tile that you just know is under the entryway. Dropped ceilings have shut down the transcendent space of what would have been 10-foot ceilings. At some point in the '70s someone decided that orange Astroturf was better than classic hardwood. Then at some pint in the '80s someone must have surmised that tacky mirrors were more contemporary than stained glass. And as you make your way into the kitchen, you notice that someone in the '60s, armed with pea-green plastic, thought they could improve upon the ancient craftsmanship of the house you just know is dying to breath underneath all this renovation.
This is (generally) the vibe I get around our churches. Too often we have been swept up by contemporary fads or cultural pressures, changing and "reforming" according to these rather than our doctrinal standards (summarizing the authoritative teaching of Scripture). The truth is, the Three Forms of Unity are not simply pieces of paper or written accounts of personal belief; they are corporate expressions of the faith, once for all delivered to the saints and pointing to those doctrines we've held as dear (and orthodox) for generations. Rather than papering over these wonderful truths, we should embrace and devote ourselves to more deeply understanding what they communicate about God, His ways and His work in history.
The confessions serve as a staff, guiding the church in all its work as it both "presents the promise of the gospel to those who may believe and proclaims God's truth to the powers that rule in government, business, education, culture, etc. " To return to a robust confessionalism would bring a renewed sense of unity to the church, its mission, values and teaching, and clearly articulate to outsiders what we believe and why we believe it. Our confessions also function as a stick, providing the means for, and clear boundaries of, church discipline (discussed in the previous installment of this series). Thus, returning to our confessional roots means enhancing (clarifying) our witness to the world of Christ, the Kingdom, and the grace of God revealed therein, as well as preventing abuses of power and self-made religion. Finally, the confessions serve a doxological function, providing the impetus for maturity, praise, and loving action in service to God and neighbor alike. A renewed confessionalism provides those in our congregations a solid doctrinal foundation and theological framework in which they can grow and flourish. Or, to put it another way, orthodoxy and orthopraxy lead to doxological living.
However, beyond this, I believe that we should celebrate and joyfully proclaim to others the truths contained in our confessions. We should utilize them as a formative tool given us for Lord's Day worship, use them in the discipleship of our congregations and in shaping an alternative culture to that of the world. They should be a source of encouragement, comfort, hope, and motivation as we seek to live as faithful witnesses in the world. We should have a desire to share the riches of our tradition--with its emphasis on such ideas as the sovereignty of God, authority of Scripture, covenant theology, and the Kingdom of God--with the wider body of Christ, as well as the world, rather than struggling to throw off our confessional identity, discard it in misguiding efforts to be "relevant," or hide it as we strive to imitate others.
I think of a struggling lawyer who was greatly comforted when I shared Heidelberg Catechism Q&A#1 with him while running on treadmills at the gym; I think of the engineering student who visited our church and found the Reformed distinctives expressed in corporate worship to be refreshing to his evangelical megachurch-weary, cynical soul; I think of the joy and encouragement of an international student (from the Netherlands) in finding that there are other Christians who believe, confess, and practice the same Reformed Standards as he does; and I think of the young Christian growing into a leader in part through our studies of the catechism and its bearing on his life.
With the amount of time and energy devoted to questions concerning the future of our denomination and, more broadly, Christianity, one may ask: What do we do? Where do we turn? We should not capitulate to the winds of culture, jettisoning the central tenants of our faith. Neither should we seek to hide our "accent", striving to appear as those around us. We should not be concerned with the next, best thing, nor retreat into a stale traditionalism. Rather, may we turn back to our tradition, to the confessions, mining the depths of the riches embedded in them, and push forward in affirming and acting in faithfulness to way, the truth, and life revealed within their pages.
 Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 17.
[2} James K.A. Smith, "Buried Treasues: On the Riches of the Reformed Tradition," The Banner 146, no. 1 (January 2011), 33.
[3} Allan J. Janssen, Confessing the Faith Today: A Fresh Look at the Belgic Confession (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 5-7.