While I no longer look the part, I used to be an avid martial artist. I often practiced multiple times each week – in addition to several normal workouts in the gym! While several injuries and responsibilities now keep me away from my passion, the people I met and tradition’s I studied are a formative part of who I am today.
My experience studying martial arts showed me that there are both healthy and unhealthy parts of martial arts cultures. At its best, a martial arts tradition instills respect, confidence, humility, and responsibility in its followers. At its worst, a martial arts schools produces arrogant, cocky, immature students.
What makes the difference?
As a child, I was shaped by my earliest dojo with the latter attitude. The importance of hard work and respect were overshadowed by the goal of achieving the ultimate reward: the black belt. Obtaining your black belt was the destination; each belt was one rung on the latter toward becoming someone of importance. It was not the character of the student that mattered, but the belt around her waist. Once you obtained your black belt, you had finally arrived; there was little else to learn. It was now your turn to tell those lesser than you what to do.
After stepping away from the sport for a few years, I returned as a young adult. I was shaped in two schools and traditions which taught me the importance of respect, leading by example, and humility. In these schools, the character of the student mattered as much as their skill. The black belt was not a destination but the beginning of a lifelong journey of learning and growth. It signified that you had mastered enough of the basics to learn from and incorporate other techniques and traditions. To use a religious term, obtaining your black belt encouraged catholicity with other martial artists through relationships built on trust, hard work, and humble submission to each other.
In this series, I have been trying to fill in a paradigm for what it looks like for a Christian to hold firm beliefs while still being kind and charitable across divides and differences. I want to make the case that confessionally Reformed Christians who follow their historic tradition have great reason to be those who can hold firm convictions with kindness and charitability.
In the previous posts, I have focused on showing how Reformed confessionalism allows us to be both bounded and centered in our beliefs; that is, to hold firm beliefs while acknowledging our need for growth and development. The confession does this by dealing with our fears, instilling relationships of trust, and training us to believe the best in others.
In this post, I’d like to focus on the second paradigm which explains the differences between a “truth-possessed” and a “truth-pursued” posture. Those with a truth-possessed mindset believe they own or have exclusive access to the truth. If one operates from a position of being truth-possessed, they not only believe they have the power to articulate the boundaries on the truth, but who has the rights to the truth. A truth-pursued attitude is much more open-ended. Those with a truth-possessed attitude believe that one can never fully arrive at “the truth” and must always be pursued.
Healthy Christians, like healthy martial artists, are well disciplined in a particular tradition and they can model respect, charitability, and kindness with those from other forms of belief. That is, they hold fast to the truth they possess while pursuing greater clarity and knowledge from Christ through his Word.
There are several ways confessionalism ought to shape us toward this end. I will attempt to highly several of these key means through a brief study of the Westminster Confession’s early history. My hope is this brief study is not only informative but applicable to our hearts as Christ followers.
A Response for a Particular Moment
In his stellar commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, aptly titled Confessing the Faith, Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn provides a fitting and succinct history for our purposes here.
In 1641, pastor Edmund Calamy urged the House of Commons to begin a “reform of the Reformation itself” within the Church of England. In 1643, the English Parliament acknowledged the need for this reform. The Westminster Assembly was summoned during the “bloody civil war with King Charles I,” an understandably tense and difficult time. The assembly was summoned for the purpose of proposing to Parliament “any corrections which might need to be made to the existing structures, worship, and teaching of the church” (Confessing the Faith, xvii).
One hundred and twenty theologians were gathered for this assembly. Over three years, this group struggled together to produce the document we now know as the Westminster Confession of Faith.
The Westminster Confession was written during a time of intense pressure for England and its Church. That it has endured and survived for so long as a unifying statement of faith for Reformed Christianity testifies to the care and brilliance of its authors. While the assembly was a response to a particular cultural moment, the Confession is not merely reactive in its content. The Confession has proven itself to be a faithful guide to the Christian faith and interpretation of the Scriptures. I am in agreement with Dr. Van Dixhoorn when he says that the Confession may be “the wisest of creeds in its teaching and the finest in its doctrinal expression” (Ibid., xix).
Nevertheless, it should not be controversial to say that this history makes plain that the Confession is a contextual document. That is, the Confession arose out of a particular cultural moment, in response to particular cultural needs, and was written by authors with a particular cultural perspective. As 17th century theologian Thomas Ridgley wrote, the Confession is “nothing else but a peculiar way of preaching or of instructing us in divine truths” (A Body of Divinity Vol. 1, pp. 1). This fact does not take away from the enduring, objective truth contained within the Confession. It should, however, encourage its adherents to be open to the possibility that the Confession does not say all that needs to be said. At the very least, Confessional believers must acknowledge that the teaching of the Confession must be spoken and applied contextually, just as it was in its origins.
To do this well, we will have to seek new knowledge from those who see and understand things we do not. There will be disagreements. Confessional believers in different places will see varying needs and respond with varying emphasis. Yet across these divides, there ought to be charitability and kindness, having been shaped and unified by beauty and benefits of our confessional tradition.
Herman Bavinck, referenced in the previous post, is a great example of navigating this tension. He understood that the Reformed confessions were not a destination but are a tool in service to the study and application of Scripture. He once said,
Within the Reformed churches, agreement with the confessions has never been understood in the sense that all freedom of opinion thereby should be excluded…[T]hose who profess the Reformed religion can and must, as long as they remain true to their origins, never give the impression that for them orthodoxy per se is the highest truth. However high we may estimate the confessions of the church, they are a “standardized norm,” subservient to Holy Scripture, and thus always remain subject to revision and expansion (Modernism and Orthodoxy, pp. 78-79).
Healthy Confessionalism, then, is thankful for the truth we possess in this great document of our tradition. At the same time, we will continue pursuing truth which has not yet been said, as well as new ways to explain our old beliefs for the needs of modern contexts.
A Group Project
Though the sought-after assembly was finally convened for the work of reforming the Church of England, the members of the assembly – sometimes called the Westminster Divines – were not so pleased. The work was frustrating and difficult. Van Dixhoorn summarizes the challenges these theologians faced:
The task of revising or writing a document such as a directory or confession looked easier than it really was. While individual ministers could state their own understanding of the Bible, it was much harder to come to agreement as a group. Then (as now) there were too many architects wanting reform and too few builders who could actually effect it (Confessing the Faith, xviii).
Even Calamy himself was disappointed, saying “noe man knows that this reformation is. This is a sin and misery” (Ibid.).
Despite the many challenges, the Westminster Confession was completed in 1646. It stood as the result of significant effort on the part of its authors. Van Dixhoorn is helpful again:
Writing at the end of the long Reformation, the members of the Westminster assembly (1643-1653) were eager to harvest the best biblical exegesis of the Reformers, the most useful doctrinal structures of the medieval theologians, and the most enduring insights of the church fathers. The members of the assembly read widely from all three of these groups and invested enormous time and energy in synthesizing their findings into this 12,000 word document (Ibid., xix).
The Confession we now possess is a result of broad, sweeping studies from a large group over a lengthy period. Unless one believes that the Spirit has stopped speaking and teaching his people, then a truly confessional posture would labor as our ancestors did. That is, we would seek to incorporate the best of their labors with the work of the last 400 years, holding fast to what has been given to us while applying it to a new age.
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), a contemporary of Bavinck, modeled this well. He imperfectly succeeded in maintaining an appreciation for the past with an eye toward the present. Kuyper had strong words for Reformed followers who idolize the past:
Is it any wonder, then, that the past gradually begins to attract them so powerfully, that their imagination is increasingly fascinated by the manly strength so brilliantly displayed by the heroes of the Reformation?… If only they could have lived then!… ‘Return! Return!’ they cry to the age of our ancestors. Matching the deed to their cry they gird themselves for imitation and set out to reconstruct what the hands of their ancestors had fashioned (“Conservatism and Orthodoxy” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, pp. 73).
The desire of such Reformed believers to mimic the past stands “self-condemned… They force themselves outside of their own time at the cost of having any influence on the life that surrounds them.” Kuyper’s advice to Reformed believers is sound:
First seek to have for yourself the life your fathers had and then hold fast to what you have. Then articulate that life in your own language as they did in theirs. Struggle as they did to pump that life into the arteries of the life of our church and society” (Ibid., 73-74).
We learn from the labors of the Divines that even at our best we see and understand only partially. A confessional posture defends the truth we have inherited from our forebears. It also invites correction and growth, always with a desire to communicate what is essential from God’s Word for our present moment. Far from giving into the cold arrogance that is so common in our theological tradition, an appreciation for our ancestors encourages respect, patience, humility, and graciousness.
The Delight of Its Authors
To those new to the Reformed faith, or the idea of confessions and creeds, a document with such specificity might seem arduous or unnecessary. Why isn’t it enough to speak only of “being saved” or “believing in Jesus”? Why does broad articulation of numerous doctrines matter?
Well, those who have been around the Church for any length of time know that doctrinal minimalism often leads to great conflict. As I said in my first post, such minimalism often invites assumptions and, when those assumptions are proven wrong, conflict and vision often result.
The extensive work of the Westminster Divines goes beyond practicality, however. Van Dixhoorn comments:
It seems to me that one reason for the specificity of the confession has to do with the simple pleasure of its authors. Thoughtful Christians sometimes develop an appetite for God that can become an insatiable desire to discover fresh reasons for doxology… Serious students in Christ’s school enjoy every brush stroke on the canvas of God’s revelation of redemption, and not simply the final effect that the Master has produced (Confessing the Faith, xxi).
In other words, the authors of the Westminster Confession delighted in their God and in their work. They were happy, joyful, exuberant in the study of his Word.
Reformed believers who are truly confessional, then, will share in this delight. Confessionalism has no room for grumps.
Such delight rejoices in the faith that has been delivered to us and develops “an appetite for God that can become an insatiable desire to discover fresh reasons for doxology.” If we shared such delight today, then we would not only be kind toward our brothers and sisters, but we would desire a greater expansion of our Reformed faith for our current age, with the result of an increase of praise for our God in this age.
If Confessional believers do not demonstrate the same delight and pleasure in their faith that our ancestors did, then we must question whether we have taken their work to heart.
Truth Possessed and Pursuing
The early history of the Westminster Confession is instructive for the present age. We learn from our ancestors in the faith how to hold fast to what we have been given while seeking new forms to communicate old truths. At times, we may even need revision and addition to what has come before us. Far from undermining the authority of the Confession, such work continues to the wonderful legacy from those who have gone before.
Nevertheless, such endeavors must be undertaken with the same rigor and delight that our ancestors had. We do not seek revolution, which destroys what has come before us with no real answers or solutions on the other side. We seek to preserve what has been given to us “in terms of what it will become in Christ, that is, resurrected from the dead” (Conservatism and Orthodoxy, pp 80).
The Dutch-American theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) provides appropriate direction in for us:
[Creeds] are susceptible to improvement, but may not be lightly revised, inasmuch as they are not a compendium of theology but the ripe fruits of the spiritual development of the church, sometimes obtained through a long struggle. A true revision does not tear down the old but explains and confirms it and further illumines it in connection with new times and circumstances (Reformed Dogmatics, 885).
Truth-possessed, truth-pursuing. Healthy Christians walk in both postures, appreciating the past, always seeking to follow Christ into the present.