Friday, October 2, 2015

We Believe, Teach, and Confess

In the Lutheran confessions, The Epitome of the Formula of Concord regularly uses the phrase “we believe, teach, and confess” to explicitly state doctrinal points held by those within the Lutheran branch of the reformation.  The authors of the document are to be commended for the regular usage of these words as they give a threefold understanding of how we are to grasp the faith and make it known.  In this post I would like to examine what it means to believe, teach, and confess.

What we believe is based on the accumulation of facts and propositions.  As data are assimilated, adjustments can and will be made in order to properly categorize the input into relevant models for further mental processing.  When the data agree with already held views, the sorting process occurs rather easily, even subliminally.  Where conflicting, however, the individual must either abandon the new data as fallacious or make shifts in order to recategorize and reestablish systems of thought.  Even when no new fact becomes available, we review our understanding according to our environment and make adjustments accordingly.  Also, because belief is individual, there can be as many variations of comprehension and opinion as there are combinations of stimuli.  In order to establish a consistent system, a focused, disciplined pattern of instruction orients the person through a combination of truth claims and conclusions—one building on another.  As the individual grasps the concepts, the mind is ordered accordingly, so that new data and stimuli are more properly evaluated.

Belief systems manifest themselves in the way we order our lives and interact with one another.  The interactions teach, both implicitly and explicitly, what the beliefs are.  The setting is of no consequence.  Whether a teacher-student setting or a conversation, beliefs are communicated.  The instructor (i.e., the one communicating beliefs) will offer what has been learned through a combination of formal instruction and experience.  It is the former that should be prominent when laying down precepts, while the latter is useful for example or application.  This is an important distinction.  The reverse leads to unreasoned (and unreasonable) thinking, therefore instruction is be rooted in a framework serving as the reference point from which the data and concepts flow.  In a codified form, this framework digests and systematizes the body of knowledge from an objective base.  Multiple professional fields utilize such documents to standardize their bodies of knowledge for future instruction and reference.  These bodies of knowledge are created collaboratively by experts in their respective fields as standard works.

Christianity has a body of knowledge that is similarly assembled in that it has multiple writers that added their works over time, however a key difference is in the direct hand of God as Author and Editor overseeing the entire project.  The Lord revealed Himself at the beginning, and as time wore on, further revealed His nature, immediate plans, and future hope.  This historical backdrop,though appropriate for revealing the story of man’s redemption in Christ, requires those who understanding this unfolding aspect to accurately teach what the Almighty had given and to Whom and what He was pointing.  The final product is a largely narrative recounting of a Divine hand moving man toward a final end of full and complete reconciliation, restoration, and renewal of all things in Christ.

Because of Scripture’s narrative nature, men have attempted to assemble concise statements as useful tools for both learning and communicating the faith.  In the time of the early church, three were written that continue regular use today: Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed.  These creedal formulae range in length depending on the degree of specificity needed to ensure understanding and clarity of the subject matter and would later be incorporated into larger confessional documents.  Over time, larger confessional documents (e.g., Augsburg Confession, Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF], London Baptist Confession of Faith [LBCF]) were constructed, reflecting the framers’ understanding of Holy Writ within the context of cultural and theological struggles within the Church.  Even those denominational bodies with no stated confessional document (“no creed but the Bible” or “no creed but Christ”) operate in accord with the twentieth-century multi-volume work The Fundamentals, edited by A. C. Dixon and later by R. A. Torrey.

This does not absolve responsibility to know the Scriptures themselves.  Only by being constant and regular in their study do we maintain a steady course.  The Scriptures are the norm by which all confessions are normed (norma normans, Latin for “the norming norm”).  Confessional statements must be formed and checked against God’s word to ensure trustworthy transmission and correct understanding.  However, before the invention of the printing press, personal copies of the Bible were not available, therefore the creeds, along with liturgies and hymns, were invaluable to communicate Law and Gospel.  Even with the modern proliferation of Bible editions available today those ignorant or immature in spiritual matters need systematized collections to group the major truths of doctrine.  Similarly, those mature in the faith find the confessions and creeds useful for teaching the doctrines of God, aiding the ability to hold fast to and pass along the truth.

When Worlds Collide
While we order our belief systems to make sense of all we have received, there are times when logical contradictions arise.  Somewhere within the stream of Bible – Confession – Teaching – Belief there arises a disconnect, internally to the body of doctrine or externally through interrelation with the world, so that two or more held facts or conceptions come into conflict.  What should be a self-checking system of discipleship moves gradually off course, resulting in beliefs that do not adhere with what is taught, or teaching what is not confessed, or confessing what is not inscripturated.  Individuals and groups stray from the truth delivered to them, choosing to improve what has been given with input from paganism, naturalism, etc.  What remains is a fractured body of believers, each doing what is right in his own eyes.  While affirmations are given both to the Bible and confessional statements, individuals practice a personal religion.

In order to accommodate the individuality, denominational bodies shift their teaching to allow for the diversity of opinion.  Where a conflict arises with a confession, the document is relegated to an historical status much as a museum piece—interesting to look at, but irrelevant for the present—and where the conflict is with the Bible itself, interpretations are manufactured to soften the clear word of God in favor of the contemporary focus.  There is now no end of confusion and discord: Presbyterians jettison the WCF; Baptists ignore the LBCF; Lutherans cast off the Book of Concord; and Roman Catholics discard the canons.  This manifests itself with individuals and groups within a denominational framework advocating for positions opposed to the confessions they supposedly hold onto.

Peace for Our Time—Only in Christ
Read your confessional documents.  I am constantly surprised by those who refer to themselves as being of groups with well-defined confessions and catechisms but have never read any beyond what was required to be confirmed. Then abide by your confessional documents.  If you no longer agree, affirm the difference, leave that confessional stance, and find a group more aligned to your beliefs.  If you no longer believe in Reformed principles, go to the group most closely aligned with your principles.  Do not call yourself Reformed (or Lutheran or Baptist or whatever you are leaving).  Instead, people want to stay within their respective bodies, hoping to influence it away from its moorings.  This tactic has a storied history in Christendom.  Montanus, Arius, and Pelagius were early purveyors of new ideas within the Church who needed to be resisted.  And lest there be a bit of Pharisaical pride in the non-confessional camp for not being like “those groups” feuding over confessional statements—the “non-con” wing of Christianity seems more likely to be cock-eyed pragmatists, working toward Christian unity for the sake of unity regardless of harmful the instruction by wolves fomenting discord.

Regardless of our opinion towards confessions, read your Bible.  Listen to it being taught.  Study it in context.  Memorize it.  Bind God’s word as a sign on your hand, and let it be as frontlets between your eyes, and write it on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deut 6:8-9).  The commands of the Lord should be ubiquitous—a lamp to your feet and a light to your path (Psa 119:105).  Shepherds, be faithful in leading the flock to green pastures and still waters.  Make disciples: baptize and teach all that the Lord  has commanded.  We have been given a sure standard.  Believe.  Teach.  Confess.

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