25 Theses on why we use a book of old confessions

At Trinity Reformed Church we use a “Book of Confessions” to state what we believe the Scriptures to teach. While we have provided a bullet pointed summary of some key confessional elements here, we lament the fact that many churches today reject confessions, choosing rather a list of reductionist aphorisms, usually tucked safely out of the way somewhere on the website.  In our Book of Confessions, we define and position ourselves as a “Reformed catholic” congregation, which means that we uphold the distinctives of the Reformation while seeking unity with all Christians who fall within the parameters of the ecumenical creeds of antiquity (i.e. “orthodoxy”). Our Book of Confessions is not intended to be comprehensive. Yet, our collection aligns us with the church historic. Here are some of the confessions we subscribe to:

The Apostles’ Creed (ca. 200)
The Athanasian Creed (ca. 361)
The Nicene Creed (325; revised, 381)
Definition of Chalcedon (451)

The Thirty Nine Articles (1562)
The Three Forms of Unity (including The Belgic Confession [1561], The Heidelberg Catechism
[1563], The Canons of Dort [1619])
The Westminster Standards (including the Confession of Faith and [1646] the Shorter and Larger
Catechisms [1647]; American revision [1789]) (The WCF is our primary confessional document, the tie-breaker and the standard for doctrinally examining elders)

We view tradition as the proper way of respecting the work and heritage of the Holy Spirit in previous generations. In that light, here are twenty-five theses on why we use a book of old confessions.

  1. In striving to understand Scripture, the church ought to look first to our ancestors of the faith, those who gave us what Stephen Sykes calls “the public doctrinal inheritance of the Christian tradition.”
  2. If the church is to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3), and if the church is going to stand against all distortions of the gospel (Col. 2:8-10; 1 Tim. 1:3), the church must know what it believes.
  3. Since Christianity is a particular way of looking at the world, we need a particular confession.
  4. When theology dies, wisdom dies.
  5. Without a confession, God’s people are cut loose to graze in other pastures.
  6. Rather than hiding what we believe in fear of offending those who disagree, we wish to declare those things we believe since we are not ashamed of them (Mt. 10:32f; Rom. 1:16).
  7. Without a confession, evangelicals cannot meaningfully speak of themselves as historic Protestants.
  8. The surest way to deliver the facts about Christ is to make plain factual statements about Christ.
  9. Despite the nostrums of psychotherapy, the Christian faith is as much a public religion as it is a private one. Thus, public declarations are required (1 Cor. 15:3-7).
  10. The apostles framed Christian faith in doctrinal terms, adamantly insisting it be preserved (1 Tim. 1:10; Titus 1:9; Jude 3). It is a mistake to assume we can do better than they.
  11. Confessing the mystery of godliness in a confessional form (1 Tim. 3:16) helps us to “hold fast to the pattern of sound words” written in Scripture (2 Tim. 1:13).
  12. Without a confession of faith elder candidates cannot be examined to see if they make “the good confession” (1 Tim. 6:12).
  13. The Bible is a difficult book to understand. Confessions provide a broad interpretive framework for Scripture.
  14. Since the current trend is that of pastors embodying all that secular culture admires, the twenty-first century is no time to label confessions as “outdated.”
  15. Without a confession, there would be nothing to “hold fast” to (Heb. 4:14, 10:23, 13:15).
  16. William Butler Yeats was right: when things fall apart the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. The church needs a theological center to return to with conviction and passion.
  17. Not all creeds and confessions are created equal. Since confessions are secondary to Scripture, it is important to distinguish between the good ones that ought to be followed and the bad ones that need to be unfollowed.  
  18. You don’t understand the Bible unless you can summarize it.
  19. Catechisms can’t exist without confessions and children are always catechized by something. Shouldn’t it be the church’s confession rather than the world’s?
  20. The creed, “We have no creed but Christ” is flavorless gruel.
  21. Anti-creedalism possesses pride that matches the slogan-less slogan of “I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 1:12).
  22. Hollow theology produces hollow living.
  23. There should always be lots of room for truth claims in the church (1 Tim. 3:15).
  24. How can we maintain the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) if we don’t know what to unite around?
  25. Loyalty ought not to be blind.

Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

Evangelicalism: A Diagnostic Exam

There is a submerged bronze statue of Jesus Christ seventeen meters deep in the Mediterranean Sea. Unbeknownst to its creator, Guido Galletti, the statue, Christ of the Abyss, is an allegory for the present-day church, which too is submerged differently, under a sea of historical ignorance bred by theological indifference. When it comes to church members, they know very little, if anything at all, about the history and theology of the church. This is often not their fault. They eat what is put before them. The very things they haven’t been taught are the very things needed to create a faithful and healthy church.

Generally speaking, the modern-day church has never really understood what the church is about. They read little of the Bible, uncomfortably claiming it is divinely inspired while giving preference to Netflix. And they have certainly read little of the Christian classics: Augustine’s Confessions, Athanasius’s The Incarnation of the Word, Calvin’s Institutes, Luther’s Bondage of the Will, Edward’s Freedom of the Will, Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Jesus Christ, not to mention Hodge, Warfield, Machen, Chesterton, or Lewis. They do not know its history: the two hundred plus years of persecution at the hands of Roman Emperors, Constantine, the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, Scholasticism, the Reformation, Puritanism, The First Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, and the profound difference between the two.

The average member of the average evangelical church in the average town is simply unable to enter into an intelligent conversation about what Christianity is and what a Christian is.

A corollary to this is often a profound misunderstanding of what the Christian Worldview should think about justice, law, war, welfare, history, economics, or stem cell research. To fill this void, church members often superimpose their political preferences as a placeholder (or worse, a substitute) for a Christian Worldview. They have lost the whole idea of being the church in the first place, of thinking and feeling Christianly.

Another corollary: If the Christians of the twentieth century were too buttoned-up, formulaic and governed by traditions of their own making, the Christians of the twenty-first century have overreacted and become too casual, governed by pugnacity toward tradition and holding firm on one law, namely, their life will follow no laws. As such, the modern-day church has little clue of the worshipful-instructional value that something like liturgy provides. Quoting the Apostles Creed doesn’t go well with the kick drum. And so the urgent question becomes, do twenty-first-century Christians possess enough Christian truth to form a worldview that can self-correct when it overreacts?

We wish to have a church that stands on the authority of Scripture, respects the history of the church, and thereby isn’t tossed by every wind of doctrine or the latest whim of cultural opinion.

First Corinthians 14:8 says “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” A bugle is used to call troops into battle position. But the signal will not be understood unless the bugle gives a distinct sound. Paul’s narrow point is that whatever takes place in public worship should be clear and intelligible. The broader point of the trumpet call in Scripture (Num. 10:9; Job 39:25; Judges 7:16-18) is that the Christian church is in danger when its trumpets give off the same sound as the enemy. Could it be that the Christian church is overrun with secularism because they aren’t ready for battle? And could it be that they aren’t ready for battle because the Christian trumpets give off an indistinct sound from the sounds of the world?

In response, we say, as does Nehemiah 4:20, “In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.”

Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

Reflections on the Great Commission

In the summer of 1989, the American magazine National Interest published an essay with the provocative title “The End of History?”. Its author, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, announced that the great ideological struggles were over, particularly the battles between east and west, democracy and totalitarianism. Liberal democracy had triumphed. All the nations of the world would bend toward democratic ideals. Politics aside, Fukuyama’s broader point was wrong for another reason. Ideological struggles are hardly over. He wrote as if the clash between competing worldviews would be treated like the contents hidden in the back of the junk drawer, happily forgotten and tossed when no one is looking.

Competing ideologies and worldviews will never be left behind. Jesus said we could not serve more than one master (Mt. 6:24), meaning people will always serve at least one master. Everybody grows up to love something, to serve something, to profess something. It combines to form a worldview.

One of the enduring facts of church history is that the overwhelming majority of people baptized into the church are children coming out of Christian families. Even as the amount of money and missionaries sent out to preach the gospel around the world is at an all-time high, Jesus’ Great Commission is being lost today. The young and the restless of the church wish to be radical, live in a foreign country, and leave their legacy for Christ. And while foreign missions are good and right, Christians must realize that the way the church nurtures the souls of the children in the covenant community curves the future.

The operative word for how the church hands down “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) is generational. The church’s primary means in fulfilling The Great Commission is to have successive generations of Christians become the parents to successive generations of Christians. Without this, there will never be a base from which to launch radical missionaries to the unreached people groups. If we radically go to the nations but neglect the children of the covenant community, The Great Commission has no future. It isn’t a choice between maintenance and mission. But without maintenance, there is no mission. Peter made it clear in his sermon at Pentecost, “For the promise is for you, and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls” (Acts 2:39).

This is why the church must understand the vital work of nurturing the soul of children. The biblical mandate is clear. The church must preach the saving grace of Jesus Christ to all who are far off and to all who are near. The power of God for salvation can overcome the most hardened sinner living in the most unlikely of places. Yet one constant remains, namely, the overwhelming majority of professing Christians make such a profession at a young age, coming out of a Christian home. If those children don’t embrace the Christian worldview, they will embrace another. Seeing that the faith is handed down to the next generation is necessary for the Great Commission to continue.

Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

Thick or Thin?

The baseline definition of an “evangelical” comes from Historian David Bebbington’s famous “quadrilateral” of evangelical traits: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Each point, when carried along by the richest of biblical understanding, provides a reliable (though admittedly abridged) framework for understanding Christianity.

But what happens when those things become poor and nominal? Is a nominal foundation of biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism going to be thick enough to survive the current cultural assault?

Statistically, the answer is no. By any measure, as evangelicalism has reduced itself to the thinnest expression of each trait, the retention rate of those raised within the church has precipitously dropped. One thing that must be done to reverse this trend is for evangelical churches to thicken upon each point of Bebbington’s quadrilateral.

  1. Thin biblicism gives lip service to God’s Word. Thick biblicism is unashamed of God’s Word.
  2. Thin crucicentrism proclaims that Christ is mighty to justify but not mighty to sanctify. Thick crucicentrism proclaims that Christ saves from sin and to righteousness.
  3. Thin conversionism assumes that dramatic crisis conversions are the norm for children raised in the covenant community. A thick doctrine of conversion assumes that covenant children come to saving faith through the divine preparations of the church: catechisms, covenant renewal worship, and praying parents that faithfully nurture their children’s soul.
  4. Thin activism defines justice in the way the culture does. Thick activism defines justice as God does.

These are only a few of the things needed to reverse the trend. Thin Christianity is a powerless thing. It is those who have the thickened gospel of Jesus Christ as presented in the Bible who will make the deepest mark on their families, friends, co-workers, and neighborhoods.

D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).

Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.