The Westminster Assembly
You may have noticed that my sidebar contains a section entitled, I Believe. Under that heading I have included links to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, the 1689 Baptist Confession and the FIEC Basis of Faith. Why do I express what I believe in terms of these creeds and confessions of faith? Why not just put "The Bible" under I Believe? Of course, my faith rests primarily in the Bible as God's Christ-revealing Word, but creeds and confessions are of immense value both to the church and the individual believer.
Creeds are a bulwark against theological short-termism and individualism. We are not the first generation of Christians to read the Bible. When we read Scripture, we are faced with some pretty big issues. None more so that the question of Jesus' identity. Donald Macleod writes, "Arius posed a question (indeed a series of questions) to which every subsequent generation of Christians must reply: what is the relation between God the Son and God the Father? Is he different in essence (heteroousios) or is he one and the same in essence (homoousios)? Is he begotten, or is he made? Is he a creature, or is he the Creator? Did he have a beginning, or is he eternal? These questions form part of the context of Christian theology not only in the fourth century, but in all ages afterwards... The historic answer to Arius was given in the Nicene Creed and this, too, remains an enduring part of our theological context." (Jesus is Lord: Christology Yesterday and Today, Mentor, 2000, p. 99-100). "What think ye of Christ?" We cannot avoid giving an answer to that pressing question. We cannot afford to get it wrong. Shall we rely upon our individual judgement alone, or shall we allow what we say to be informed by the historic confession of the Church? Yes, we must be attentive to what the Spirit says to us by the Word. But we should recognise that he has been leading the Church into all truth for thousands of years. To disown the historic testimony of the Church is to slight the work of the Spirit.
Both the 1689 Baptist Confession and the FIEC Basis of Faith build on the insights of Nicaea and Chalcedon in stating their view of the Person of Christ. This is a reminder that Baptists and Independent Evangelicals are part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. We confess the faith once delivered to the saints. Let us hold to our Baptist distinctives and an Independent view of Church government. But let us also remember that we are part of the historic body of Christ. Kevin Vanhoozer puts all this into typically theodramatic terms. The task of the the church today is to perform the biblical script faithfully and authentically. We can do that all the better when we learn from the great performances of the past, "The purpose of creedal theology, then, is to direct the local church into the way of the Scriptures and to relate the local church to these previous performances." The ancient creeds such as Nicaea and Chalcedon are examples of "Masterpiece Theatre". They remind us that each local church is part of the catholic church. We can learn from centuries of theological wisdom how we may best understand and perform the Bible. Denominational Confessions such as the 1689 Baptist Confession are like "Regional Theatre". These documents were attempts to remain faithful to the creedal inheritance while innovating to respond to specific issues of the day. Lastly we have the "Local Theatre" of the individual congregation. The local church must seek to perform her role as a concrete and contextualised part of the catholic church. (See The Drama of Doctrine, WJK, 2005, p. 445ff). To give a faithful performance of the drama of redemption, each local church must be a creedal, confessing church.
No creed or confession is authoritative for its own sake. The purpose of these documents is to set forth the Church's understanding of Scripture. Confessions may need to be revised and updated in the light of fresh biblical discovery. The Independents were right to revise the Westminster Confession of Faith in their Savoy Declaration and the Baptists were right to amend both Westminster and Savoy when they published their own confession in 1689. Creeds need to be supplemented in response to new areas of controversy. The Church's understanding of Christ at Nicaea had to be further defined by Chalcedon when the issue was not Christ's divine identity but the relationship between his divine and human natures. Perhaps one of the most urgent task facing us today is updating the great 17th century Puritan confessions in a way that is faithful to our heritage and relevant to today's concerns.
In the 18th century, Independents like Isaac Watts and Philip Doddridge were reluctant to subscribe to creeds and confessions of faith. They reserved the right to affirm their own personal statement of beliefs. About this time, Arianism was beginning to take hold of the Congregational movement to which they belonged. The lack of confessional clarity on the part of leaders like Watts and Doddridge enabled Arianism to prosper almost unchecked with predictably disastrous results. The Calvinistic Baptist churches also neglected their Confession in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This led to ministers adopting idiosyncratic views on the Person of Christ, antinomianism and hyper-Calvinism. We neglect the great confessions of faith at our peril. What time has been wasted by those who blindly fall into old errors, ignorant of the safeguards of confessonal theology!
Evangelicalism today is increasingly individualistic, with little interest in history. But evangelicalism is part of the historic Christian church. We will be able to fulfill our calling to perform the gospel in the 21st century all the more effectively with the help of the theological wisdom of the past. Yes, we face new issues that that 17th century Baptists, let alone the early church fathers could not even have imagined. But standing on the shoulders of these giants will give us a good vantage point from which to view the challenges of our own day. Hold fast your confession!