The title of this post comes from the title of John Frame’s essay regarding the squabbles in American Presbyterian history, Machen’s Warrior Children. This title is a spin-off of that article. That’s about where the similarity ends. The “Keach” part, of course, refers to the English Particular Baptist, Benjamin Keach (pictured here in what might be said to be the artistic tradition of “partial realism”). Keach was a signer of the Second London Baptist Confession. I will hereafter refer to the confession as “the 1689 Confession”, which is its common name, even though it was actually first published in 1677.
I’ve had this post bouncing around in my head for quite some time now. It wasn’t until more recently, though, that its come down to the tips of my fingers. This post is best understood as a bit of reflection on my readings of recent Reformed Baptist interactions on the Internet. I hope and trust you will find these observations charitably written, if not always agreeable to everyone. I write this both so others can hopefully benefit from it, but also so I can further clarify my thoughts and continue to apply these things to myself.
A Goodly Heritage
As Reformed Baptists, we have a wonderful heritage in the 1689 Confession. We also have some wonderful catechisms (such as Keach’s Catechism and An Orthodox Catechism). It would behoove us, however, to examine how we are using these excellent documents and also whether we are using them in a way that is consistent with the main objectives for which they were written. I will not purport to put forward such an examination in this post. Rather, I will just offer a few “thoughts for the journey”, so to speak.
In my mind, a healthy confessionalism balances two functions: a restrictive function and a permissive function. On one hand, it narrows, restricts, and provides shelter from the other side of the line. On the other, it is generous, permissive, expansive, and fosters diversity, and provides leeway for genuine differences. When either one of these aspects take an unhealthy prominence to the exclusion of the other, problems arise and confessionalism becomes ugly.
Reformed Confessionalism, in general, can be a wonderful thing. And we have much reason to rejoice in somewhat of a revival in Baptist confessionalism over the last several decades. However, when confessionalism turns elitist or provincial in nature, it becomes ugly, no matter how historic or doctrinally solid it is. Much attention is paid to the “what” of confessionalism, but we ought to pay attention to the “how” also.
Respect The Intent Of The Framers
Besides respecting and noting the intent of the framers in the doctrinal formulations contained in a confession, we should also respect and notice their overarching purposes, as those will be very helpful in looking at “how” we should be confessional.
Anyone who wants to use the 1689 Confession to produce an exclusive, critical, elitist, and narrow community seems to run counter to the framer’s stated intention that it be “for the information and satisfaction of those that did not thoroughly understand what our principles were”.
The document also was ecumenical, in the good sense of the word. It had the goal of standing “with many others whose orthodox Confessions have been published to the world”. Clearly, the signers themselves (especially Mr. Keach) were comfortable with diversity in at least some areas and unafraid to think outside of the box and even disagree with their brethren at times. And that’s without even knowing all the historical details of who was in the minority report in various areas of the confession.
Anyone who wants to hit someone over the head with the 1689 Confession should read the preface: “we hope we have also observed those rules of modesty and humility as will render our freedom in this respect inoffensive, even to those whose sentiments are different from ours”.
Our Posture To Others
In the spirit of our confession’s preface, we should give due honor to other good, orthodox confessions of faith such as the Westminister Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Abstract of Principles, the New Hampshire Confession, and others. It is, of course, appropriate to prefer the confession we subscribe to, but we need to guard against a provincial, dismissive attitude and the impulse to enlarge the “faults” of other confessions to just win some sort of playground game. That is ugly confessionalism. We should also, incidentally, be careful to not carelessly assume that being older and more detailed necessarily makes a confession better!
If we love and treasure our historic Reformed confessions, then it behooves us to adorn those confessions well, in gentlemanly and gracious conduct and kindness to those we interact with. 17th century theology doesn’t show well when elucidated by curmudgeons. Not that a curmudgeonly slant is always necessarily wrong, but we must seek balance! I think, in general, the Reformed community has enough warriors and bull dogs. We need more statesmen and ambassadors. But are we producing more statesmen and ambassadors? This is an important question to consider.
Could it be that some are so focused on negatively defining their theology, that they are losing a positive presentation of it? One can be so wrapped up in being not-dispensationalist, not-new-calvinist, not-charismatic, not-fundamentalist, not-new-covenant-theology, not-plain-vanilla-evangelical, not-baxterian, not-paedobaptistic, not-presbyterian, not-arminian, not-federal-visionist, etc., that they forget who they really are and end up presenting a very truncated and negative identity. Not to say that these areas of controversy are unimportant. It’s just that defining a community’s theology too exclusively on these lines may result on a stunted community that isn’t very robust.
Is easy (and true) to say that we must engage in polemic at times. It is far harder to have the discernment to have the necessary balance–to know how and when to do it. We must lose our proclivity to squabble at a drop of a hat. Sadly, sometimes contending becomes a pastime (and all-encompassing project in and of itself). Alas, to a man with a hammer, everything is a nail! For instance, many have been eager to engage with the topic of “New Calvinism”. Sadly, though, some have proceeded with an unfortunate style of polemic that lacks charity and lacks accuracy. I personally, along with Iain Murray from the Banner of Truth, have questions about the accuracy and usefulness of a strict Old/New dichotomy when it comes to modern Calvinism. But, in any case, if any “Old Calvinism” is not characterized by humility or brotherly love, it is worse than worthless.
Here is a burning question: Are we teaching the up and coming generation to thoughtfully engage the scriptures on these issues in a way that shows historic continuity and confessional integrity, or are we just trying to enlist new warriors to be “on our side” and subscribe fully without question to a confession? Ironically, ugly confessionalism turns into a subtle form of anti-confessionalism, turning people away from confessionalism in droves.
Guard Against Overplaying Confessionalism
It’s been often repeated that here is a “cage stage” with the Doctrines of Grace, when people who newly discover them need to be careful about being a little too zealous. What if the same thing applies to confessionalism? What if it is easy to overplay the benefits of confessionalism, especially before we’ve ridden along for the long-haul, and haven’t yet seen how messy and difficult some confessional issues can really be?
Perhaps some eager advocates of confessionalism, in overplaying their hand a bit, are over-promising in their rhetoric regarding confessionalism, and that makes confessionalism ugly. From watching people talking about confessionalism over the last several years, I’ve become convinced that sometimes confessionalism has even become a fad (old things can be fads too!) or “the cool thing to be” in the Reformed community. And then, of course there is sometimes a smug “and they aren’t confessional”. Almost but not quite accompanied by a proverbial thumb to the nose with a “na na na na na”.
Furthermore, I believe we must watch out that we don’t turn confessionalism into some sort of “blue pill” or panacea. As good and necessary as confessions may be, they are not panaceas! If we are going to adhere to Sola Scriptura, the church’s struggles are never going to be quite as simple as “just grab a confession and run”.
It is one thing to say that confessions are scripturally (or pragmatically) necessary, it is another to treat them like panaceas. They are not going to magically confer doctrinal stability, soundness, and accountability. They do not remove or necessarily solve some of the thorniest questions that are facing the church. Their effectiveness will also depend on our church polity. They come with a whole host of practical issues that must be resolved.
And then there are a host of other issues such as what level of subscription will be require, what role the confession plays in everyday church life, and many other issues. Are some of us, perhaps, in our zeal for the historic Reformed confessions, giving the wrong impression about what confessionalism actually accomplishes? Are the value of historic Reformed confessions, as valuable as they are, sometimes oversold? I would suggest that we lose credibility when we overplay what confessionalism actually confers.
So, in conclusion, we Reformed Christians have great confessions and catechisms. And yet, before smugly looking at all those non-confessional Christians, we ought to ask ourselves if we are actually living up to our creeds! Confessionalism must be something richer than merely being the “cool thing to do if you are Reformed”. We ought to conduct ourselves in ways that adorn our creeds, not in ways that make them ugly. And we must give careful thought to the HOW of confessionalism. Hopefully this will be an area which is thoughtfully explored further within the international Reformed Baptist community.
Here are three articles from Bob Gonzales (of Reformed Baptist Seminary) which are very much worth reading and hopefully will spur readers on in this direction:
- Toward a Catholic Christianity: More Practical Guidelines
- The Danger of Reformed Traditionalism
- Confessional Subscription: Strict vs Substantial