Between 1559 and 1561, while hiding from Spanish troops who sought to arrest and make a martyr of him for the sake of the gospel, Guy de Bres (1522–67) wrote a confession of faith, which we know as the Belgic Confession (1561). Among the more remarkable aspects of the story is that the French Confession (1559), composed with input from Calvin himself, had just been adopted by the French churches, and de Bres cribbed from and modified it to suit his purposes.
That de Bres wrote a confession so shortly after the adoption of the French Confession is remarkable, because it is widely held that the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches have no need of a new confession for three reasons: First, we do not live in a confession-writing age; second, our present confessions are sufficient; and third, the modern confessions have tended to heterodoxy.1
Not a Confession-Writing Age?
The assumption of this objection is that the theologians, pastors, and churches of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, during which the major confessional documents were written, were better prepared than we are now to write confessions and catechisms. It is certainly true that de Bres had a good liberal arts education. It is also true that his formal theological training was probably fairly limited. The same was true of John Calvin (1509–64) and his successor, Theodore Beza (1519–1605), and Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), who contributed to the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and who studied briefly in Zürich and Geneva before beginning his career in Heidelberg. Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83), who was responsible for most of the Heidelberg Catechism, was somewhat exceptional in that he studied theology for several years with Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) in Wittenberg. Ursinus was twenty-seven and Olevianus was twenty-five, about the age of most seminary graduates today, when they began work on the Heidelberg Catechism.
If we survey the Westminster Divines, though, there were many exceptional men at the assembly. For example, there were those who denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ—and who would have trouble being ordained in most NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council) denominations today. Nevertheless, as is often the case, the remarkable product of the assembly was more than adequate to the needs of the Presbyterian churches for a long time. In other words, we should resist the notion that the sixteenth and seventh centuries were a golden age that cannot be replicated. Industrious, intelligent, and faithful ministers did what was needed to confess the faith positively and to refute errors of their day for the edification of the church. Much of what they did was not new or creative. They harvested the work of others, articulated the faith, and restated it carefully. I am convinced that, whatever our disabilities, we are able to do that again.
Are the Current Standards Sufficient?
The second objection—that our existing confessions are sufficient—is hard to square with the history of the Reformed confessions. To write a new confession is not to condemn another. Why did the Dutch churches not adopt the French Confession? Both were in French. Why did Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) publish the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) instead of adopting the Belgic Confession? On this objection, virtually all of the confessions and catechisms written in the classical period should have been aborted, but they were not. The recent English translation and publication of the Reformed confessions from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries runs to four volumes. Were none of them redundant? Apparently, the Reformed churches across Europe and the British Isles did not think so.
Our forefathers wrote confessions and catechisms because they felt compelled to confess the faith anew, in every place, in each generation. The writing of them was an affirmation of the continuing validity and vitality of the Reformed confession. Our strange silence since 1675 in the face of a multitude of challenges to the Reformed confession perhaps, counterintuitively, suggests that we have not been as faithful as we like to think we have by refusing to confess the faith anew, in every place, and in each generation.
Are Modern Confessions Necessarily Modernist?
For the sake of discussion, let us say it is true that most of the confessions produced in the modern era (e.g., the PC[USA]’s Confession of 1967) were defective or corrupted by modernism—that is, by rejecting or revising the doctrines of the faith to attempt to make them compatible with modern criticisms. So what? What if most American cars produced since the mid-1970s were defective or unsatisfactory? Does this mean that American auto manufacturers are inherently incapable of producing a good car? No. So it is for the churches. It may have been the case, during the period of transition as the great mainline churches were moving toward theological liberalism, that it was a poor time for them to write new confessional standards. It simply does not follow, however, that confessional Reformed churches are now incapable of relearning our own theology and confessing the faith again. It may well be true that while one is fighting cancer and undergoing treatment, it is ill-advised to run a marathon. Once in remission, though, it may be a very good thing to train for a marathon.
The Case for a New Confession
Nearly a century ago, R. B. Kuiper (1886–1966) wrote:
When our Reformed fathers wrote the Confessions, they intended that these documents should be revised from time to time with a view to heresies that might in the future arise, and in accordance with the additional light on the truths of Scripture which the Holy Spirit might be pleased to give the church. I believe that the time has come for us to do something along this line.2
Kuiper was right, and there are more reasons to agree with him than there were in 1926. The Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort (1619), and the Westminster Standards (1648) are marvels of clarity and piety, but they were never intended to serve, in the case of the Belgic, for 450 years. A call for a new confession is not a rejection of our confessions but a call to do in our age what they did in theirs. It would surprise and amaze the authors and framers of our current confessions that it has been 369 years since our last major, orthodox confessional document was produced by the churches.
First, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Reformed churches in Europe and the British Isles produced a confession about every three years. The English translation of the Reformed confessions from the period runs to four volumes.3 On average, between 1523 and 1675, accounting only for the major confessional documents, the Reformed produced a significant confessional document every six years. This fact alone makes our relative silence since 1675 remarkable.
Second, since the Westminster Standards were completed, there has been an intellectual revolution or two in the West with serious consequences for the theology, piety, and practice of the churches. In the Enlightenment, the West declared its fundamental independence from God. While the great question that dominated the West prior to the middle of the seventeenth century was “What has God said?,” in modernity, the locus of authority shifted from outside ourselves to within. The modern, Enlightenment movements were asking another familiar question: “Has God really said?” In late modernity, however, the question has become “Who is asking?” or perhaps “Who cares?” The arrogance of modernity has devolved into the hermeneutic of suspicion, apathy, and subjectivism.
In modernity, every doctrine of the faith from Scripture to eschatology has come under assault within the church and without. For example, the ecumenical faith holds that Scripture is infallible. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, rationalists and empiricists rejected the possibility of the supernatural and made God a bystander to the parade of history. Empowered by modernity, source critics have mangled the Pentateuch, the Gospels, and the Pauline Epistles beyond recognition. Anything that does not fit their scheme is exiled from the canon as unacceptable.
The ecumenical doctrine of God—i.e., the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381), and the Athanasian Creed—confesses that he is, that he is almighty, and that he is Triune. The modern doctrine of God says God is becoming (process theism) or that he has died (i.e., the so-called death of God theology), that he is a partner in history (middle knowledge and open theism), and his tri-unity has been either rejected flatly (Unitarianism) or radically revised (social Trinitarianism). Just now, the evangelical and Reformed world is in the midst of a controversy over whether it is proper to speak of the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. There are Reformed theologians speaking of complexity and mutability in God. These are fundamental questions that call for a confession by the church.
The doctrine of humanity has been challenged in a variety of ways to which we have yet to respond. Arguably, the theological question implied in the slave trade and colonialism of the early modern period was that of theological anthropology. Did not Europeans and American Christians effectively deny the humanity and image-bearing status of entire races and nations? Is not the fundamental question of abortion the humanity and image-bearing status of persons in utero? This is to say nothing of the theological problems associated with cloning, genetic engineering, and stem cell research. Under this heading, we might also address the nature of the creation days, which some assemblies have addressed through doctrinal declarations, but the question remains contentious.
The Definition of Chalcedon (451) and the Reformed confessions are clear about Christ’s two natures and one person. In modernity, however, we have faced questions whether Christ abandoned his deity (kenosis) and renewed questions as to whether his humanity is consubstantial with ours. In North America, the Second Great Awakening revived the Anabaptist “celestial flesh” Christology.
The Reformed doctrine of salvation has been in question almost from its first confession. Even before the Westminster Assembly had completed its work, from 1634, the French church was roiled by the Moses Amyraut’s (1596–1664) doctrine of hypothetical universalism. For a variety of reasons, partly political and partly theological, the French synods were unable to come to consensus. The issue was not addressed confessionally until the 1675 Helvetic Consensus Formula, drafted by J. H. Heidegger (1633–98) in Zürich and Francis Turretin (1623–87) in Geneva, and adopted by the Swiss churches, which unequivocally rejected hypothetical universalism. The Consensus, however, was scuttled by Turretin’s broadly evangelical son, Jean Alphonse Turretin (1671–1737) in 1725, and the Reformed churches have not spoken confessionally to these issues since. In the same period, however, a strong consensus emerged among the orthodox against Amyraldianism. It is difficult to imagine that a candidate for ordination in a NAPARC denomination could successfully affirm Amyraldianism in his ordination trials.
Further, since the death of Richard Baxter (1615–91), the churches have faced repeated challenges to the doctrines of salvation—that is, the doctrines of justification and sanctification—most recently in the Shepherd controversy (1974–81) and the self-described Federal Vision movement from the early 2000s. Are all baptized persons automatically elect, united to Christ, adopted, justified, and so on, and do they retain those benefits by grace and cooperation with grace? That is what the Federal Visionists propound and the orthodox deny, but the churches have not confessed our doctrine of salvation and confessionally rejected their errors.
On the doctrine of the sacraments, we could mention the rise of the Particular Baptist movement. When the Belgic Confession first declared that there are three marks of the true church, one of which is the “pure administration of the sacraments” (Article 29), the churches doubtless had in mind the Anabaptist rejection of infant baptism, which they condemned (Article 34). But the Particular Baptist movement did not yet exist, as it was in its infancy during the Westminster Assembly.
The very recent designation of Reformed Baptists, however, raises the question about what constitutes the Reformed confession. The churches have a vital interest in confessing that our hermeneutic, covenant theology, and doctrine of baptism are essential to our theology, piety, and practice. On the Lord’s Supper, we could mention the rise of the practice of paedo-communion in some Reformed circles.
Further, few subjects are as contentious in the life of the church as worship. The original intent of the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Standards is clear: They confessed a “rule of worship,” to use Calvin’s expression, and practiced it by singing the psalms a cappella. This was on the conviction that God’s word is sufficient for public worship, that Christian liberty forbids the church from imposing on Christians anything not required by Scripture, and that musical instruments belonged to the period of types and shadows. Since the eighteenth century, however, that consensus has been upended. When asked, most candidates for Reformed ministry reflexively articulate the Lutheran, rather than the Reformed, principle of worship. As a consequence, we are in the midst of a Thirty Years’ Worship War.
Under the heading of eschatology, we may observe that there has been a notable slide among British and American evangelicals on the question of the eternal punishment of unbelievers and on the very nature and existence of hell. Are the Reformed churches willing to reaffirm their commitment to the ecumenical doctrine of eternal punishment and to deny universalism?
For the past century, contemporary Reformed ethics has been dominated by the vision of the great Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), but there are significant questions about how to relate his doctrine of sphere sovereignty to the confessions and to the older Reformed theologians. Has neo-Kuyperianism reached confessional status, or is there yet room for a post-Constantinian version of Calvin’s doctrine of a twofold kingdom? Kuyper himself demanded the revision of Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, because he rejected the notion of a state church and state-enforced religious orthodoxy. Still, since the late 1950s, the Christian Reconstruction movement and, since 1974, the question of theonomy have troubled the churches. Should we not clarify these questions in a new confession?
In the decade since I first made this argument, the case for a new confession has only mounted. Thus I offer again my humble suggestion: Rather than have each Reformed denomination and federation of NAPARC draft and adopt its own contemporary testimony, the member bodies of NAPARC should send properly prepared and authorized delegates to a confessional convention to draft a new confession of the historic Reformed faith, to be presented to the constituent denominations for ratification. Certainly, the member bodies of NAPARC can find within their ranks a sufficient quantity and quality of pastors and theologians for such a task. This NAPARC confession would be an ecumenical Reformed document that would be subscribed by all members because it is biblical. It should contain nothing from which anyone who genuinely holds the historic confessional Reformed faith should need to dissent. The creation, adoption, and subscription of the NAPARC confession would advance not only confessional Reformed ecumenism (based on a shared understanding of a shared confession in which all the NAPARC bodies would have ownership), but it would also promote a more profound understanding of the existing Reformed confession.
To anticipate one more objection and to mix metaphors: Would not such an assembly open Pandora’s Box and set loose a thousand hobbyhorses? My experience says no. Confessions are necessarily limited in scope. The Westminster Confession, as adopted by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is about 17,900 words or about thirty single-spaced pages. Furthermore, there were just as many hobbyhorses in the seventeenth century as today. We need only exercise the same restraint they did. As my students can testify, the very act of writing a confession requires setting priorities. A confession is a zero-sum game. Whatever is said under one heading will limit what may be said under another. This is an inherent check on preoccupations.
What is really at stake here is what my friend John Muether calls “confidence in the brethren.” Do we still believe that God has ordained offices and assemblies to meet, to consider matters prayerfully, judiciously, and to come to an agreement in light of our Scripture and our older confessions? Like de Bres, Ursinus, and the Westminster divines, can we not harvest the best from the past and articulate it again for our time?
Perhaps an even more fundamental question remains: Do we still believe in the act of confessing the faith? I think we do. It is true that we are out of practice; but as with any other rusty skill, with a little exercise and practice, it returns. Should we undertake this important work by virtue of doing it, rather than losing regard for our classical confessions, we would gain greater appreciation for them in the same way those who build houses appreciate them as distinct from those who merely live in them. Becoming builders again would make our ecclesiastical houses stronger, healthier, and more unified than they presently are.
R. Scott Clark is professor of church history and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
- Because I minister in and help to prepare ministers for the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches (hereafter Reformed), I address this essay primarily to them—though I hope that at least some of these arguments and considerations are relevant to other confessional traditions. Much of the material that follows is revised from my book, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 180–90.
- R. B. Kuiper, As to Being Reformed (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1926), 66.
- Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, ed. James T. Dennison (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–14).