Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Making Progress in a Day of Decline

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on January 23, 2009 at 4:35 pm

In my last post, I mentioned my encouragement at the general state of the many churches I visited and pastors I spoke with in 2008. Overall, the state of our churches seems to be healthy. But I cannot say the same about the state of Evangelical Christianity in general. When I look there, I have deep concerns.

Doctrinal error continues to invade churches and schools almost unchecked. Working in higher education, I see young people sent off to historically Christian colleges only to be exposed to unbelieving professors. I wonder if parents and pastors know what their children are being taught at these schools?

When I read some important theological journals, I am amazed at two things. First, there seems to be a willingness to question every doctrine historically identified with evangelical orthodoxy. Second, much scholarship has fallen into a morass of minutiae. The two concerns are not unrelated. In almost every case, a scholar (often young and perhaps seeking to make a name for him/herself) will suggest a new and creative way to exegete a text, and draw conclusions from it contradictory to received doctrine or practice. And what is printed in Journals often becomes canon for other scholarship, and even for practice in the church.

The most obvious example of this is the stunning reappraisal of the role of women in the church. Much of evangelicalism has given in to mounting pressure on this issue. But this is not the only issue. Most of us are familiar with the recent proposals and debates about Justification. Along with this the very nature of Scripture has been questioned as has the traditional doctrine of God. Molinism is becoming an acceptable alternative to Reformed predestinarianism. A simple amendment to strengthen (at a basic level) the doctrinal basis of an Evangelical scholarly society was defeated by its members. We live in a day of doctrinal confusion, reappraisal and even defection. What is the remedy?

While some will roll their eyes and accuse me of being simplistic, I am convinced that honest and rigorous confessionalism is the answer to the problem. Confessionalism does several very positive things. First, it causes us to embrace doctrinal humility. I notice that the reappraisals and defections come as a result of individual inquiry. When I set myself up as the doctrinal authority (or rely on some other individual to do the same), I set myself up as the standard and criteria for judgment. How often have I heard someone say “I have studied this matter and here is my conclusion . . . .”, a conclusion often novel or out of harmony with received doctrine. When I submit myself to the wisdom of the church, gathered over the ages, I am kept from assuming a place of authority. In reality, I am in a position of submission. At this point, someone will protest, but what about Scripture? Isn’t it an authority over the Confession? Well, of course, and it always must be so. But the problem is that I never read Scripture apart from my own gloss on Scripture. It is too easy for me to think that my reading of the Bible is necessarily the correct one.

Secondly, confessionalism ties us to the church past and present. A good Confession of faith will express doctrines always believed by Christians. This was one of the great issues of the Reformation. The Reformers viewed themselves, not as innovators, but as recoverers of the tradition (read this as doctrine and practice as in 2 Thess 2:13-15) of the apostles and their successors. I think it was Anthony Lane who wrote that the Reformation was, in one sense, a dispute over the proper interpretation of the Fathers. This is a brilliant observation, pointing up a very important aspect of Reformation thinking: the truth is not new, it is old. When we adopt a Confession, we are identifying with every group of Christians which has confessed the same doctrine, all the way back to the apostles. Confessions keep us from theological and practical novelty.

In my studies of the 16th and 17th centuries, this fact was driven home time after time. Our forefathers were extremely careful about innovation and deviation from tradition (properly understood). Do you remember how RC Sproul presents Luther at the Diet of Worms? Not as a bold and self-confident pioneer, but rather as a cautious and self-doubting student. I think RC gets it exactly right, and this should be our demeanor as well. Submission to a Confession teaches us this kind of inter-generational humility.

Our day is full of innovation. We have lost the fear of novelty; in fact it seems like a virtue. Our culture, which exalts the cutting edge, has invaded the church, so that historical realities have been overturned. While our fathers were extremely cautious in their adoption of change, we criticize those who call for conservation!

The remedy for us must be conservation. God is immutable; His truth is Immutable; His purpose is the same whatever century His people may live in. Rigorous and strict confessionalism is the best answer for the way ahead. May God help us.

James M. Renihan, Dean
The Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies
  1. Dr. Renihan,

    Thank you for your wise and insightful words! This truth becomes even more important when considering our faith globally. Evangelical missionaries by-and-large long ago dropped a commitment to confessionalism. The result has been a lack of grounding in the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints as well as an exponential spread of false teaching and cults. We need to regain our respect and commitment to the historic catholic (universal) church!

  2. I agree with Dr. Renihan that we live in days of spiritual decline. Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun. Heresies and doctrinal deviations have threatened the church in every age.

    I also agree that affirming and adhering to sound doctrine as articulated in a Confession of Faith is a helpful antidote to spiritual declension (I’ve posted a series on this blog affirming the Value & Validity of Confessions). Yet, stringent confessionalism can degenerate into cold orthodoxy and dead formalism. Hence, we need to promote and cultivate an experiential vibrant as well as doctrinally sound Christianity. I suspect Dr. Renihan agrees.

    Finally, I would suggest that a healthy confessionalism will not content itself with simply affirming and maintaining the creeds of the past. We are called to confess our faith to our generation. Accordingly, there comes a time when 17th century creeds should be updated. Language changes call for language updates. New historical circumstances (which may not have been present in the 17th century) call for contemporary responses. And the continuing work of the Spirit teaching the church calls for the refinement of doctrinal formulae in keeping with the principles of sola Scriptura and semper reformanda.

    Your servant,
    Bob Gonzales

  3. Dr. Jim, thank you for upholding the importance of Confessionalism. We should be able to define our churches by a historical confession, and if we can not, we should be concerned (and our people even more so!).

    The greatest problem of our day is not a stict adherence to orthodoxy. Actually, very little of that exists in the broad evangelical world anyway, and what does exist is generally a statement of faith that can be written on a postcard. The major problem is an overwhelming sense of pride that ignores the past and believes we are much more learned than our fathers. When we bring doctrinal challenges to our evangelical friends — we are often accused of “dead” orthodoxy. I have never understood why “dead” is always given as the modifier of “orthodoxy”. Is it better to be striving for “lively” error?

    Numbers and results are used by our friends as the trump card to show that they are right and we are wrong (proved by our relative “smallness”). When the Scriptures are used by our friends, they often produce just a handful of proof texts — and if you try to answer their challenges honestly, too often they appeal to the god of today, relativism, by saying “well, that’s just your interpretation.”

    I beleive these are the blights and spots that plague evangelicalism today.

  4. Dr. Renihan,

    Thank you for accurately diagnosing some of the doctrinal problems in the Church. (I wish you had also included some of the character problems, which are just as important.) We share the same concern about many doctrinal errors such as Arminianism, Egalitarianism, etc.

    However, although you have the correct diagnosis, may I suggest what I believe is a better cure than confessionalism? I see 5 weaknesses in prescribing confessionalism as “THE answer”…

    1. One of your main arguments seems to be that the old doctrine is better than the new. But, all the earlier confessionalists could have made the exact same criticism about the 1689. All of the following groups could have protested that since their creeds/confessions were older than the 1689, therefore they were better: Apostles Creed (1st-2nd century?), Nicene (325), Waldenses (1120), Schleitheim (1527), Heidelberg (1563), Thirty Nine Articles (1571), Belgic (1618), and Westminster (1646).

    2. 21st-century scholars like Carson, Beale, Renihan, etc. have far more Bible knowledge than your 17th-century forefathers could ever imagine. (If Knollys, Kiffin, et al. were alive today, publishers would never ask them to edit Bible commentaries or dictionaries.) And, in the 25th century, scholars will know far more about the Bible than Carson, Beale, and Renihan could ever imagine.

    3. You prescribe an extra-Biblical cure: Confessionalism. What does that imply about the sufficiency of Scripture? The sufficiency of God’s grace? The sufficiency of the Spirit? Did the Church lack the cure for false doctrine until the 17th century? Do converts living in remote, 3rd-world countries with only the Bible and the Spirit, but no books in their language, lack the cure for false doctrine?

    4. You say that, “A good Confession of faith will express doctrines always believed by Christians…When we adopt a Confession, we are identifying with every group of Christians which has confessed the same docrine, all the way back to the apostles.” That’s quite an over-statement. The 1689 contradicts some of the apostolic fathers’ older doctrines, and even invents some new doctrines they never dreamed of.

    5. If the older confession is always better than the new, does that imply doctrinal perfectionism? We’re commanded to grow in the knowledge of the Lord. And, that’s a lifelong process.

    To keep us from straying into error, the Lord gave us 3 teachers: His Word, His Spirit, and His Church. However, of those 3, only the first 2 are perfect.

    Scripture speaks both positively and negatively about traditions: Positively about those passed down by the apostles, and negatively about those that nullify the Word of God. Yes, the Church and it’s confessions are A cure for heresy, but not THE cure.

    So, if confessionalism is not “THE best answer” for false teaching, what is?

    Bible: “To the law and to the testimony.” (Is. 8:20)

    Obey: “Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared…” (1 Tim. 4:2; cf. Jude 4)

    Love: “Love the Lord with all your mind.” (Mt. 12:29ff)

    Reverence: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…and wisdom” (Pr. 1:7 and 9:10; cf. Ps. 25:12, 14)

    Humility: “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.” (Ps. 25:9)

    Prayer: “…If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God…” (Jas. 1:5)

    In conclusion, confessions can be a helpful tool when used and valued in balance. Toward that goal, I find Bob G’s view of confessions as much more balanced:

    “..a healthy confessionalism will not content itself with simply affirming and maintaining the creeds of the past…there comes a time when 17th century creeds should be updated…And the continuing work of the Spirit teaching the church calls for the refinement of doctrinal formulae in keeping with the principles of sola Scriptura and semper reformada.”

  5. Greg I doubt that Dean Gonzales will find much comfort knowing that a man who rejects God’s law for God’s people agrees with him.


  6. Greg, from my reading, Dr. Renihan is not arguing that old doctrine is better than new, but merely that 1689 doctrine is better than today’s. I think you’re running with that idea beyond Renihan’s intention.

    I myself am not convinced that “confessional” doctrine is the cure that the evangelical church needs. The confessionalists need to appeal to Scripture rather than to their traditions to defend their doctrinal tradition, and they need to reformulate it in a non-17th century British manner.

    I don’t think that the failed attempt to replace the ETS doctrinal basis with a doctrinal statement of faith (a profoundly different philosophy) is systematic of a dying evangelicalism. To be sure, some ETS members disagreed with some elements of the proposed statement of faith. I think the real issue, though, is how much evangelicals are willing to engage with others who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture but differ on other doctrines. I do not think the answer to a differing understanding of Scripture, even on hot-topic issues like Federal Vision, female ordination, and open theism, is to ban them from the scholarly society, but to engage them with the Scriptures. The ETS is not a church. The ETS is for scholars to engage the Scriptures.

  7. Hi Elnwood,

    Your comment motivated me to reread Dr. Renihan’s post and my comment. I still think I interpreted him correctly. (If I misunderstood him, he can correct me.) And, regardless of whether my interpretation or your interpretation is correct, I still think all 5 of my points are applicable.

    I will add one clarification to my post. Confessions can help us define the fundamentals of the faith agreed on in the early Church. However, confessions are far less helpful in defining doctrinal distinctives (of which there are many in the 1689) never agreed on in the early Church.

  8. Casting aside the confessions and creeds of those faithful witness who have finished their race before us is akin to saying that I have no need for my father’s wise counsel (gained by hard experience) because he doesn’t live on my block, today.

    Was the writer to the Hebrews mistaken when he commended that long list of the faithful to us as trusted guides? Should he have qualified and updated Abel’s testimony? Or is it enough that he, being dead, yet speaks?

    The issues of a vital Christianity are not new, under the sun, nor will they ever be. Perhaps the coming generations will find themselves standing on the front lines of a battle, the fierceness of which they have greatly underestimated. And they will face the same enemies their forefathers faced with a very dull and stubby sword.

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