How to be confessional

Posted on May 22, 2008

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Ben, at Faith and Theology, has posted on the documents made public by Westminster Seminary that led to the suspension of Peter Enns, which has already generated a lot of discussion (Ben’s post and the ensuing discussion is here; the documents themselves can be found here).

I have not read Enns’s book; nor, I imagine, will I. (I am a devotee of Dr Johnson on such matters: ‘Whenever anyone publishes a new book, you should immediately go out and read an old one.’) I have, I confess, only glanced through the WTS statements. The discussion around the case, however, highlights something that has been of concern to me for a while: I fear that we no longer know how to be confessional.

I teach a course from time to time on ‘Christian Symbolics’. The fact that the title needs explanation is symptomatic (‘symbols’ are creeds, confessions, catechisms and other ecclesially-authorised expressions of the faith). In that course I spend quite a lot of time discussing notions of authority, how symbols function as subordinate, but real, authorities (norma normata, as opposed to Scripture, which is the norma normans, in the classic scholastic formulation). I devoted a chapter of a book once to arguing that the real, and irreversible, authority of the ecumenical creeds could be established from a commitment to sola scriptura, and to exploring the particular authority of the confessions of a divided church. These seem to me to be important topics, that we need to understand better than we do.

What should we say of the Enns case? First, it seems to me that WTS cannot be criticised for being a confessional institution. It is open and honest about its stance, Enns and everyone else knows about it. Should confessional institutions exist? Seminaries exist to prepare ministers to serve particular church communities, and expecting staff and students to teach and act in accord with the basic decisions of those communities is surely reasonable. John Francke, who gave an interesting paper here yesterday, commented in passing that Princeton (the seminary, of course) has recently refused to admit a student on doctrinal grounds (s/he was non-Trinitarian).

Further, WTS has not attempted to re-write its doctrinal standards after the fact in order to exclude (a procedure which is not unknown in recent or ancient church history, and is despicable); it has not invoked shadowy unwritten standards. Enns has been accused of denying Article I of the Westminster Confession. Whether he did or not is a matter of judgement, but the charge is clear and meaningful.

But…

…glancing through the published material, my overwhelming sense is that the real problem is that WTS was not confessional enough, or at least not secure enough in its own confessional status. What was needed was a paragraph, at most two, saying ‘Peter Enns published the following statements which we judge to contradict such-and-such an article of the Westminster Confession of Faith,’ which could then have been argued over by interested parties. Instead, there are long explanations why Inspiration and Incarnation (Enn’s book, which led to the controversy) is a bad book, a dangerous book, wrong, unclear, &c., and even longer defences of the same points.

All these things are, of course, entirely beside the point. It is possible to write an astonishingly bad and dangerous book which is wholly in accord with the Westminster standards (or the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, or Baptist Faith and Message, or whatever); equally, had Enns’s book been universally hailed as the best thing ever written on the subject, it could still have contradicted the Confession. Being confessional means you have chosen not to argue about what is right or wrong in abstract, only about what is in conformity or not in conformity to your confessional basis.

When John McLeod Campbell was expelled from his ministry in Row by the General Assembly of the Kirk, it has always seemed to me that both sides were right: I have read (some of) McLeod Campbell’s Row sermons, and it seems clear that he was teaching that the atonement of Christ was universal in its effect: on this point, I think it is theologically necessary to think that he is right (I think limited/definite atonement doctrine can be rescued–indeed, I have a paper half-written making the attempt–but, for reasons I once explored in relation to Jonathan Edwards’s doctrine of reprobation, I cannot accept that there is any portion of the human race for whom Christ’s atoning death is not a decisive event). Equally, and again having read the sermons, the Kirk was right to judge that his teaching contravened the Westminster Standards, and so was right to expel him. That’s what it means to be confessional.

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