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Confessional Confidence in a World Gone Mad

What should Christians do when it seems the world has gone mad? Many believers in the West face that question daily. Action seems more effective than theological precision when dealing with the madness of crowds. Isn’t theological precision a luxury for when the church is prospering? That question presumes that rigorous theological reflection and insistence on tightly formulated doctrine is a nicety but not really what the church must pursue for the spiritual well-being of God’s people.

In Crisis of Confidence: Reclaiming the Historic Faith in a Culture Consumed with Individualism and Identity, Carl Trueman argues that careful theological reflection and historical rootedness are necessary for the church’s well-being precisely in moments of cultural discomfort. This lightly revised edition of his 2012 book The Creedal Imperative deepens Trueman’s case that confessional Christianity is biblical and consistent with the church’s historical practice. It’s an antidote for much of what ails the church today.

What Is Confessionalism?

Confessionalism entails the attempt to summarize the Scripture’s teaching into a public statement of our beliefs. As Trueman, professor of historical theology and church history, notes, “A confession is a positive statement of belief” that “inevitably excludes those who disagree with its content” (31). To write a confession is to endeavor to be transparent and cogent about what we believe to be true according to God’s Word. It’s an effort to be accountable to how we’ve understood the Bible and its implications.

To write a confession is to endeavor to be transparent and cogent about what we believe to be true according to God’s Word.

Most confessions in church history were written in times of cultural and theological turmoil like ours. As author and playwright Dorothy L. Sayers wittily argues in her essay “Creed or Chaos?,” “Teachers and preachers never, I think, make it sufficiently clear that dogmas are not a set of arbitrary regulations invented a priori by a committee of theologians enjoying a bout of all-in dialectical wrestling. Most of them were hammered out under pressure of urgent practical necessity to provide an answer to heresy.” Thus confessions are most important when cultural beliefs exert pressure on foundational doctrines.

Confessions are also vital to spiritual formation within the church. According to Trueman, “The person who knows the [Apostles’ or Nicene] creed knows the basic plotline of the Bible and thus has a potentially profound grasp of theology” (136). Historical confessions help inform contemporary moral formation because “they offer both a framework for ethical thinking and helpful examples of how Christians of earlier eras applied such thinking to the issues of their own day” (155). These are some reasons why the Reformation, with its central plank of sola scriptura, birthed dozens of confessions and catechisms to explain what Scripture means.

As Trueman argues, the slogan “No creed but the Bible” is misleading and subverts the authority of Scripture. Every preacher, teacher, and church interprets Scripture to make doctrinal and ethical conclusions. When no confession exists to frame those interpretations, the “no creed” claim effectively equates them with Scripture. Further, those conclusions are beyond critique and even self-examination because they aren’t publicly stated. From that perspective, confessions are important “to delimit the power of the church and of her office-bearers” (147).

Confessions Can Prevent Abuse

Confessionalism protects everyone involved in the church. In our time, the absence of confessions and standards of conduct has enabled pastoral abuse, which can take many forms. Without a doctrinal statement to keep leaders accountable to a body of teaching, they can reinvent a church’s theological values at will or impose applications beyond Scripture and beyond even the church’s publicly affirmed commitments.

Trueman writes, “Take, for example, a minister who decides that the Bible teaches that all Christians should wear clothes of a certain style” (148–49). In such cases, often of more significance than clothing style, ambiguity about the church’s beliefs allows a leader to turn his preferences—even allegiance to himself—into required doctrinal commitments.

Ambiguity and lack of accountability are key and related factors in enabling an abuser. The omission of a public, testable, and enforceable statement of faith facilitates both problems that enable abusive behavior in pastors. When a church has no clear and specific statement of faith, a church’s teaching and conduct are up for grabs at the pastor’s or congregation’s whim.

The absence of confessions and standards of conduct has enabled pastoral abuse, which can take many forms.

Confessionalism may not prevent all problems, but without it, any response to overreach “will be much murkier and much more open to abuse and misreading than if there is a clearly stated summary of biblical teaching in the form of a confession to which the congregation can have recourse” (150).

Further, without a publicly stated confession of faith, which includes moral teaching, the obvious mechanism to hold pastors accountable for their teaching, behavior, and treatment of their people is elusive. A confession may not work perfectly to prevent all instances of abuse, but it’s a help. Trueman’s argument is thus relevant to address a major problem affecting the church beyond the ways he mentioned.

Confessions Are Still Wanted

When The Creedal Imperative released, the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement was reaching a pivotal juncture of (perhaps subconsciously) realizing that fervor for newly discovered truths about God’s sovereignty in salvation needed to expand into a fuller-orbed acceptance of doctrinal teaching, including its connection to ecclesiology. Over a decade ago, Trueman’s case for confessionalism addressed a growing issue for the church by calling excited young theologians to be historically Protestant and grounded in the church, and that argument remains intact in Crisis of Confidence.

Those encountering Trueman’s work for the first time will benefit from the intersection between his cultural analysis and advocacy for classical theology. Although the landscape of the church and the culture has drastically changed since 2012, Trueman’s updated argument reveals confessionalism to still be the right medicine for problems that confront us in a rapidly changing culture. The book ties into his work from The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self as it shows how confessionalism is a way of training Christians in biblical patterns of life that run counterculturally to many of Western society’s most troubling issues.

Expressive individualism contends truth must be the most authentic expression of what comes subjectively from within us. In contrast, confessionalism affirms that truth exists objectively outside us and should shape us. The Christian worldview demands we conform to reality and truth as it comes to us from God via general and special revelation. Confessionalism helps us in that endeavor. In Crisis of Confidence, Trueman shows how confessions can strengthen our faith against prevailing ideological trends. That’s a welcome encouragement in a world gone mad.


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