I’ve been reading along and along through The Gospel as Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Practice (Crossway 2012), edited by D.A. Carson and Tim Keller. Many of you may know that this volume brings together the excellent Gospel Coalition Booklets into a single volume. Anyway, I was recently reading Richard Phillips’ fine chapter “Can We Know the Truth?” Phillips makes many good points about modernism, postmodernism, the doctrine of Scripture, and the nature of Christian teaching and preaching. One particularly helpful section highlights how a right understanding of these matters leads to a view of proclamation that balances humility and confidence.
The best way for Christians to hold forth truth is with a Bible in our hands since, as David rejoiced, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7). Yet in proclaiming our biblical message, we Christians should never set ourselves forward as the arbiters of truth. Even as we set forth Jesus Christ as the final and truest revelation of God, we do so only as servants of our hearers (see 2 Cor. 4:5). Listening to the critiques of our postmodern neighbors and admitting that the arrogance of modernity has sometimes influenced our own heritage, Christians should speak with a chastened repentance that is less triumphalistic than may previously have been the case. We are finite and fallen, so the message we proclaim should be compared constantly to the Bible.
Yet for all our humility in holding forth truth and our charity in critiquing the claims of others, Christians must still insist that what we proclaim from God’s Word is truth. We reject the notion that our doctrine consists of nothing more than the subjective experience of our own faith community, since the Bible we proclaim presents truth revealed from God. Thus guarded, we remain committed to the authority, power, and unique revelation of the Holy Scriptures through which God speaks to people today (The Gospel as Center, pp. 36–37).
I think this is a good word. In fact, I’d like to despoil my Presbyterian brother and apply his keen insights more broadly to the topic of confessionalism. When we confess our convictions, our confidence is never in our interpretations and traditions in and of themselves, but in God and his written revelation, the Bible. Confessions are valuable, to be sure, but they aren’t sacrosanct; the Bible is the measure of a given confession’s worth.
This is in part why most Baptists embrace a less stringent confessionalism than some of our sister traditions. There is no uniform Baptist confession that has been embraced by most Baptists in most places. Even our more noteworthy confessions, such as the Second London and New Hampshire confessions, have often been revised, summarized, amended, or abstracted when adopted by particular churches, groups of churches, and schools. It’s not that most Baptists oppose confessions or creeds, regardless of the arguments of progressive revisionists. Rather, we simply think our confessions should always be open to modification as our knowledge of the Scriptures is refined and/or new cultural contexts call for new issues to be elevated to the level of confessional priorities.
Southern Baptists have revised the Baptist Faith and Message three times, amended it another time, and will likely tinker with it again in the future, assuming the Lord tarries his return. This isn’t a bad thing. No confessional approach is wholly without weaknesses, but it seems to me that a “chastened confessionalism” is better than either elevating a particular confession to near-canonical status (at least in practice) or rejecting confessions as incompatible with liberty of conscience. It’s a healthy practice to periodically revisit and, when necessary, revise a confession, so long as it’s done with an open Bible, a humble spirit, and sensitivity to both history and contemporary context.