Friday, January 19, 2007

Maximus and Minimus

Evangelical statements of faith are intentionally minimalistic because they are a means of expressing unity on essential beliefs. They function for churches, individuals and organisations as a point of agreement on the things of first importance. They exist so that evangelicals can unite and make a common cause in evangelism and in society. So far so good.

But these statements are like a door on a double hinge opening in two directions.

Some evangelicals, usually Reformed ones, come at that door from the direction of valuing doctrine, theology and confessionalism.

To this group of people a minimal definition is a paring down of a larger body of doctrine that they hold to. This larger framework historically deals with:

  • Theology (as expressed in the WCF, 1689 Baptist Confession, the HC, the BC, the Savoy Declaration, the 39 articles etc.)
  • Piety (the Lord's prayer)
  • Ethics (the Ten Commandments)

Even in a shrunk down version, the evangelical basis of faith that they are asked to agree to makes sense to them. It does not appear to them as an abstract set of statements. They can see, to borrow a phrase from a friend of mine, the "bonding glue" that holds the minimal evangelical statement together.

To another group of people a minimal evangelical basis of faith is in fact a maximal statement. These people are approaching the door from a different direction. They are not coming to it as a condensed form of a larger confession since they have no larger confession to condense. To them there is no bonding glue between the doctrines that holds them together. And that is why from this direction minimal evangelical statements of faith are often approached with suspicion, indifference, a causal air, hostility, and convenience. There is no heritage of confessionalism that they bring with them. They are starting with an experience of Christ in the life of believers, often mediated through songs, and not a confession of Christ and his saving work that is interpreted and mediated by the Word.

In the UK, mainstream evangelicalism is dominated by charismatic churches. It is interesting to note that many well known church leaders from this constituency had their roots in Brethren assemblies (where confessionalism is not valued but doctrinal distinctives are to be found in popular books and in an oral tradition).

Is it any wonder then that with such different approaches, predicated on such different mindsets, broad evangelical unity suffers from an inherent instability and constant tension?

Now let me add some important qualifiers to avoid being misunderstood.

1. Even though I am criticising the approach to minimalism from one direction I need to add that this is not a postmortem evaluation. There is a remedy. That remedy is to approach the great historic Reformed confessions with an open mind and a willingness to learn why they have been, and are, so important. If you want experiential theology with real substance then just sit down and read the Heidelberg Catechism. Being prejudiced against confessionalism is something that can , after all, be repented of. And I would also add that an appreciation for the Reformed confessions would help give solid foundations and solid joy to any and all Bible believing Christians. Read the Heidelberg Catechism and see.

2. I want, as much as I can, to make clear that young Christians who want a deeper grasp of the faith that they confess are to be treated not with disdain for a lack of knowledge but grace. We cannot help our backgrounds, and there are often things that we have to unlearn as we go along. Confessional minimalism is one of those things. I have no desire to attack people who are untaught, but who are teachable. When people ought to know better that is a different matter.


Dave K said...

Well made point. I like the point about how some people see the connections (behind the confession in Christ) and some just see a random list of assertions.

And of course the bible is the maximal confession, from which the confessions, and minimalist doctrinal statements, are drawn.

It's easy to be critical of the charismatics though. I mean, how much should we expect them to embrace with joy confessions written by people with a different heritage? Whatever the merits of OUR confessions, should we be insisting that the charismatics embrace them with similar happiness, or should we be re-writing them in vocabulary that is owned as much by them as by us?

Highland Host said...

I am (I can only speak for myself) not asking the Charismatics to embrace the 1689 Confession. That is not the question. Nor is re-writing 1689.
Charismatics are not the only people who have minimalist confessions, though. I know of a 100-year-old Church founded with a minimal confession that adopted in 1997 a revised version of the 1689 Confession.
The weakness of Brethrenism is that there are no written standards, but quite a lot of unwritten ones (like the British constitution, then).

Martin Downes said...

I was using the "charismaticised evangelical mainstream with Brethren roots" as an illustration. The Baptist Union would also have been a suitable one, and the history of the Down-grade controversy too.

Minimal doctrinal statements can give the appearance of unity when in point of fact different groups are happy to interpret them in different ways (this can of course be done with longer statements too).

People come at this issue from different directions and with different motives. You can live with some of that, but not all of it.

Highland Host said...

If heresy has not been a problem in a denominations past, or if the church does not see it as a problem, a minimal doctrinal statement will be likely. The same is true if the church has never had to wrestle with theological issues. The church I mentioned before is a case in point. It adopted the 1689 Confession AFTER a serious theological battle in the local Baptist Union which led to secession.