Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Relearning our grammar

I have sometimes heard the complaint that publications aimed at church members are too theological. On the whole I don't think that this is because they are too technical, or that they are dealing with subjects that require previous indepth knowledge to be able to access the discussion. My thesis is that there is another dynamic at work that accounts for the gap between what is considered suitable for the minister, or the theology student, and what is considered appropriate for church members. This dynamic has been the neglect of the Reformed confessions and ecumenical creeds in the life of churches.

I need to add an important caveat here. The neglect that I have in mind is primarily by those who would identify themselves with Reformed theology and practice, and whose churches still formally ascribe to one or other of the Reformation and post-Reformation confessions in some way. In my neck of the woods churches adopt smaller statements of faith as well as holding to larger confessions. But neither the longer or shorter versions seem to have much functional use in the week by week life of the churches.

Of course for many people new to the vitality of Reformed theology these treasure trove documents are full of unexplored riches. For others, they belong to a lost heritage and need to be recovered. The loss is reflected in how people think and speak about the faith they profess.

Let me give an example from language study. I learned Welsh until the age of 14, and French until the age of 16. Looking back I now consider it to have been very unwise to neglect these languages and to allow them to wither and die. They are not completely lost, but they are functionally at a low level of usefulness. My children, however, are fluent in Welsh and English, having learned one language at home and the other everyday in school. You can see the point. It is a case of "use it or lose it." So it is with theological language. If these things were, once again, a normal part of church life and Christian experience, we would begin to recover the very grammar that belongs to the church.

The Reformed churches had the foresight to provide summaries of the faith that were clear, comprehensive and substantial. The truth was given clear expression and definition, distinguished from error, held out to the world (this is what we believe), used as a basis for unity, and given forms that were helpful to the health and growth of the church. They were more then just lists of abstract doctrinal niceties with no "bonding glue" to hold the various items together. Rather they were structured around the redemptive revelation of the Triune Sovereign Creator, who he is, what he has done, and how we are to live in gratitude before him.

Furthermore, these doctrinal documents were composed in forms highly suited to teaching the faith. That is to say in crisp, clear, comprehensive, and memorable phrases, set down in the natural way that we all think about issues (through questions and answers).
What appears archaic to 21st century churches is actually the tried and tested way that previous generations benefitted from.

The situation is retrievable. Theological language is not dead, but it is dying out. Sadly this leaves churches today disconnected from their roots, having to reinvent the wheel, and without a proper framework for thinking and living. What a difference it would make to adults and children in our churches to benefit weekly from learning, and relearning, the very grammar of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Theology is not just for ministers and students, it is for the life, health, strength and comfort of the whole church.


Anonymous said...

Amen, Martin!

Aren't the confessions also contextualised - i.e. they reflect, to a greater or lesser extent depending on which you reading, the battles of the moment. They are often written to AGAINST HERESIES as you might say?

If so, shouldn't we also bemoan the loss of the art of writing confessions? Take my own grounding - 1689 London Baptist Confession. It is strong on some issues, but not so categoric on those which were simply not issues of the time. Does there need to be a 2008 London Baptist Confession which deals more explicitly with Christus Victor as the only understanding of the cross, open theism etc? I think so. I know we can Scripturalise confessions (i.e. elevate them too high). So do we need to rediscover their present usefulness as new as well as historical documents?

Anonymous said...

BTW - we're coming to Chester for summer vacations, so may pop in a Sunday if that is OK :-)