The “freely flowing river” — A 21st century Reformed confession

by Brandon Frick

 A while back, I was teaching a course on the Theological Declaration of Barmen. What began as an initially cold reception to the request to “open the Book of Confessions on the table” turned into a great discussion about how the Theological Declaration of Barmen addressed its historical context and how important the confessional act was during times of crisis. From these new “Barmen converts,” I started hearing the “Presbyterian amen” (head nodding with nearly inaudible grunts).

Basking in my pedagogical mastery, I turned to my final question, which I was certain would drive home the significance of Reformed confessions: “So, what if your church wrote a confession together?” The Presbyterian amen quickly morphed into a chorus of discomfort. “That seems really hard.” “I don’t know that I want other people telling me what to believe.” “Yeah, what happens if we can’t come to agreement? Then there are winners and losers.” Their concerns were valid, but as I survey the state of affairs in the world and in the church, it strikes me that we no longer have the option to be silent during what has been thus far the fractious century.

It is time for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to craft a Reformed confession for the 21st century that give us new language to theologically articulate our fidelity to God and neighbor in a time of uncertainty and directly address the crisis of disintegration that threatens both the church and the world. However, before describing those two outcomes, I want to address the concern around the abuse of confessions.

church door freeConfession as context for control
The mind shaped by postmodernity suspiciously looks upon anything like a confession as a natural opportunity for exclusion and abuse of power. I share those concerns, but I do not think that those abuses are inevitable, as enforced subscription to a confession has historically not been the modus operandi of the PC(USA). There are several reasons for this. In the “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” John Calvin called into question the authoritative nature of “councils,” even those which produced theological statements reflecting the “pure and genuine exposition of Scripture.” Calvin warned that even in “otherwise godly and holy councils,” the Holy Spirit allowed “something human to happen to them, lest we should put too much confidence in men.” From the outset, it was established that creeds and confessions, even those that set forth biblical doctrine, would be as fallible and time-bound as the people who composed them. Karl Barth, the primary author of the Theological Declaration of Barmen (also found in the Book of Confessions), noted that Reformed confessions were always regarded as “a singular work, one next to many others,” which were “fundamentally intended as merely provisional, improvable and replaceable offerings, never as an authority.” Confessions are situated, as Carlos E. Wilton states, in a “a tertiary layer of authority, below Jesus Christ as the head of the church and below the Scriptures.” Obedience is owed to the Word-in-flesh and deference to the written Word, but within the Reformed tradition it is unfitting to offer either to confessions. Therefore, any attempt to utilize a confession for the 21st century as an enforcement mechanism for narrow orthodoxy would not only run afoul of their historical implementation, but also — and more importantly — of the Word, both written and incarnate, whose authority is the source of light and life for the church in all ages. As long as the PC(USA) can be ever mindful of this precedent, it will keep us, as Outlook editor Jill Duffield has recently written, from getting “bogged down” in debate over essential tenets, while at the same time allowing us to clarify our “essential intent.”

Reformed and always … something or other
In the final report of “The Church in the 21st Century,” over half of the respondents identified Reformed theology and tradition as reasons why they were Presbyterian. As a product of two Presbyterian institutions of higher learning, I was happy to read that. However, many pastors encounter members (including elders and deacons) who are largely unaware of the riches of the Reformed tradition. There seem to be at least three reasons for this unfamiliarity.

First, denominational allegiances are not nearly as strong as they were in previous generations. In the PC(USA) this is often bemoaned as a source of membership attrition, but rarely do we think about the born and bred Methodist, Pentecostal or Roman Catholic who joins a PC(USA) church in adulthood. They most certainly come with much to offer, but they do not come to the PC(USA) with a foundational knowledge of the Reformed tradition.

Second, we count on older adults in our congregations to pass on the markers of the Reformed identity to the newly-received, recently-confirmed and theologically-enthusiastic. But if we are honest, the last several decades have brought about a series of significant shifts in Reformed theology that have left many in the Silent Generation and Boomers uncertain as to what to it means to be Reformed. A Presbyterian born in the 1930s or ‘40s would have heard the terms “inerrant” and “infallible” used to describe the Bible, would not have known a female Minister of Word and Sacrament until late childhood and would have been told in the ’70s that homosexual practice was incompatible with the Christian life and leadership. The meaning of “Reformed” has changed significantly for these saints over the decades, leaving many unable to confidently pass along an identity that they themselves do not fully understand.

Third, even those confident in the Reformed tradition may no longer have a Reformed vocabulary or grammar with which to articulate how they understand God at work in the world. Marilynne Robinson observed, “theological coherency developed over the centuries within the denominations, [and] each one in its own way, created a vocabulary of thought … that gave its adherents the means to conceive of the divine and humankind.” However, this is now being replaced by a “religious monoculture” that has turned this once rich vocabulary insipid. Consequently, there are fewer theological ideas with which mainline Christians are conversant, much less able to articulate it to others or apply to their own lives in a meaningful way.

While there are several cultural/political factors that have contributed to this lack of Reformed theological knowledge (e.g., separation of church and state, the growing claims upon our attention in non-religious sectors, etc.), we must also admit that somewhere along the way churches stopped prioritizing religious education, which led to significant consequences. In large, we have become a people unable to do the work of teaching and evangelism, leaving the Great Commission unfulfilled. Our leaders, and particularly our theologically trained Ministers of Word and Sacrament, must do a better job of articulating and conversing about Reformed theology to all their members: the newly-received and long-standing, theological masters and novices, children and adults. A confession that describes Reformed theology through a contemporary vocabulary and grammar could help achieve this end as it “declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do” (Book of Order, F-2.01).

Speaking life to death
In addition to re-establishing Reformed identity in our churches, a confession can even more importantly address the grave state of affairs in our world. We are living in a time of crisis that threatens the disintegration of societies and indeed creation itself. Certain aspects of this threat are discussed in the public square: political polarization, warfare, terrorism, abuse, inequality, the onerous demands of the modern workplace, breakdowns in the education system. Yet, we cannot be fooled into thinking that the symptoms are the disease, and there is most certainly one that has infected our world. Marilynne Robinson describes it this way: “The spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own.” Brian Blount, in “Invasion of the Dead,” describes the status quo in even starker terms: “What we call ‘normal’ life is itself a crisis situation. We simply do not see it yet. To make the point more fine: We are not waiting for the walking dead; we already are the walking dead.”

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-3-12-22-pmDespair for ourselves and those who will come after us has confined the world to a hopeless paralysis. The crisis of hopelessness is one perpetuated by a story of death that is whispered in our ears and flashed before our eyes daily. In death’s story, commitment to cultural and political ideology is an absolute, especially if it causes suffering and death for others — or even ourselves. In death’s story, one can only find meaning in ownership and consumption. In death’s story, the ending is always the same: Death is waiting around the next corner and will take me — heart, soul and mind — turn me into ash and scatter me to the wind. Death always wins.

As those called into discipleship by our Risen Lord, we know this to be a lie and therefore have the responsibility to “claim the truth of the Gospel” (Book of Order, F-2.01). Against the narrative of death that prevails the 21st century, we must tell the story of a peaceful garden, a people freed from bondage, a Risen Lord who defeated death and a new heaven and earth. It is spoken with a Reformed accent that emphasizes God’s sovereignty and covenantal care; Jesus Christ’s prophetic, priestly and kingly offices; and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and guidance. It is a story — a counternarrative of hope, peace and life — that will give us the language tell to this ancient story anew in the 21st century. It will allow us to craft and share “new insight into the promises and demands of the gospel that is desperately needed by both church and world,” which we are called to do in the General Assembly study, “The Confessional Nature of the Church.” Christ has conquered death, so its story will be no match for his own; as the body of Christ, it is our task to share it in word and deed.

In “The Way of Ignorance,” Wendell Berry writes, “A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighborliness and peace.” The church has been called to do these things in all times and places and can meet this challenge today — preserving not only itself, but larger communities as well. As we confess a God who builds communities the way Berry describes, Eberhard Busch reminds us that we also define the “daily task in the life of all Christians” in a way that reflects God’s person and work.

It is time for a Reformed confession for the 21st century — one that provides biblical-theological language that will both call us to ourselves and speak a powerful word of life against the false story of death. How do we do this? The polity wonks may already be thinking about the working groups, task forces and overtures. While those would most certainly give life to a new confession for the PC(USA), we know that confessions should also be “the result of prayer, thought, and experience within a living tradition” (Book of Order, F-2.01). So above all things, let us worship, study and live together as God’s people. Karl Barth, in his “Theology of Reformed Confessions,” claimed the Reformed confessions were not “a frozen river … on which one could walk. … It is rather a freely flowing river, in which one can only swim.” The times call us all to swim through the depths and shallows, in rapids and calm water. And while we may not always be able to see what lies beneath us or ahead of us, we must always remember that this is a river fed by a spring of Life that can take us to places unimaginable. For the world, for the church, let us come together once again, confess Christ as Lord, and be renewed by this freely flowing river.

Brandon FrickBRANDON FRICK is associate pastor at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, Maryland.