If you’re not a professional historical theologian it’s more than likely that you’re going to get some strange looks if, when people ask you what you’re reading, you tell them you are reading a theological confession written in the 17th century. It’s unlikely to lead to a barrage of questions and a thrilling discussion. Judging by the number of hits I got for the ‘Introduction’ to the Confession it appears such a reaction extends to the internet too. Nonetheless, I think knowing something about this Confession matters even if most of the world around me disagrees and therefore I intend not only to keep reading it but also to blog on each chapter.
The first thing to say is that the preface was quite a shock to me. I have read historical confessions and doctrinal statements before so I thought I knew what to expect. I tightened my seat belt and awaited the barrage of technical scholastic language and yet I discovered something very strange. The preface does not begin in such a fashion. In fact, if I had to pick a genre which best summarizes the preface I would have to call it devotional. I say this because I found it to be really quite moving.
The Preface begins by answering those who question why such a Confession is necessary if one has the Bible. The writers note people might be concerned that such confessions suggest that Scripture is not clear, that they can inhibit the liberty of the church, that they can create man-made shackles and chains, and that they ultimately lead to division and schism in the church.
The writers respond in reply to such concerns that good confessions ought to be documents which seek to make plain and clear the teachings of Scripture in a methodical way. They write that such confessions should be for the edification of the church and their aim should be to bring peace rather than division. They even concede that the writing of such confessions are “not at all precisely and absolutely necessary” in the sense that Scripture itself is not sufficient for understanding. For the purpose of clarity they offer three pieces of advice:
1] Such confessions can never and should never been seen as an equal authority to the Bible. Even then they go further and advise:
“For, as we have already said before, they can and should not be held for squares and rules of faith by which truth or falsity, heresy or error may and ought to be known, and which are published for that end, that by them what is true or false may be discerned or recognized, but only for bare signals and symbols, which only indicate and declare what those to whom they belong believes and judged of these and other articles and thoughts concerning the Christian religion.” (p.12,13)
On that basis it’s hard to see how the authors thought themselves as doing anything more than writing a 17th century team-effort systematic theology! An interesting point they also make is that their confession is never to be cited in debates or conferences! Now, of course, that does not mean they cannot be cited in such situations literally but rather as if they are some authority on par with Scripture. Here is a small flavour:
“Neither must it [the Confession] be feared, lest idols be made of them to be raised up in the church of Jesus Christ, and placed in an equal degree with the Scriptures, or granted similar honour, or chains be bound from them…” (p.14)
“Therefore, once this foundation is rightly laid, and this principle firmly placed, liberty will be maintained whole and protected…” (p.14)
In this section I find a challenge for myself. Finding middle ground on this issue is hard:
“It does not belong to a prudent and godly man, and truly gifted with charity, to use indiscriminately the liberty of contradicting, upon every occasion, with all people or in all places, whenever he thinks fit, not always and everywhere patiently to bear with all the contradictions of others.” (p.15)
2] The second leads on from the first but the emphasis here is on not permitting “formulas” and confessions become spiritual or theological chains. They even warn against people being made to feel as though they need to consult such confessions in order to either understand Scripture or live as a Christian. In an intriguing hey also warn against trusting the method more than Scripture itself:
“And indeed if we were willing to think about it, the principle and perhaps first step by which human formulas ascended to the peak of usurped authority and almost divine majesty was this, that at the first they attributed to their phrases, words, order and method more than was appropriate, as if all their ideas for believing, hoping and acting were more clearly, briefly and substantially expressed than by those which occur in the Scriptures.” (p.17)
When I was in my first year of undergraduate study in theology I would often wonder why it was the Bible took the form it did. I wondered why God didn’t just write (or have written) a large systematic theology. Over the last twenty years I think I am beginning to see the naivity of my youth. I have begun to see some of the really important things systematic theologies miss about the Biblical narrative. I wonder if this is what the writers have in mind here and does this possibly have a bearing on the fact that Arminians have generally been less likely to write systematic theologies (whereas it appears to be a rite of passage if one wishes to be taken seriously as a Calvinist theologian). It is interesting that, in modern times, once again very serious questions are being asked about the methodology behind systematic theology and I think the Remonstrants would have both welcomed and joined in such discussions.
3] The third point is simply to state that such confessions should never set boundaries or limitations for who may or may not be considered to be a Christian or cannot be saved. They insist, again, that the purpose of this Confession is to point people back to Scripture and that Scripture alone is the judge of what is right or not. They warn again of schism and charge themselves by stating:
“…if by our doing fewer churches grow together and are consolidated into one body… then truly we make ourselves guilty of schism and deserve to be arraigned before God as disturbing the peace and unity.” (p.20)
They further state their aim as an attempt to avoid “…dry, decayed, sterile and consequently spurious theology which consists in empty speculation and mere contemplation…” (p.26) Instead they saw their task as doing, what might be labelled today, practical theology.
There is then some testimony of the persecution these Remonstrants faced after the Synod of Dort. They record how they were dismissed with insults, taken from their churches forcefully and against their will and even banished from their own country. They remark, in hope, that:
“No doubt God and his church in their due time will judge far differently than our adversaries desire or hope.” (p.28)
They finish, in what sounds like quite spirited language, that they will refuse to condemn Calvinists in this confession but instead aim to offer a “moderate reject[ion].” They make it clear they will not condemn anyone who appears to love the Lord Jesus and who holds the gospel in esteem (clearly they see the gospel as being something far simpler than either Arminian or Calvinist articulations of them are) and they remind their reader that it is quite possible for such people to innocently fall into error over matters of doctrine. I can say it no better than to quote this:
“There has already been sufficient sacrifice to unseasonable anathemas, and to those dire incantations, “we condemn,” “we execrate,” etc. It is now time that we sacrifice [these things] to Christian unity, gentleness and charity.” (p.29)
The ending of the preface is to further promote this spirit of gentle charity over such doctrinal matters.
I found the preface to be quite a moving and spiritual exhortation for Christians to be gentle and tolerant whilst, at the same time, refusing to deny what one feels is the genuine interpretation of this theological disagreement. It was a challenge to read it. Is it possible I do not always live up to the expectations laid out here and in Scripture for dialogue with others? Certainly I fail on this and anything which reminds us of such things and challenges us to be better people and more like Christ is surely a good thing?
Next month I will continue with chapter 1 which is: ‘On the Sacred Scripture, its authority, perfection, and perspicuity.’