Archive for the ‘confessionalism’ Category
It is tempting to reduce the communicative act to its propositional content alone. Yet such an identification of divine discourse with propositional content is too hasty and reductionist, for it omits two other important aspects of the communicative action, namely, the illocutionary (what is done) and perlocutionary (what is effected). To repeat: what is authoritative about the Bible is what God says and does in and with its words. To equate God’s word with the content it conveys is to work with an abbreviated Scripture principle that reduces revelation to the propositional residue of its locutions. Such an abbreviated Scripture principle, in overlooking the illocutionary and perlocutionary dimensions, is both christologically and pneumatologically deficient. It fails to see that what Scripture is doing is witnessing to and hence mediating Christ, and it fails to do justice to the role of the Holy Spirit in making sure that this witness is effective.
And that’s the problem with a strong dependence on the confessions. Here’s a better perspective:
Many theologians who believe that doctrines refer truly, however, are aware that their formulations, while adequate, and nevertheless incomplete. it need not follow that doctrines, once formulated, must always be expressed in teh same verbal form. To imply that they must is to confuse sentences with propositions. There is a difference between a “static” formulation and a “stable” truth. The same truth may be (incompletely) expressed in a variety of relatively adequate formulations.
The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Worth every penny.
I’ve skimmed bits of this in the past but I’m trying to read it properly now and I’d forgotten just how good it is.
Here are some things that have particularly struck me in the last couple of days:
Employing the gospel as its primary, though not exclusive, resource for dealing with life’s most persistent questions, Christian doctrine teaches us how to cope with various real-life crises. Doctrine, far from being a matter of abstract theory, is actually the stuff of real life. Real life is located in the way of Jesus Christ, and the purpose of doctrine is to lead us precisely in this way.
The Christian way is not something one can behold or contemplate with the mind’s eye only. Doctrine seeks not simply to state theoretical truths but to embody truth in ways of living. There is, however, another kind of beholding, more active and self-involving, associated not with philosophy but with the theater. The Christian way is fundamentally dramatic, involving speech and action on behalf of Jesus’ truth and life. It concerns the way of living truthfully, and its claim to truth cannot be isolated from the way of life with which it is associated. For the way one lives bodies forth one’s beliefs about the true, the good, and the beautiful…
The drama of doctrine is rooted in Israel’s history and is narrated with a high degree of literary sophistication so as to establish a worldview. The biblical narrative is a three-dimensional discourse that operates with historical, literary, and ideological principles. The remembered past is rendered through a plot, which in turn renders a proposition: a possible way of viewing and living in the world. The reader, thus propositioned, becomes a player in the ongoing drama of creation and redemption…
And, following on from my last post:
The church in every age contains elements within its response to the gospel that are more or less faithful, which is another way of saying that its response is more or less distorting. That is precisely why no one reception of the text – neither commentary nor community – is equal to the gospel itself. Diversity can be positive and enriching unless it hardens into divergence, where instead of walking the way in a different manner, one sets out on a different way altogether.
Where “evangelical” reminds us that understanding is accountable to the gospel, “catholic” reminds us that the gospel is not monocultural. The one gospel is best understood in dialogue with the many saints.
What emerges from such a canonical-linguistic, catholic-evangelical theology is not a set of timeless propositions, nor an expression of religious experience, nor grammatical rules for Christian speech and thought, but rather an imagination that corresponds to and continues the gospel by making good theological judgments about what to say and do in light of the reality of Jesus Christ.
One of the things that I was most shocked by during my time in the US was the prevalence of a certain kind of confessionalism (among some, but certainly not all or most of the people I met) which I had not previously encountered in the UK (which is not to say that it doesn’t exist here, just that I hadn’t come across it).
This blog post excellently illustrates the kind of thing I mean. Note especially this from the final paragraph:
If we really believe that it is a summary of biblical teaching, then it has no racial or cultural boundaries, anymore than the Gospel itself does. For if we confess that the Westminster Standards contain THE system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture (and not just A system), then we must equate our understanding of the Gospel with the Standards. The Standards are intended to be our confession of what the Gospel is.
The Gospel = the Westminster Standards.
Now, I happen to be in general agreement with the Westminster Standards. I happily and willingly signed up to the Confession when I was teaching at WTS. I am not arguing for any particular overhaul of the Standards.
I am, however, suggesting that the Standards are not the Gospel. They are not necessary for saving faith. Indeed, full understanding of the Standards will by no means save anyone.
I am also suggesting that the Standards are not above question. This seems to me to be the huge problem with confessionalism as it exists at the moment. Arguments are settled in some circles, not by recourse to what the bible has to say on a matter, but by recourse to what the Confession has to say. This is even more problematic since the Confession, like any text, needs to be interpreted and it is not always immediately obvious what the Westminster Divines, writing over 300 years ago in a wholly different ecclesiastical and social context may have intended. Further, even if their intention could be established, this is no guarantee that they were right. On a number of relatively minor issues, in fact, it is clear that they were wrong. For strict confessionalists, this is hugely problematic.
And thirdly, I am suggesting that the Standards are historically, geographically, socially, politically and ecclesiastically conditioned. Even if we were to agree that they contain within them the best possible expression of Christian doctrine for the needs of the church in England in the late seventeenth century, this would not mean that they become the best possible expression of Christian doctrine for the needs of the church everywhere at all times. Just as with the ancient creeds, the Standards were formulated against the pressing needs of the day. They do not say everything that there is to be said about every doctrine. They say what needed to be said to guard against the errors of that time.
So, unlike several of the original commenters on that post, I shall not be directing my energies to providing translations of the Westminster Standards to be sent out to churches around the world. I’d rather give my money to Wycliffe Bible Translators.