This January 2021 installment of the monthly RTS Jackson Online Discussion Forum features Dr. J.V. Fesko in conversation with Dr. Ligon Duncan about the biblical necessity and practical value of creeds and confessions.
Ligon Duncan: Thanks, everybody, for putting in your information that will help facilitate Step and the gang getting these good books out and all that, so.
Step Morgan: All right. Well friends, it’s 12 o’clock. Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m sure a number of other folks will continue to join us over the next few minutes. My name is Step Morgan. I’m Director of Admissions for RTS Jackson, and it is a privilege to get the opportunity to help facilitate these calls. These are events that we started last year when COVID forced all of us to become a little more creative, and they have just been a delight. The purpose of these events is to serve our students and alumni, and because we are doing them via Zoom, it allows us to invite everyone who has interest in RTS. And we’re so delighted that you’re spending your lunch hour with us, if you’re here in Central Standard Time. Some of you are up quite late or early, and so we appreciate you making time for the call. A couple of housekeeping details before we turn it over to our host. Our host for these calls each time is Dr. Ligon Duncan, who is the Chancellor of RTS and the President of RTS Jackson, and the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historic Theology, and is beloved to us all. Today, he’ll be hosting Dr. J.V. Fesko, and the topic of conversation will be the need for creeds and confessions today. Before they launch in, let me ask that you turn off your mics and your cameras, just to help those who have a slower connection—the call runs a little more smoothly—and remind you to enter your name and your U.S. mailing address in the chat window. We’re right at the 100 mark. There were two of us staff on here, and there are one or two international guests on here, and so it’s not too late. Enter your name and mailing address in the chat window. I’m looking across my office at 100 books I’m gonna have to stick in envelopes tomorrow and I’d love to send one to you. So be sure and do that. If you’re a prospective student on the call, regardless of whether you are in the US or out, please be sure and put your name and email address in the chat window as record of your participation, and we will be happy to waive your application fee for the remainder of the month. And surprise, we’ll do this again next month. So if you’re not ready to apply now, be sure and join these events monthly, and we’d love to help you with the cost of your application fee. Well, that’s it for housekeeping details. One more actually, do hang on, if you can, to the end of the call. We’ll be announcing next month’s guest and topic, and what we have in store. Well, before we get going, how about I pray for our time together with Dr. Duncan and Dr. Fesko? Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you that you have been so kind to us in the abundance of resources that you’ve given us. And so we thank you that though we’re literally around the world at this moment, we can see one another’s faces and hear one another’s voices, and we can, together, spend time reflecting upon the helpfulness and even the biblical necessity of creeds and confessions. So we ask that you would give our host and guest clarity of thought, and that their conversation would be glorifying to Christ Jesus our Lord, and edifying to us. In Christ’s name we pray, amen. Dr. Duncan, take it away.
Ligon Duncan: Thanks so much, Step. Thank you for all that you do to facilitate these calls, and I think it’s a great way for us to serve alumni, and students, and prospective students, and area pastors, and of course, people from around the world. And we love to do that. We realize that the Lord has given us much, and he expects us to use that as a stewardship. And one of the things that he has given us that I value the most, is people, Step. And John Fesko is one of those people that just—I’m just happy when I wake up in the morning, knowing that he’s ministering here in Jackson. John is a veteran pastor. When I first met John, John was pastoring in Georgia, and he had completed Ph.D. work at Aberdeen. And actually, early on, I got to be involved in the publication of John’s Ph.D. dissertation. So I knew the level of scholarship, and I knew—let me tell you, a lot of guys take forever to finish a Ph.D. This guy got in there and finished a Ph.D. in record time. And that said a lot to me. Not only was the guy smart, not only did he know a lot, not only could he write, and he was a good researcher, the guy has some serious work ethic. Finished a Ph.D. in record time at Aberdeen, ended up teaching for us at RTS Atlanta. We tried to grab him as a professor all those years ago in Atlanta, but he was spirited away by a sister institution in California, and ended up serving as a professor of theology and church history and the academic dean at that institution. And then finally, he came back home to the RTS family, and we’re delighted to have him here in Jackson, teaching theology. And of course, he teaches for us across the RTS system. John is a very prolific author. An area in which he is an expert, is covenant theology. And of course, that’s near and dear to my heart because I’ve devoted about 30-something years of my research and study and academic life to covenant theology. John has recently written a volume on the doctrine of the covenant of works, published by Oxford University Press. He’s written on the Trinity, and the covenant of redemption. He’s done tons of journal articles and addresses on that topic, so that’s an area of expertise. But the book we’re going to talk about today, is his book on creeds. And I want to start off—and John, I think if you had a copy of that, if you’d hold it up and just everybody look at it, that’s what the cover looks like. And I was actually—his publisher reached out to me a number of months ago and said, “Would you like to read the manuscript ahead of time?” And you know, of course, “Yes. I would like to read the manuscript ahead of time.” And so I pored through the manuscript, and enjoyed reading it. I love to read books on creeds, and sections of ecclesiology on creeds. So Batterman talking about creeds, or Samuel Miller writing about creeds or—you know, I like to read books about that, because this is part of what I teach. When I’m teaching Introduction to Pastoral and Theological Studies, I try and make a case for confessionalism. And what you have to start with is, What is confessionalism? and, Why do we need creeds? and, Why do we need confessions? So when I saw the title of the work, I was excited about it. And John—I’ll just sort of let the cat out of the bag—I think you have a really interesting approach. You have an interesting take on how to get at this subject that is different from things that I’ve read elsewhere. So it really is—this isn’t like, if you’ve read two books on creeds, you don’t need to read this. John actually does some things in this book that I’ve not seen done anywhere, that really, really need to be done and will help all of us. I mean, if—let’s say you’re on this call today, and you already believe in creeds and confessions, you know they’re helpful in the Christian life, you know, they’re helpful in the church. Here’s the deal. Even if that’s your view, most people around you, even godly Christians in confessional settings, are clueless on this. They don’t know anything about it, and you have to be able to have a way of engaging them biblically, persuading them of the usefulness and the importance of creeds and confessions. And John’s going to add a lot to your bag of tools. I have those kinds of conversations to engage in teaching and preaching and such, but here’s—when the publisher reached out to me and I got to read the manuscript, here’s what I said. I said, “I am an advocate for confessionalism. What is that, you ask? Confessionalism is the belief in the usefulness, importance, and indeed, necessity of a full and unambiguous public statement of, and adherence to, the church’s official doctrinal belief, founded upon the scriptures. Those who are confessional believe that interpretations of scripture and/or doctrinal understandings that contradict, especially, the core teaching of the church’s affirmations, cannot be accommodated within a particular church or denomination without compromising its peace, purity, unity, witness, and mission. Because of the importance of confession in the life of the church, I’m always looking for good resources to make a case for it. One of them, Samuel Miller—” now, that’s an old book. In fact, my dad reprinted that book. My dad was a ruling elder. He reprinted that book back in the 1980s, and I read a copy that he had reprinted of that book. And it’s a book called The Utility and Importance of Creeds. Samuel Miller was one of the original faculty members at Princeton Theological Seminary in the early part of the 19th century. So in the 18-teens and -20s, Samuel Miller started teaching at Princeton. He was a pastor, a Presbyterian pastor, but he also taught things like church polity. And so as a part of that, he wrote that little book, very helpful little book. Another book, more recent, is—John and I have a mutual friend named Carl Trueman, and Carl now teaches at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. And a number of years ago, he wrote a book called The Creedal Imperative, where he’s trying to get at this same kind of issue that John is getting at, and that’s a very helpful book, and I’ve happily turned to those books and others for help. But now, having read John’s book, I really—John adds some things that I haven’t seen other people do, and we’ll talk about it because I really want to kind of walk through the chapters of the book with you. He gives you explanatory background that provides you a framework for understanding why many Christians in our own time undervalue creeds and confessions. In fact, some of them even object to them. And he’ll explain why. Where did that come from? Did that just come out of thin air? Is that just the product of American individualism and fundamentalism? Or does it have deeper roots in Christian history? And he gives a positive argument as to why we need to recover a churchly, confessional Christianity and Protestantism today. So that’s how I sort of endorsed the book after reading the manuscript, and I’d like to start off, John, just by asking you, how did you decide to write this book? Where did it come from?
John Fesko: You know, a couple of quick anecdotes. One is that when I came in to the Presbyterian Church coming out of broader evangelicalism, I was somewhat unfamiliar with creeds and confessions. And as I began to grow and learn about those things, I thought, “OK, this is—” I saw the benefit. And I think in particular, I think we could make the fine-tooth distinction in saying that I think many people see the benefit of confessions, but not necessarily their necessity. And so, as I grew into the benefit, I also began to learn and grow more about their necessity. And then as I studied these things—you know, I taught a course in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and I just taught that this past weekend at RTS Jackson—I’d been thinking a lot about these things. And so, some conference organizers asked me to deliver some lectures on confessions. And so, that afforded me the opportunity to say, I need to take a lot of the things that are rolling around in my mind and crystallize them, put them together, and hopefully present it in easily accessible form. You know, there’s some books out there that—you know, I read one book, 900 pages, it’s just a bruiser of a book. And I wanted this one to be accessible to say, “Hey, how about something that’s a short read that I can do it a couple of sittings that’s not going to require a massive investment of my time, but at the same time, try to hit on some deep points, you know, to give people some food for thought?” So that’s the overall emphasis of the project.
Ligon Duncan: You say, as you’re introducing the topic in the book, that you are defending the thesis that confessions of faith are necessary, both for the being, and for the well-being, of the church. You want to tell us what you mean by that?
John Fesko: Yeah, I think that everybody would—or, at least a large portion of the church would say, “Hey, this is a convenient way for us all to kind of put down on paper what we’re all thinking and what we want to profess in our public statement of faith to the world.” But where a lot of people might demure is from that second statement. In other words, that’s about the well-being of the church, but not necessarily for the being of the church. And that’s the particular idea that I wanted to press, is that—and to put it in simpler terms—it’s not just beneficial, but it’s required of us to do this. And I make the case that it’s required of us to do this from a number of passages of scripture, you know, scattered both throughout the Old and the New Testaments because it’s—you know, we find, especially in our present-day setting, that so many people will say, “No creed but the Bible.” But yet, at specific points in the scriptures, the scriptures necessitate and warrant more than just the Bible. So that’s the overall argument that I was trying to present that you rightly [garbled].
Ligon Duncan: You often hear—and this is kind of taking it that next step that you just hinted at—you also, here’s what you said, and I’m just going to quote you: “The Bible teaches that the church should create its own confessions of faaith in order to pass on to future generations the faith once delivered to the saints.” Now that statement, there’d be a lot of people saying, “Whoa, where do you get that from?” So I know you’re going to unfold that argument in the book, and I don’t want to steal our thunder because I want to walk you through each of the chapters. But give us just a nugget of how you mean that the Bible teaches that the church ought to make confessions of faith.
John Fesko: I think that, again, going back to that idea “no creed but the Bible,” which—footnote: that in and of itself is a creed. It’s a very small creed, but it’s nevertheless a creed—”no creed but the Bible” is that there’s been this trend to think that, within last several centuries, that we only need the Bible and we should only have the Bible. But yet, you find statements scattered in the scriptures, say, in the celebration, the dedication of the firstborn commemorating the exodus from Israel—or, sorry, from Egypt—where they say, “When your children ask you what all of this means, you need to explain it to them.” And so right there, there’s a sense in which they’re having—the Israelite parents would have had to go off the page of scripture in order to explain and address the questions that would inevitably lead off the page of scripture. “What do you mean?” “What does this signify?” “What is this all about?” And so, if you take that little, you know, that little scenario that unfolds within a household and expand it to the broader setting of the church, you want to ask this question is that, are we really suggesting that we would start from scratch every single generation to say that, well, we have to explain what this means. Well, what does it mean? Well, each generation has to figure that out. Or can we say, “So long as it’s faithful to scripture and especially subordinate to it, can we record those explanations as to what the scriptures teach or, say, in the case of the exodus, what what do these events mean?” And there are other examples of that that occur throughout the Bible, but that essentially is the core of the idea that I’m trying to present.
Ligon Duncan: Now that leads us right into the first chapter, because in the first chapter, you look at eight biblical texts, starting with that one. And you try and give a brief case for the validity and the necessity of creeds from the Bible. So you’ve just told us about the Exodus text. Let’s go to the other biggie that follows that in the Torah, in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses right at the beginning of the Old Testament. Let’s go to the Shema, and talk to us about Deuteronomy 6:4, and why that actually is a creedal formulation for the children of Israel.
John Fesko: Yeah, you know, of course, the Shema, which comes from the first word of that verse in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel,” it’s, you know, there’s that creedal statement. God Himself gives to his people a creed: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” And then from there, it takes that basic creedal statement and it gives, I think, both theological as well as catechetical, that is, instructing people in the meaning of the creed that they have received. You know, write these things on the walls of your heart. Teach them to your children, you know, reflect upon them. So right there, you could say that there is a confessional ethos that we’re supposed to reflect upon, we’re supposed to teach, and we’re supposed to even “write it upon the walls of our hearts” in terms of this key theological affirmation. Now, it would be great if that’s the only single confession that we would need. But you know, you can see this as the scriptures begin to unfold—there’s more that God reveals, and therefore, there’s more that we have to teach. There’s more that we have to understand. There’s more that we have to, in a sense, write upon the walls of our hearts. But Deuteronomy 6:4 and following is in one sense, I would say, almost constitutes the confessional core of the Bible, as well as our confessional ethos as a people. So, yeah.
Ligon Duncan: And of course, at least two things are going on in that creedal statement. One is, it’s an affirmation of monotheism. There’s one God. And they’re doing that in a world where almost everybody else around them believes in a plurality of gods. So, their creedal statement there is really defining for them, over against everybody else around, we’re monotheists, and there are actually no other gods. You guys worship lots of different gods, but there’s actually one God. And secondly, that one God is the God of Israel, the covenant Lord of Israel, Yahweh. He is the one true and living God. And so that’s a big-time polemical statement, as well as a theological affirmation. Now in your argument, you then jump, really, to the New Testament from that point. But let me just pause and say, John could have gone to other places in the Old Testament that reaffirmed the same kinds of things at different periods of time in the history of Israel, that were affirmed in Exodus and in Deuteronomy. He could have gone to 1 Kings 18, where, interestingly, Elijah is engaging with the Baal worshipers in the northern kingdom. And his—of course, Elijah’s big message is that God is God, Yahweh is God, and Baal is not, the Asherah are not, all these other pagan deities are not. God is God. Nobody else is God. And you remember that when the fire falls upon the sacrifice, signifying that the Lord is God, the people cry out, “The Lord, he is God, the Lord, he is God,” which is a creedal statement very, very similar to Deuteronomy 6. And so, he could have gone to other places like that in the Old Testament. In the New Testament—by the way, he goes right to the faithful sayings of the Apostle Paul in the pastoral epistles. And, you know, everybody agrees those are creed-like statements. But he could have gone to Matthew 16, where Peter makes the confession, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Wow. That packs a punch into a sentence. And it’s in most of your Bibles—not in the inspired part—but in your Bible, it’ll call it “Peter’s Confession of Christ.” So even the people that are editing Bibles and publishing Bibles realize that’s a confession of faith there. Peter is confessing something about the person of Christ, and the purpose of Christ. What has he come to do? Or he could have gone to passages like John 1, where Nathaniel says, “You are the Christ,” or he says, “You are the son of God, you are the king of Israel.” So you can find little statements, creedal statements, all through the Bible. John’s just given you a little thumbnail sketch of where you can go for this. So, John, walk us to the next place that you go. You do go to the trustworthy sayings. I guess the easy place to start is 1 Timothy 1:15. Talk to us about how those statements inform our understanding of the validity and necessity of creeds and confessions.
John Fesko: I think that’s, you know, Paul will repeat this phrase, “This is a faithful saying.” Or some of the translations will say, “This is a trustworthy saying that is worthy of full acceptance.” So, for example, in [1 Timothy] 1:15, “This is a saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” And so, the first question we have to ask is, one, we want to say, where does Paul get this? Well, the easy answer is to say, “OK, he’s inspired by the Holy Spirit, and he writes this out.” OK, that’s a true and important affirmation that we need to acknowledge. That’s absolutely true. It’s inspired by the Spirit. But on the other hand, we can also ask the question, “Wait a minute. In the same way that Luke went out under the inspiration of the Spirit, talked with people, interviewed them, received their accounts, and then incorporated the truth that he was he received through these interviews, if you will, in the scriptures, as inerrant scripture, here Paul is, he’s recording a trustworthy saying.” And there’s a sense in which, as far as the explicit wording of the saying,,, that explicit wording doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Bible. Now we can say that the truth undoubtedly appears elsewhere in the Bible. But that particular saying means that this is a saying that was floating around the church and that Paul heard it, received it, and he says, “Yes, this indeed is a trustworthy saying,” and it’s so consonant with the truth, that under the inspiration of the spirit, he can incorporate it into the word of God, into his letters—in this case, his first epistle to Timothy. And so again, what this, in my opinion, illustrates, is the idea that we are not restricted to just the explicit words of the scriptures. In other words, all we’re able to do is say what scripture says in its exact wording. Rather, in our own faithful sayings, we can trace the truth of scripture. And of course, those faithful sayings are always subordinate to the authority of scripture. They are not inspired. And thus, like the Bereans with Paul, we always have to make sure that our sayings are tracing the truth of scripture and never diverting from it. But if Paul can incorporate extra-biblical, trustworthy sayings into the scriptures because they do follow the truth of scripture so closely and accurately, then that means that we, as the church can, in a sense, create our own trustworthy statements and sayings that again, trace that line of the truth of scripture. And that’s what you see, really, in each one of these cases. They’re true statements that don’t have any precedents earlier in the scripture formally, but substantively, absolutely echo the truth of scripture.
Ligon Duncan: And then you go from those faithful sayings to Jude. So tell us what you find in Jude, the little book of Jude.
John Fesko: Yeah. In Jude, that’s an important statement because he’s, you know—this is that one short little, you know, the one-chapter book where he talks about the fact that we profess the faith once delivered to the saints. And when he’s talking about this, what Jude is saying is, he’s not saying the faith as in the subjective faith that God willing, we all have, but rather he’s talking about objective faith. In other words, there is an objective body of truth from which you can either adhere to, or divert from. Going back, Ligon, to your example from Elijah and the prophets of Baal—which oddly enough, my family read that very passage this morning for our family devotions, and so it’s like it’s right there—which he says, “You pick God or you pick Baal, but you can’t have it both ways.” And so this is what Jude is saying. There is this objective body of truth that we have received, and we have to pass down. And so, this is this objective truth that we want to essentially encapsulate and codify in our own faithful sayings, as we pass it on from one generation to the next. And what I really like about your endorsement of the book that you put down—which again, thanks for being willing to do that—
Ligon Duncan: Absolutely.
John Fesko: Is that you talk about it in terms of an unambiguous public statement, so that the church can tell the world, this is the faith that was once delivered to the saints that we publicly profess individually, as well as corporately as a body. And I think that’s so important.
Ligon Duncan: Yeah. You actually point out in this chapter, that’s kind of part of loving—it’s not only part of loving God, it’s part of loving your neighbor. Because being clear about what you believe is one of the ways you love your neighbor. You’re not trying to hide stuff. You’re not trying to bluff your neighbor. You just, “Yeah, neighbor. This is what I believe.” And that—it actually, in our day and age, where so few people actually understand what Christianity is, what a great gospel conversation starter that is, for you to say, “Hey, I’m a Christian, and Christians believe that.” I saw, interestingly, yesterday around the inauguration, there were two reporters that were reporting on the inauguration. And one of the reporters said, “Well, I’m not a person of faith, but I was really moved by such and such that happened.” And the other reporter said, “Well, I am a Christian. And let me tell you what that means.” And I thought that was a pretty cool opportunity for a reporter to be able to say, “Yeah, I’m a Christian. Let me explain what that means.” Boy, we get those opportunities all the time, now. Because even people who think they understand Christianity don’t understand Christianity in our day and age. And really, your confessions of faith are your friend in that, because they help you summarize things and say things well, and say things clearly. And by the way, this isn’t just a Presbyterian thing. Congregationalists have confessions of faith. Baptists have confessions of faith. Anglicans have confessions of faith. Lutherans have confessions of faith. Non-denominational churches have confessions of faith. Protestants, from the beginning, were trying to publicly formulate what we believe the Bible teaches about the core things in Christianity as a part of our witness. So this is really sort of part of being a Protestant, you know, that we say clearly what it is that we believe that the Bible teaches. And so, if you’re on the call today and you’re not a Presbyterian—like, Dr. Fesko and I are Presbyterians—but if you’re not a Presbyterian, there’s still something for you to benefit from in Dr. Feskoe’s book, because he’s telling you about something that’s common to our whole part of the Christian family. Now, John, in the second chapter of the book, you walk through a little bit of the history of confessions, going from the 1500s into the 1700s. Give us a couple of high point bullet points from your study of the history of confessions.
John Fesko: I think one of the common criticisms that you find of confessions, especially say, of the 17th century, is, why can’t we go back to a simpler statement of faith? Why do we need such expansive documents? And that’s in two versions. One is why can’t we just go back to the early church and the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed? The second version of that is, why can’t we just go back to the Reformation-era creeds and confessions? Which is a slight misnomer, because for, say, the Dutch Reformed churches of the continental tradition, they’re using the Belgic, which is a confession which was written in 1561. That still is a Reformation-era confession.
Ligon Duncan: Calvin’s still alive when that gets written.
John Fesko: Yeah, that’s right. Yes, absolutely. With that chapter, I basically say we have to understand a couple of things. First of all, is that there’s a sense in which while the church has always created confessional statements, the thing that has always increased the size of the documents are the challenge of false teaching. So we could say, sure, we can make smaller documents. If you can stop false teachers from teaching error, then we’ll be happy to, because the church historically has to say, in the light of false teaching, we don’t mean this and we don’t mean this, we mean this and this. Because, I think it was David Steinmetz who made the observation that, heretics always quote scripture, but it’s a question of what does that scripture mean? And so, we have to use extra-biblical language to explain what we mean by that statement or that phrase or that verse or passage.
Ligon Duncan: And that argument goes all the way back to the controversies about the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity in the days of Paulus of Masada in the third century, and Arius in the fourth century. And so Arius was making that very argument to the Council of Nicaea. Hey, why can’t I just affirm what, John 8 says without you saying that it means that the Son is consubstantial with the Father? And what they said is, “Because you’re trying to hide behind this scriptural language and not affirm scriptural meaning. And therefore, we’re going to make you affirm what the scripture means, and not allow you to hide behind the scriptural language, pretending like you affirm what scripture means.” And so that that’s very much part of the argument at the very core of the formulation of early Christian doctrine.
John Fesko: Yes, absolutely. And then on that second point, very quickly, is that people look at the early Reformed confessions and contrast them with the later 17th century ones. Why can’t we return to this earlier period again? Because increase in erroneous teaching, but also secondly, in those earlier documents, say, with Zwingli’s confession, it’s written by one man. I think the Tetrapolitan Confession was written by a committee of four different pastors, whereas by the time you get to the Assembly, there are some one hundred and twenty five-plus on the roster of the Assembly. So what they’re trying to do, and the reason sometimes these documents expand, is because they’re doing a good thing, which is, we want to encompass as much orthodox teaching and account for the diversity of opinion that we have. So we want to be inclusive, not unnecessarily exclusive. And sometimes, these shorter documents aren’t capable of allowing for a greater inclusivity because somebody says, “Well, I can’t sign on until I understand what you mean by this.” So it requires an expansion of the document. And then, as Ligon and I know, you get into a room of Presbyterians, three Presbyterians give you five opinions. And I don’t think that that’s just a Presbyterian phenomenon. I think that’s probably a human’s prominence. And so when you get 100 men together trying to write a document, there’s somebody that’s going to say, “Can we change that? Can we add this? I don’t like this. Can we take that out? And so, that’s why these documents are expansive. So, I think when people try to characterize them as restrictive, based upon the historical evidence that I’m looking at, it’s the exact opposite. They’re actually trying to be more inclusive, and thus they’re larger documents.
Ligon Duncan: Yeah, and that’s something as you study the Westminster Confession, one of the amazing things is how the Confession will make room for differing legitimate views. And it’s really masterful the way the language can be so sharp, so articulate, and yet allow for appropriate variation within the orthodox brethren in the Reformed tradition, and at the same time, exclude error. And so there’s both an exclusivity and an inclusivity that you find, even in a document as expansive as the Westminster standards. That, of course, is kind of at the end of the confessional era in the 1640s. Well, in the third chapter, you not only talk about current reasons why people don’t like creeds, you actually try and go back in history and talk about, there are some reasons why creeds and confessions have been resisted for a long time. We can find that history when we go back in to the 16th century. Talk to us just a little bit about that, John.
John Fesko: Yeah, I think that as sinful human beings—whether redeemed or unredeemed, but—even as redeemed sinful human beings, we want our autonomy. We want our freedom. You know, a pastor and I used to joke, back when the OPC had four vows of membership, the fourth vow—and now we have five and I forget exactly how they [garbled]—but the fourth one is this: will you willingly submit to the authority of the church in matters of doctrine or life, should you be found wanting, and submit to the authority of the session? And so we always jokingly said, they always say yes when they join, and they say no when somebody wants to confront them. That’s human tendency. And you find that say, for example, in debates between Luther and Erasmus, where what Erasmus uses is what’s called Pyrrhonic skepticism, and it goes all the way back to the Stoics. In the ancient world, you would make a claim—and I always tell my students, you can essentially disarm any argument by simply asking an unending series of questions which essentially shows your your skepticism that they can really prove anything. And it’s like, “Well, my name is John Fesko, and my parents were Lee and Erin Fesko.” Well, how do I know that? Can you prove to me that your parents are Lee and Erin Fesko? “You know, let me get my birth certificate.” Well, how do I know that this birth certificate hasn’t been forged? “Well, because it has this [garbled].” how do I know if you haven’t produced your own stamp? “Let’s go to the authorities.” How do we know that the authorities are telling us the truth? So you just ask a series of doubting questions, and you either accomplish one of two things. You either sow skepticism, or you wear out your interrogator until they’re like, “Okay, I’m done, I’m done dealing with this.” But the person nevertheless gets their intended goal, which is, you leave me alone and I’ve got my freedom. Well, this occurs in the Reformation between Luther and Erasmus, and it occurred on a large scale, with the Roman Catholics saying, “We can’t trust you giving the scriptures over to lay people. We are doubtful about that.” Then the Reformers flipped it around on the Roman Catholics and said, “We can’t trust the authority of the Magisterium.” And the way I write it in the book is ,essentially, the skeptical genie was let loose from the bottle. And people began to use skepticism as a theological engine of war on both sides. And I think that eventually came around to bite us during the Enlightenment. And so, sometimes an argument or a weapon may seem useful, but like in World War I, “Let’s shoot mustard gas,” and, “Oh no! The wind is blowing it back upon us.” Maybe that’s not such a good idea.
Ligon Duncan: Yeah, you know, in the Luther-Erasmus discussions, one of the big discussions was, of course, on the freedom of the will and the bondage of the will. And one of the things that Luther, frustrated by Erasmus’s refusal to come down with a clear affirmation or denial on certain points, and this constant regression of questions, luther threw up his hands in frustration and said, “Erasmus is an eel. Only Christ can catch him.” And so, exactly what you’re talking about there, John. So tell us, then, what are some of the things today that lead people not to want to have—I mean, you’ve you’ve already mentioned “no creed but the Bible,” sometimes you hear “no creed but Christ.” And again, as you’ve already said, both of those are creeds. I often tell my students there’s a denomination of Christians that I won’t mention right now, and “no creed but Christ” is very much part of their tradition. But they also believe that unless you are immersed by one of their ministers, you’re going to hell. And so I’ve often said, I could show up and say, “Now, since since your creed is ‘no creed, but Christ,’ I’m a Presbyterian. You’d have no problem then, having me be one of your ministers, right?” And they would of course, say, “Well, no.” Well, why? “Well, because you don’t believe that you have to be immersed by one of our ministers in order to be saved.” And I would say, “Oh, well, that must be a creed on your part,” you know? So what are some of the things today that you see that that cause people to reject creeds and confessions?
John Fesko: I think that I talk about this in other contexts, but I’ve mentioned it in the book in briefer form, is that the radically individualistic nature of our culture right now, especially in the West, really works against creeds and confessions, because there’s—I don’t cite this particular book, but it’s on my mind. Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites, where she basically talks about this idea of design-a-religion or essentially, you know, buffet-style religion where if you can get, like—I don’t know if you guys have ever heard of Stitch Fix, where you can enter in your personality into the website, and then they will send you a personally curated box of clothes each month that are personally selected for you. And you can keep or send back what you want, or don’t want. So there’s tons of services like this where it’s personalized service. Well, she makes the observation, “Well, then why do I have to adhere to a specific, strict set of beliefs? Why can’t I just make a designer religion of my own? So if I want to mix a little bit of Christmas with a little bit of Harry Potter and maybe a little bit of mysticism, why not?” And so that’s one of the big reasons., And that’s fed by materialism, and by technology, and other things. So that’s at least one of the bigger factors, among the others that you already mentioned,
Ligon Duncan: John, in the final course of your argument chapter, the fifth chapter—and then you then you do some summary and conclusion—you do something I hadn’t seen anybody that’s written on creating confessions do. You show the dark side of this a little bit, and you suggest, you know, there are some things we need to learn from this. So tell us, just give a little piece of that story, why you think that’s important for us to know?
John Fesko: Yeah. At the Synod of Dort, which was in 1618-19 and gave us the Canons of Dort, which is otherwise, at least later, known as the five points of Calvinism, you had two theologians who in the course of the debate over a very technical issue, a real technical point on the doctrine of the decree—one got so enraged at the other that he challenged him to a duel to the death. And I had read about that in the primary sources. I had never read an account of this story in any book that I can recall, except maybe just brief mention. And so, I really wanted to dig into this because I wanted to have both eyes open, so to speak, and not do hagiography, because I think hagiography can often be a disservice to the church, because we look back and we think, “Oh, look, they got it right. Why can’t we be as good as them?” And it’s like, I tell my students all the time, “Don’t worry, they were just as messed up as we are, in the 17th century.” And this is part of that evidence, that you had a theologian saying,” Hey, I want to kill you because you have offended me.” The Synod wisely said, “No, that’s not going to happen. Let’s pray and let’s end the business of the night.” And then after the prayer, the same theologian challenged the guy again. So not even prayer could extinguish his rage, which you would think, hey. And so basically, all of that is to say is, I use that little example to say that even in the most sacred tasks of the church, such as writing confessional documents where we’re talking about the eternal love of God for sinners, we can sometimes allow the ways of the world to influence us so that we act in very un-Christian ways. But if we’re really paying close attention to the documents that we’re creating and what we’re speaking about—God’s eternal love, our union with Christ, sin, the atonement, the forgiveness of sin—then it demands, and it requires of us that we would breathe the same confessional air, and these same biblical truths that we’re putting down on paper, so that if we talk about the love of Christ in a confessional document and we’re not living it, there’s a huge, huge disconnect. So that’s where I try to make this connection between a robust confessionalism should always produce a robust piety, holiness, and concern for honoring Christ in all that we do.
Ligon Duncan: That’s wonderful. John, I’m going to ask you about books in just a second, but let me just give everybody a heads up. We’ve got about 15 minutes to go. I’ve already seen three or four really good questions in the chat. Step just sent a note out to you all, and you have questions for Dr. Fesko. Please put them in the chat, and I’ll do my best to get to as many of these as we can. Like I say, I already see several of them, and I’ll start off with them first. But if you want to put questions in the chat, go ahead and do that now, and I’ll try to try to get them to Dr. Fesko. John, what other books that you would recommend on this topic?
John Fesko: You’ve already mentioned Carl Trueman’s. That’s a great, another brief read that packs a punch. A phrase that I’ve incorporated into my retinue, ever since hearing you say it, is that it’s a small book, but it punches above its weight class. It’s a great book. A couple of others. This is the much bigger read. This is the doorstop option, which is Jaroslav Pelikan’s, I think it’s The Creeds of Christianity. He’s got a collection of three volumes of creeds. But then, there is a massive introductory volume where he covers the history of it. That, to me, I think, is the modern version, if you will, of Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom. And it’s just, it’s a fantastic read. And he goes not only from Protestants, early church, Eastern Orthodox Church, East, West, and everything in between, he really covers the waterfront. That, to me, is like one of the best treatments out there. And then one little-known one—you’d have to Google it, I’ve got the PDF, but—it’s a sermon, which, obviously they did sermons differently in the 18th century, but by John Dick, who is a Scottish Presbyterian, called Confessions of Faith Shown to be Necessary, and the Duty of Churches with Respect to Them Explained, and it was written back in 1796. And it’s a fantastic 55-page sermon, which I don’t know if I would have wanted to sit there to listen to a sermon that long. I might have needed a Red Bull to make it through. Either that or a heavy dose of the Holy Spirit. But it’s a fantastic explanation of the biblical warrants for confessions, and I think it’s it’s little known. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it. Maybe some of the older treatments, like Samuel Miller or others cite it, but that those would be, I think, four. Trueman Pelikan, Schaff, and then John Dick.
Ligon Duncan: That’s great. Let me start throwing some questions to you from from our participants. Ben from Northern Ireland says, “In my denomination—” he’s in the PCI— “ministers and elders will sign the confession, but many of them have not read it. And they don’t believe some of the things in it. How is that helpful?” Well, I can tell you this, if you have a confession and it’s not read, that is a recipe for disaster. And let me say, that happens in healthy denominations as well as drifting denominations. And so a healthy denomination, where you have a large portion of your eldership or your ministry that doesn’t even read your confession, you’re headed for trouble. That’s got to be part of the training and preparation of ministers and elders. They’ve got to engage with that confession. And then, if they can’t affirm it from their hearts without semblance, then they really shouldn’t be allowed to be ministers in the denomination. I know that there are a lot of good things happening in the PCI right now, but I also know that that denomination drifted a long way for a long time, as well. John, anything to add about that?
John Fesko: Just one pithy comment that comes from Jaroslav Pelikan when he says, “Confessions and creeds are supposed to be the living faith of the dead, not the dead faith of the living.”
Ligon Duncan: Yeah, really good. Jonathan Hunt asks. “Hey, in light of the regulative principle, can we use confessions or creeds or catechisms in a public worship service?” Is that OK, to ask the congregation to recite them, John?
John Fesko: I think so. And I think the fact that you see a number of Reformed denominations using them, whether it’s the Nicene Creed—you know, I have often thought that I think when we read Jesus’s statement that “Unless you confess me before men, I will not confess you before my Father.” And while I think the primary focus there is upon that personal confession of faith, on the other hand, every time that I recite a public creed in worship service, I feel like that is an aspect of that, of my personal public profession before the world. This is what I believe. But as far as again, with the regulative principle, the same principle, I think, would apply to prayers, or hymnody, for example—which, I know that’s a minor controverted point—but the idea that, can I say a prayer that is restricted exclusively to the explicit words of scripture? Or can I use a prayer that traces the truth of scripture in my own words? Can I preach a sermon that uses faithful words to the scriptures? Or am I restricted simply to standing in the pulpit and preaching only the exact words of the scriptures? Well, likewise, if I profess my faith, am I restricted simply to those statements in scripture? We may only profess the Shema, or we may only profess passages in scripture? Or can I use my own words? Or, more importantly, the words of the church throughout the ages, that, so long as they faithfully trace the teaching of scripture? And that would be my case with precedent behind prayer and preaching, or in hymns: that we can sing the name of Jesus in worship, and that that is consistent with scripture and the regulative principle.
Ligon Duncan: John, Pastor Hunt also asked about catechism preaching. Very common among the Dutch Reformed folks. A lot of times they’ll preach through the Heidelberg on Sunday nights. Are you for or against catechism preaching?
John Fesko: I’m for it in a certain form, in that it’s—my preference is that you lead with scripture, and then follow with catechism or confession, rather than start with catechism and confession. Because these days, as we know, optics matter. And so, you want to make sure that the church knows this is scriptural, and because of what the scripture says, this is what we profess. Whereas, if you flip it, it might give the unintended message that we’re preaching the catechism rather than the scripture. That’s my own take. So, if somebody did it the opposite way, I’m not going to get up and walk out. But that’s just—I think it’s a decision of wisdom, rather than right versus wrong. And that would be my preference. Front it with scripture, and then follow the catechism.
Ligon Duncan: John, a brother on the call who is the pastor of an independent evangelical church, wants to know, “Hey, what should we do about creating or affirming us doctrinal statement or creed?” Any advice or counsel about that?
John Fesko: One of the things you find in the history of confessions and creeds is that rarely do you find a body starting from scratch. The Westminster Dvines used the Thirty-Nine articles. They used the Irish articles. They used phrases and statements from the confession, the creeds of the early church. And so, that would be my first thing, is look around with what exists now. One of my favorite sayings is from the 1689 Second London Confession, which is the Baptist version of the Westminster Confession. They say in the preface, “We have no desire to clog the church with new-fangled expressions.” And in the moment I read that, I thought, “That is brilliant,” and it is so true. So what they did is they said, “Let’s start with the Westminster Confession, and then let’s modify it according to our convictions.” And so that, I think, is so important for us to do so. I would say, don’t write your own, go look around as to the existing confessions. And I know of churches that have gone from independent, to belonging to a Reformed denomination where they adopted the confessions. And so that would be, I think, my advice on this.
Ligon Duncan: There’s a lot of good material that could be utilized without changing a single syllable by an independent evangelical denomination out there. As you say, there are really rich Baptist creeds, but there are also Congregational creeds that would really, really help in that setting. So, great. That’s good advice. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Utilize what’s there before you. And by the way, you know, great Christian organizations like Intervarsity and others mid-20th century, they had to do some formulating of their doctrinal convictions, too. Look at what those kinds of organizations have affirmed. And then you’re not starting from scratch. You’re working from really good work that has been done by previous Bible-believing people. Now, this person also follows up with, “What is the danger of churches just subscribing to simple, or a more ecumenical creed like the Apostles Creed, and not something more specific, whether it’s the Canons of Dort or the Westminster Confession or the Heidelberg or whatever?” What what would be some of the dangers, John?
John Fesko: There’s a lot of erroneous doctrinal water that has gone under the bridge, and that’s what has required greater specificity in our confessional documents. And I think what that does, is you invite error to resurface when the church has historically closed the door to that error. If you restrict yourself, say, to the Apostles Creed, then you have unnecessarily blocked yourself from Nicaea and Chalcedon, for example, which are after it. And those two confessional statements, or creedal statements, the creed and the definition there, they are so important for affirming both the humanity as well as the divinity of Christ. And so, we just don’t live in that kind of a world where we can bury our head in the sand and hope that the error won’t come in. If Paul warned the elders in Ephesus that ravenous wolves were going to come in their midst, then we should be very leery of taking down doctrinal fences before we are absolutely sure that they’re unnecessary, or that there’s not a doctrinal wolf out there from which we need to protect ourselves.
Ligon Duncan: This next question is great, and it’s basically, “What do you think makes the Westminster Confession of Faith so relatable to different contexts, than from the one in which it was first composed?” It is composed by English, and Scots, and a few Irish. Maybe some folks from the from the Gallic fringes, Wales, and Man, and elsewhere. And now there are far more people in Africa, South America, and Asia that affirm the Westminster Confession than ever have Anglos in Britain and in North America. How come, John? How come it’s so relatable?
John Fesko: I think it’s relatable because they made the wise decision, as many confessional documents do, of not naming names. They weren’t naming names out of embarrassment or reticence, but rather, I think they wanted to make a document that would endure, would have perpetuity. It would last, and it wouldn’t be unnecessarily marked by its time. So they went after the false ideas rather than the names behind them. So whether it’s Pelagius in the early church, whether it’s the Socinians in the 17th century, or the open theists in the 20th and 21st century, they all advocate the same errors, and therefore the statements of the Confession are still relevant regardless if it’s the 5th, the 17th of the 21st century. And I think that that’s part of the genius of the Westminster standards.
Ligon Duncan: John, here’s another good question that comes to us, Pastor Hunt says, “Hey, you know, when a Roman Catholic says to you, ‘Okay, Mr. Presbyterian, you affirm a creed. That shows that you don’t believe in the sufficiency of scripture'”—how do you respond to that, John?
John Fesko: I mean, maybe the the devilish side of me would say, “What about your church councils like the Council of Trent? But moving beyond the verbal fencing, I would say that these documents themselves indicate that they are potentially erroneous and open to correction and revision, as well as subordinate to the supreme authority of scripture. And you see that at the end of chapter one of the confession that says that, you know, the supreme authority in matters of doctrine or faith is the scriptures in the original languages. And so, that’s where I would say that it’s self-consciously subordinate to the authority of scripture, and not, as it is in the Roman Catholic Church, placed on equal footing with the scriptures.
Ligon Duncan: I’ll ask one last one. We’re right up on the hour, and then, Step, you be ready to to to tell us where you want us to go next with this. But Dr. Larry Roff says, “Any comment on some of the creeds that have been written, or confessions that have been written really recently by theological progressives, like the Confession of Sixty-Seven, et cetera?” Any comments on those?
John Fesko: They are often marked by their time in the theology. It lacks that enduring quality. Like, the Confession of Sixty-Seven is marked by Barthian views on scripture. And I think that, you know, to borrow a statement—I forget who said it. I think it was somebody unknown, but—when you marry the spirit of the age, you will become a widow in the next. And I think that that’s so true. When you drift from scripture, you end up—basically, you’ll get left behind for a number of different reasons.
Ligon Duncan: That’s great. John, thank you so much. This has just been stimulating. I got through as many questions as I could. Step, what do you have for us now, my friend?
Step Morgan: So, for those who have to hop off the call, we want to just make a couple of quick reminders and then add, as you gentlemen have opportunity or time to stay on the call, I’ll be happy to let the call continue to run. For those who’ve got to go, go ahead and mark your calendars for February 17th, 12:00 p.m. Central Time. Our guest next month will be Miles Van Pelt. The topic of conversation will be Theological Formation in the Age of Zoom. Now, some of you may think, Tthat’s not quite as close to my wheelhouse”, but theological formation is Christian formation. So as we’ve said today, being clear about what we believe is one of the ways that we love our neighbors. And so, Dr. Van Pelt will be on the call to talk about, what has Zoom made available to us? I’ve certainly found these Zoom calls helpful. I hope you are as well. But what are the aspects of learning from one another in-person that should be preserved in the seminary and in the church? So those are going to be some of the things that are discussed, as well as Miles’s vision for the faculty that he’s assembled over the years here under the leadership of Dr. Duncan and others. So, would love to have you join us for that. Watch your inbox for a registration link for that. February 17th. Well, that’s what we have in terms of reminders. Prospective students, be sure and put your name and email address there in the chat window. And one other thing I’ll note, for those of you who had questions about hymnody, Dr. Fesko mentioned hymns as also being defensible with the same argument as confessions. Dr. Duncan was the speaker for our John Reed Miller Lectures this past Fall, and there was a wonderful address on singing God’s Word in worship, helping people hear God’s word via our singing, including our hymnody. So there’s, I think, a gap there. So as you gentlemen have time,, let’s knock out one or two more questions.
Ligon Duncan: Right. I will go back to my little chat box then, and start pulling up the next questions. I’ve got lots of thank yous here, so I mean, I have to scroll back up, Step. Just bear with me, please. Don’t want to skip over anybody because there have been lots of good questions. OK, here’s here’s a really good one. John, how can a church prevent the habit of just turning creeds and confession into a mere tradition? Kind of like the dead faith of the living thing that you were saying, right? How do you prevent that from happening?
John Fesko: I think it’s important that we, at least, for example, in our seminaries, as we do here at RTS, we have courses that specifically study our confessions, such as the Westminster Standards, so that you can show the students not only how theologically intricate they are, how precise they are, how scriptural they are, so that they can understand the scriptural argumentation behind it, but then also so that they can see how vital they are, say, to worship and to catechesis and to the life of the church, so that if we can inculcate that into our ministers hearts, then they can in turn, pivot to their churches when they get to their churches, and they can reproduce that same type of educational commitment by teaching the people in the church about their confessions. And so, one of the things I did as a pastor, is I did a chapter a week on the Westminster Standards or Westminster Confession, you know, cross-referenced to the catechisms, but basically a chapter a week in Sunday school. And I did that, I think two times in my almost 11-year pastorate. And I think that if you regularly do that, you can really unfold the riches of the confession to people in the church. Because I don’t know about you—I’m sure you have the same sense. Every time I go to study these documents, I am more and more impressed with how well-written they are, and how cautious they are, and how insightful they are, and really how beautiful they are in many places. So yeah, that’s the way I would address that concern.
Ligon Duncan: And his follow up is this. Is there a need to write confessions today responding to current issues, John?
John Fesko: Maybe. You know, it just depends because one of the things that, for example, Ligon, you noted in our meeting the other day, is that I think that one of the most unexplored documents along with, as you said this, is the Larger Catechism’s exposition of the law. And I think if we were to dig in there, we would probably find most of the answers that we need. And I am just—I don’t want to criticize anybody who has done this in the past. But for the most part, my default stance is to say I’ve signed one set of documents. It’s the Westminster Standards, and I think for the most part, I find them sufficient. I’m not going to permanently close the door to say never, or under any circumstance, because maybe some of the things that we’re encountering these days—like, a new one, transhumanism where people are technologically altering their bodies—maybe those types of issues might necessitate some sort of confessional document, or addition, or statements. So I don’t want to say never, but for the most part, I want to say I don’t think it’s all that necessary, but I want to leave the door open.
Ligon Duncan: That’s good. And a lot of churches handle that by issuing pastoral statements at the level of the local congregation, or the presbytery, or the synod, or the General Assembly. And oftentimes, those pastoral statements actually can correct the problem. You know, for instance, in the Southern Presbyterian Church in the 1940s, for a good 20 years, there had been a very significant encroachment of dispensationalism in the ministry, and the Southern Presbyterian Church produced a document, you know, criticizing dispensationalism. It didn’t add to the confession, et cetera. And that document, eventually, kind of won the day on that particular topic. And you know, one could think of things today that are huge issues around the world, like the health and wealth gospel. And a lot of African churches want to be able to make a strong biblical statement over against the health and wealth—sadly, the health and wealth gospel was imported to Africa, out of America. And so the solid, orthodox African theologians want to make a biblical statement about what the gospel is, and what the ministry of the church is, and they don’t necessarily need to write a confession of faith. They could have a pastoral statement on the health and wealth gospel and address those kinds of things. Let’s see. Someone—this is a really good question. Practically speaking, how do we hold tightly to creeds and confessions while being sure to hold those things subordinately to scripture? I’ve often heard people give lip service to the idea of creeds being secondary, but then, you know, in practice, they end up being equal to or greater than. So how do you reply to that, John?
John Fesko: You know, the biblical example I would give is John the Baptist. You know, it was perhaps his life motto, “May he increase, and may I decrease.” It’s the same principle that you find in a good preacher who will say, “Hey, I’m replaceable. All you need is somebody who preaches Christ and the scriptures, and you can take me out of the equation. And so, that any time you might have the tendency to want to elevate the man, or to elevate the book, or to elevate the confession, and it ceases to serve its purpose of pointing us to the person of Christ and his work or the Triune God and God’s work, then that’s when the warning bells should go off to say, “Wait a minute, we’ve elevated this document too much. It has ceased to point us to Christ, and it has become the end in and of itself.” And I think if we can watch that with our preachers, and with the books that we read, and—the broader idolatry. Basically it’s an idolatry problem. And if we can be on guard against that and aware of that, then God willing by his grace, we can keep that at bay.
Ligon Duncan: That’s good. Dr. Larry Roff also makes the comment that you made, that the use of great hymnody is sort of a cousin to the confessions, in that we sing what we believe. So great point there. And then another really good question was, is there a reason that we would need to update some of the older and less familiar phrases and vocabulary in terms of the Westminster Confession? For instance, in the Larger Catechism I’ve heard—I remember I was in an examination where someone took exception to the Larger Catechism exposition of the sixth commandment and the phrase “on the keeping of stews.” And I said, “You mean you take exception to the confession’s prohibition of having a brothel?” And he said, “No, no, no. I didn’t—,” so, you know, there’s one of those areas we don’t use that term for brothels anymore. Is there any need for updating the language and terminology, John?
John Fesko: Yeah, that’s a good question. And it’s one that I’m in the middle of just trying to figure out. I’m serving on my denomination’s committee that is considering updating the language of the Westminster Standards, which has got some people nervous. We’ve got some other people that are clamoring for it. And so our committee’s job is simply to look at the language and make recommendations to say, this is what it might look like. But if you want to change it, then we have to go into the formal process of changing the constitution of the church, which requires another committee. It’s like changing the Constitution, you know, big, big, big process. But we’re, you know, what we’re trying to do is look at words like that, like “stews” and others that, you know—there’s this great thing on Google where you can look up the word and it’ll show you its usage—
Ligon Duncan: The history, yeah.
John Fesko: Is still in usage? When did it come about? When did it appear? And so we’re looking at a lot of those words. There’s some words that we don’t want to touch ,and we’re putting an electric fence around it. We’re like, “Nope, that’s a theologically significant word.” Or, “This word can be changed.” The easiest thing I suspect our committee will be able to recommend, is sanding off the -eth endings off the words “proceedeth” versus “proceeds.”
Ligon Duncan: By the way, the OPC produced a modern English version, which is great for study purposes. They could serve this kind of thing without necessarily having to change. I think, you know, I think it’s actually easier read the Standards than it is to read the King James Version. Not only is, you know, that’s another generation into our English, another generation away from Elizabethan English. And yeah, there are going to be some technical terms that are tough, but it’s a lot easier to read the Standards than it is to read the King James Version.
John Fesko: I would rather—I mean, my own personal take at this point is I’d rather have the cognitive dissonance, the disconnect to say, “I’m not sure what this means. Let me look that up and study it,” than to have somebody hydroplane over the words that they might otherwise think, I know what that means and I’ll just keep on moving. But we’ll see. I mean, it can be either non-authoritative study edition, we change some of the words, or as others have suggested, we footnote “this means this” in a nonbinding, kind of, little comment on the side so that people would understand. So, our committee is in the thick of it, and with the virus, like many things, our report is delayed. So we’re supposed to report this coming General Assembly, so we’ll see what happens.
Ligon Duncan: Here’s another good one. This person says, “I’m currently at a CRC church where they, at least on paper, affirm the Three Forms of Unity. But they have recently sort of semi-affirmed the Belhar Confession,” which of course, the RCA has done as well. And it was proposed to be sort of a fourth form of unity. But that was rejected, and it was accepted as an optional confession. How ought we to approach the acceptation of those kinds of things by our denominations?
John Fesko: Ligon, I’m going to punt to you because I haven’t read the Belhar.
Ligon Duncan: Well, I will say Kevin DeYoung has done a lot of thinking about the Belhar. And while he very much appreciates the rejection of apartheid and of the kind of unbiblical things that were done in the name of Jesus, and the Bible, and the gospel, and Reformed theology in South Africa, like the Confession of Sixty-Seven, the Belhar slips in some things that Bible-believing Christians would have some heartburn on, whereas we would very much want to resonate with a rejection of racism and the rejection of apartheid-style segregation and such. We’d want to be very careful that we weren’t actually affirming some things that we, as Bible-believing Christians, don’t believe the scriptures teach. And for that reason, Kevin argued against the affirmation of the Belhar when he was in the RCA. And so that’s, you know, I rely on Kevin, who’s worked on that a lot more than I have.
John Fesko: I will join you then in relying on Kevin.
Ligon Duncan: Here’s another great question. What good are confessions and catechisms when denominations or presbyteries ignore certain parts of them? You know, they come up with ways of getting around parts of them. Talk to us about that, and talk to us about what that means for things like subscription, et cetera.
John Fesko: Yeah. So, confession subscription is almost a discipline unto itself in the sense, though, that it’s it’s a sub-discipline related to confessions, and there are a number of opinions over the years. And one of the challenges to that is that the Westminster Divines didn’t leave us any kind of written expressions as to what they intended to do, and how they intended to enforce the Confession. And so you have to pick up the discussion in the Scottish churches, or in the continental tradition. And you know, very briefly, I would say this: some denominations want to say, strict subscription with zero wiggle room on it. And I would say, while I appreciate the sentiment, there’s two problems with it. Charles Hodge said that you cannot—it was either Hodge or Warfield. Maybe it was Warfield—who said you cannot expect complete agreement with such an extensive set of propositions from everybody that comes to it. People are going to look for some kind of wiggle room there. And what he says is it breeds laxity and dishonesty. Because he says that to just get through, they’ll say, ‘Yes, I agree with it.’ And then they just, they’re either being lazy in not reading it carefully, or they’re kind of playing loose and fast with some of the statements. You know, on the flip side of the coin, basically, you have Warfield and Hodge basically saying that, “OK, you can maybe disagree with it so long as it doesn’t harm the overall system. So long as you understand that the system is the whole document, so that you cannot affirm something that would contradict it.” And at the end of the day, it ultimately comes up to the church as to how they’re going to define it. And I always like to remind my strict subscription friends that, I want to say, the CRC as a strict subscription denomination. But yet, I say, the easiest way to get past strict subscription—it’s a Maginot Line, you lie. Is that something that we should do as ministers? Never. But I found that at least it’s a sociological thing that liberals always find a rationale for being less than truthful, because they think they have the best of motives. I need to help these people. I need to change this church. I need to get in so that I can be an agent of change. And, you know, Matron talks about this is in his Christianity and Liberalism that no, he’s just, you know, the liberals essentially are affirming the words, but not the meaning of the words.
Ligon Duncan: That’s great. Perry Clyburn asks a question about The Gospel Coalition doctrinal statements, I’m a member of The Gospel Coalition, on the board and on the council. Wonderful things in those documents. I have a lot of Presbyterian friends that cannot stand The Gospel Coalition and they cannot stand those statements. But actually, there are a lot of good Presbyterians involved. I’m thinking of Phil Ryken and Harry Reeder and Rick Phillips and others that were involved in the formulation of those things. Lots of helpful things in those, and that would be another one of those things, if an independent church were looking for some guidance, there’s lots of good stuff. It’s a generically Reformed doctrinal statement, and really interesting things in the ministry vision statement, too. I’m still glad that I’ve got the Westminster Confession to subscribe to, so I don’t subscribe to those doctrinal statements of The Gospel Coalition. But I’ve learned a lot from them and appreciate, especially, the way they state certain things. They’ve helped me know how to say certain things that will be persuasive to people, of truths that are part of my own denominational, confessional commitments. Here’s another question that was asked. And, let’s see. I think it scrolled past me here. Let’s see. These chats rolling in so, so fast. Oh, here’s an interesting—in Latin America, sometimes it’s said that foreign theologies, and that means especially Anglo-speaking theologies—and I’m speaking to a Hispanic-American professor, John Fesko as I offer this question—in Latin America, sometimes it’s said that foreign theologies have little to say to us. What do you think about that in terms of the Westminster Confession and the Hispanic-Latino world, John?
John Fesko: Again, this goes back, I think, to the brilliance of the Westminster Standards in the sense that they stick to what are basically the essentials of the scriptures, you know. So that I would want to challenge that that objection to say, “Are you sure you want to say that being created in the image of God is a uniquely Anglo thing? Are you sure you want to say that the the reception of the imputed suffering and obedience of Christ—is an Anglo thing? Or that the supreme authority of the Scriptures is just an Anglo thing?” And on and on, we could go listing on. And so that’s where I want to say that, “No, you know, the Confession is written in such a way that it’s not tied so tightly to its original cultural or historical context that it is not easily transplanted into other temporal or geographical or cultural settings.”
Ligon Duncan: And by the way, that goes back to a point you made at the very beginning of our time together, that the framers of the confessions in North Europe in the 1500s, 1600s, they were not desirous of articulating an Anglo theology or a Danish theology or a Belgium theology or a Holland theology, or a German theology. They really wanted to root their affirmations in the historic affirmations of the church. And so when you look, for instance, at Westminster Confession Chapter Two and its second affirmation about the Trinity, all of that language virtually comes out of early Christianity. So that doesn’t belong to Anglos in Britain in the mid-1640s. That belongs to the whole church. That’s all of our theological inheritance. And so, the way that the Confession goes back and grabs the inheritance of the church keeps it from being idiosyncratic. Keeps it from being overly Anglo, because it’s so historical. And that’s another reason why we want to do theology, not de novo, you know, not as if nobody else has done it before us, but we want to do it as if we’re not the first Christians to think about these things, and that we’ve got a lot of material from tons of other cultures, tons of other ages and places, to draw on to inform us. And I think that’s why it’s interesting. You could certainly say that—you know, let me pick on my own tradition—that culture overly negatively affected 19th-century Americans in the South on a variety of issues. Which, the Confession of Faith, thank God, avoided those kinds of negative effects. And partly because it was not so dominated by its time. It was trying to affirm something that was as broadly faithful to scripture, and as broadly embracive as possible, not sort of dialed down into the substrata of a particular cultural moment. And I think that’s why it still serves in Africa and South America and Asia and all sorts of parts of the world the way that it does today, John.
John Fesko: Absolutely.
Ligon Duncan: Well, I think, Step, I think we’ve gotten through most of the questions that were put in the chat, at least a representative set of the questions. So I hope that’ll serve people. And maybe Dr. Fesko would like to close us in prayer?
John Fesko: Will do. I’ll be happy to. Thanks to everybody who participated, who sent in your questions, thanks to Step, and to Ligon, and to CL for organizing this event. And I hope that everybody that is receiving a free copy of the book will enjoy it and will benefit from it. So let’s go ahead and pray. Father, we are grateful for the kindness and love that you have given us and shown us in Christ through your Spirit, as well as through your written word. We pray that as we study it, that you would teach us, that you would show us and unfurl the riches of your grace in Christ before us, as well as through the work of the Spirit, and that you would help us, O Lord, as we publicly profess the faith once delivered to the saints. That as we employ our creeds and confessions, O Lord, that we would use them as you have intended, as subordinate summaries of the teaching of the Bible,, and that we would never elevate them, O Lord, but at the same time that we would appreciate what they represent, which is that collective witness of your church throughout the ages and in fact, even the gifts that your Son has given to your church in the wake of his ascension. And so we pray, O Lord, that as we join hands with our ancestors in professing that faith once delivered to the saints, that you would give us humility, that you would give us zeal and courage to preach and to teach and promote the gospel, but that you would also give us piety and holiness, O Lord, that we would never profess your love in our confessions and creeds and fail to love you or our neighbor. We pray and ask these things in Christ’s name. Amen.
Ligon Duncan: Amen. Thank you all so much. Thanks again, Step. Again, any final word, Step?
Step Morgan: A pleasure. Thanks, everybody, for joining the call. We’ll look forward to seeing you next month.