Sunday, September 17, 2023

Confessions of a former strict confessionalist (Part 1)

[I am currently busy with work commitments and preparing for my next phase of life, so updates here will be sporadic]

My life has been quite a journey, and with my current progress in the Christian life, I thought it would be helpful to tell parts of that story here.


How does one relate to God in this world? To the church? What should a Christian do in order to glorify God? All of these are questions that I struggle with, especially after I have been awakened to the things of God by the Spirit of God. Having brought up in staid traditionalism, I was exposed to Charismatic influences. It is admitted that there are many biblical problems with the Charismatic movement, and the particular strain that I was eventually exposed to, the Third Wave New Apostolic Reformation, is heretical. Yet, for someone raised in staid traditionalism, this was a breath of fresh air. In particular, it cannot be denied that, through focusing on the imminant and the practical, Charismatic Christianity preserve an important aspect of Christianity, which is that Christianity has to be practiced and not relegated to mere cognition. Christianity is a whole person faith. The idea that one can be Christian in mere intellect is not biblical, but more on that later.

As a biblically deficient movement, Charismatic Christianity left me feeling dry over time. God graciously led me to Reformed teaching and Reformed theology. Through seeing the latitudinarian approach in much of Singapore Christianity, I was led to reject New Evangelicalism, which I see as the movement allowing false teaching like the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) to infiltrate the church. In a sense, I became a Fundamentalist, Fundamentalist in approach not in doctrine. If New Evangelicalism is marked by toleration of false doctrine under the guise of charity and respectful disagreement, then the reaction is to be strict on doctrine. Laxity of doctrine is spiritual adultery, leading to spiritual destruction applauded by those going to heaven under the guise of charity. It was evidently clear that New Evangelicalism is a movement of spiritual negligence on the part of its pastors at best, so the way to combat it is to be its opposite.

I notice quickly of course that Fundamentalism does not work, noting the problems and church wreckages it has caused. If everything is important and one must separate from other Christians on almost every doctrine, then everyone will eventually form a church of one. Yet it is evidently clear that New Evangelicalism does not work either. The so-called triage method promoted by Albert Mohler, when I heard about it, does not work either. "Triage" presumes that one can rank doctrines in order of importance, but where is this ranking found? Who gave us this ranking list, and upon what basis should we grant that list authority? "Triage" is basically an intellectual version of New Evangelical compromise, allowing pastors to feel less guilty or not guilty while being indifferent about other people going to hell.

The Promise of Confessionalism

New Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism are a dialectical pair, with the one feeding into the other. Those who reject New Evangelicalism veer Fundamentalist, while those reject Fundamentalism veer New Evangelical. It is a zero-sum game either way, and in no way is Christ's church and Christians properly served. Believers are destroyed by false love and unity under the banner of triage or whatever term New Evangelicals use. Christ's sheep are broken by fundamentalist attack dogs slashing the sheep they were meant to protect, guide, and feed. While wresting with this dialectic, I came to hear of Confessionalism, which holds itself to be a third way in the dialectic.

What is the allure of Confessionalism? Confessionalism asserts that the problem with evangelicalism is that it does not have a true center of unity. Evangelicalism fails in its struggle to be coherent and proper because it is in some sense a false construct. By rejecting the historic creeds and Christian confessions, and trying to create a pan-"Protestant" movement, Evangelicalism cannot truly function as a Christian church. "Evangelicalism" as a movement must be deconstructed, argues historian D. G. Hart, because it has become a "seemingly large and influential religious body, but it lacks an institutional center, intellectual coherence, and devotional direction." [D.G. Hard, Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 176]. Hart in that book was focusing on the New Evangelicals, but the issue of a true center of unity or lack thereof affects the Older Evangelicalism as well. The only difference is that Old Evangelicalism had denominational legacy and thus had a more stable identity despite their trans-denominational slant. The dialectic between doctrinal separation and doctrinal compromise exists because there is no real substantive center in evangelical churches. All claims to be centered on the "Gospel," whether of the older evangelicalism, the New Evangelicalism, or the New Calvinist version (e.g. TGC) have failed because the words "the Gospel" have no substance in themselves. Over time, as it has been shown time and again, a unity "around the Gospel" results in either doctrinal splits or doctrinal compromise and eventual apostasy. The former comes as one group found to their astonishment that error and heresy lies within the camp, and sought to eradicate it, as for example Charles Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy, and the various modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early 1900s. The latter is seen in the evangelical moderates collapsing to the forces of Liberalism in the PCUSA and other mainline denominations. It is seen also in the modern horror story that is TGC, as it is currently capitulating to the anti-Christian lies of LGBTQ+ and wokeness.

Confessionalism's promise therefore is to re-orientate doctrines around a core, forming something that looks like "triage" without the triage. Instead of asking questions about what doctrines are core and what are not, believers are to understand the form of sound words (2 Tim. 1:13) and link themselves to the historic Christian faith. Christians link themselves to the historic Christian tradition, choosing the historic Confession that they hold best approximates to that tradition, the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). Christians unite around a common Confession of faith and the historic creeds of the church. What the Confession states is core; what it does not there is room for disagreement.

Of course, this does not solve every problem. There is a sense in which we argue from the Confession for logical deductions from that Confession. There is a sense in which inferences from the Confession partake in the derived authority of the Confession for us, yet are less authoritative than the Confessions themselves, especially when the inference is not direct. Nevertheless, the promise of Confessionalism is an escape from the dialectic between New Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. In it, the believer can rest, more assured in the truths of Scripture and protected from wolves.

[to be continued]