As I’ve always understood it, To An Unknown God is an œcumenical project, a project in which iron sharpens iron, a project that aims to find what’s true and noble in each Christian tradition and critique what’s fallacious and base. This means that, without sweeping real disagreement under the rug, we work together for one and the same city according to the standard of the God who reveals himself in Scripture and in nature.
Amid calls in some quarters for subscription to a statement of faith, a major reason we have no consensus document is that we hope out of creative tension to forge an eventual consensus faithful to the Truth that the Holy Ghost reveals in the Scriptures. Christian consensus being our goal, it’s foolish to put the cart before the horse and act as if we already have a consensus document, especially if atheists and other non-Christians are to contribute meaningfully to our sense of what the Christian faith is about and what it ought to look like. In the spirit of free discussion on the being and the well-being of the Church, therefore, responding to John’s article on doctrine (and some of its associated comment thread), I give my take on what in the olden days was called comprehension, or reconciliation, a far worthier end in my view than mere toleration.
Dangers of ‘no creed but Christ’
While I agree with John that statements of faith often call forth a fractious spirit that makes people increasingly small-minded, I wish to clarify that their absence within an institutional church setting – which our publication is not – has problems of its own. Within such a political (yes, political) setting as the institutional Church, the absence of formal structures leaves the exercise of informal power unchecked. Without formal processes for discussion and judgement, if you insist on some biblical centre, private judgement manifests its deadly force: not confronted formally, people are scorned informally; not expelled formally, people are excluded informally; not excommunicated formally, people are shunned informally, until the hypocrisy’s become unbearable, and all this a result of confusion and Elsinoric suspicion. In many places, what these conditions enshrine in practice is a stifling fundamentalism enforced by stronger personalities, the kind of provincial attitude that has no sense of its own kookiness and considers the catholic kooky. As far as churches as institutions are concerned, then, abolishing statements of faith will not do away with schism, and even observing the fruit of the Spirit is fraught with impractical political difficulty – for I cannot in the long run accept a mere confœderation of churches in place of the one Church – when reduced in practice to private judgement.
Creed unavoidable and necessary
Since judgement’s unavoidable (cf. the social stigma I allude to in my article on the 2008 Olympics, in which I call for open debate), basic creeds, while not themselves written by the apostles, affirm basic features of the one apostolic faith. For the following is an uncontroversial statement:
The church existed long before the first New Testament book was written, and even longer before the final one was completed and the whole was collected into a single canon. This being the case, the apostolic deposit existed in the form of oral [theological] tradition during those early years and is what eventually gave rise to the written Word. Thus the New Testament as we know it was not originally the source of the apostolic deposit of faith, but was the result of it.
Upon this statement one can even claim, like 19th-century theologian John Williamson Nevin, that the Creed, being older than the Canon of Scripture and more venerable than private opinion (which is often masked as common sense), gives the interpretive lens for the Scriptures rather than vice versa, because the slogan ‘Scripture alone’ means Scripture plus idiosyncratic private judgement.
Confessions freeing the Church and amenable to irenicism
As I’ve written about before on my own blog, moreover, higher standards of subscription for clergy protect ordinary church members from being excluded for thinking otherwise than the more detailed confessional documents set forth. I argue on the level of the Church (making no judgement on To An Unknown God) that such statements, in their proper use, are useful and need not cause strife.
For the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism in Germany, for example, wide and catholic coverage was an important aim. According to Nevin, the writers aimed for comprehension – that is, irenic inclusion – between the Reformed and the Lutherans (particularly the Philippists):
On the sacraments, the [Heidelberg] Catechism is explicitly Calvinistic; steering throughout a careful middle course, between Lutheranism on the one hand, and Zuinglianism on the other. Here again however, we may observe a certain effort after the widest practicable comprehension, in its representations.
Seeking consensus and common ground, it seems, was key to this endeavour, a conciliar effort continued in the English effort to build a stable northern catholicism. With the help of interdynastic marriages between Britain and the continent, both English churchmen and German jurists like Samuel von Pufendorf worked in the interest of union where it could be had, even in the midst and the aftermath of the terrible Thirty Years’ War. In spite of centrifugal forces exerted by the more extreme Puritans in England (the ‘holy’) and the Gnesio-Lutherans (the ‘genuine Lutherans’) in Germany, as well as by the ravages of war, unity was a major theme among Protestants.
Though to a lesser degree, the comprehension of differing positions that Nevin attributes to the German Reformed confessional document remained an important goal when an assembly of English clerics, appointed by the Long Parliament, wrote up the Westminster Standards (1643–49). Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, Nevin’s contemporary, wrote of the Westminster Assembly’s effort – like that of the Synod of Dort (1618–19) – to include both infralapsarians, who believe the decree allowing man’s Fall to be logically prior to the decree to save a number of men, and supralapsarians, who believe rather that God, having selected some to be saved and others to be damned, has then allowed the Fall for this differentiation to come to pass:
Twiss, the Prolocutor of that venerable body [the Westminster Assembly] was a zealous supralapsarian; the great majority of its members, however, were on the other side. The symbols of that Assembly, while they clearly imply the infralapsarian view, were yet so framed as to avoid offence to those who adopted the supralapsarian theory.
The same quasi-ecumenical latitude applied to imputation, whether the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to us (in addition to the imputation of our sin to Christ on the Cross) or covenantal imputation simpliciter. Though the Westminster Standards are indeed less broad than the Heidelberg Catechism, then, even such a narrower document contains a spirit amenable to charitable inclusion.
Definition without schismatic sectarianism
By going into Church history, especially the history of a tradition marked from time to time by splits over matters of controversial doctrine (if only the Reformed churches were not so distinguished!), I hope to have advanced the idea that an irenic way marked by theological conviction is both desirable and mainstream, though Christians in recent years have increasingly abandoned this ship. It’s my earnest desire that this way be the end to which we write in this forum, and that the visible institutions of the Church respond to this hope, not with cynicism about an ‘unrealistic’ goal but with patience, with virtue, with faith in Christ’s high priestly prayer for the Church, that we be one, just as the triune God is one.
 Indeed, such a wisely precisian spirit readily occasions snarky footnotes like this one. ↑
This is, in my view, a major weakness of congregational church polity: that idiosyncrasy, especially idiosyncratic error, becomes particularly invisible but intolerably coercive. ↑
Earlier Lutheran and Reformed thought was quite similar and aimed toward unity in the clear teaching of Scripture. An altered version of the Lutherans’ Augsburg Confession, called the Variata, was signed by John Calvin himself; Martin Bucer, who wrote the Tetrapolitan Confession as a revision of the Augsburg in order to bring in the Zwinglians, advised some southern German cities to sign the Augsburg instead if need be. As Charles Bartlett notes in a discussion of the Ten Articles of Henry VIII, ‘From 1526 to 1555 (or so) Philipism [sic] held the intellectual and theological center generally driving concilar talks in the north. However, when Philipism [sic] met its demise at the hands of Lutheran partisans [through the Formula of Concord (1577), which effectively expelled the Philippists over the opposition of the Elizabethan English government], the center also melted, giving way to centrifugal forces typically blamed upon confessionalism. But Philipism’s [sic] real, or perhaps “secret”, legacy was its variatas, such as the Wittenberg and Ten Articles, of which England was benefited.’ ↑
 Neither do I exonerate the English Laudians in the 1630s for their radically strict ceremonialism, for which cause they chose to isolate moderate bishops such as John Davenant and Joseph Hall for articulating an alternative vision for the Church of England that, while upholding older Reformed orthodoxy, could not be impugned with the name of puritan. ↑
 Systematic Theology, Vol. II (London and Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson & sons, 1872), 317. Likewise, Alexander Mitchell argues in his introduction to The Minutes of the Westminster Assembly (Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood and sons, 1874), page lv, ‘The same care was taken to avoid the insertion of anything which could be regarded as indicating a preference for supralapsarianism; and for this purpose, the words, “to bring this to pass, God ordained to permit man to fall,” were changed into “they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ,” etc.’ ↑