What Is a Statement of Doctrine?

8 thoughts on “What Is a Statement of Doctrine?”

  1. First, let me say that I am not attempting to argue that “To An Unknown God” should have a statement of doctrine. This post raises entirely new discussions. Second, I am not attempting to question your history. I am not studied enough on the history of the creeds and confessions to comment in that regard.

    What I take issue with is your assertion that these examples demonstrate that “statements of doctrine are often, in practice, used to silence or ostracize opponents” and that this is “the primary uses of creeds and statements of doctrine”.

    Single instances in history cannot be used to characterize extended periods of time. For example, the Declaration of Independence was written to openly declare rebellion against the power that then ruled the colonies that now constitute the United States of America. The intention of the document was treason against the British crown. Clearly this is no longer its use, nor has it been for the majority of the Declaration’s history. The citizens of those lands are no longer rebelling against their governments, and (because the Revolution succeeded) this document is no longer treasonous but rather patriotic. Now, I must admit that the circumstances in this example are more complex than to be limited to just these attributes, but then so were the origins of the Apostle’s Creed, the Council of Nicaea, and the Westminster Assembly.

    One circumstantial motive in the formulation of the Apostle’s Creed may have been the silencing of Gnostics, but, in practice, this is no longer its use, nor has it been for the majority of the last 1850 years (I am aware that some in the Church are still silencing Gnostics, but most of us are not). The Nicene Creed may have been intended to deal a great blow to Arianism, but most churches who recite it today (and probably for most of its history) have not done so to attack Arians. One intention behind the Westminster Assembly may have been to “secure the loyalty of the Scots against Charles I”, but in practice for the majority of the Confession’s history (the entirety of its history in American Presbyterianism) it has not been used to do anything to Charles I. Now, Creeds and Confessions are not inerrant or infallible or God-breathed, and we do well to question their origins and examine their history, but their points of origin and the circumstances surrounding them cannot be used to characterize their wider uses afterwards.

    The primary purpose of creeds and confessions, as I understand it, is to protect the churches that hold to them. In the Scriptures we find solemn warnings against wolves in sheep’s clothing, false teachers, and false doctrine in general. This is a part of why officers in churches like the PCA are required to adhere to the Westminster Standards (not necessarily in a word-for-word fashion, but the topic of types of subscription is another discussion entirely). In Titus 1:9, Paul writes that elders must hold “to the faithful word which is according to the teaching, that he may be able to exhort in the sound doctrine, and to convict the gainsayers.” He then defines these ‘gainsayers’ as false teachers “who overthrow whole houses, teaching things which they ought not” (Titus 1:11). The Westminster Standards are subordinate to Scripture, but it is the conviction of many churches that the most significant doctrines of the Bible are set forth in the Westminster Standards. That is, that the Westminster Standards say what the Bible says albeit in a non-inspired and admittedly sometimes interpretive sort of way (but, again, it is the conviction of the churches who hold to the standards that these are Biblical interpretations). In the cases you mention (Peter Enns, N.T. Wright, Federal Vision, etc.), it is the view of many who hold to the Westminster Standards that their teachings are harmful to the Church, and appropriate action must be taken to protect her. Now, the debate over the theological issues involved in those instances as well as what the response to them should be is another issue, but those who acted against them should not be denigrated for acting in accordance with what they believe to be best for their churches based on what they believe to be true because they believe that it is taught in the Bible (even if that is contained in a subordinate standard like a confession). I am not a Roman Catholic, but I would see no reason to criticize a Roman Catholic church for dismissing a priest who taught against transubstantiation. I, personally, may not agree with it, but the church would be acting in accordance with what they believe to be the teaching of the Bible (this is, of course, hypothetical).

    I can understand your desire that this remain an open forum for discussion of wider Christianity (and not just the branches that hold to the Westminster Standards or the creeds). But, if that is the case, then let us discuss these issues rather than pass judgement on other believers for acting in accordance with what they believe, even if we do not agree with their actions or more particular beliefs. And let us honestly disagree. All this is to say that there is more intended in the various uses of creeds and confessions and that their primary use most certainly is not silencing or ostracizing of dissidents, but rather protection of the church (which may, as in the cases you illustrated, be accompanied by an earnest, but firm, call to repentance).

  2. Timothy, I think we actually agree about the primary use of creeds. You say they are intended to “protect” the church, but the problem is that such “protection” usually amounts to silencing or ostracizing opponents. I agree with you that many of those who use the creeds in this manner claim — or even sincerely believe — that they are protecting the church, but I believe that they are mistaken. They “protect” the church by preventing their opponents from having a voice within it. In the examples I give above, some denominations enforce doctrinal “purity” by making all seminary faculty annually sign a statement of faith, by firing with a minimum of due process those faculty who supposedly contradict those confessions, and by forbidding pastors from teaching the views of those with whom they disagree. How would you define those actions if they are not ostracizing and silencing their opponents? Such actions go far beyond “an earnest, but firm, call to repentance.”

    Have you actually read N.T. Wright, Peter Leithart, et al.? These are not men who are espousing dangerous views that would harm the church. In fact, I know many Christians who have been blessed by their writings.

    If you haven’t already, please read my original article on statements of doctrine and the comments following it. As I point out there, the only “doctrines” you see Paul or the other apostles condemn are doctrines that would deny the power and sufficiency of the resurrection. For instance, in the Titus passage to which you refer, Paul is once again speaking out against those who argued that circumcision was necessary for salvation. As I also note elsewhere, while, in the name of “protecting the church,” we are all-to-comfortable condemning doctrines that are nowhere clearly rooted in Scripture, we repeatedly ignore the clear advice that we are given for how we are to discern the wolves: by their fruit. Again, in the passage from Titus, Paul warns of the deceivers: “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (1:16).

    I am puzzled by your exhortations in the final paragraph. You urge: “let us honestly disagree.” That is my very point. Let us argue with our opponents, not silence them.

  3. I would generally take no issue with a seminary that espouses specific confessions as their statement of faith dismissing a teacher who disagrees with those standards to the point of violating them. I am not referring to the case of Enns, I do not have all the information about that situation. But your post seems to disagree with such actions in general. I am agreeing with them in general. If a professor at Westminster truly did teach something that systematically violated the Westminster Standards, I would see his dismissal as a preservation of the school’s integrity (protecting the students, as it were). Again this is meant to be a general statement on my part. I have read only a little about the Enns situation, so I do not know the specifics. If he was truly teaching something against the Westminster Standards, then I would understand why he was dismissed, but I don’t have enough information to say either way. What I am trying to get at is that I can easily imagine circumstances in which his firing would be perfectly understandable. I felt from your posts that you believe that a professor disagreeing with a confession would under no circumstances be grounds enough for his dismissal.
    When I said “earnest, but firm, call to repentance”, what I had in mind specifically was excommunication. I apologize for not being clear. So dismissing a professor might actually not go as far as what I meant by a firm call to repentance, though it has a somewhat similar affect, albeit not in an ecclesiastical sense (the seminary is not the church, after all). I do not think that such action should be taken except in more extreme cases, but I believe that holding confessions and creeds with integrity will require such responses at times. So what I was trying to say was that protecting the church may entail even more extreme punitive action than dismissing a professor (such as excommunication). In some cases this may very well include “silencing” or “ostracizing” a teacher believed to be false, or at least the appearance of it. My own experience is that my church openly disagrees with views such as the NPP and the FV, for example, but they address them and refute them, they do not simply silence or ignore them. I, however, am not a member of the PCA so I cannot comment on their actions. All I am trying to say, again, is that silencing or ostracizing, as you put it, is not the primary use of creeds and confessions even if it may appear to be the more immediate effect of them. David did not kill the bear primarily for the purpose of ending its life, though that was the most immediate and obvious effect of his killing it. Rather, he killed it with the intention of protecting his sheep. So if churches who hold the Westminster Confession attempt to protect their flocks from teachings which violate the Westminster Confession, then they are protecting their flocks from what they believe to be dangerous teachings, as they believe them to be unbiblical.
    I have read very little of the Auburn Avenue theology and even less of Wright, I am afraid. I was not intending to comment on their theology. Given the context of these posts, I believe that would be inappropriate. I have read some of the negative responses against those views, however, and can confidently say that there are churches who believe their views to be dangerous and they act accordingly. I, too, know Christians who have found fruit in reading Wright (all members of the PCA), but that is beside the point. Some churches believe that some of their teachings are dangerous and they act accordingly to protect their flocks from them. They are acting in accordance with what they believe, and I have no issue with that. If a Baptist does not allow a Presbyterian to preach about baptistm at his church (or vice versa), he is doing what he believes is right based on how he reads the Bible. I would personally disagree with him, but I respect his right to act in accordance with what he believes. I would assume that it is more likely he was trying to protect his flock from paedobaptist teachings, rather than simply intending to silence such teachings. So the primary intent of having statements of doctrine is protection, even if that protection entails what appears to be (and may in cases actually be) silencing of dissident views. (Note: I am using baptism just as an example, not attempting to comment on that debate. I, personally, am a paedobaptist so I am not suggesting that a Baptist would be right to protect his flock from such teachings, only that I would see it as stranger for him not to. I would not take personally his denial of paedobaptism, but see it as his protecting of his congregants from my view, even though I do not believe they need protecting from it.)
    I did actually read all of the prior posts. I read your initial article when it was published. You are welcome to your view that ‘the only “doctrines” you see Paul or the other apostles condemn are doctrines that would deny the power and sufficiency of the resurrection.’ But I think that Confessionalists would generally disagree. I am not attempting to argue with you on that point; just pointing out that your reading of the Bible is not the same as theirs. If we are going to comment on actions taken in a Confessional context, then a non-confessional reading should not be used as the standard. It is their sincere conviction that the Bible calls for the defense of more specifics than that, so it is perfectly understandable for them to defend them. For them, defending confessions and creeds is perfectly Biblical so far as they expound Biblical teaching. But here I am again verging on a discussion of differing views of subscription, and that is another topic entirely. So, in summary, you may read the Bible in such a way that you conclude only the doctrine of the resurrection should be defended to such a degree. Confessionalists, however, read it in such a way as to conclude that there are many doctrines that should be so defended (not least among them the resurrection). Not everyone will agree with their reading, but they do have Biblical grounds for it.
    That is all a part of what I am getting at with: “let us honestly disagree.” I can see what you are saying, but I disagree with you. The fact that you have felt strongly enough to write two posts about these issues and fact that I disagreed with you strongly enough to write two responses now is a pretty good indication that we will not come to an agreement. That doesn’t mean that my opposing view cannot be presented in discussion. So absolutely, let us argue with our opponents and not silence them (this is not a Confessional forum, after all). But in Confessional contexts, argument will not extend to allowing the teaching of views that violate the confession. For example, a Covenant theologian may openly discuss his varying view with a dispensationalist. They may attend each other’s churches. But, generally, they will not allow each other to teach in the opposite context.
    Again, I am saying that the primary purpose of creeds and confessions is to protect the church. You have said that ‘such “protection” usually amounts to silencing or ostracizing opponents’. I am saying in response that such protection does not amount to silencing or ostracizing, but may entail the refutation of opponent views and the appearance (and perhaps actuality) of silencing them (depending on what you mean by ‘silencing’ and the specific church taking responsive action). But, again, the primary intent in this was to protect, and perhaps to protect by silencing. I would not want a Unitarian to teach at a Trinitarian seminary, for example, though I would like the Trinitarian seminary to respond to the error of Unitarianism. So perhaps that requires the Trinitarians to silence the Unitarian in a sense. Similarly, Confessionalists would not have a non-confessionalist teach at a Confessional seminary. I am not saying that non-confessionalists are not Christian, but that their views, where they violate the confession, would be seen as error, and dangerous error, in confessional contexts.
    Let me at last apologize if my initial response was unclear, if this one is unclear, and for my repeated use of analogies.

  4. What precisely, Timothy, would these statements of doctrine be protecting a church from?

    Also, and I realize you apologized for your frequent use of analogies, are you saying that conformity to any or many statements of doctrine of a self-identified “type” of church is more important than the composition of actual people in that community? You compared firing a professor to David killing a bear, I noticed. This is a very extreme analogy, equating a human being – a Christian professor, no less, rarely bellicose sorts of individuals – with an attacking bear, and firing with killing. In a way though, firing a professor or excommunicating a congregant is in fact more extreme than killing a bear. For one thing, the bear doesn’t have to live with his loss after his defeat. For another, there’s no shame in slaughtering an attacking bear, nor is there shame in a bear attacking a man: it’s merely the way of things. There is a great deal of shame and damage that can done to the human spirit and a person’s livelihood and emotional well-being through these actions. Are you saying that people who don’t subscribe to their correct doctrine are somehow less than human, fundamentally different from those that do, and should be treated harshly without consideration for their health? How on earth is that Christian?

    For another, I’m not sure I understand how a statement of doctrine can be worth protecting at the expense of human flourishing if you can somehow conceive of a multiplicity of different doctrines that a group of people could rightfully “protect.” If your belief in a doctrine is so strong that you’d excommunicate your fellow religionist to protect it, then how can you also claim that a different sort of doctrine should merit the same sort of consideration?

    Has your church ever excommunicated someone? Do you know what an excommunication looks like?

  5. I think, perhaps, this discussion is beginning to mistake this journal for a congregation, instead of what is really is: a platform for dialogue. If, hypothetically, this journal were to subscribe to a statement of doctrine, what purpose would it serve? Of course the mission of the journal, to encourage open discussion, is antithetical with a statement of doctrine. But even if it were not, we hardly have any power to excommunicate people; what would we excommunicate them from? We could prevent people’s work from being published in the journal, but the publishers can, and have, already done that (not necessarily for reasons of doctrine or content); the editing process is essential to any type of publication. What if there was disagreement about whether a proposed article conflicted with the statement of doctrine? As the recent Newman UIC membership discussion demonstrates, whether something ‘obeys’ a statement of doctrine is not always easy to decide.

    As writers for the journal and participants in a dialogue whose purpose is to seek Christ, none of us claim to have any authority to teach, as a pastor of a congregation might. Simply talking about our faith does not make us a teacher – otherwise, we must all be teachers, which would contradict James’ admonition that “not many of you should become teachers.” So, none of us (in our capacity as a contributor to TAUG) are subject to James’ warning: “You know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (3:1). And if we are not teachers, how could we be made to subscribe to a statement of doctrine? Excommunicating a non-teacher, i.e. a member of the congregation, is not at all helpful either to the congregation, who then is made to live in fear for simply believing the wrong thing, or to the accused “heretic,” who still remains uncorrected.

    In short, a statement of doctrine does not make sense to apply to an organization such as this journal, both because of its mission, and because of its nature.

    At the same time, however, I don’t wish to completely deny that statements of doctrine have a purpose in other forms of Christian association, and I believe the leaders of a church (which again, this journal is not) do have a responsibility to shield their congregation from what they believe to be false teachings. This does not entail excommunication, though. A non-Christian is welcome to attend a Christian church, but they would not expect to become a pastor of that church unless they became a Christian and professed certain beliefs. Is this silencing? Perhaps. But teaching does come with responsibility, and if one fails to accept that responsibility, one forfeits the opportunity to teach.

    As Timothy Hogue mentioned earlier, the circumstances surrounding the creation of certain creeds does not mean we must continue to subscribe to those circumstances if we subscribe to those creeds. Books like Colossians or 2 John were written in response to specific heresies, but that does not mean they are no longer useful in the present, where we no longer face those particular heresies. In addition, the fact that statements of doctrines have been used to ill-effect in the past does not mean that they must be used so now. The past can guide us, if we choose to let it, but it never dictates what our actions must be.

    Finally, in John’s example concerning the PCA above, I would like to mention that, if “the Westminster Standards have been adopted by the PCA ‘as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice,’” it would be perfectly natural and justifiable for the PCA to critique a theologian’s arguments based on the Westminster Standards, because they have already established, at great length, that the Westminster Standards do expound Scripture correctly. I’m not saying that the PCA and the Westminster Standards are always without fault, just that I do not think the PCA subordinated Scripture to Westminster in this instance.

  6. A slight correction to my comment above: I did not catch the first time Timothy’s statement that he is “not attempting to argue that ‘To An Unknown God’ should have a statement of doctrine.” However, the points that I brought up in through that discussion remain pertinent: that excommunication is not an effective or reasonable way to deal with false teachings (especially excommunicating those who are not teachers), that it is often difficult to even determine if something violates a statement of doctrine, but that statements of doctrine still can have a positive purpose in the church. I do apologize for my haste in reading Timothy’s first post.

  7. Timothy, in that case, it appears that we disagree whether it is good to ostracize and silence people who espouse views that, although they may be entirely consistent with Scripture, appear to conflict with some creeds. You think excommunicating such believers is good for the church; I think it is bad for the Church.

    It matters whether or not the arguments of N.T. Wright, the Federal Vision theologians, etc. are firmly rooted in Scripture. If they are, and if the only grounds the PCA has for attacking those views is their reading of the Westminster Standards, then the actions of that denomination should be questioned. (And, of course, their behavior also contradicts the Westminster Standards — a fact that is not incidental if they are condemning others for contravening those standards.) Ditto for the dismissal of Enns from Westminster.

    Such examples underscore the validity of my argument that the primary usage of such creeds is to silence and ostracize opponents. I still think we agree about the primary usage of creeds. You believe they are used to protect the church, and I believe they are used to silence and ostracize — but we have simply attached different labels to the same actions.

    You write:

    Some churches believe that some of their teachings are dangerous and they act accordingly to protect their flocks from them. They are acting in accordance with what they believe, and I have no issue with that.

    If I understand your argument, you think any church is entitled to excommunicate, i.e., to ostracize and silence, anyone as long as the leaders of that church sincerely believe that such action is necessary to protect the church. So was the Catholic church right to excommunicate Luther? Was it right to kill other “heretics” as long as its leaders sincerely believed that doing so would protect the church? Is it not possible to sincerely believe something that turns out to be wrong?

    It bears re-emphasizing a point that I made in my original article: all of these extra-Scriptural doctrinal claims are tantamount to claims of omniscience. I believe that Scripture teaches us that our knowledge of God will always be imperfect and that a proper Christian epistemology acknowledges that truth and approaches issues of doctrine with commensurate humility. See, e.g., 1 Cor. 13:8-13, Prov. 25:2, Eccl. 8:17.

    When church leaders aspire to omniscience and attempt to ostracize and silence those who disagree with them, I believe it is bad for the Church.

  8. The catholic Church throughout all the world is governed under one Word of God, revealed first in the law of nature, upholding all things, and second in the Incarnation and the holy Scriptures. What the Scripture doesn’t discriminate by commanding or forbidding, either explicitly or by clear warrant in ‘good and necessary consequence’, is the category of adiaphora, ‘things indifferent’. The visible Church, in various places, often practically rules on adiaphora for the sake of order and edification.

    I think we have two problems at hand, both related to intolerance and schism. On the one hand we see perhaps a set of confessional documents that are overly narrow and rigid rather than comprehensive of differences, and on the other hand we see the typical American today unwilling to submit to, and to tolerate, his ecclesiastical rulers’ rulings on adiaphora; the one is too calcified to reëvaluate his interpretation of the authority set above him, the other too individualistic and spoilt to abide by the regulations set by his rulers (yes, to obey his rulers, listen to his elders and heed the canons).

    Aiming to live by the one faith delivered to the apostles, we who follow Christ do naturally oppose innovation, even while welcoming organic growth in holiness, growth out of the old faith that doesn’t create a new Church. The proper goal of creeds and confessions isn’t to spell out all theological propositions exhaustively, but rather to define the catholic faith over and against perversions thereof (such as Arianism, which though able to be read into holy Scripture was not the apostolic teaching); likewise, canons that govern behaviour are human laws that serve not to spell out what to do in every situation but to set parameters on life. There’s a reason no one uses John Calvin’s Institutes as a confession of faith, nor Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory as a codex of human laws.

    God alone judges the spirit inside each man; we can judge nothing but the outside and punish nothing but the outside. Holy Scripture, as the Holy Ghost’s unerring record of God’s special revelation, can no more be changed than God’s holy being and holy judgements can be changed; the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon, as œcumenical documents in which the fathers set forth the essence of orthodoxy, are subject to little revision if any; but such confessional standards as the Book of Concord, the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards, ecclesiastical laws on earth, can be revised and indeed have been revised within the past 300 years. Though disagreeing with the human statutes, we should live under them, knowing they can strike no absolute knell of ‘thus saith the Lord’ to send souls to heaven or to hell.

    Revision, of course, must proceed lawfully, and lawfully must we live and seek to change what we have. But if authority do overstep itself and pretend to the power of God, let the fools submit to usurpation, and let the wise and free obey God rather than men.

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