Our Logos Mobile Education crew met up with Kevin Vanhoozer near Chicago to discuss a new project he’d been working on: A Reforming Catholic Confession. The 500th year of the Reformation, it turns out, is an appropriate time to pause and examine the Church’s doctrinal identity.
Hear what Dr. Vanhoozer, along with a broad range of collaborating Christian thinkers and leaders, has in mind for this moment in Church history in this video interview from Logos Mobile Education.
What is a confession of faith?
A confession of faith is a very Protestant document. It’s a way of articulating what together we believe. We confess as a body, “These are the truths that guide our lives. These are the truths in which we set our hopes.” And in the Protestant Reformation a number of churches, usually based on their nationality and language, produce their own confessions. So all Lutherans have a common confession, the Augsburg Confession, but in the Reformed tradition confessions varied along what country a person was in and what language they spoke. There’s lots of overlap, but basically it’s a way of a people of God in a local place to set forth who they are and why they’re there as God’s people in a way that they can understand in their own time and … in a way that explains who they are to other people as well. Many of the Protestant confessions had their origins at particular times in particular places, and clearly our confession has been produced because we’re sensitive to the charges that people are making against Protestants. But there’s one big difference: We don’t represent any one particular Protestant denomination, we don’t represent any one particular ethnic group, we don’t even represent any one particular theological tradition, because we’ve got Wesleyans and Calvinists and Pentecostals together. So this is a unique document, in a sense. I can’t think off the top of my head … Well, maybe something like the Lausanne Covenant—more global and more intentional in stating faith about things having to do with world mission and evangelism. I think that’s more along the lines of what we’re trying to do, but we’re trying to do it for the sake of articulating our theology.
Why produce a new confession of faith?
I’m not surprised you want to know why we think we need to produce a new confession of faith. Haven’t Protestants been doing this for years, for centuries? One might say of the making of confessions of faith there is no Protestant end. But this is a little bit different. We’re not trying to replace any one church’s confession of faith. We’re trying to show that Protestants actually can agree about matters of theological substance. So, this isn’t a least-common-denominator statement of faith. We’re trying to make this as robust as possible, but we’re trying to show that the Reformation didn’t give birth to simply a plethora of conflicting opinions. Some people think that the Protestant church is an experiment that has failed dramatically. It split the church. That’s not the way we’re viewing it. We’re trying to show, on the eve of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, that Protestants from different churches, different denominations, different local churches can come together and agree about the substance of the faith—the faith delivered once for all to the saints and recovered, we think, at the Reformation. That’s the main purpose of our confession; it’s not to displace anybody else’s. We’re not starting a new church. We’re simply trying to disprove the prevailing narrative that Protestants can’t state their beliefs together, that the doctrine always divides. We’re trying to show that these doctrines, the essential doctrines, actually unite Protestants.
How did the confession come into being?
So, where did it all begin? It didn’t begin with me—at least not directly. It began when I got an email from Jerry Walls, a philosopher at Houston Baptist University. He had just read my book Biblical Authority after Babel and he was excited about the vision of what I lay out there of mere Protestant Christianity, of a kind of Protestantism not marked by factionalism and disagreement. And he said, “What we really need is to put some flesh on your claims to show that Protestants can agree about matters of substance.” He said we need a mere Protestant Confession of Faith. So that’s how we got going, and then we thought, “Well, we’re just two guys with no institutional backup. What can we do? We need more people on board from different churches”—because he is an Armenian, I am a Calvinist. Jerry actually wrote the book Why I Am Not a Calvinist. So I was pleased that already we were extending the right hand of fellowship across the denominational divide. What we then did was send out emails to what we hoped would become a drafting committee—theologians from Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Baptist churches—and we got eighteen people. Jerry asked me to write a first draft, which I was happy to do, and then we submitted that draft for criticism to the eighteen members of our drafting committee. I received thirty single-spaced pages of comments back, tried to produce a second draft, got another batch of comments back. We did this for a while, and then we had a summit meeting in July of 2017 with the drafting committee and steering committee chairs and agreed on the final version. And then we began asking people to sign on.
What is the result of your combined effort?
So what do we have to show for our labours, this eighteen-strong drafting committee, after working over the summer for weeks and weeks? What we produced was a document with two parts. The first part—the most important and the only one we’re asking people to sign on to—is a twelve-article confession of faith with traditional topics: the nature of God, the nature of Scripture, the sacraments, and so on. That’s roughly twelve paragraphs, as I say; two or three pages. And then after that we have an explanation that says why we’re saying this. It puts our whole project into context—namely, that people think Protestantism is divisive, that it has been bad for the church, and we’re trying to explain why we think Protestants actually are the true heirs of the catholic church and that canonicity (affirming the authority of Scripture) and catholicity (affirming the secondary authority of tradition) belong together. So the second part of our document is longer, but it’s an explanation of how we see tradition and Scripture fitting together, and the offices of the church, and in general explains why we think that the confession is the right thing to say for such a time as this.
What does it mean to be reforming and catholic?
The term “reforming catholic” may prompt some questions: What’s that? What’s a reforming catholic? The first thing we want you to hear is a little of echo or an allusion to “Roman Catholic.” We’re not Roman Catholics, we’re reforming catholics. We want to argue that the Protestant Reformation was all about reforming the Catholic Church, not starting a new one. There is only one church. So we are reforming catholic theologians. We believe the substance of the faith with the church fathers, with the medieval theologians, but we’re not Roman. We think “Roman” limits catholicity, and we actually feel we have a wider and more universal catholicity. “Reforming” signals our intent that our confession of faith is always under the authority of God’s written Word. We are always reforming. In fact, one of the reasons we have so many churches in Protestantism is that we don’t always agree. But together we agree that we should all be listening to what Scripture says, and therefore we should all be listening to one another insofar as we have insights into Scripture. So a reforming catholic church, we’re stating our continuity with the one great tradition, but we’re also stating our allegiance to sola Scriptura. This is one great tradition under the authority of God’s written Word.
Was there an article that was particularly difficult to reach agreement on?
So, were there any problems in the process? Of course! People are involved! People of different churches are involved, and like the Reformers, we found ourselves, five hundred years later, struggling with one of the same issues, an issue that the Reformers never quite managed to get over. And that was the theology of the Lord’s Supper. There was a deep irony, because the Lord’s Supper, also called Communion, is about a place where communion is supposed to happen, and yet it was the place in the Reformation where communion wasn’t happening. There were even anathemas of other positions sometimes on this question. So, we worked very hard and listened carefully, but this was the article that gave us the most problem. To get Baptists and Lutherans and Pentecostals and Presbyterians to agree on what was happening at the Lord’s Supper—it didn’t happen in five minutes. It happened over days and weeks and over much prayer, maybe some people even fasted.
Will this document exclude anyone?
So, do we think the Confession has teeth so that some people might be excluded? Well, yes, unfortunately there are people who don’t affirm the Trinity. But it’s very difficult to be catholic and not be Trinitarian. So I’m afraid that there will be some people who feel that this document leaves something out, but we wrestled over this, and we were convinced that we had to be catholic here too on the doctrine of the Trinity. In other doctrines obviously there are differences of opinion. For example, baptism: is it adult? Can infants be baptized? Here we tried to apply the wisdom of Solomon by not addressing the mode of baptism but rather what we thought baptism was. So, I think it’s going to be largely a positive, inclusive document, but obviously we don’t want false teaching in, and those who can’t affirm catholic orthodoxy won’t be able to sign on.
How do confessions of faith affect Christian living?
Well, we know confessions of faith state the faith. That’s clear. But how do confessions of faith affect Christian living otherwise? I think this is a great question and a very important one. Christians have to do more than pay lip service to the truth. It’s important to be able to formulate the truth intelligently. That’s how we share this truth and speak the truth in love. But in addition to paying lip service to the truth, disciples need to pay life service to the truth. We have to conform to the truth, and theology is in large part not only about stating the truth, but it’s about helping disciples conform to the truth. So doctrine gives practical direction to the disciple.
How does this confession benefit the Protestant church approaching the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation?
Many people, now that we’re approaching the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, are looking back and trying to evaluate it. And many people are saying the Reformation was a mistake, it broke the church, it divided the church, it was a body blow to the Body of Christ. I see things differently. There may have been a blow to the body, but it wasn’t a body blow in the sense that we mean a violent injury; it was a body blow that I think tried to dislodge something stuck in the throat of the church by encouraging proclamation of the gospel. There was a corrective move, but it was for the sake of the church catholic. So, I think this would benefit the Protestant church to remind Protestants they don’t need to swim across the Tiber to Rome to be catholic. Protestantism is a movement—is a catholic movement—and so the Reforming Catholic Confession reminds Protestants we’re already catholic, but we need to remember that and we need to inhabit our catholicity. But we don’t need to go to Rome to be catholic. So, I’m hoping that it would help Protestants understand themselves better, but I’m also hoping that it would be a boon to the witness of the church. Jesus prayed for unity. We haven’t always been unified, but this statement showing that we can agree on matters of theological substance is one step of witness towards the world saying that we can proclaim together our witness to the truth.
Where can people read the confession?
So, if you’d like to know where to read this confession I’d encourage you to go to ReformingCatholicConfession.com, where you’ll find the confession itself, the explanation of why we produced it, what was the occasion. You’ll find translations of the document in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Korean, and you’ll have an opportunity to participate by becoming a signatory. We’re going to have a button you can press that would indicate your affirmation that you too want to support the Reforming Catholic Confession and bear witness to your Protestant theology.
Read the text of A Reforming Catholic Confession at reformingcatholicconfession.com.