Among the world religions, Christianity is set apart by its singular dependence on creeds, confessions and a clear canon of scripture. The idea of using a series of propositions to encapsulate truth goes back to an early church document known as the Didache, which some scholars date to the first century.
This year, Jerry Walls, a professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University, decided the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation would be a good time for a modern-language restatement of the commonly accepted, revealed truths of this faith, one that even Luther himself might accept.
Walls got the creedal ball rolling, but it took a village of theologians to craft and approve the final product which can be viewed online by searching for “Reforming Catholic Confession.”
Walls began our interview by clarifying the framework for creeds and confessions.
“Creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are concise statements of faith that focus on core doctrines that are shared by all Orthodox Christians,” Walls said. “Confessions are more expansive, and include distinctive doctrines and beliefs that are more particular to given theological traditions. So the Westminster Confession, for instance, spells out the distinctive doctrines of the Presbyterian tradition, and the Augsburg Confession does the same for the Lutheran tradition. Our Confession includes both core creedal doctrines as well as distinctive Protestant emphases.”
Such documents are especially important to Protestants who have no central contemporary authority to retain orthodoxy.
The term reformed comes from the Reformation itself, but how can a Protestant constitution of sorts be “catholic?”
“Catholic means universal, or whole, and refers to the universal church, as when the Nicene Creed affirms that ‘we believe one holy, catholic and apostolic church,’” Walls said. “Our confession is a Reforming Catholic Confession because we are heirs of the Protestant Reformation. We are catholic because we affirm the catholic creeds of the early Church, but not Roman Catholic. Roman Catholics who represent an important theological tradition, and are themselves an important part of the church catholic. But the one, holy catholic and apostolic church is a much larger reality than the Church of Rome.”
There are thought to be well over 30,000 Protestant branches today. It’s a variety that perhaps no other faith could create. All of them grew out of this 500-year-old split with Rome which will be commemorated this month. How does Walls hope to find unity in such diversity?
“Critics of Protestantism love to focus on all the divisions and denominations that have formed since the Reformation,” he said. “The fact is, however, that the common ground shared by the large majority of Protestants is far more significant than their differences on relatively minor issues. This is not to suggest those differences are insignificant, but only to say they are quite secondary compared to agreement on central doctrine. Indeed, a substantial unity has emerged “on the ground” among the various Protestant traditions and this has been more apparent in the past several decades. This 500th anniversary of the Reformation was an ideal time to articulate the substantial agreement that unites Protestants.”
The bottom line for Walls is that doctrinal unity can be encouraged even if organizational union may be impossible.
“We hope our confession will advance the cause of Christian unity, not only by articulating the substantial unity the Protestants share, but also by highlighting that creedal core C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” that is common ground of all Christians,” he said.
The reception of the confession by conservative Christians has been favorable as Caleb Lindgren, writing in Christianity Today, notes.
“So far, the confession has garnered more than 250 signatories, with a wide swath of Protestant denominations and traditions represented by initial signatories such as Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore, philosopher William Lane Craig, biblical scholar Tremper Longman III, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference President Samuel Rodriguez and Billy Graham Center for evangelism Director Ed Stetzer.”
Next week in Our Faith: Lutherans on Luther.