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Spring 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 1 · pp. 41–52 

How to Do Things with Confessions

Harry Huebner

The impact of North American religion and culture upon the North American Mennonite understanding of faith is significant. It is not difficult to observe modernity’s ambivalence in our own formulations and practices of faith. On the one hand, we speak the language of absolute and dogmatic truth; on the other, we individualize, compromise, contextualize, and relativize.

We need to take care that we do not embed in the very language and style of writing our faith statements a word/deed dichotomy that is foreign to what we want to confess.


An example of the former is that we have come to believe that the truest form of expressing ourselves as Christians is through dogmatic assertions not subject to the contingencies of human existence. Trouble is, Christianity did not arise from the thought experiment of an enlightened mystic, but rather from a wandering Palestinian steeped in Jewish memory making practical sense of the Jewish faith for individuals caught in specific, not general, oppression. Hence sabbath, marriage, and vengeance practices got challenged, not by denying the Jewish law but by seeking faithful expressions of them in first-century Palestine (Matt. 5).

An example of the latter influence comes from particularist motifs in our faith. First and foremost is our love for the language of individual salvation. Fact is, matters of salvation get spoken of primarily in the individual/personal idiom. The very notion of the salvation/redemption of a social entity—a school, a business, a community—is off-the-map {42} language. We have learned much from Luther’s notion of the transformability of the individual contra the nontransformability, that is, the created givenness, of the social or the “natural.” So we have come to accept the accompanying categories of piety, namely inner piety, or spirituality. This language makes statable, and hence believable, the notion that inwardly we can be saved but outwardly we remain sinful.

Trouble is, the Jewish tradition and the wandering Jew disallow this bifurcation. Jesus’ self-ascribed Isaiah-formulated mission in Luke 4—preoccupied as it is with the poor, the blind, the imprisoned, and the oppressed—rules out of order any radical choice between inner and outer salvation. Likewise the Gospel accounts of his many healings. Even Paul, oft seen as the great spiritualizer, belies this reputation by explaining to the Ephesians that the hostility brought to an end in Christ was not that between a righteous God and sinful human beings, but rather the hostility between the Jews and the Greeks (Eph. 2:11-17). This is the language of social salvation, the creation of a transformed social reality.


There is little that is more seductive and potentially distortional than the alluring traps of a language incapable of housing the biblical story. And this is why we need written confessions—to help us get the story right in a time when it is in danger of becoming unbelievable. This is true not because we are living it in twentieth-century North America, but because the “it” wants to become an idea or set of ideas being thought instead of practiced.

The relationship between the story and our doctrine is not an easy one to get right. Our doctrine, although it is important, is so not because that is what the story is about; rather it is just the reverse. Our statements of faith are meaningless without the story; they are meaningful only in that they help us, in a kind of shorthand version, to recall the story. The story, as bearer of life, is also the bearer of the truth of our faith. Faith statements only point to the truth. This is often forgotten in a culture that venerates propositional truth. And yet, if we are to believe the Deuteronomist, our children will understand our doctrine once they know the stories that we embrace as ours (Deut. 6:20-25).

Putting the matter this way speaks to why confessions should be written. The imagination that sometimes guides the rationale for confession-writing, however, assumes that faith is a disembodied essence in need of vernacular expression from time to time as cultures go through important shifts. It is important, so the logic continues, to cultivate this exercise for every generation precisely because the ordinary language of {43} the generations changes. So we need new and familiar language to say old and timeless things.

Yet nothing could be more dangerous. For when language changes, a lot changes with it. The apostolic suspicion of language as a power that can lead us astray is well heeded (James and 2 Tim.). And so is their suggested defense, namely, that the language of faith be tested by the practice of faith (2 Tim. 2:14-26).

So how then ought we to write our confessions of faith? Or should we? Perhaps we should live in radical openness to God’s call, unencumbered with doctrine, as Kierkegaard and other Christian existentialists have suggested. Yet I think not, even though I believe that faith statements cannot simply be the last word over against God’s radically new inbreaking revelation. Certainly we do need to ponder how the church understands its activity when, as seems fashionable in our time, it writes confessions of faith.

An interesting book which can serve as a guide in this matter is entitled The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation, edited by Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm. This book is published by an Evangelical press, InterVarsity, and its essays are a valuable resource for analyzing how confessions function in the life of the church.


Mennonites have an ambivalent relationship to Evangelicalism. On the one hand, we have Menno’s “true evangelical faith” credo cementing word and deed into inseparable union. On the other hand, North American Evangelicalism finds it impossible to embrace Mennonite convictions on pacifism. Needless to say, the latter is not entirely unrelated to why many Mennonites have found such convictions dispensable. Nevertheless, while generally speaking we share an emphasis on biblical fidelity and on Christology—although even here our emphases are often different—our convictions on the embodiment of the faith are quite different.

In November 1985 an interesting event took place at Yale University. Carl F. H. Henry, a prominent North American evangelical, presented a series of lectures assessing what he called “narrative theology.” Yale was at the time the home of prominent narrative theologians—also sometimes called “Postliberals”—like Hans Frei and George Lindbeck. The event itself has received considerable press because it raises important issues about how to understand Evangelicalism and how it relates to Liberalism and Postliberalism. {44}

Postliberals tend to accuse Evangelicals of being overly enchanted with general philosophical and scientific assumptions and thereby too reliant on forms of rationality characteristic of Enlightenment Liberalism. Evangelicals, on the other hand, are concerned that narrative theologians are too preoccupied with story and not enough with historical fact and propositional truth. And this, they say, commits them to a metaphysical antirealism which is unable to say anything about a reality behind the story.

I believe that this is an important debate for Mennonites at our current juncture. Like other Evangelicals, we like to emphasize the Bible, Jesus, personal salvation, and sound doctrine. Yet our traditional Anabaptist impulses push us in an additional direction, one where some Evangelicals do not wish to go. Our convictions about the training necessary for discipleship, and about faithful Christian existence requiring a faithful community, make it impossible for us to reject some basic Catholic teachings about the church.


George Hunsinger provides us with a helpful summary of the Henry/Frei debate (Hunsinger 1996). Generally speaking, Frei argues that Henry sees Christian doctrine in ways that are “overly determined by general philosophical considerations” (135). And hence, Henry is enslaved to the method of the liberals. And for Frei, Liberalism and not Evangelicalism is the real enemy.

Henry accuses Frei of not being logically rigorous enough in his theological method. For example, Henry identifies Frei’s disinterest in the inerrancy discussion as proof that his notions of the inspiration, unity, and authority of Scripture lack proper grounding. In other words, without the inerrancy doctrine, you cannot be sure about the truth of the Scriptures. Without inerrancy the Scriptures lack epistemological warrant. But this kind of logic about why we know what we know to be biblically sound leads Frei to suggest ever more emphatically that Evangelicals like Henry are in fact “siblings under the skin” (136) with liberals.

But Henry is undeterred. He believes that Frei has no way of dealing with revelation. In fact, revelation as Henry would want it simply does not function for Frei. And Henry believes that this has intolerable consequences, namely, that Frei, to put it baldly, has no way of distinguishing fact from fiction. Henry believes that narrative theology has no basis for saying anything more than that the Bible is an interesting story, perhaps even the most interesting ever to be written. But Henry is not interested in “interesting,” he wants truth and factuality. And the truth he is seeking {45} is the truth of correspondence between language and reality—a truth that is publicly verifiable. Unless we can know that the Bible is true in this sense, we have no reason to take it seriously. Henry therefore insists upon the logical priority of the doctrine of inerrancy in order to guarantee biblical truth. That is to say, for Henry doctrine precedes biblical knowledge.

Frei pleads for a different cut of the theological pie altogether:

My own vision for what might be propitious for our day, split as we are, not so much into denominations as into schools of thought, is that we need a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism—a voice like the Christian Century—and an element of Evangelicalism—the voice of Christianity Today (141).

Frei simply refuses to accept the terms of the debate as Henry has formulated it. He rejects both Evangelical and Liberal frameworks (largely because the former depends too much upon the latter) and proposes an alternative way of speaking of the doctrine/gospel tension. His alternative employs the language of narrative. Frei’s narrative analysis begins with the assertion that

the Bible has a very particular story to tell. That does not mean that all of the elements in the Bible are narrative. It only means, as far as I can see, that something like John 1:14—“And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”—is something that we do not understand except as a sequence enacted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Christian tradition by and large took verses like that to be the center of its story (142).


So here then we have the major difference between Henry and Frei: for Henry the propositional truths of the Bible are guaranteed by the doctrine of inerrancy, while for Frei we have only the language of the Bible to go on and its claims only make sense from within the biblical narrative itself. For Frei, we cannot understand doctrine first and then the story, as Henry wants, because it is the story that gives doctrine its warrant. We confess what we confess because we believed the story. In other words, there are no “outside-the-faith-common-sense” arguments that can substantiate the truth of the Bible itself; the arguments are all inside the faith. In summary then, for Frei doctrine is understood through the story, while for Henry the story is understood through the doctrine.

The relationship between doctrine and story is important to get {46} straight as we consider the purpose of confession-writing. But even to speak of this matter in terms of a relationship is already to have misstated it. The doctrine and the story are not independent entities to be brought into relationship with one another. We can never be asked to choose between the Bible and doctrine. Nor should we put it in ways that require us to answer the question of the priority of one over the other. That is precisely to have separated them falsely. For how can children growing up in the church learn to love the Bible unless they are taught that in this book they can see the living words and stories of God. That is, how can they be taught to love the Bible unless they are taught something about it (doctrine)? On the other hand, how can they come to believe the power and importance of these words and stories unless they are able to experience them, through Bible reading and storytelling?

A discipleship church should not succumb to the notion that what confessions are for is giving epistemological warrant for the faith. That is, the question that confessions are an answer to is not, “How can we convince ordinary people in the face of their unbelief?” but rather, “How can we become a people capable of living and speaking the language of Christian discipleship?” That is to say, the Christian faith is not first of all about intellectual assent, conceptual scheme, or worldview; it is about the life of believers who confess that Jesus is Messiah.


Discipleship ecclesiology refuses to divide intellect from practice. It cannot accept that all unbiased people of common sense believe and see the same thing. It confesses that only those who practice Christlikeness truly know Christ. So to reduce faith to a matter of philosophy or epistemology is at best a half-truth. Discipleship faith without the community that practices it (the church) is an oxymoron. Nula salus extra ecclesiam (no salvation outside the church) is a Catholic doctrine Evangelicals ought to find ways of embracing. Why? Because it is what the Bible teaches.

What we can learn from the above debate is that confessions of faith should not only address the word side of the word/deed unity, but also the unity itself. That is, we need help both in knowing what to believe and in knowing how to believe it. What are the practices that will get us to believe that God loves us and that we are forgiven people? What is the church polity that will get us to understand that we live by the grace of God and by nonviolence? The practice of faith does not happen on its own. When the church engages in this larger task it will come to see confession-writing as a process of developing rules which govern the language, practice, and polity of the church. {47}


Distinctive Terms

Written confessions of faith are important because the church, in order to be itself, must have a distinct language. We use words like “God,” “sin,” “Christ,” “Holy Spirit,” “salvation,” “discipleship,” etc. Of course, these terms are also used by the nonchurch public. Nevertheless, only the church can give these terms their proper meanings because it is the linguistic community whose native tongue is Christian. This is analogous to physicists giving a family of scientific terms their meaning even though nonphysicists use them as well. To put the matter this way of course implies that there is no private language and there is no universal language either. Languages come in families or communities that live and breathe and change meanings over time. And that is why we cannot have a Christian faith without a linguistic community. That is also why written confessions of faith are so important as guides for the church to get the story right.

It is interesting that the practice of confession-writing in the Mennonite church seems to have taken on a genre of its own. It is as though when one church group writes a confession, it consults to see what other church groups have already written, alters it a bit, and calls it its own. On the one hand this is as it should be—we are all Christians—but on the other, this is rather peculiar. It results in similar nuanced ways of speaking and similar emphases and lack thereof.

Talking about God

For example, confessions usually say that God is loving, powerful, holy, just, merciful, faithful, redeemer, judge, etc. There is of course nothing wrong with this list, but it seems odd that confessions would neglect to speak of the divine passion of a zealous lover of the world, which seems like such a thoroughly biblical view of God. What gets said in our faith statements sounds more like language about God rather than an invitation to the incarnate Engager of life itself. And the former language makes it easy to acquiesce to a view of faith as intellectual piety rather than as an invitation to life’s struggle as exemplified in the tradition of Israel and the life of Jesus the Christ.

Let me try a more subtle example. Both the recent Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (MC/GC) and the Mennonite Brethren draft of a new Confession begin with God, and then move to Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, salvation of the individual, and then the Church. I do not want to make an issue out of where to begin (to do so would be to deny the very point about methodology I want to make). Nevertheless this approach communicates something about how we understand the {48} task of confession-writing and perhaps even the act of confessing itself. It reinforces the notion that once we get our ideas about God straight, then we have the foundation in place from which to say the rest.

I have become less and less convinced that this is the best way to approach the task of teaching and learning the faith—especially for discipleship Christians. I have learned this reticence from a person like James McClendon who argues that discipleship Christians do theology best the other way around (McClendon 1986). He suggests that we begin with ethics, discipleship, and church polity, and then move to God. After all, how can we come to know God if we do not participate in that linguistic/narrative community which teaches us who God is through storytelling, preaching, forgiving, loving, etc.


The Role of the Church

We need to take care that we do not embed in the very language and style of writing our faith statements a word/deed dichotomy that is foreign to what we want to confess. I believe that we protect ourselves from this by showing even more clearly than our statements already do, how words like “God,” “sin,” “salvation,” and “grace” function to shape the practices of the church.

What we are able to say about the practices of the church is governed by what we say about the role of church in our understanding of redemption. Is the church merely the gathering place for the saved, or is the church itself a “transformed” institution? The significance of speaking of the church in the latter way is to emphasize that in Christ both people as well as the structures of Christian habitation are made new (2 Cor. 5:17).

Luther spoke of the nature of church and world in ways both similar to and different from the Anabaptists. Both believed that the two realms were under God’s reign, and that God worked through both. Yet for Luther both were also legitimate realms in which Christians might participate. For the Anabaptists, on the other hand, this was not the case because Christian disciples were redeemed people. They were signs of the new creation in whatever they did. And collectively as a church body they needed to develop practices and structures of redemption. In this way the church itself was a sign of the redeemed community.

Discipleship Christians need to be much more explicit about the implications of this kind of ecclesiology. If we are not, the impact may well be that the church will be seen as merely a spiritual community where Christians worship, pray, and read the Bible. With such a view, matters of business, personal relationships, how we settle disputes {49} and how we make decisions are all on a different (physical or social) plane.

In light of our ecclesiology, we need to develop alternative structures for such matters as how Christians do business, how we make decisions, how we relate to the sick and elderly, how we have sex, how we deal with people who have wronged us or others, how we use power, how we make and spend our money. And these issues concern not only our dealings with fellow church members but also the way we live our lives in the world.

Discipleship Christians cannot make the spirit/body distinction in ways that let us off the physical/social hook. Physical and social matters are as much a part of the gospel story as are other matters. Christians who confess God on Sunday mornings but who act like the world on Mondays kill the power of the story. And confessions ought to help us learn the practices that will prevent such inconsistencies.

Embodying the Gospel

When we confess our redemption through Jesus Christ we commit ourselves to a concrete social embodiment of the gospel. Nonconformity is therefore the hallmark of the Christian faith; nonconformity, however, must be carefully distinguished from nonparticipation. Nonconformity implies difference but not distance; exclusion yet embrace (Volf 1996). I emphasize this matter because I see such a discrepancy between what we Mennonites confess and how we live.

The Mennonite Brethren Confession professes belief in nonresistance—although I think “peacemaking” would be a better word in the title of Article 13. Yet a growing number of Mennonites do not believe in peacemaking in any way that is different from other contemporary enlightened North Americans, who manage to make this conviction consistent with going to war when their nation calls them to do so.

Unless our statement of faith helps us with what it means practically to be peacemakers as Jesus’ disciples, this cannot be a credible confession. We confess that our allegiance is to Christ’s kingdom and not to the state (Article 12), but it is primarily our state and not the church that is taking care of our medical needs, our old age needs, our education needs, and our security needs. Again, unless we can answer concretely what we mean when we say our security is not with the state when in fact it is, we are not confessing properly.

We confess that churches are accountable to each other and to the larger church (Article 6), but I suspect that we seldom seek or give counsel in this manner, partly because there are few structures that make this possible. When we speak of discipleship (Article 10), we list what disciples do and do not do as if, once we know these things, we will be able to do or not do them. Yet our moral failures are less rooted in a failure of {50} knowledge than in a failure of habituating proper behavior. We need to be initiated into habit-forming behavior so that we can learn to live spirit-filled lives.

The point here is not that we are just bad people and do not have the power of our own convictions; the point is rather that we do not know what to do with our confessions because this has not been the focus of attention when we talk about faith. Unless we are able to do what we say we believe, we will not long believe in it. The temptation will be too strong to simply “spiritualize” our faith. Here the church needs to help us.


The church is so much more than an aggregate of baptized Christians. According to 1 Peter we are called to be a “royal priesthood” and a “holy nation” (2:9). That is to say, it is a political body structured to heal, redeem, bless, praise, confront, train, and shape. So it becomes equally important to speak to how a community of this kind structures itself in order to bring about such lofty goals. Space does not permit to address more than three interrelated topics of church polity: leadership, decision-making, and the use of power.


Jesus models a particular kind of leadership. In Jesus we have the embodiment of the Isaiah vision of suffering-servanthood. Here leadership gets transmuted: “the first shall be last.” “Lording over” turns into “serving one another.” The ultimate sign of this transmutation is the death of Messiah on the Cross: the highest becomes the lowest. Yet Jesus was a powerful, dynamic, and effective leader.

In our day these seem like incompatible qualities. It is therefore difficult to imagine how the “body of Christ” leadership mode can come from ordinary models of leadership. The vision of the church that Jesus invites us to has nothing to do with power politics. It has to do with the discernment of the Spirit. This form of leadership does not lord it over subjects; nor does it manipulate. Here strength resides in the power of invitation and the ability to convince through the embodiment of truth, rather than in the power to orchestrate and manipulate outcome.

It is, however, not only leadership style that is at issue here. Questions about leaders themselves need to be addressed, such as, how they are chosen (or unchosen), what powers we give them, and even who gets to lead. It has long been known that written confessions of faith pale in comparison to the power that leaders have in shaping the faith of a congregation. We need to acknowledge that the differences among us are due not to vastly different confessions of faith—these are in fact very {51} similar—but to the fact that we have chosen leaders from different theological perspectives. If, therefore, the objective of a statement of faith is to shape the theology and practice of a people, it neglects addressing these questions at its own peril.


And then there is the matter of how we make decisions. We can enthusiastically confess that the church is led by the Holy Spirit—we all “believe” that. Trouble is, our decision-making polity—usually democratic vote-taking—is not particularly conducive to discerning the voice of the Spirit and can lend itself far too easily to power politics. Unless we develop structures whereby we make decisions inclusively or, if possible, by consensus, we cannot mean what we say when we confess that the Holy Spirit guides our decisions.

Use of Power

Our written confessions normally do not address matters of power usage. And yet how we use power has directly to do with what we believe about the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and God. The gospel goes out of its way to show that Christ calls us to a power of invitation, not manipulation; to a power of signing the truth, not the use of violence. If the cross and resurrection are signs of God’s redemption, then we are called to give up our own attempts to determine outcome by using any means necessary. Then our task is to develop structures of patience that invite us to actively open ourselves to one another and to God. This requires unique church structures regarding which the Confession draft is entirely mute.

If we are who we confess to be—the body of Christ—then our confessions should include matters of church polity. At the least they should address how we practice servant leadership, how we model spirit-filled decision making, and how we can use power redemptively. After all, church polity is but the enshrinement of our collective practices. And these practices are often far more powerful in shaping our lives—and thereby our faith—than the words we confess.


In summary, I first directed attention upon the Evangelical-Postliberal dialogue to remind us of the importance of the priority of the biblical story in the formulation of our faith statements. Second, I suggested that in the structuring of confession, we make sure we use language in such a manner that we do not break apart the fundamental unity of word and deed. Third, I suggested that our confessions place very significant emphasis on expressing the practical import of our affirmations so that we may learn what to do with our confessions. Fourth, I argued that our {52} faith statements need to address the important theological matter of church polity.

I have appreciated the opportunity to participate in this “testing” process. My comments should not be misunderstood: I strongly support the direction of the particular Confession in question. Writing confessions is not easy; knowing what to do with them is even harder. We need to find ever new ways to learn, recite, express, and practice what we believe.

The individualism of our day has made some of us gun-shy about collective confessions of faith. Yet the church needs to speak the truth about its convictions. In addition, cynicism about church dogmatism has made some of us reluctant to believe the church when it states boldly that it “builds up the members of the body” (Article 6). And yet we need to develop ever more convincing ways of doing precisely that. May the Holy Spirit guide us into God’s unifying body.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they are like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing (James 1:22-25 NRSV).


  • The Board of Faith and Life. 1997. The General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches confession of faith (draft revision), presented at Waterloo ’97, 10-13 July.
  • The General Board of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church General Board. 1995. Confession of faith in a Mennonite perspective. Scottdale, PA: Herald.
  • Hunsinger, George. 1996. What can Evangelicals and Postliberals learn from each other? The Carl Henry-Hans Frei exchange reconsidered. In The nature of confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in conversation. Ed. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
  • McClendon, James Wm., Jr. 1986. Systematic theology: Ethics. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
  • Volf, Miroslav. 1996. Exclusion and embrace: A theological exploration of identity, otherness, and reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
Harry Huebner is Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Canadian Mennonite Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a member of the Charleswood Mennonite Church, Winnipeg.

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