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Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 180–186 

Confession as Cry of Acknowledgment

Paul Doerksen

Current discourse of our shared Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith tends to focus primarily on function, a focus carried forward by the research project which has generated this current issue of Direction. When we use the term Confession, we most often assume that this refers to the document containing eighteen articles, which collectively function in various ways, summarized by Rich Janzen and Brad Sumner’s study report as falling into three categories, namely, “(1) identity (how does the Confession of Faith reflect and shape shared convictions?); (2) biblical interpretation (how does the Confession of Faith guide the understanding and discernment of Scripture?); and (3) living out our faith (how does the Confession of Faith guide discipleship practices?).” 1

However, it is not just this focused research project (which deliberately, and legitimately, sets out to investigate the use of the Confession) that focuses on function. The very helpful introduction that serves to frame the Confession, titled “The Nature and Function of the Confession,” 2 emphasizes the function far more than the nature of our Confession. As early as the second paragraph of this publication of the Confession of Faith Task Force, the Confession is described in functional terms as doing the work of defining who we are. The question, “How does the MB Confession of Faith function within the life of the church?” follows immediately; much of the material that appears as answers to “Frequently Asked Questions” also emphasizes function. “How does the {181} Confession work?” seems to me to be the central concern animating not only the community-based research project under consideration, but also the preamble that frames the Confession, and therefore much of our discourse.

CONFESSION AS ACT AND EVENT

Grappling with the function of the Confession is unavoidable and potentially edifying. However, caution here is in order. We face an attendant danger if focus on function results in reduction of the Confession to that of an instrument to be deployed for any number of uses, depending on who is wielding that instrument. Much care needs to be taken at this very point, since it is undeniably true that the Confession is “useful.” However, to see it only as useful truncates our understanding and raises some important concerns. For example, my colleague Harry Huebner, in a perceptive discussion of such matters, observes that all too often we needlessly distort our understandings of confessions when we see them as the disembodied essence which merely stands in need of vernacular expression from time to time as surrounding cultures go through shifts. Huebner’s point is that if we see confessions as distillations of essentials, then we are in danger of having our faith statements sound “more like language about God rather than an invitation to the incarnate Engager of life itself.” 3 It is the notion of engagement with God that is easily pushed into the background of our discourse, a warning raised by Karl Koop, who argues that modern attitudes to confessions which either ignore doctrine altogether or place it “front and center as a kind of autonomous foundation for what counts as authentically Christian” are problematic precisely because they “signal a departure from the longer Christian tradition that has taken doctrine seriously yet always linked it to participation in the divine life”; the latter practice “also assumes a Christian imagination shaped by an encounter with a living God.” 4

Put another way, focusing our discourse on the Confession in primarily functional terms presents a danger of proceeding in the “wrong register,” of falling “victim to the shrill juridical and factional hostilities which so often afflict calls for renewed confessionalism.” 5 What can be done to move away from this obsession with function that is evident among us? Drawing on the work of the late John Webster, I want to argue that it is crucial to “highlight how confession is act or event before it is document.” 6 In his essay titled “Confessions and Confession,” Webster puts forward a positive claim that is worth quoting at some length.

Creeds and confessional formulae properly emerge out of one of the primary and defining activities of the church, the act of confession. In that act, which is to characterize the life of the church, the church {182} binds itself to the gospel. Confession is the act of astonished, fearful and grateful acknowledgement that the gospel is the one word by which to live and die; in making its confession, the church lifts up its voice to do what it must do—speak with amazement of the goodness and truth of the gospel and the gospel’s God. Creeds and confessional formulae exist to promote that act of confession: to goad the church towards it, to shape it, to tie it to the truth, and so to perpetuate the confessional life and activity of the Christian community. In this way, creeds and confessional formulae are the servants of the gospel in the church. 7

Webster’s expansion of his positive claim regarding confessional formulae proclaims the importance of confessions as document, an importance which ought not to result in leaving behind the act of confession; after all, he insists, a confession makes a good servant of the church, but a bad master. 8 Webster’s characterization of confessions may seem as though he understands them as something like supernatural revelation, but this is in fact not the case. He resists reducing confessions to having only an immanent nature but does so without denying the human role in the production of written formulae. The use of confessions “as instruments of community self-description, identity-avowal, social differentiation or formation in virtue” are all legitimate as far as they go, but these functions do not fully circumscribe the reality of church confession, which is more adequately described as “that sphere of human life invaded and annexed by God, and characterized by astonished and chastened hearing of the Word, and by grateful and afflicted witness.” 9 Drawing on 2 Corinthians 9:13-15, Webster argues that confession is primarily “a celebration of God’s overwhelming generosity . . . before it is a proposition or oath of allegiance, the confession of the church is a cry of acknowledgement of the unstoppable miracle of God’s mercy . . . that event in which the speech of the church is arrested, grasped and transfigured by the self-giving presence of God.” Webster returns to the notion of the cry of acknowledgment, insisting that “to confess is to cry in acknowledgement of the sheer gratuity of what the gospel declares.” 10 Confession, then, is an act or event in which the church acknowledges the work of God together; it is an act of worship, not an act of self-determination. 11

FROM ACT TO DOCUMENT

Focusing primarily on confession as act or event reminds us that we should not treat written confessional documents as merely immanent, as only ‘natural,’ or as fully understandable on human terms, with the attendant focus on function. However, the importance of written {183} confessions should not be ignored; they have their place in the life of the church, and indeed, many of the functional descriptors of confessions clarify that place. However, it is difficult to make the move from act or event to written formulae, from act to document, without loss. The writing of a confessional statement is not like climbing a ladder and then, having reached some place to stand, kicking it away. Rather, “a confessional formula does not put an end to the act of confession but attempts to ensure its persistence . . . it exposes the church to the need for an unceasing renewal of confession of the gospel, of hearing, obedience and acknowledgement of that which the formula indicates.” 12 That being the case, the writing of a public document, while important for the life of the church, is not meant to be the tool made available for pressure-group dynamics, 13 or to act as the basis for authoritarian measures designed to ensure acquiescence of groups or individuals in a perpetual struggle to keep people in some kind of alignment. The very nature of confessions means that we embrace a measure of provisionality with regard to those confessions, remembering that the primary confession of the church is an act or event which is a cry of acknowledgment of the work of God.

Understood in this way, a written confession does wield some level of authority, but only insofar as it confesses the gospel. That is, to speak of provisionality is not to yield to soft relativism or to express fundamental skepticism; rather, such provisionality reflects the sober reality that sinners cannot fully comprehend God’s revelation. 14 As Karl Koop warns us, a search for propositional and rational statements that are seen as static and fully stable owes more to an embrace of modernity than it does to biblical notions of truth. 15 Koop suggests that there really is no guarantee that the church will get its doctrine right. The theological reasoning of the church can err, and so we should insist that our confessional documents “are always provisional, incomplete, and short of a total perspective, thus requiring an ongoing attitude of repentance.” 16

It is important to reiterate that an emphasis on provisionality is not a cry for relativism or the abandonment of confessions. We cannot “lock down” propositional statements for all time in any document; to think that this has ever been the case is to misunderstand the very faith we seek to express in our formulae. David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, argues that “it should never be forgotten that Christianity entered human history not as a new creed or sapiential path or system of religious observances, but as apocalypse: the sudden unveiling of a mystery hidden in God before the foundation of the world in a historical event without any possible precedent or any conceivable sequel.” 17 Hart continues by noting that for the church to remain entirely in an apocalyptic consciousness is pretty much impossible, and thus practices {184} such as writing confessions and creeds become part of the church’s life too. But “the alloy of apocalyptic longing and historical continuity was never entirely stable.” 18 Therefore, says Hart, “anyone who arrogates to himself the power to say with absolute finality what the one true tradition is will invariably prove something of a fool, and usually something of a thug, and on no account should ever be credited or even countenanced. The claim is in itself indubitable evidence of a more or less total ignorance of the tradition, either as a historical phenomenon or as a dogmatic deposit.” Hart concludes that “what makes the tradition live is that holy thing within that can be neither seen nor touched, which dwells within a sanctuary into which the faithful cannot peer, but which demands their devotion nevertheless.” 19

CONCLUSION

The burden of this essay thus far has been to bring to the fore the act and event of confession as a cry of acknowledgment of God’s work in history, in the world, in the church, and in our lives, hoping thereby to put into proper perspective the function of the MB Confession. If we pursue a renewed embrace of confession as act and event, along with a refusal to allow our written formulae to hinder confession, can we work with our Confession in ways that remain consistently edifying, that serve the church without acting as master, that encourage us to persist in our obedience to God, and to embrace the truth of the gospel, and all this without freezing all or part of the Confession into some timeless, inert set of propositions? How can the Confession live as part of the uneasy alloy of apocalypse and tradition? Can the Confession serve our formation as the church in an ongoing way, without yielding to the temptations of instrumentalization or even weaponization? These are important questions for us to consider as churches and as a conference that includes churches in formal relationship to one another. Our ongoing discourse around the Confession must be just that—ongoing—given the very nature of confessions, which are first act and event, and therefore, when reduced to writing, serve as expressions of theologically-generated provisionality through which we are nevertheless shaped and guided in our lives of discipleship. Following Harry Huebner, I suggest that “our task is to develop structures of patience that invite us to actively open ourselves to one another and to God.” 20 Huebner leaves the cryptic phrase “structures of patience” undeveloped, but I suggest that such structures should have built-in room for inquiry, investigation, reconsideration, and the like, and that participation in those kinds of initiatives should take place as part of our ongoing common participation in worship together, in keeping confession as act and event foremost in {185} our discourse around the Confession in its document form. The desire for patience I am trying to articulate here is expressed by some of the respondents in the Janzen and Sumner study, seen in the “calling for a deeper denominational conversation that includes a diversity of perspectives or that at least openly acknowledges and normalizes that some (perhaps many) MB churches are wrestling with these issues.” 21 The role of faithful openness here is ignored at our spiritual peril; when our shared Confession is used as a tool of containment, of suppression of sincere inquiry, even—God forbid—of blatant oppression, then we know that we no longer are practicing the act and event of confession as a shared cry of acknowledgment. Confession understood and practiced as engagement with God can help us resist the temptation to lock down our Confession to introduce (false) stability and forestall perceived crises.

NOTES

  1. Rich Janzen, Brad Sumner, “How Do Canadian Mennonite Brethren Congregations Use the Confession of Faith? Findings from a Community-Based Research Study,” Direction 51 (Fall 2022): 145. Janzen and Sumner use “document” to describe the Confession. To be clear, my observation that this research study focuses on function is not to be construed as a criticism, since the stated purpose of the study is legitimately (and explicitly) limited in its scope. That sharp focus is part of what makes this study interesting and helpful.
  2. Confession of Faith Task Force (National Faith and Life Team of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches), “Nature and Function of the Confession,” https://www.mennonitebrethren.ca/nature-and-function-of-the-confession/. (Also available on the Direction website: https://directionjournal.org/48/2/nature-and-function-of-confession.html.—Ed.)
  3. Harry Huebner, “How to Do Things with Confessions,” Direction 27 (Spring 1998): 47.
  4. Karl Koop, “Putting Doctrine in its Place: Confessions of Faith, Modernism, and the Lex Vivendi,” Direction 48 (Fall 2019): 138, 139. Koop draws on the axiom of lex orandi, lex credenda (the law of prayer establishes the law of belief), but changes the phrase to lex orandi, lex vivendi, the latter phrase emphasizing “the life of prayer, worship, and discipleship that takes place in all of Christian experience” (144). It is important to note that this emphasis is present among respondents to the study. For example, one MB pastor says, “One of the things I liked about the early creeds is they actually didn’t make the Bible any clearer to read. I think they recognized that the Bible functions the way it does for us through the work of the Holy Spirit, because of its ambiguity on things. Early creeds bent over backwards to try to create safeguards that respected the complexity of Scripture and forced you to engage with it as mystery and be humble in front of it instead of going, ah, we’ve got {186} this sucker locked. And I feel like our Confession, which is functioning more like a statement actually, reduces Scripture instead of respecting the depth and the wonder and the mystery of it.” Janzen and Sumner, “How Do Canadian Mennonite Brethren Congregations Use the Confession of Faith,” 151.
  5. John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 71.
  6. Webster, 73. Emphasis in original.
  7. Webster, 63. Emphasis in original.
  8. Webster, 69.
  9. Webster, 70.
  10. Webster, 71.
  11. Webster, 77.
  12. Webster, 73.
  13. Webster, 74.
  14. Webster, 81.
  15. Koop, “Putting Doctrine in its Place,” 142.
  16. Koop, 146. Lack of space prevents me from discussing the importance of repentance for the task of doing theology. See my essay “Restlessness as Theological Method,” in Paul Martens and Laura Schmidt Roberts, eds., Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision: New Essays in Anabaptist Identity and Theological Method (London; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2020), 151–68.
  17. David Bentley Hart, “Tradition and Disruption,” Plough 32 (Summer 2022): 70, https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/early-christians/tradition-and-disruption. This article is adapted from Hart’s recent book, Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022).
  18. Hart, 72, 73.
  19. Hart, 75.
  20. Huebner, “How to Do Things with Confessions,” 51.
  21. Janzen and Sumner, “How Do Canadian Mennonite Brethren Congregations Use the Confession of Faith,” 154. I am not making a pitch for a specific kind of organizational structure here, which in any case is beyond my competence. Instead, I’m trying to press for an ongoing posture with which we together engage the challenge and blessing of faithful living as we engage “diversity with intentionality and creativity.” I am drawing here on Rich Janzen, “Pathways to Engaging Cultural Diversity by Canadian Mennonite Congregations,” The Conrad Grebel Review 37 (Fall 2019): 247–66, quote at 266. Janzen’s sources include G. V. Nelson, Borderland Churches: A Congregation’s Introduction to Missional Living (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008). Nelson’s notion of “borderlands” refers to “places where Christian faith, other faiths, and unfaith interact.” Nelson does not offer any kind of “magic key” or model to the church living in the borderlands; he is concerned that the church cultivate “humble sensibility to deepen our engagement with others.” If such a posture is embraced, then it is conceivable that many kinds of structures could serve the church well, provided they are held loosely. Nelson, Borderland Churches, 5, 7, 11.
Paul Doerksen is Associate Professor of Theology and Anabaptist Studies at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is a member of River East Church in Winnipeg, where his wife Julie serves on the pastoral team.

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