Today’s Theme is Breadth

A confession for a specific denomination functions in a very different way from a theologian highly regarded by people in a theological tradition

After hearing from Pastor Sauls on the valuable contributions from those who disagree, we read Mark Jones who has his own objections to the narrow road. Maybe Pastor Sauls qualifies as one of Jones’ Reformed irenics since the former is not beholden to Reformed orthodoxy. But I suspect Sauls would fall short because he doesn’t know enough historical theology. Those who do know the breadth of the Reformed tradition as Jones does are different from and less appealing than the Truly Reformed who read the Reformed confessions in a wooden manner (unlike someone trained in historical theology:

Among this group, I sometimes worry that their zeal for Confessional fidelity – a noble zeal, in and of itself – can sometimes reflect an overly restricted reading of the diversity of the Reformed tradition and our Reformed confessional history. They can read our confessions in a somewhat a-historical manner. Thus they tend to draw the lines of orthodoxy quite narrowly, excluding views from the tradition that have quite a bit of historical precedent. We must admit: our tradition has lots of diversity. Lots. And this diversity is present in the way our Confessions were formed, if one reads them carefully (e.g., the nature of Adam’s reward is ambiguous).

A recognition of diversity leads to an awareness of how narrow our conservative Presbyterian world in North America is:

When we consider the Christian world, and just how broad it is, it doesn’t make much sense for us in the Reformed Confessional tradition to be too narrow. We are, after all, a tiny minority. We should, as far as we are able, and without compromising our confessional heritage, embrace or respect other Christian traditions, viewpoints, and values. It is actually a firm confidence in our Reformed Confessional heritage that allows us to do this.

If I may be allowed a minute at the historical microphone, let me assert that historical theology is not church history. And church history teaches a couple of lessons that Dr. Jones’ historical theology apparently leaves out.

First, a confession is not a work of historical theology. It is a legal standard for a Christian communion. Does it mean that it doesn’t have a history or that context isn’t important for understanding the words and arguments of the Confession? No. But it does mean that a confession for a specific denomination functions in a very different way from a theologian highly regarded by people in a theological tradition. The Confession of Faith is a secondary standard for the PCA and the OPC. John Calvin and John Owen are not such legal standards. And the reason churches have confessions is very different from the aim that animates historical theologians; churches need criteria and consensus for ordination and discipline while historical theologians, like Dr. Jones at least, can marvel at the diversity.

Second, church history also teaches why some Presbyterian communions are narrow. The reason is that some Presbyterian communions became broad — as in Leffert Loetscher’s Broadening Church, the history of the PCUSA. In addition, one of the reasons mainline Presbyterians celebrated breadth owed in part to the discovery of Christians in other parts of the world and a concomitant recognition of how seemingly foreign the West’s creeds and confessions were to non-Westerners.

Dr. Jones may not be celebrating breadth and diversity in the same way, but when he lectures us about history, I wish he would take more history into account.

D.G. Hart is Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and also serves as an elder for a new Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.