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Don't fence me in

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  • Don't fence me in

    by Mike Horton

    Almost twenty years ago I appeared in our school production of Calamity Jane. One of the songs from that musical serves as an anthem for those who have an aversion, almost an allergic reaction, to confessional statements. That aversion is to regard confessional statements as inherently restrictive. As the song goes "Let me ride in the wide open country that I love/Don't fence me in."

    Of course it shouldn't escape our notice that the rejection of confessionalism (or a particular confession) involves us making a confessional statement of a different kind. It is simply the exchanging of one kind of confession for another. To decry statements of faith as restrictive is at the same time to advance another statement of faith (complete with a theology and an epistemology).

    To recognize, value, and insist on confessional statements should not be viewed as treating them as necessarily exhaustive. It does, however, imply that certain truths can be articulated, described, agreed upon, distinguished from other theological ideas, defended, and communicated in an intelligible form.

    It is a great shame to hear even well respected church leaders shying away from statements of faith in their church network out of a desire not to "put people into a kind of prison." That comment, in context, was not a flat out denial of the value of creeds and confessions. It is however a curiously chosen and deeply inappropriate metaphor to describe confessionalism.

    Imagine a childrens' playground next to a minefield. Would you want a strong, tall fence, with no gaps in it, separating the two? Would you feel bad if your children complained that the park was a prison because of that big fence? Even though I can't imagine anyone being dumb enough to put a playground next to a minefield, you would not want for one second to tear down that fence and let the children explore the neighbouring wide open spaces unrestricted.

    That of course is only to think of creeds and confessional statements in their function as boundaries to protect the Church from theological dangers, it doesn't begin to get at the way that confessions promote the truth of biblical teaching for the health, blessing, building up and comfort of the Church and the glorifying of the Triune God of grace.

    Mike Horton, as he so often does, provides some helpful comments on anti-confessionalism:

    Ever since the beginning of the last century, the democratizing influence has bred suspicion and outright hostility toward creeds, confessions and catechisms. "Don't Fence Me In" is the egalitarian spirit of Romantic individualism that so characterizes our age and our churches.

    Occasionally I will hear the objection to creeds, confessions, and catechisms with the assertion "I just go directly to the Bible." The assumption here is that those who drafted these documents that have stood the test of time did not go directly to the Bible.

    But our forbears did go directly to the Bible when they drafted their confessions of faith and catechisms. In fact, the Puritans carefully included texts for every statement in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The minute one begins to explain what the Bible is saying in a particular place, he or she is doing precisely what these gifted pastors and teachers did: interpreting the Word of God. The only difference is that our own interpretations are limited by our own time, place, and circumstances, whereas these long-standing interpretations make available to us today the wisdom of centuries of biblical interpretation.
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