"If you had one shot . . ." OR: Polemics about Confessions...
If you’re a Protestant Christian, imagine that someone you don't know asks you to explain in one sentence (no run-ons!) why your church doesn’t pray to Mary or the saints. How would you respond? As you think it over, let’s think about the historical, theological, and present-day significance of what just happened, and what an opportunity you've been given.
This person has invited you to engage in polemics, the advancing of biblical doctrine against unbiblical distortions of it. And although you’d be doing it here informally, the effort to persuade someone of our Lord's teaching is always a serious undertaking. In our radically post-Christian culture, and amidst so many revelations of abuse in the church, it’s also an extremely sensitive one. Today, the way eternal truth is presented is especially consequential, and we in Reformed circles need to be especially careful.
There can be a tendency among confessional, Reformed, orthodox Protestants to be attracted to the spirited, occasionally aggressive, sometimes personally insulting words the original Reformers launched against their Roman Catholic counterparts. But when we view the Reformers' explosive rhetoric as justification for us to “go and do likewise” in our teaching, preaching, and online posting – whatever the topic and whomever the target – we tend to ignore the crucial differences between their circumstances and ours. Theirs was a literally life and death struggle to proclaim the gospel; those whom they opposed in writing represented an organization that condemned them to hell in official church declarations and commissioned the torture and assassination of their ministers. We should blush at imitating the Reformers’ heated polemics if we haven’t passed through such flames ourselves. And it’s not just the temperature of their historically conditioned language that should give us pause.
In our present-day efforts at theological persuasion, we should hesitate to use antiquated language and technical terminology that does not translate to our times. However much we rightly admire the linguistic styles and structures of Reformed writings from centuries past, the effort to rhetorically recreate conditions long gone actually runs afoul of the principles and practice of Reformed confessionalism. Repristination is not Reformed.
The Reformed confessions were written to carry old truth into contemporary times. They spoke with relatable language to situations the church was presently enduring. By design and in effect, they answered the question of what it meant to be Reformed in “such a time as this.” This is partly why there were so many of them and why they often bore the name of the cities and provinces in which they were composed. Though localized in form, the theological consistency and continuity of their content was remarkable. Reformed dogmatician Herman Bavinck hailed the great number and variety of the Calvinistic confessions while commenting that in their doctrine, they were "all but copies of one another.” The Reformed Confessions' firmness of content and commitment to flexibility of expression testified that biblical truth is for all people in every era.
This dual characteristic of the historic Reformed confessions provides a powerfully "on time" blessing in our contemporary context. Without trying to recreate the conditions behind their composition, we can still find within these confessions language that carries over wonderfully, rhetoric that persuades warmly. Such presentations are so especially crucial in our pain-stricken, post-Christian culture, populated as it is by people who have no idea about the church battles of the past, but who are very sensitive to the unbiblical burn of repristinated fire.
These souls sense and stay far away from anachronistic harshness masquerading as contemporary holiness, from the proclamation of the culturally arbitrary as biblically absolute. Among the Reformed confessions, however, particularly within what have been called “The Three Forms of Unity,” (The Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort), we can find carefully reasoned articulations of biblical truth pastorally aimed at the heart in ways that still speak to the masses. And that brings us back to the invitation we thought about at the beginning.
Keenly aware that the way you answer might determine whether a full conversation follows, how would you, in one sentence, seek to persuade someone away from the practice of appealing to Mary and the saints as intercessors?
Here’s a suggestion, coming from article 26 of the Belgic Confession. “For neither in heaven nor among the creatures on earth is there anyone who loves us more than Jesus Christ does.”
Isn’t that biblical? Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that therefore a wonderful place to begin such conversations in such times as ours?
Bavinck cites this statement (and the sentences just prior) in his Reformed Ethics to conclude a section on prayer. He introduces the citation by noting how very beautifully the confession speaks in this section. In doing so, the master Reformed theologian reminds us that the persuasive power of doctrinal truth is vitally connected to the manner of its presentation, to its effect on the heart. Here is where we should take careful note of our Confession, and find ample warrant to "go and do likewise" in our conversations.
Granted, we need to get beyond one-sentence summaries. We need to provide details and definitions, to expound Christ's ultimate, inimitable merit and power as High Priest per our confession and Scripture itself. But that’s the point. Beginning here, with the beautiful biblical truth which drives this confessional statement and defines any unfamiliar terms surrounding it, there might actually be a conversation to follow. And even if further dialogue is refused, what a polemical statement to have left with the questioner! What a blessing, for you and the one who heard you, to have confessed the love and glory belonging to Jesus Christ alone.
For material cited in this article, see Herman Bavinck, “The Future of Calvinism,” Geerhardus Vos, trans. The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 17 (January, 1894), p.13, and the Belgic Confession as cited in Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, Volume 1: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), p. 476.