As a biblical studies professor at a Reformed, liberal arts college, David Crump has observed the tendency for Reformed folk to allow debates over confessional interpretations to stand in place of a robust engagement with Scripture. Crump’s own denomination requires all church leaders, including college faculty, to sign a pledge called the “Covenant for Officebearers,” a statement demanding that they “promise to be formed and governed,” not by the word of God, but by the confessions – as if only the Bible needed interpretation. The damage done by this transfer of spiritual authority from Holy Scripture to the confessions is illustrated and critiqued. Mr. Crump is Professor of Religion at Calvin College.
Anyone who has spent time hiking under a desert sun undoubtedly has a mirage story to tell. While staring off into the distance, with heat waves rising from blistering sands distorting one’s view of both earth and sky, it is not difficult to imagine a far-off oasis beckoning with an offer of shade trees and cool water, especially if shade and water are what you desperately hope to find.
Mirages are funny that way. Combine the right environment with certain essential desires and a traveler will miraculously see exactly what she hopes for. The parched and dehydrated will have visions of water and shade trees. The lost and forlorn may imagine a distant city complete with lights and bustling crowds. Given the extreme circumstances from which they emerge, such imaginary visions are perfectly understandable. But consider a lost hiker who is not only convinced that the place he saw off in the distance is real, but that he has now arrived at the imagined oasis and is setting up camp beneath the shade trees while planning to go skinny dipping in the nearby pool of deep, blue water.
In this case, the misperceived mirage has become a troubling delusion, perhaps as explicable as any mirage but nowhere near as innocuous. Believing that an illusion is real is one thing, but behaving as if the imaginary were a place of regular habitation is a dangerous indication that someone has been out in the sun too long. Intervention and immediate assistance are needed before the deluded traveler finds himself with a headache and a mouthful of sand after diving in for a swim.
Deserts are not the only places where travelers can be misled by what they see, or by what they want to see. I know this because I commonly observe similar confusion among confessionally Reformed Christians. The seeds of my thoughts about confessional mirages among Reformed folks were planted by a number of seemingly disparate experiences at the denominational college where I teach the New Testament. What began as a scattered series of puzzling observations eventually fit themselves together like the pieces of a disconcerting jigsaw puzzle.
The first observation occurred one afternoon while I was reading an editorial in the campus newspaper. The author was self-confidently discounting the usefulness of Bible study in resolving questions of modern morality, a view I have heard repeated by faculty members and college staff. The argument typically appears as an almost lackadaisical conviction about the hopelessly inscrutable nature of Scripture. Apparently, the long history of biblical interpretation has not been an attempt to deepen or fine-tune the church’s understanding of God’s word but an ungainly process of multiplying contradictory opinions of what the Bible means. How else could one of my denomination’s leading lights, while interviewed for his alma mater’s alumni magazine, cite John Calvin’s 20 volumes of biblical commentary as proof-positive that the Bible is far from clear? In explaining the connection he apparently discovers between commentary and obscurity he asserts, “If everything in the Bible was so clear, he [Calvin] shouldn’t have needed to do that [that is, write so much in explanation].” Leaving aside the obvious question of who has unthinkingly claimed that “everything in the Bible was so clear” (assuming that “so clear” means self-explanatory with no need for study), we are seemingly meant to conclude that biblical exposition, including the attention to pastoral exploration, practical significance, ethical application, and theological relevance which takes up a good deal of Calvin’s commentaries, is all evidence for the basically unclear nature of the Bible.
My problem with this prevailing attitude about the inherent difficulty of Bible-reading is not that I naively believe all of Scripture is uniformly straightforward or easy to understand. I have been reading the Bible much too long to make this rookie’s mistake. But I am consistently struck by both the apparent lack of concern and the flagrant lack of specificity undergirding such claims of scriptural obscurity, claims that are usually made rather casually in an off-the-cuff manner as if it were as obvious as the nose on your face to any thinking person. On a few occasions I have gone so far as to ask my conversation partner for an example of what they were referring to. For instance, what specific passage did they find confusing and why? What competing and/or contradictory interpretations have they discovered? What seem to be the strengths and weaknesses of each? Are they equally plausible? Are the issues at stake major or minor concerns to the Christian faith? Which interpretation appears most likely to be correct given the arguments for and against each of them?
I suspect that you have already guessed where I am headed with this line of questioning. I have yet to receive a thoughtful, informed answer to my queries. I suppose such silence is not too surprising in today’s world, but I continue to be disturbed, first, by the almost total lack of embarrassment over such ignorance (especially among professing Christians who theoretically accept the Bible as “revelatory” in some way) and, second, by the attendant lack of concern over the resoundingly pessimistic view about the clarity of Scripture entailed in this apathy. If God has indeed left us with such an intractably obscure piece of revelation, then it is not really much of a revelation at all. And if that is our situation, then surely the most appropriate response for a spiritually sensitive person must be a deep-seated lament which despairs (or at least frets a bit now and again) over both heaven’s botched attempts at human communication as well as the impossibility of the average person ever finding an assured word from the Lord in Scripture, unless they happen to stumble upon it by accident. But, even then, how would anyone know what they had stumbled across and whether it was correct?
That last question leads me to my second observation, a note concerning what it means for Reformed folk in my sector of Protestantism to define themselves as confessional. As an ordained member of my denomination, I should have put these pieces of the puzzle together long ago, but it was not until I read the report of a denominational study committee that the lights finally went on for me. The committee was assigned the task of rewriting a document known as the “Covenant for Officebearers,” a pledge of sorts that must be signed by all pastors, church elders and college faculty. The Covenant explains the proper role of my denomination’s three governing confessions (the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort); it states that “these confessions… define the way we understand Scripture” and, therefore, all official church leaders and college faculty members must “promise to be formed and governed by them.”
As someone who grew up in a non-confessional church environment, I am familiar with what it means to be “formed and governed” by Scripture. After all, Scripture is the text Christians receive as the authoritative, divinely inspired word of God. Personal transformation occurs as the believer hears and responds to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to us through his revelation. But the brand of confessionalism described in my denomination’s recently revised Covenant document hinges upon a crucial transfer of authority: the work of spiritual, intellectual and behavioral formation is shifted from the inspired text to a collection of humanly conceived theological statements derived from that text. In other words, despite its claim that Scripture is the true authority, the document calls believers to interact with the confessions as if they were a surrogate for Scripture. This move strikes me as exceedingly strange, dangerous and, ultimately, counterproductive for the church. It is akin to the actions of a supposed Egyptologist who never actually reads hieroglyphics but spends inordinate amounts of time studying other scholars’ second-hand reports about hieroglyphics.
As supremely strange as that move may be, however, this transfer of theological and existential authority from Scripture to the confessions does (I think) help to explain the curiously resigned and cavalier attitude I find among confessionally secure people when discussing their own view of Scripture; namely that its meaning is regularly unclear, and any attempt at understanding is hopelessly complicated by competing interpretations. In this situation, why wrestle with the messiness and difficulty of the Bible for yourself when the confessions have already done it for you, complete with all the requisite conclusions to boot? This appears to be one common solution to the apparent problem. After all, since the confessions “define the way we understand Scripture,” as the new Covenant document affirms, it makes perfect sense for Reformed folks to remain satisfied with reading confessional positions back into their Bibles rather than learning to read the Bible in order to discover the textual basis for the confessional statements that supposedly formulate and organize biblical teaching.
Comfortably wrapped in the warm blanket of confessional certainties, the contemporary confessionalist finds it all too easy to slide lazily into the arms of exegetical apathy. Actually, there is little danger of reading anything at all “back into” the Bible because the Bible is seldom studied with much intent. If the confessions tell us authoritatively what to believe about the Scriptures, then in the spirit of spiritual simplicity it is a very short step to abbreviate the process further, right down to the bare-bones minimum: let the confessions alone tell us authoritatively what to believe, period. Why complicate matters by bringing personal Bible study into the mix? There is no need to worry about, much less concern oneself over grappling with, conflicting interpretations, or learning how it is that the Bible actually says what we think it says, when the confessions have already made those difficult judgments for us. So, save yourself the headache; just know the confessions. (Never mind, for the moment, that there are competing interpretations of the confessions just as there are about Scripture.)
Thus the confessions easily become a soothing palliative, a pacifier for anyone content to remain biblically illiterate. And even though the “Covenant for Office-bearers” assures its readers that final authority rests in God’s word alone, it is, we are reminded, the confessions that “direct the way we live in response to the gospel.” I will admit that this is the line that floors me whenever I read it. It is by our obedience to the confessions, not to the Holy Spirit and not to the Scriptures themselves, that our daily response to the gospel is properly channeled!
The whole thing sounds disturbingly reminiscent of the college freshman who never gets around to reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment because he knows that the literature professor only expects students to remember the Cliff Notes version of the story. Human nature being what it is, who could resist taking advantage of such an officially authorized, pre-approved shortcut? Not many. I have never met a student who did not jump at the chance of a shorter class period, despite the fact that they (or their parents) were paying dearly for the privilege of being in class. In similar fashion, I strongly suspect that such short-cut confessionalism surreptitiously encourages the average parishioner to neglect the Scriptures altogether, however unintentional that outcome may be. But there is no way to abbreviate the work of spiritual formation. Growth in discipleship never pours itself out of a box, no matter how Reformed that box may be. Spiritual maturity can only be mixed by hand slowly, one ingredient at a time, text by sacred text, one engagement with Scripture intersecting with the one prior and anticipating the one to follow. There are no short-cuts, not even confessional ones.
The confessional transmogrification from mirage to delusion can be a slow, subtle slide. It results from overtly highlighting the role of the confessions while implicitly diminishing the place of Scripture in the formation of the church. At some point, the former effectively replaces the latter. Hoping at first that adherence to the confessions will somehow foster, perhaps even guarantee, faithfulness to the teaching of God’s word, Reformed confessionalism conjures the mirage of personally attending to the voice of Scripture. But this particular mirage is akin to imagining that I am watching the flitting antics of songbirds in my front yard, such as cardinals and Baltimore orioles, when I am actually scrutinizing their photographs in an illustrated field guide. Knowing what songbirds look like and how to identify them is a far cry from actually watching the feathered beauties with my own two eyes.
Confessional commitment becomes the illusory expression, the mirage, of Christian commitment; on its own it is incapable of distinguishing between phantom devotion and three-dimensional spiritual reality. If a lost sinner is like a lost hiker drudging through a desert wasteland, the confessions are the spiritual equivalent of an empty water bottle compared to the life-refreshing possibilities available in the deep blue, wet and wonderful word of God. Yet, raw confessionalism announces that everything a weary traveler needs for theological and spiritual direction is to be discovered in the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort. True, we are assured that these documents derive their authority from Scripture, but apparently the Christian life is properly directed by giving our attention to the doctrinal derivatives rather than their source. The ecclesiastical tenor of statements like the “Covenant for Officebearers” facilitates a serious delusion: that standing firmly on the confessions locates the confident confessionalist squarely within the welcoming arms of a living Christian faith on intimate terms with the voice of the Holy Spirit. But this is a delusion par excellence. Why broadcast a spiritual siren song beckoning travelers to the shoals of a human document, however good, rather than immediately directing them to the very word of God? It is an outlandish substitution of mirage for reality.
John Calvin’s introduction to the Institutes of the Christian Religion explicitly highlights the symbiotic relationship that ought to exist between confessional formulations and careful, deliberate Bible study. He tells his reader that the primary purpose for this theological treatise was to serve as a primer to accurate biblical interpretation:
It has been my purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling… It will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents… provided he approach Scripture armed with a knowledge of the present work, as a necessary tool.1
While admirable and encouraging in many ways, I must admit that I find Calvin’s doctrinal approach to Scripture to be potentially problematic. Certainly, no one reads the Bible free of any and all presuppositions. But Calvin seems to suggest that theological presuppositions are necessarily prior to studying the word of God. The problem with this perspective is that theological presuppositions may act as blinders that keep us from seeing the plain sense of God’s word, just as easily as they can helpfully illuminate the truth waiting to be discovered in the text. Whichever way these presuppositions end up functioning will largely depend on the reader’s own self-awareness and personal inclinations. Thus it should not surprise us to learn that some of Calvin’s (and Luther’s, and Zwingli’s, and so on) devotees opt for the simpler task of learning all their doctrine from the Institutes, or the Westminster Confession, or what-have-you and then call it good, choosing to look no further. After all, who among us does not take advantage of one-stop shopping when we can find it?
Despite the reality of this problem, and confessionalism’s inevitable contribution to it, fostering such neglect clearly was not Calvin’s intent. His goal was to stimulate a deeper, clearer engagement with the word of God. In pursuing this task, Bible study and theology ought to be inter-related in a symbiotic relationship, each spurring the other to new insights and closer analysis. Perhaps it does not matter at which end we first dive into the circle, as long as we never stop doing our best to let Scripture have the final word on what is theologically allowable. In any event, Calvin would undoubtedly roll over in his grave if he ever learned that someone claiming his mantle had implied, whether explicitly or implicitly, that knowing the Institutes (or the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort), even with its plethora of Scriptural proof-texts, could replace the labor required to study the Bible.
Fortunately for us, the same Spirit who inspired the Holy Scriptures still works freely among God’s people. Bible study and personal devotion do occur, thankfully. The same Spirit who spoke through Balaam’s ass continues to work out His purposes in the diversity of our many church traditions, even confessional ones. But God’s ability to perform a miracle should never normalize the impediments that must be supernaturally overcome in making the miracle happen. I doubt very much if after conversing with his dutiful ass, Balaam suddenly began spending his free time lounging around local barnyards waiting to receive another word from the Lord. Similarly, giving less authority to our confessions and more to the voice of Scripture would prove itself a wise discipline for those seeking divine direction today.
The Reformed confessions may not have been written as the principle instigators to Christian piety, but neither were they intended to dampen or supplant those desires. Yet, the doctrinal ethos conjured historically within Reformed confessionalism seems to have achieved exactly that. It is interesting to me that in times of theological controversy, tremendous energy is given over to debating what is and is not confessionally allowable, what may or may not point us toward an acceptable confessional development. As a professor in the field of biblical studies, however, I cannot help but wonder, why do we regularly bend over backwards to scrutinize ourselves in light of these confessions while simultaneously displaying such meager concern over our indifference to the more important question: does it accord with God’s word?
That question returns us to this essay’s starting point. Is striving to hear the voice of Scripture an exercise in futility or not? If the reader’s instinct is to say, yes, it is futile, then by all means reread the confessions and go back to bed. But if you will venture the risk of believing that it is not futile, then new horizons of spiritual well-being may yet open up before even the most doctrinally entrenched confessionalist. Visiting the local bookstore to buy a good Bible dictionary or even opening one of Calvin’s 20-or-so commentaries would not be a bad way to begin.