The Reformed Confessions: Plot Summary & Grammar

Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition by James K.A. Smith is a fun little book.  It is a semi-fictive set of letters written to “Jesse,” whom Smith describes as “an amalgam of those young men and women from Los Angeles who re-energized [his] own interested in, and appreciation of, Calvin and Edwards and Kuyper” as well as “a bit of a stand-in for my younger self” (xiii).  The book covers a range of topics from God’s sovereignty, church history, St. Augustine, ecclesiology, creation and a host of others.

I liked his section on the Reformed confessions, though I didn’t care much for his characterization of the Westminster standards as an “arid desert” of “cool scholasticism.”  The Heidelberg Catechism is a beautiful confessional statement, but I grow weary of any efforts to somehow divide the Westminster Standards from the Three Forms of Unity.  Sure they have a different feel, as Smith notes, but in today’s ecclesiastical milieu, I prefer to be a “lumper,” not a “splitter.”

That being said, listen to Smith’s nice way of describing the role of the confessions:

Now none of the traditions or denominations that describe themselves as “confessional” would ever see the creeds or confessions as on par with Scripture, nor would they ever claim they are infallible.  The confessions, and even the creeds, are subject to the authority of Scripture – which is alone infallible.  The creeds and confessions serve Scripture.  You might think of them in a few different ways.  For example, the Heidelberg Catechism itself describes the Apostles’ Creed as a “summary” of the gospel.  So here you have this interesting layering: the Heidelberg Catechism is itself a later “confession.”  And a significant chunk of the catechism’s summary and explanation of the Christian faith (in qq.23-58) is an explanation of the creed.  But the catechism sees the creed as already a crystallization of faith more fully articulated in the Scriptures.  So according to the catechism, the “gospel is summarized for us in the articles of the Christian faith – a creed beyond doubt and confessional throughout the world” (q.22).

Or a second example: you might think of the creeds as a kind of plot summary.  Not exactly “CliffsNotes,” but rather a summation and overview.  The point isn’t to replace the story but to provide a portal into the bigger story.  Keep in mind that the catechisms in particular were often written to help young people grow into the faith, so there’s a pedagogical function here.

Or finally, you might think of the creeds and confessions as articulating the grammar of the language of faith.  They’re not meant to be a substitute for speaking the language!  Rather, they provide a way for one to learn a “second” language.  If I’m studying Greek grammar, it’s not so that I can know Greek grammar; it’s so that I can read Greek, and perhaps the Greek New Testament in particular.  So also, I learn the “grammar” of faith articulated in the reeds and confessions, not as ends in themselves, but as an invitation to read Scripture well, and as guides for faithful practice.

Pgs. 51-52.

Letters to a Young Calvinist is a fun little book and an easy read.  It has a “trendy” feel due to its letter (borderline E-mail) format, but it is still a neat little volume.  Michael Horton notes in his endorsement, “even when I disagreed, I appreciated Jamie’s model of charity and humility as well as conviction.”  I felt the same way.  So nice to find a popular book depicting the Reformed tradition as more than just TULIP , as important as that is!

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

One Reply to “The Reformed Confessions: Plot Summary & Grammar”

  1. Very good; I am glad younger people are using current formats and media to put across the Bible message–it is leaving me behind.
    I agree with you about the Westminster standards: they are so precise and careful, drawn up, obviously, by men trained in law and theology, that they satisfy a real human need for clarity and coherence.


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