May 11, 2023

What Does It Mean to Be Confessional?

Nathan W. Bingham & Burk Parsons
What Does It Mean to Be Confessional?

For centuries, the church has turned to creeds and confessions of faith for doctrinal clarity. Today, Burk Parsons articulates how adhering to these confessional statements can help us ground our lives on God’s Word.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Today on the podcast I’m joined by Dr. Burk Parsons. He’s the editor of Tabletalk magazine. He’s also the senior pastor at Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Central Florida. Dr. Parsons, what do we mean when we say that we’re “confessional”?

DR. BURK PARSONS: A lot of people, I think, misunderstand what that word means, confessional. I remember coming into confessional churches in the Presbyterian world and hearing that word and hearing it used, and I didn’t know what it meant. I wasn’t sure if it had to do with how repentant we are and how much we confess our sins, but I quickly realized that it had to do with written confessions of faith. It’s an important way of expressing who we are as Christians, because we are Christians based on a set of truths, of doctrines. And as Christians, we adhere to a certain set of doctrines that are found in Scripture.

But of course, over the ages, throughout history, Christians have differed on what the Bible says, and what the Bible teaches, and how to interpret the Bible, and how to interpret this doctrine over that doctrine. So, the church came to see the need for having clear, doctrinal summary statements. And that began, really, back in the early church, and then it continued through the first several centuries of the church with the early universal or ecumenical creeds that all true churches confess today. But then also, confessions developed, and catechisms developed throughout history and through the time of the Reformation. And so, churches throughout the ages have essentially formulated these confessions. They have formulated these confessions and creeds in order to establish and to proclaim, “This is what we believe the Bible to say.”

And all good confessions, all faithful confessions, state right from the outset that it’s the Bible and the Bible alone that is our only infallible rule, or source, for faith and life—that the Bible, that Scripture alone is our only infallible rule for our faith and our lives and everything.

And so, we who are confessional—that doesn’t just refer to confessional Presbyterians. There are Reformed Christians who are confessional, and they adhere to the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. We even know that there are confessional Baptists who adhere to the Second London Baptist Confession, or the Reformed Baptist Confession of 1689, as it is sometimes referred to. Even some Baptists who don’t adhere to the Reformed Baptist Confession of 1689 adhere to the Baptist Faith and Message, which was first written, if I recall, in about 1925 or ‘26, and then has been revised over the years. There are confessing Lutherans who adhere to numerous confessional documents—Augsburg, Concord, Luther’s smaller and larger catechisms, and other documents—just as there are even confessing or confessional Anglicans and Episcopalians who adhere to the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Now, some people might say: “Well, wait a second, I don’t know any of those confessing Anglicans. I don’t know any of those confessing Lutherans. I don’t know any of those confessing or confessional Baptists.” Well, they exist, and they are conservative in that they hold to their confessional standards.

Now, there are a whole lot of people out there, both in the Presbyterian, Baptist world, Lutheran and so on, who say they adhere to their confessional standards. They have to sign with their synods or presbyteries or elder boards that they adhere and they submit to those confessional standards. But in fact, when you hear them teach and you hear them speak and when they write, you pick up that they actually aren’t confessional. They give just lip service to their confessional standards, but they actually aren’t confessional in the end. And that’s really the difference between being a conservative and, if you will, a liberal. And I don’t like to use those terms so loosely, but that really is the case. A conservative is someone who affirms a particular confessional standard and believes it and teaches it. A liberal is someone who gives lip service to his or her confessional standard, and kind of teaches whatever they want.

And so, we have to understand that within my tradition, the Presbyterian tradition, we adhere to the Westminster Standards. In the Westminster Standards, certain Presbyterian ministers and laypeople might have minor differences with certain questions and answers in the catechisms, or certain sections or statements or even phrases in the confession of faith. But those differences are minor, and they’re not out of accord with our system of doctrine. And as ministers—myself being a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America—we have to submit those differences, if we have any, to our presbyteries, and they are the ones to say whether or not those differences are accepted. And if they’re accepted by the presbytery, or if they’re deemed appropriate by the presbytery, then we say we have exceptions—that we have exceptions to a particular point in our standards.

But essentially, one of the things that’s wonderful about being confessional is that if I’m talking to a confessional Baptist or a confessional Lutheran, I know that we can have an intelligent, thoughtful conversation surrounding and grounded in the Word of God and the doctrine of the Word of God. Because I know that that man is adhering to a formulated, historic confession or a group of confessions, and that’s the beauty of confessionalism. That’s the beauty of having confessions—because they give us guardrails, they give us parameters, and they help to give us a good footing so that we would not go off-track and teach contrary to Scripture.