The church’s exegetical fellowship

I would like to begin this post by quoting the late John Webster on the importance of hearing the Word of God together with the church as a whole:

A confession is most properly an indication of the gospel. The gospel is normatively set forth in Holy Scripture, for Holy Scripture is that collection of writings generated by and annexed to the self-communication of God. Because it is in this way the means of grace, an instrument through which God acts to lay bare the gospel. Holy Scripture is prior to and superior to all acts of confession, and all acts of confession are subordinate to Holy Scripture…Creeds and confessions are wholly a function of the Word of God, which is given in Scripture as, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the risen Jesus testifies to himself…[The creed’s] claim is the claim of an anatomy of divinity, a brief outline of the biblical gospel. It’s task is to enable to church’s reading of Holy Scripture. We may think of the creed as an aspect of the church’s exegetical fellowship, of learning alongside the saints and doctors and martyrs how to give ear to the gospel. But such fellowship is a fellowship in a task that is ours now. The creed is not a substitute for the church’s reading of Scripture, a sort of achieved exegetical steady state. It is, rather, the exemplary instance of the church’s submission of all aspects of its life to the prophetic and apostolic witness. It may guide and chasten and correct our reading, but it cannot absolve us of responsibility now. The creed does not mean the end of the church’s chief occupation, which is hearing the gospel through attention to Holy Scripture. Hearing the Word is not an inheritance but an event: creeds and confessions guide that hearing, but they do not make it dispensable. Nor, in one sense, do they make hearing easier. Truly attending to the creed does not mean finding safe water, but entering into the disruption that is the inevitable accompaniment of encountering the gospel of God.

John Webster, “Confession and Confession” in Nicene Christianity: The Future for a New Ecumenism, p.125

There are a couple things that I would like to highlight from this section of Webster’s essay. First, Webster emphasizes the priority of Scripture in the life of the church because it is the locus of the “self-communication of God”; it is that through which “God acts to lay bare the gospel” and in which “the risen Jesus testifies to himself” by “the power of john-webster01the Holy Spirit”. As the Reformers understood, Scripture is not an inert text of which the church is or can become the master but the means by which God himself addresses the church as its Lord and Savior. As the voice of the living God, Scripture is not ultimately subject to but asserts itself over the church’s interpretation, continually breaking forth in newness and grace. In Scripture, God does not merely communicate truths about himself, but he truly communicates himself, drawing us into personal communion with the Father through the Son and by the Spirit. It is for this reason that the Reformers stressed sola Scriptura, for Scripture as the vehicle of God’s self-communication cannot be paralleled by any teaching ministry of the church.

Second, however, Webster underscores the secondary yet nevertheless important role played by creeds and confessions. Particularly significant is Webster’s identification of the creed “as an aspect of the church’s exegetical fellowship”. This is crucial. Contrary to distortions of sola Scriptura that would wrongly interpret this phrase as having an individualistic meaning (i.e. the idea that we should just interpret Scripture on our own without recourse to any interpretive aids), Webster rightly points us to the creed as helping us to learn “alongside the saints and doctors and martyrs how to give ear to the gospel”. Since “encountering the gospel of God” always presents a “disruption” to our natural patterns of sin-corrupted thinking and way of being in the world, we will always be tempted to try and domesticate the gospel, to blunt its edges and render it less offensive to our fallen sensibilities. As a result, we need to, as Webster says, learn to hear Scripture not apart from but together with “the church’s exegetical fellowship”, to help us identify our blind spots and expose the rebellion that can sometimes hide behind our interpretations. We all, like the Pharisees, have the tendency to reject the commandment of God in order to establish our own tradition (Mark 7:9). Understood correctly, the use of creeds, confessions, commentaries, theological books, and local church teaching does not entail depending on the word of man as opposed to the Word of God. Rather it is the means by which we are are able to learn together with the whole people of God “how to give ear to the gospel”.

There are two practical implications of this. First, this is a call for humility. It is a reminder that none of us has it all figured out and that only as a part of Christ’s body can we “all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13). Unfortunately, it is my impression that generally speaking (there are of course exceptions), average evangelicals have not dug deeply into the rich theological tradition represented by the creeds. How many have read at any length not only contemporary teachers, writers, and preachers, but also ancients such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, and Cyril of Alexandria? How many understand what were Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism and the dangers inherent in adopting such positions? Are not, as the adage says, those who are ignorant of history doomed to repeat its mistakes? I think we as evangelicals need to take great strides in reclaiming a deep and strong communion with the church’s exegetical fellowship of all times and places.

Second, this is a call to responsibility. As Webster reminds us, we ourselves are part of that fellowship. We cannot be content to merely parrot the words of the past nor even those of our one or two favorite teachers (I myself am the chief of sinners in this regard!). We must indwell and internalize our tradition, but we must also work constructively within our tradition to bring it into greater conformity with Scripture. Reformed yes, but always reforming. The last thing that our theological forebears would want is for us to uncritically repeat everything that they had to say. The greatest honor that we can give to those such as Luther and Calvin is to embody the spirit that they themselves exhibited when confronted with the challenges of their day, something that may entail going beyond what they said and providing modifications as needed.

No matter where we fall on the ecclesiastical spectrum, Webster’s words are a salutary reminder to us all.