The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective
as a Living Letter
Abstract: A confession of faith is not a static collection of statements, but an instrument for “confessing,” a dynamic activity that expresses commitments, actualizes self- and group-identities, and brings divine reality near. After considering four ways that language comes alive by “doing” things, this essay suggests that the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective has already operated in these ways, at least to some extent, and proposes several further ways of expanding these functions.
Although Mennonites have composed numerous confessions of faith since their origins, many Mennonites, down to the present, have been suspicious of such efforts. Sometimes it is said that confessions are foreign to the Anabaptist-Mennonite spirit, or that Mennonites churches are not “confessional” churches. In 1995, however, when the two denominations that eventually became Mennonite Church USA adopted the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, this decision marked an important milestone in that process of merger. Presumably, most members of the new denomination affirm the Confession in some way, though many may still not know much about it. A relatively small number probably question it strongly, or even reject it, though often not openly.
In between, many other members oscillate between regarding the Confession as helpful or unhelpful, and weighing its advantages and liabilities. However, most of their questions, I propose, are not being raised against the function of a confession of faith. On the contrary, when a confession plays a significant role in church life, it will lead people to raise new questions and to rethink old ones. Thus the desire to reflect on the 1995 Confession’s role about a decade after its adoption is probably a sign of its continuing importance rather than a symptom of its defects.
Why do many Mennonites critique, or slide back and forth between affirming and critiquing, the very notion of a confession of faith? Most often, it is because they view confessions as fixed and static, or perhaps as dead or even death-dealing documents. Paul, discussing one function of the Mosaic law, referred to it as “the letter” (2 Cor. 3:5), as something “chiseled in letters on stone tablets” (3:7), and even as “the ministry of death” (3:7) and “the ministry of condemnation” (3:9). Paul contrasted this with living letters, “written . . . with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (3:3).
In this essay, I will suggest that we can view confessions of faith in general, and the 1995 Confession in particular, as the latter-that is, as “living letters”-not, of course, as anything inscribed directly on our hearts, but as instruments which, when rightly used, can be alive, dynamic and life-giving.
Confessions, of course, are written documents. But the way we view them has much to do with our assumptions about the sort of language they contain, and about that language’s main purpose, or function.
Most Mennonites probably suppose that confessions consist of propositions that seek to describe exactly what something is. If this were so, what would be the appropriate response to a confession? Mental assent to its statements, it would seem; and where proper actions were described, precise obedience. Such a confession, quite likely, would perform the further functions of ensuring that every church member made the same affirmations and behaved in the same ways, and of excluding any who did not.
However, many forms of language exist besides statements. Further-and here is the main point-language not only states things; it also does things. Is it possible that confessional language, properly understood, is largely of the latter kind: that it does, indeed, state things, but that when it functions rightly, it also does, or performs, things?
SOME FORMS AND FUNCTIONS OF LANGUAGE
Language operates in other ways besides the four to be discussed. These four, moreover, are not strictly separate, but interrelated, and often overlap.
Consider what happens in a wedding. When, in response to questions about having, holding and honoring the other, each partner says “I do,” what are they doing? Are they simply stating, or describing, what is on each one’s mind, or what each one intends to do? “I do,” of course, does indicate that. Yet these words, above all, perform something momentous: they marry the couple. To be sure, this act, or performance, is incomplete until an authorized person adds something like: “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” But what is this person doing? Merely informing those in attendance who these two persons are: wife and husband? No, because they are not husband and wife until the authorized person pronounces these words. These words, along with the two preceding “I do’s” literally marry the couple. Without such a pronouncement and the verbal consent of both parties, there is no marriage. These words are “performative”; they accomplish something something quite extraordinary.
Or consider baptism. When a pastor says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” what is occurring? Is the pastor simply stating what is happening when water is applied-that this pouring or immersing or sprinkling is baptism? No, because baptism consists of two actions: the use of water and the baptismal words. Pouring, sprinkling or immersion alone are not baptism. Neither is “I baptize you . . .”. But these words, when they accompany the water, perform something which is also extraordinary: they baptize.
Most baptismal ceremonies, moreover, include other performative utterances such as the words of those being baptized when they commit themselves to Christ and the congregation, or the words of the congregation when they receive those who are being baptized, and commit themselves in support. These utterances do not simply describe what is occurring: they commit people, they receive people. Other performative utterances familiar to church people-for instance, those pronounced at ordination, or at reception of new members-could also be mentioned.
Let us turn to a hymn that Mennonites love to sing: “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name.” The fourth verse commences: “O that with yonder sacred throng we at His feet may fall. . . .” It mentions a crowd singing, just “yonder.” But where are they? Is that throng in Revelation 5, the inspiration behind the hymn? Or way, way up yonder, in heaven? As I sing these words, I start feeling chills. The sacred throng seems much closer, even nearby. Where is “yonder'” Right over there, it seems! Right next to us, though not in a literal, spatial sense. As we sing, we are already joining that sacred throng.
Revelation portrays this chorus beginning with Jesus’ resurrection (5:6-12). But the chorus also extends into the eschaton, or into the consummation of history, when the entire cosmos will join in (5:13-14). Many other events will occur in their fullness only then, such as the universal resurrection and the coming of God’s Kingdom, even though they also began with Jesus. Mennonites believe that God’s Kingdom is already present in a very real sense, and that they therefore must live by Jesus’ Kingdom ethics now. Other Christians, like the Eastern Orthodox, experience the eschaton’s presence in worship. This presence can occur through hymns that do not simply describe eschatological events-like Jesus’ coronation as “Lord of All”-but can also make that reality present in our midst.
Consider another hymn that also bridges time distinctions: “Christ the Lord is risen today!” As we sing it, that past event becomes alive again. Eschatological events also begin to transpire: “All creation joins to say,” “Soar we now where Christ has led,” “Made like him, like him we rise.” These words declare that this is already happening. I suspect that it is.
Mennonites are often called “nonsacramental” as well as “nonconfessional.” They usually question claims about Christ’s “real presence,” as in the Lord’s Supper or baptism, and they hesitate to speak of “sacraments.” What, most basically, is a “sacrament'” The standard definition describes it as an expression of invisible, spiritual, divine grace through visible, material, earthly channels. But the word “visible” can be misleading, since sacraments can be expressed through any of the five senses.
Perhaps, then, Mennonites have a practice that is sacramental in the broad sense: singing, an audible activity. The words of many hymns, of course, describe, or state, various things. But would Mennonites sing so much if these words did not also act, or perform things, or bring the divine dimension of reality alive? Singing is a linguistic practice that can make something present. Singing can be a sensory, or sacramental, channel through which divine reality, by grace, comes into our midst.
Commitment is clearly a feature of some performative utterances, such as “I do” in a marriage vow. Performative utterances do not simply state what someone will do, but also commit that person to doing it. They often join people in mutual relationships and common actions. Other forms of language, such as promises, also are committal. Promises commit people to other persons, groups, processes or causes.
The same is true, quite often, of confessional language-or, better, confess-ing. According to Paul, “no one can say `Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Now if “Jesus is Lord” were simply a statement, Paul’s claim would not seem to make sense. Anyone can simply state it. But here is what Paul probably meant. The earliest Christian confession was the simple phrase: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” In Greek, a person would say Kurios, which means “Lord,” followed Iesous Christos, which means “Jesus Christ,” with the verb “is” implied. This could be abbreviated as Kurios Christos: “Christ is Lord.”
Now when the Romans cracked down on Christians, they often asked them to utter another simple confession: Kurios Kaisar, which means “Caesar is Lord.” What an enormous difference! Kurios Kaisar vs. Kurios Xristos! Both confessions, of course, stated something important: that Jesus was Lord of the cosmos, or that Caesar was Lord of at least all that mattered. But each utterance also did something. The first got you off the hook. The second could bring jail or execution. This is why saying “Jesus is Lord,” as a confession, required the Holy Spirit. Making it committed one to a dire fate.
The New Testament word for “confess,” homologeo, often carries this meaning. Jesus had situations of costly commitment in view when he declared that “Everyone who confesses me before others, I will confess before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” (Mt. 10:32, cf. Lk. 12:8, Rev. 3:5). So did John when he reported that “many, even of the authorities, believed in [Jesus]. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue. . .” (Jn. 12:42).
Self- and Group-Identification
People who confess in the previous sense also identify who they are. They are not simply stating their views, but taking a stand, becoming fully transparent. Self-identity often emerges and takes concrete shape in such circumstances. Acts 24 shows Paul on trial before the Roman government and some very angry opponents. In verses 12-13 he denies the charges against him. But in verse 14 Paul begins to “confess,” at some risk, who he really is and what he really teaches (v. 15-21).
By owning important beliefs-by verbalizing important decisions or commitments-people identify, or actualize, themselves in various ways. Groups also can also attain identity through such expressions, as we shall see.
On the basis of these observations, we can draw several important conclusions. First, all four linguistic functions above are primarily verbal, although they can, of course, also be performed in writing. It is speech that most often accomplishes or does things in interpersonal contexts. Personal reality, individual and mutual, is best conveyed orally. Confession, then, in these first glances, is primarily confess-ing: something people say that commits and identifies them, something more than simply stating what they believe.
Second, many of the acts mentioned occur in worship; some of them, indeed, are central to worship. Why, then, do most Mennonites view confessions of faith as collections of propositions and fail to recognize that other active, living features might belong to them? Is it perhaps because they seldom or never use confessions in worship; or perhaps because they suppose that confessing belongs in other contexts, which prioritize mental affirmation of content? In any case, most Mennonites seem to be unaware that confessional language can be living language which does things.
THE CONFESSION OF FAITH IN A MENNONITE PERSPECTIVE
&NBSP;&NBSP;&NBSP;&NBSP;&NBSP;So far as I know, the 1995 Confession has not often been used in worship. At times, it has probably functioned as a dead, rather than a living, letter. Throughout its composition and early use, however, the Confession operated, at least occasionally, in living ways, as many accounts of these processes attest.
Though I was not a member of the Confession Committee, I was in touch with its activities all along. Outsiders were sometimes invited to committee meetings. I attended what may have been the very first one. Copious minutes of meetings, including many drafts of confession articles, were sent to a larger circle of people, whose responses were seriously considered. During the eight years of its formation, the document-in-progress was discussed in Mennonite Church and General Conference assemblies and publications. When it acquired penultimate shape, committee members sought to hold hearings, usually with success, in every Mennonite conference. Efforts to include denominational members and leaders were about as extensive as could be expected.
What was really occurring in this process? Not simply intellectual debate about different propositions or contents, although this, of course, was involved. But a corporate process of self-identification was also underway. When individuals or groups seek to commit to words something that they will openly own, they are considering, to some extent, who they really are. Seen from this perspective, discussion of precise wording is no mere academic or dogmatic enterprise. It is, or includes, an attempt to discover, and more precisely own, the true identity of the group and its members.
Many participants experienced this because most of what they discussed was familiar. Most Mennonites do not have an explicit theology: that is, a precisely articulated set of beliefs about topics like God, salvation and the church. But every serious Christian, and every enduring Christian group, has an implicit theology: certain convictions about realities like God, life’s purpose, and right and wrong, which they live by, even though they may not think about them much.
For many who participated in the 1995 Confession’s composition, and for its two sponsoring denominations as a whole, the process was largely one of rendering implicit theologies explicit. It was not an intellectual debate about new and strange ideas. For many participants, it involved becoming more fully who they already were-becoming more consistent, articulate Christians. Note finally, that while their goal was to produce a written document, this process was mostly oral and communal.
People who are skeptical about confessions of faith point out how they can exclude people. But Mennonites are practical people. Different ones often work together without discussing or worrying overly much about their beliefs. A prime example is Mennonite Central Committee. Amish, urbanized Mennonites and many others are involved in its work. Had they needed to agree on a confession before they started, much of M.C.C.’s work would never have begun. This seems to confirm an ecumenical slogan from the 1970s and 1980s: “doctrine divides, but practice unites.”
Perhaps surprisingly, however, for Mennonites the opposite has more often been the case throughout their history. Mennonites have usually divided over behavioral issues, ranging from details of dress to involvement in government. Yet Mennonite confessions have usually facilitated processes of church union. It has often been the case for Mennonites that, “practice divides, but doctrine unites.”
The 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, like many previous confessions, has brought Mennonites together. If it is abstracted from its role in forming MC USA and MC Canada and treated simply as a collection of statements, its positive, unifying function will be forgotten.
Confessions vs. Creeds
To explore the living functions of the 1995 Confession further, it is helpful to distinguish confessions from creeds. Creeds differ from confessions by being legal documents, as was the first widely promulgated creed, formulated at the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.). Structurally, this creed is a brief narrative, modeled on the earlier “Apostles Creed” (which is not strictly a creed, since it exercised no legal function). The Creed of Nicea, however, expands the section on Jesus to counter Arianism, a widespread movement that claimed that Jesus Christ was God’s Son, but was not the Creator of the world, along with his Father. Instead, he was the Father’s first creation, or the first and highest creature. To counter this view, the Creed of Nicea declared that Jesus the Son was “of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.”
Appended to this creed were certain affirmations that expressed the Arian view precisely, such as that “the son of God is `of another substance or essence’ [than God the Father], or that he was `created’. . . .” These affirmations were accompanied by a declaration that anyone who maintained them was anathamatized, or excluded from the church. This also meant that nobody outside the church who affirmed them could join the church.
A confession, in contrast, summarizes what the great majority of people in a church body believe. It tells people, “this is what you will find if you join or stay with this denomination.” This implies that if people disagree with much of the confession, they should not join or remain in that group. But confessions are not usually utilized in a way that requires total assent to every item. When they are not so used, they provide much latitude for discussion. Different congregations can utilize them in diverse ways. They can decide which issues to stress, and how strongly to stress them, in various settings. Confessions are more flexible than creeds, which usually remain fixed for perpetuity.
This does not mean that some articles of a confession should be disregarded or denied. This would oppose the intent of those who composed and adopted the confession that all of it, even if not affirmed word for word, be taken seriously. But it does suggest that confessions can be revised from time to time. This has often happened with Mennonite confessions. They include more articles on behavior than most other confessions, and behaviors tend to change as societies change.
This relative openness and flexibility, however, has its drawbacks. When confessions affirm any significant belief, they also deny, at least implicitly, other possible beliefs. Since confessions are to be taken seriously by church members, is there not some point at which people who disagree with some beliefs, or express contrary beliefs, should be denied membership? In other words, might a confession occasionally also function somewhat legally, like a creed? But if so, how can anyone decide exactly what or how much someone must affirm or deny to be included or excluded?
The 1995 Confession has sometimes been utilized in this legal fashion, not without controversy. Some people might see this as a living usage, since it presses individuals and congregations to identify themselves and articulate their beliefs. Other people have protested that the Confession was functioning as a fixed set of dead or death-dealing propositions, “chiseled in letters on stone tablets.” (2 Cor. 3:7) A confession’s flexibility, which renders it less rigid than a creed, can also render its role in decision-making vague, and make disputes about this wrenchingly difficult to resolve.
When the flexible character of the 1995 Confession has been kept in mind, it has often provided a useful format for many kinds of Christian education. Education that engages people contributes much to forming them in the faith, and to developing self- and group-identities. This is especially evident in preparation for baptism or membership, which lead directly to commitment. However, such an educational use of the Confession may have decreased since the years surrounding its adoption in 1995. If so, it would be important to know whether this has much to do with the Confession itself, or with other factors.
Witness and Mission
In an increasingly pluralistic world, the 1995 Confession has helped numerous Mennonites explain and dialogue about their faith with many kinds of people. More and more books and articles use the Confession to explain to others who are Mennonites. While mission, of course, involves far more than communicating beliefs, this plays an important role in the process.
Moreover, the document being discussed is not a specifically Mennonite Confession of Faith, like its 1963 predecessor, but a broader Christian Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. This outlook helps Mennonites to articulate a basic witness to the Christian faith as well as to explain their “distinctives,” such as community, peace witness, discipleship and economic sharing.
Those in ecumenical circles, including creedal churches like the Roman Catholic, are increasingly recognizing that however authoritative a creed or confession is supposed to be when church leaders promulgate it, it will have little effect on the church body it claims to represent unless and until it is widely “received” or accepted. Otherwise, no matter what the leaders say, it will become a dead letter. An example from Mennonite history is the inclusion of women’s veiling in the 1963 Confession. As fewer and fewer Mennonites practiced this, that document increasingly dropped out of use, even though only one short article mentioned veiling.
To clarify what reception is, let us again consider the Creed of Nicea, from 325 A.D. Despite its seemingly definite form and fearsome anathemas, it was not really received by the larger church until the Council of Constantinople in 381, and then with significant additions and several changes. The obstacles to its reception were theological and political.
Theologically, in the important affirmation that Jesus the Son was “of one substance,” or homo-ousios, with his Father, the term ousia (substance) could carry different meanings. It could denote the general nature shared by beings of the same kind, such as human or divine nature. This is what the authors of the Creed of Nicea meant. Ousia, however, could also mean a specific individual. If this were what the creed intended, Jesus and his Father would be the very same person. Many Christians understood ousia in this second way, and for several decades this issue was hotly debated. Numerous other theological questions were discussed during the fifty-six years between Nicea and Constantinople, such as whether the Son and the Father might be not of the same substance (homo-ousios), but of like, or similar, substance (homoi-ousios). Eventually, the meaning of homo-ousios was clarified in a way that almost all parties could accept.
Politically, the Roman Emperor Constantine had called the Council of Nicea, affirmed its creed and opposed Arianism. However, many emperors who followed Constantine favored Arianism. As imperial opposition to the creed’s theology increased, so did confusion and debate in the church. In 325, those who affirmed the Creed of Nicea had agreed with the emperor. But afterwards, those who affirmed this creed increasingly disagreed with the emperors.
Church leaders had to decide: should we keep affirming the creed vigorously, or bow to imperial pressure? Between 325-381, many of them began opposing, rather than supporting, the emperors on this matter. When the Creed of Nicea was finally reaffirmed (and slightly revised) at Constantinople, the consensus was wide enough to be called its reception.
My primary point is this. If we view creeds or confessions as collections of propositions finalized when some authority first adopts them, we are likely to regard them as fixed or dead letters that call only for mental assent and threaten to exclude people. But if the reception process is intrinsic to what a creed or confession really is, then the dialogue, commitment and identity-formation that occur will belong to its living reality, and it will be much more alive and flexible.
The Creed of Nicea was not fully received for fifty-six years! Yet it was quite alive during the interval, provoking much rethinking of theology and church-state relationships. I propose that the 1995 Confession is also in the reception process. It is still being discussed, debated and tested. This Confession, to be sure, functions at times as a static block of statements, demanding acceptance or rejection. But it also operates as an active stimulus, helping Mennonites to identify themselves and their church, and, in an ever-changing society, to live what they profess.
STABILITY AND FLEXIBILITY
This article has outlined four functions of language that are found in confessions of faith. All along, however, it has also referred to a fifth basic function of language: namely, stating and defining things through propositions. I have acknowledged that this function also operates in confessions, but have said little about it so far. Perhaps, then, some readers are raising objections. “We’ve been hearing that confessions should be alive and flexible,” they might say, “yet this defining, stabilizing, function has been avoided. But any discussion of the 1995 Confession must address this issue, which is probably the most significant problem for Mennonites.”
The issue can be posed in this way: do statements and definitions, the stable elements in a confession, severely limit its potential for operating in living, flexible ways? This discussion will point toward some future uses of the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.
Commitment and Identity
Notice what kind of dynamic processes have been mentioned. They include committing and identifying oneself, which involves specifying and narrowing one’s options. Marriage to one person, for example, narrows “the field” enormously. Marriage is not to the ideal of love or marriage, but to a very specific person with particular strengths and weaknesses. Baptism and church membership, as Mennonites understand them, commit people to very concrete, limited communities. In fact, our Mennonite “distinctives”-such as community, sharing, servanthood and peace-all require significant self-limitation.
Consequently, careful articulation of beliefs and practices is quite consistent with the dynamic process of deepening and clarifying mutual commitments. To be sure, this can be overdone. Confessional statements can function not so much to describe a dynamic way of life as to prescribe a system of burdensome regulations.
However, this notion of gaining identity and fulfillment through personal and group commitments flies in the face of the widespread cultural assumption that fulfillment is acquired through autonomous, individual freedom. Freedom is usually understood as freedom from limitations, obligations and commitments. The fewer the restrictions, the greater the possibilities for fulfilling or “re-inventing” oneself.
In the Mennonite-and basic Christian-understanding, however, individual identity cannot be divorced from group identity. People cannot become their true selves without interactions with other persons. Freedom is primarily freedom for relationships, love and service. This emphasis, of course, can be taken too far. Group values and commitments can be overstressed, and stifle and deny God-given interests and talents.
Nonetheless, this notion-better, ideal-of communal relationships is a major Mennonite strength, and a gift Mennonites can offer to others. The dynamic process of mutual commitment is quite consistent with, and can be enhanced by, defining shared beliefs and values.
Witness and Mission
Personal identity cannot be attained in isolation. One must learn how one affects and is affected by others, and how one is both similar to and different from them. Self-discovery, of course, also requires moments of personal reflection to evaluate how one is being shaped by all these experiences and relationships.
Likewise, “Mennonite identity” cannot be attained by remaining within familiar walls. Mennonites must venture beyond these to learn how they are similar to and different from various Christian groups, as well as other religions, peoples and organizations. Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada are serious about becoming missional churches. If they succeed, their group identity will develop largely in the process of mission.
Nevertheless, Mennonites in mission will also need to reflect, as individuals must, on where they have come from and what they are learning. The 1995 Confession can be helpful here. When questions arise in encounters with others, it can be instructive to re-read parts of the Confession to see what light it throws on them. In the process, church people may discover new levels of meaning in the Confession, and gain a deeper and firmer understanding of their faith.
To be sure, the challenges of mission and dialogue may shake some beliefs at first, and may lead to revising or even discarding some. At the same time, however, careful and prayerful reflection will distinguish these beliefs from others that will increasingly emerge as more basic and significant. Mission and dialogue will normally strengthen Mennonite identity by helping us to grasp more precisely and express more clearly what is truly important.
In fact, individuals, congregations and larger bodies with stable beliefs can often operate much more flexibly with other kinds of people. Knowing who we are, we need not be threatened by them. Knowing what we believe, we can discuss differences and might discover that some of these are not as great as it first seemed. Stable, articulated beliefs, if we do not force them on others, can help us be more understanding, tolerant and able to express God’s love to many more people. On the other hand, persons and congregations who do not know what they believe are likely to be more threatened by others, less able to relate authentically to them, and to retreat into themselves.
In sum, the stable points in the 1995 Confession, expressed in statements and definitions, can provide us the stability needed for mission in our pluralistic world, which requires great flexibility.
Theological and Ethical
Mennonite confessions normally include more articles on behavior and ethics than most others. Many Mennonites have little problem with specifying how they should behave. Yet they often object to specifying beliefs about God, sin, salvation and other theological issues. Mennonites often say that what you believe doesn’t matter if you don’t live it. Sometimes this translates as: what you believe doesn’t matter, or isn’t relevant, for how you live. Obviously, these are quite different statements.
But why should theological beliefs, as well as ethical practices, be important? One reason is that when we confess some of the former, we identify ourselves not simply as a social or ethical community, but as a Christian church. Churches root their lifestyles in Jesus and biblical revelation. Even though some Mennonites question traditional statements about Jesus, such as the Nicene Creed, they find it crucial to affirm some things about who he was and is . . . and consequently, to deny other claims about him.
What does it mean, for instance, that Jesus is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Rev. 19:16)? In Church history this has often been interpreted to mean that Jesus is Caesar raised to the nth power: the most powerful, domineering Emperor, inflicting the most terrible punishments, of all. Mennonites would agree instead with the earliest Christian confession: that Jesus is Kurios Xristos, which is antithetical to Kurios Kaisar (1 Cor. 12:3). If someone said it did not matter whether Jesus is a Caesar or not, that this was an abstract theological issue with no ethical import, even those Mennonites most opposed to confessions would likely disagree strenuously. As Mennonite Christians in a pluralistic world, we need to make some clear affirmations, for ourselves and for others, about who Jesus really is. These, I would briefly suggest, include the issue of his deity.
To be a church is to act and speak in God’s name. Many people today will never visit a church, no matter how fine its potlucks or its singing. Yet some of them will appear suddenly when threatening or tragic events raise large questions about life’s meaning. These people, and many others whom we seldom notice, will want to know about God-not about quilts or relief sales, significant as they are in their own way. We must be ready to speak intelligibly about what we believe, not only about how we live.
Yet in reality, we already speak about God quite often, in ways that are close to confession. We worship God, especially in our songs. If we listen to their words, we will find that we also worship Jesus and the Holy Spirit frequently. But if we believe in one God, and claim that we worship one God, should not we sometimes ask ourselves, and let others ask us: why do we worship the Son and the Spirit? Unless Jesus and the Spirit are somehow, but truly, God, is not this sheer blasphemy? This point divides Christians from Muslims, Jews and others. Why, in our dangerous and divided world, should we continue this practice unless we sincerely believe that Jesus and the Spirit are worthy of worship, as only God can be? As I see it, being a church, which involves speaking and acting in God’s name in worship and elsewhere, requires us to give credible answers, to others and to ourselves, to the all-important question: “Who is God'”
Why it is that many Mennonites find confessions problematic when, in worship and especially through our “sacrament,” hymns, they confess many times not only how they want to act, but also in what kind of Reality they believe. Is it because most Mennonites associate confessions with frozen documents, rather than with the basic act of confess-ing? Or because they place singing in a wholly other sphere than anything conceptual? Is it a case of right brain, left brain, and never the twain shall meet? In any event, if Mennonites realized that confess-ing is quite close to, and overlaps with, singing, might confessing and confessions become less problematic? Might they be less troubled by definitions or statements about God if they realized how often they appear in their joyous, energetic hymns?
Orthodoxy and Pluralism
Most views expressed in the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective are consistent with traditional, or orthodox, teachings of Anabaptism and ecumenical Christianity. Some Mennonites fear that the age and apparent fixity of such teachings distance the Confession from our rapidly-changing, pluralistic society. But let us look more closely at a few ancient dogmas and some paragraphs in our confession. Are these “orthodox” expressions as fixed as is often supposed?
Let us revisit the Creed of Nicea one last time. It called the Son homoousios (of the same substance) with the Father. But how precise was this term, and how exactly did one have to understand it? This was clarified by the anathemas which, unfortunate though they were, excluded only those who affirmed a contrary Arian phrase, such as the Son is “of another essence or substance [than the Father].” If I had lived then and entertained some doubts about the Son and Father being of “the same substance,” I could be asked: “Would you say, then, that the Son is `of another substance’?” Unless I clearly affirmed some such definition, I would not be anathematized.
Somewhere between 250-300 bishops attended the Council of Nicea. Of these, only about five asserted an anathematized definition. Although they were exiled, they were later pardoned, including Arius himself. Many bishops who confessed the Creed still debated it for the next ten, twenty or even fifty-six years. This is not to suggest that the anathemas were a good idea. But it shows that even the crucial homoousios defined the Father-Son relationship much less rigidly, and was much more open to continuing discussion, than is often supposed.
The Nicene Creed was later supplemented at the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) According to the Chalcedonian definition Jesus was not only “of the same substance” as his Father in his deity, but also “of the same substance” as all humans in his humanity. Otherwise said, Jesus was one person, but had both a human and a divine “nature.” Chalcedon is often paraphrased by saying that Jesus is “fully human” and “fully divine,” as in our 1995 Confession.
But how much did Chalcedon really assert about Jesus “natures”? It said that the human nature includes “a rational soul and body,” and that both natures retained their “properties” when they were joined. Other than this, Chalcedon applied only four adjectives to the two natures: they coexist “without confusion, without transmutation, without division, without separation.” Note that these are negative definitions. They do not tell us how these natures coexisted in Jesus. They do not tell us what we can say, positively, about this union, but only what we cannot say. Affirming that Jesus has “two natures” involves little more than denying that these are confused, transmuted, divided or separated.
As with “of the same substance,” “two natures” expresses something very important, but it does so in far less detail than we might think. Viewed from this angle, the minimal creedal statements can be seen as pointers toward a mystery that far transcends any words. Since creeds were used in worship, these statements can even be invitations to explore and experience that mystery.
Finally, let us glance at the 1995 Confession’s article 2, on Jesus Christ. It too allows for great flexibility in language about Jesus, but in a different way. Rather than limiting itself to a few minimal, mostly negative definitions like Chalcedon, the article combines a large number of biblical titles and expressions. In the first two paragraphs alone, I count eleven of these. The third paragraph adds the “orthodox” concepts, “fully human” and “fully divine” and several other phrases. These can be combined with the article’s other expressions in multiple ways.
Like Chalcedon and Nicea, article 2 allows us, even encourages us, to think and speak about Jesus with a rich variety of terms, while it places several important limits on such possibilities. Even these orthodox affirmations, which lend this Confession stability, can open up large ranges for pluralism in expression, and flexibility in usage.
Confessions of faith can function as dead letters: as fixed, finalized sets of propositions, distant from the actual life of churches, save when invoked for purposes of inclusion or exclusion. This essay has sought to show how they can also function as living letters: as instruments to promote commitment, identity and unity with pluralism; and to enhance worship, mission, teaching, ethical behavior and theological reflection. Perhaps the difference depends mostly on whether “confession” is understood mainly as a document composed of definitive statements, or as confess-ing-an oral activity performed in contexts of mutuality and community. Stated otherwise: on whether confession is primarily a matter of stating things, or primarily a matter of doing or performing things (though of course, it includes both). Many Mennonites understand confession in the first sense, perhaps because they have relegated the confessions mostly to formal and quasi-legal contexts, and have seldom seen them operate amidst communal life and affect worship.
The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective already has functioned, and continues to function, in these vital ways. Even its stabilizing features of stating and defining can enable Mennonites to operate with greater flexibility, both in their congregations and in their mission in our pluralistic world. To be sure, this flexibility can also be a weakness, especially in decision-making, where disputes over how loosely or tightly to interpret it can arise. But despite this, those who claim this Confession can regard it not simply as a fixed statement, but as an instrument for vitality and renewal.
[*]Thomas Finger is an independent scholar living in Evanston, Ill. The author of A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology (InterVarsity, 2004), he devotes his time to writing, to adjunct teaching in world religions, and to ecumenical and interfaith activities.
1. Cf., Thomas Finger, “Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist/Mennonite Tradition,” MQR 76 (July 2002), 277-297; Karl Koop, ed., Confessions of Faith in Anabaptism, 1527-1660 (Waterloo, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2006); Howard Loewen, ed., One Lord, One Church, One Hope, and One God (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985).
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. See Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1995). The two denominations, which formally merged in 2001, were the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church. These predecessor denominations, however, spanned the United States and Canada. In 2001, only the churches in the United States became Mennonite Church USA, while the others formed Mennonite Church Canada. The Canadians, however, also retained the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, which played a similar role in their process.
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. This is mainly because Mennonites often understand sacraments to be rites that automatically convey this presence. Cf. Thomas Finger, “Are Mennonites Sacramental'” The Mennonite 7:18 (Sept. 21, 2004), 8-11; and “Eucharistic Theology: Some Untapped Resources” Vision 2 (Spring 2001), 1-14.
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. For what follows, see Oscar Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), 218-220. Even if this was not exactly what Paul meant in this text, early Christians were often confronted with this situation.
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. Another important biblical example is Romans 10:9-10: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”
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1. It is also true, of course, that Mennonite confessions have excluded some people. This should not be overlooked, nor should the negative consequences be minimized. Still, Mennonite confessions, as a whole, have more often served to unite than to divide.
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2. Or, more precisely, what they would affirm if they were asked and considered it carefully. Confessions describe what many church members believe implicitly, not always explicitly.
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3. Mennonite Confession of Faith: Adopted by the Mennonite General Conference, August 22, 1963 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1963). The Mennonite Church, not the General Conference Mennonite Church, commissioned and adopted this document.
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4. Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective covers “themes common to the faith of the wider Christian church” in articles 1-8 (p. 8) and those more common among Mennonites in articles 9-23. J. Denny Weaver warned (at the Confession of Faith conference) that this structure could suggest the notion of “two lists”: that Mennonite theology is only concerned with the latter, more practical and behavioral “list” (articles 9-23) and has nothing to contribute to the first “list” (articles 1-8), which is shared by the wider church. The confession writers, however, sought to weave “Mennonite distinctives” like peace through all the articles, contrary to any “two lists” mentality. While I can affirm their approach, I also share Weaver’s concern. I do not mean to imply that “a basic witness to the Christian faith” is something quite different than explaining Mennonite distinctives.
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5. Mennonite Confession of Faith, “Article 14: Symbols of Christian Order. . . . The New Testament symbols of man’s headship are to be his short hair and uncovered head while praying or prophesying, and the symbols of woman’s role are her long hair and her veiled head.”
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6. The first understanding of ousia was Platonic, the second Aristotelian. Though many scholars charge the classical creeds with jamming biblical contents into fixed Greek philosophical categories, Greeks themselves were using the key concepts in a variety of ways, and Christians modified these meanings as they appropriated them for creedal expression.
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8. I am calling the creed adopted at the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) the “Creed of Nicea.” The creed adopted at the Council of Constantinople in 381 can technically be named the “Constantinopolitan Creed” or the “Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.” Nevertheless, this creed, not the earlier one, is usually called the “Nicene Creed.” The Creed of Nicea ended by affirming belief in the Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed (381) described the Spirit at some length and added “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church . . . one baptism. . . . the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” It also added that Jesus was “crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,” a phrase found in the Apostles’ Creed but not in the Creed of Nicea. Its reinsertion may reflect a more negative attitude toward the Roman Empire and a more detailed concern with historicity.
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1. These confessions consider Jesus not from an abstract standpoint, but from one intimately related to salvation. In order to save us, Jesus had to be fully divine, because only God can save. But in order to save us, Jesus had to be fully human. The Nicene Creed, when meaningfully heard in worship, vividly portrays God’s saving activity in Jesus, and invites worshippers to praise him for this salvation. (I am only discussing the confessional, or doxological, function of the Creeds here, not their omission of Jesus’ life and teachings-except perhaps for “under Pontius Pilate” in the Nicene Creed-which I consider a significant weakness.)
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Confession of Faith as a Living Letter
MQR 81 (July 2007)