On Signing Statements of Faith
Here’s something I wrote when I was applying for a job once (unsuccessfully). Given that it’s that awful time of year when many of us are applying for teaching positions, I thought it might be good fodder for discussion. Honestly, I came up with this while sitting in a coffee shop one afternoon last year, so it’s more a snapshot of a moment in time than a hill I’m willing to die on. Nevertheless, I’m interested to see what “y’all” think – particularly all “y’all” evangelical Christians who are currently facing down this sort of thing.
On Statements of Faith
Statements of faith are tools for the formation of communities. In saying this, I am not denying that doctrines, in their own way, genuinely refer; of course, they do this and more. Rather, I am simply pointing out that when doctrines are selected, collated, and presented as either the reflection or the ideal of shared conviction, they take on the additional task of community formation. In other words, by placing them in the context of a statement of faith, we are asking doctrines to do something, and what we are asking them to do is form a community. Statements of faith thus execute this task in two ways.
First, they set conditions for inclusion and establish grounds for exclusion. This is the “practical” role of the statement of faith: it is an adjudicator, a benchmark, and a criterion. The importance of this practical function must not be underestimated, as has been recognized since the earliest days of the regula fidei. Indeed, if the church were to establish no such boundaries, its identity would be diluted to such an extent as to no longer have any meaning.
Secondly, on the other hand, statements of faith also serve to bind believers together in order to foster Christian discipleship. This means, importantly, that the basis for community cohesion is not simply a shared interest in “preserving distinctives,” that is, a custodial commitment to one’s inherited tradition; rather, the community unites itself around the statement of faith so that it may progress on this basis toward deeper levels of theological-practical faithfulness. A statement of faith, therefore, can perhaps be viewed as a sign post which points toward a particular form of Christian discipleship. Those who subscribe to it, accordingly, commit themselves to going “this way” as a they seek to enact Christian faithfulness with certain fellow believers.
While the “practical” role of the statement of faith is obviously good and necessary, unfortunately, it is often emphasized to the point where the second role is obscured. This is detrimental for two reasons. First, if doctrinal statements are construed as nothing more than tools for determining inclusion and exclusion, the impression may easily be given that doctrine itself is only useful for this purpose. Yet this represents a remarkably sparse account of Christian theology and one which is clearly a lesser view than that found in Scripture and among the great theologians of the past.
Second, this view can encourage the idea that, given the presence of a doctrinal statement, disciplined, creative theological thinking is no longer necessary. In other words, if doctrines are crystallized for the purpose of establishing membership criteria alone, the corresponding identification of these doctrines as “essential” can easily lend support to the idea that all other theological matters are “non-essential” and therefore non-important. Consequently, theologians will naturally direct their efforts to that which is perceived to be the most important theological task: the defense of the doctrinal statement over against rival claims. In so doing, however, they diminish the value of their ecclesial ministry as those who would otherwise teach Christians how to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Indeed, just as there is no end to the depth of that which theology contemplates, namely, the living God, so there is no terminus to the church’s responsibility to follow God more faithfully in every area of life. Hence, to the extent that theologians cease to explore these depths on the grounds of the alleged finality of the doctrinal statement, they simultaneously inhibit Christian discipleship.
In light of all this, it is my belief that the introspective task of relating myself to a particular doctrinal statement should attend not only to the first function, but to the second as well. Hence, I present myself with two questions: 1) According to the parameters laid out in the statement, can I be counted as one who is “in” or as one who is “out”? In other words, do I see myself in the statement? 2) Can I embrace this way of Christian discipleship, both in my private life, and in my professional life as an academic theologian? Put another way: Is the space implied in the doctrinal statement something I can enthusiastically commit myself to growing within?
Question One: Do I see myself in the statement?
It is no secret that prospective faculty can and have signed doctrinal statements which contain affirmations which they deny or denials which they affirm (or both). This practice, however, is clearly deceptive and ultimately serves neither party. This is because, in perpetrating the deception, the candidate essentially consigns herself to an inauthentic existence—an existence which will either consume her internally, thereby weakening her capacity for theological creativity, or spill out into controversy, thereby diminishing the health of the community as a whole. Moreover, if my thesis is correct that doctrinal boundaries serve ultimately to facilitate discipleship, it would seem that a community which includes either secret or open dissenters would also be inhibited in this area. As a result, there seems to me to be no purpose in concealing any reservations one might have about any of the claims made in a particular doctrinal statement.
Question Two: Am I willing to go “the way” of the doctrinal statement?
As explained above, I believe that doctrinal statements do more than just delineate who is in and who is out; they also constitute the basis for going forward in faith, together, in service to Christ. In this respect, I am bound to ask myself not simply, “Am I one of these people?” but also, “Am I willing to travel with these people?”
This means not simply teaching the doctrinal statement, still less merely defending it, but also exploring it, making connections between its affirmations and other areas of Christian belief and practice, highlighting its relevance for ministry, and celebrating it as a tool for discipleship among those who subscribe to its tenets. Again, doctrine should be more than simply a litmus test; it should motivate the continued pursuit of faithfulness in all areas of Christian life and thought.
One of the advantages of keeping this perspective at the forefront is the fact that it gives me a positive way to relate to those areas of the statement on which I haven’t given much thought or toward which I am basically indifferent. Rather than trying to pretend that every single point of the doctrinal statement represents, in a happy (if unbelievable) coincidence, the fruit of my own personal study on each one of these topics, I can instead commit myself to submitting to it out of love for the community in order to foster cooperative discipleship. This means that, for me, signing the statement means casting my lot with people as well as with doctrine. On especially those matters where I am indifferent, then, my love for people is permitted to play a role in my rationale for subscription.
 This is not, of course, to suggest that all forms of discipleship are equally valid; some communities may actually be sub- or even anti-Christian. Indeed, people choose to associate with particular Christian groups precisely because, at their best, they see in that group’s self-description a correspondence to divine revelation (and, conversely, a lack of this kind of correspondence with respect to other groups). Nevertheless, the human capacity for both misinterpretation and sinful self-justification seems to warrant the kind of denominational humility which recognizes that in every group in which the Holy Spirit is truly present there resides both fidelity and infidelity at the same time.
 As Paul says, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (Col 2:6-7). Here the “faith” (i.e., doctrine) which the Colossians learned from Epaphras is considered by Paul ultimately to be for the benefit of their steadfast Christian living. Consider also Thomas Aquinas, who viewed sacred doctrine as a tool for directing all human thought and action to its proper end—God—so that “the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and surely”. ST I, q1, a1.
 Here the objection might be raised that the language of “essential” doctrine is warranted in light of the fact that certain doctrines must be believed in order to be saved (e.g., salvation by grace through faith), while other doctrines do not bear this weight (e.g., the ministry of angels). In response, it is interesting that St. Thomas considers that all doctrinal reasoning is undertaken with a view to “the salvation of men.” This includes, significantly, his treatises on the angels, the virtues, marriage, and a host of other supposedly “inessential” doctrines. It is a diminished view indeed which limits the definition of salvation to the avoidance of hell; on the contrary, it is that and much more—to the tune of “every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph 1:3).
 I have recently been mulling the notion that theology is particularly necessary in light of the fact that the human vocation seems to include the responsibility to speak about God. As the psalmist, for instance, says: “I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and salvation. I do not conceal your love and your truth from the great assembly” (Ps 40:10). There is, therefore, a social responsibility implied in divine revelation which appears to require linguistic mediation. Granted, “being human” is not exhaustively defined in these terms, but, nevertheless, it seems correlative that the intellectual contemplation of God is something we should do in seeking to discipline our theological speech for the purpose of better approximating our created end, that is, “for the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:12).