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On Signing Statements of Faith

November 3, 2011

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.[1]

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.[2]

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).[3] 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.[4]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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).

[4] 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).

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2011 11:38 pm

    “Do I see myself in the statement?” Spoken like a true Schleiermachian.

  2. November 3, 2011 11:52 pm

    Justin, in all seriousness, I think this pretty helpfully gets at some of the functionality of confessional statements and their significance for those who work beneath them and with their substance. You acknowledge at the beginning that doctrines also “refer”, but you speak as if their *ultimate* purpose is political or formational, which seems wrong to me. To be sure, doctrinal statements do have political and formative function in the church and always have. But it seems to me that they have this quality only by virtue of their “descriptive function”, by which I mean their power to articulate shared beliefs about what is true. In other words, I wonder if thinking of doctrinal statements in terms of their power to form community does not involve, in its own way, a doctrine of implicit faith.

  3. johram.com permalink
    November 4, 2011 12:21 am

    Great post.

  4. November 4, 2011 9:27 am

    Justin: I like the notion of equating the signing of a statement of faith with coming alongside that community, moving into the future in love and commitment rather than hostility (e.g. “I really want this job, and maybe if I sign this now I can work to undo what I don’t like about it in 10-20 years”). And as much as I tend to find myself ill at ease with some of the doctrinal positions upon which schools decide to take their stand, I recognize the very practical realities of identity formation, preserving distinctives, etc.

    Those practical realities, just as they may be, however, have consequences — namely, the more detailed and specific one’s statement of faith is, and the more strictly it is enforced by the administration, faculty, and trustees, the less room there is for free-thinking. I might agree with a given doctrine as I’ve come to wrestle through and describe it; how much overlap does my own understanding need to have with the school’s definition? Can I change my mind (tenured professors do end up staying on at a school for decades — plenty of time for theological shifts to take place)? Can I push my students to critically think through those doctrines, and why their institution has arrived at the stance that it has, without being drawn up on charges of sedition?

    Free-thinking is a hallmark of the academy, and many institutions simply do not permit it — or permit it within a scope so narrow that theologians have as much freedom to explore as my children do when I tell them they are free to play anywhere in their bedroom but must not leave it.

    Again, I grant the practical realities — but that’s the trade-off you get. You get a community that is theologically (relatively) unified, and you can assure paying parents and donors that this institution propogates their worldview. But you can’t have that and free, critical thinking, too.

  5. November 4, 2011 5:22 pm

    as you know, I think this is brilliant. good questions by Tim and Darren above too.

  6. November 5, 2011 11:05 pm

    Yes, I like this.

    I think Darren is spot on as well.

    Justin</strong, given the context, I would imagine that you wrote this with Bible Colleges and Seminaries in mind; would you also apply this to churches (denominations) as well? I.e. If you were applying for a pastoral position. Do you think that academic freedom and cultivation should be limited to academic spheres (like Bible Colleges and Seminaries), or would you be able to apply your principles to the pastorate as well (within a denomination)?

  7. November 7, 2011 9:53 am

    Response to Tim: we’ve talked about this over a few drams of Black Bull, but to reiterate: I’m not talking about doctrines, I’m talking about statements of faith.

  8. November 7, 2011 10:06 am

    Response to Darren: yeah, there is a trade-off. As an academic-y kind of person, I certainly resonate with a free-thinking sort of atmosphere – being in a university, it’s been really nice doing whatever I damn well please (in submission to the Bible of course…). But there are advantages of working in a confessional environment, too. For one, it means that your work is actually in service to a concrete situation, which makes you less of a freelance contractor and more a part of something bigger. It also could make your theology less critical in the long run, since your goal is to build on a foundation rather than simply to ask deconstructive questions. That said, communities that I personally would feel comfortable working in would have to include, on principle, a healthy dose of semper reformanda – and this is what I think you’re getting at. But then again, if institutions would heed my wise advice and view doctrinal statements in the way I’m suggesting, it would do a lot to de-emphasise this wall-building, custodial attitude that tends to stifle good (i.e., faithful) theological creativity.

    Now, as for one’s own (potentially) changing personal orientation to the doctrinal statement – that’s definitely something to keep in mind. And institutions need to create an open context where faculty can talk through these things, at least behind closed doors, without fear of immediate retribution. Again, though, if the criterion is ultimately – is this professor capable of serving THIS community? (rather than, has this person departed from the one true faith) – some heat will hopefully be dissipated. In terms of students – I suppose it depends on the stated goal of the institution – whether matriculation is limited to students who have no reservations on the statement, or whether the community is accommodating of people from different theological backgrounds. I don’t know man – a bit of wisdom is probably a good thing here.

  9. November 7, 2011 10:09 am

    Response to Bobby: yes, I think this works in church situations too. The whole point is: how can we reconceive doctrinal statements so that our first question is, what is my *positive* relation to the statement? to these people? That would be a healthy perspective in any confessional context, I imagine.

  10. November 7, 2011 9:33 pm

    Justin,

    I agree with you; I just don’t think what you’re after is very real, at least in my experience in the Evangelical world (and especially in the various church confessional stances that give shape to the Evangelical landscape).

  11. November 7, 2011 10:03 pm

    Well, it’s real enough – that is, I think this is the way that doctrinal statements actually work – people just tend to think of them differently despite their actual use. It’s my job, as the world’s prophet, to correct that attitude (winky face).

  12. November 7, 2011 10:25 pm

    Justin,

    I’m not doubting that your points on doctrinal statements function is correct; but that there is an Evangelical culture out there that functions in kind. But prophesy on; I too am part of ‘the school of the prophets’ 😉 .

  13. November 9, 2011 12:49 pm

    @Justin,

    Can you give me an example of a statement of faith that does not employ doctrines? Doctrines and statements of faith are two different things – one might have a doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Christ, for instance, but not confess faith in it. But it seems to me that statements of faith can serve their proper ecclesial function only by virtue of their doctrinal content, unless faith’s ultimate object is a community, e.g., implicit faith. This is not to say that doctrinal content can be articulated apart from an existing ecclesial context, but it is to say that statements of faith point beyond this context to a reality independent of it.

  14. November 14, 2011 4:52 pm

    Justin, I appreciate this thoughtful post, which is very timely for me as I’m considering at least short-term work with an institution whose statement of faith is somewhat narrower than I’d like, but is something I can still see myself signing onto (with qualifications, about which I’d be open). (How’s that for a convoluted sentence?) I wonder, though, about situations where a person desires and feels called to work with a particular organization but cannot fully sign on in the way you describe it here. I hope that would lead to dialogue with the powers-that-be at that institution, but I’m not sure that’s always possible. So signing on – not in a deceptive sense but in a discreetly qualified sense (e.g., “sure, I believe the Bible is *theologically* inerrant…”) may sometimes be necessary. What do you think?

  15. November 15, 2011 2:12 am

    Brad – I would say that if one literally disagrees with a doctrinal statement, it probably shouldn’t be signed. But as you suggest, openness is key – which is why I wrote this little essay to accompany a particular job application, i.e., so that the department understood what I thought I was doing when I signed their statement. The strength of this view, as I see it, concerns primarily those statements which include things which you aren’t really convicted about one way or the other. So, for instance, if you’re uncertain about inerrancy, in the sense that you’re haven’t tied up all the loose ends in your head, but nevertheless see no major doctrinal errors bound up with such a position, then I think you can sign in the sense I’ve described. What that implies, though, is that you’re willing to put yourself in the service of a pro-inerrancy community, which means ringing every positive bit you can out of that doctrine out of love for those people. Not only that, but it’s also saying that you’re willing to include that doctrine, at least implicitly, in your own work in other areas. The point is: by signing a statement you’re essentially expressing a willingness to give up your “rights” as a free-thinking academic for the sake of a particular community – not just for a job, but hopefully in response to a word from God that this is what you’re supposed to do. Granted, this sort of calling is not given to everyone – I think theology in the university is a good thing too; but if you’re going confessional, I can’t see how that doesn’t entail some sort of significant change in one’s academic disposition.

  16. Bob permalink
    November 15, 2011 8:54 pm

    I just came across your post. There’s a lot to like. However, I tend to think that you don’t go far enough: I suspect that there’s nothing wrong with (a) signing a statement of faith that contains statements you take to be false and (b) hiding this fact entirely. I reason as follows. Granted, if you satisfy (a) and (b), you’re lying to the community. But there is no good argument for a universal ban on lying; the best you can do is make a case against lying *absent compelling considerations*. And there are indeed compelling considerations to lie about your relation to a statement of faith. First, there are the problems with the statements themselves: they are often poorly crafted; they are often holdovers from days of yore; they presuppose a constancy of mind that many academics lack; they usually serve divisive purposes in churches and academic institutions; they sometimes seem to presuppose that belief is voluntary (as if you could believe these things by wanting to do so badly enough); etc. Second, there are the various reasons why you might want to join the relevant community: you feel called to be a part of this community, and it is one that would exclude you otherwise; you want to serve these people, and you are prepared to work and theorize and live *as if* you affirmed their statement; you want to affirm their statement, and you believe that it is only by joining their community that you’ll be able to do so; etc. Given these various considerations, where’s the wrong in signing?

  17. Candace Young permalink
    November 18, 2011 9:16 pm

    Is there any chance I could get your last name so I could properly reference your article? I was writing a paper over Statement of Faith and wanted to refer to your article in it.

  18. Candace Young permalink
    November 20, 2011 8:27 pm

    nevermind! I found it on the about us page. 🙂

  19. October 1, 2016 8:31 am

    In forming community, the Bible states that by One Spirit are we baptized into the body of Christ. Doctrinal statements do not and are not equivalent to the Holy Spirit in this work.

    • October 1, 2016 9:07 am

      In some ways i agree with this article, for i felt like i signed a statement of faith that cannot truly represent the Bible in completeness on a particular doctrine. i feel as though i allowed a lie to tarnish my heart.
      Statements of faith can and are being used to bring those that believe Biblically together with those that are nearly apostate in belief. For example the communion of the Saints mentioned in Apostles Creed. The Catholic Church interprets that in a way that is basically spiritualist and similar to ancestor worship. I personally would say that the Saints are those presently living Spirit filled believers that there is a Spirit of fellowship with, and did not refer to Believers that had passed on.
      I would shudder at the idea that somehow my assent to what i believe could be so radically misconstrued as agreement with the Catholic Religion and a basis for community with them. That is a very false result and yet it is exactly happening today.

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