The Act of Confessing
In the act of confession, says theologian John Webster, “the church binds itself to the gospel” (119). Our confessional documents and creeds are intimately tied to this act, he says, but it would be a mistake to confuse these formal products of the church’s confession for the act of confession itself. Thus “the creed is a good servant but a bad master: it assists, but cannot replace, the act of confession” (120). To hold to one’s confession as “an achieved formula” risks quenching the Holy Spirit, who is living and active in the churches, and going one’s own way.
The essay is “Confession and Confessions,” published in the really excellent 2001 volume Nicene Christianity (ed. Christopher R. Seitz). Here Webster models the sort of approach to theological inquiry that he was so good at, and in fact which marked all of his work: where lesser theologians might take a given topic and jump straight into the doctrine, its history, its biblical basis, and its functioning in the contemporary church (all good questions to pursue, mind you!) John tarries, pondering the topic on a more fundamental level and lingering on its relationship to the triune God and God’s gracious communion with God’s creatures.
So here, for example, instead of leaping to “What do we confess?” and “How do we confess?” and “What does confession do for our churches?” Webster has begun with the question: What is the act of confession in the economy of God’s self-giving?
This act can be expanded in three directions, Webster says:
(1) The act of confession originates in revelation (121). Confessing is of course a human act, but it is one which takes its start (and therefore its content and its direction) from a prior act of God. This act is “God’s communicative self-presence, the gracious and saving self-communication of God the Lord.” And it is generative not only of the church’s confession, but of its very life. And because this self-communicating of God is a movement, and because it is on-going, it is “a gift that cannot be converted into a possession” – as if Christians might now hear and take up and objectify the One whom it confesses.
(2) The act of confession is a responsive, not a spontaneous, act (122). It is the church’s obedience to God the Lord, who has graciously addressed it and summoned it to listen and to speak. This act therefore must be rooted in God’s triune life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, born not from the church’s creative speech about God but from the Father, the Son, and the Spirit’s dealings with creatures. In this sense confessions are not even reducible to human speech that is uttered in response to grace; God makes the church’s confession and gives it as a gift, and the church trusts God to accomplish and bring to completion its own act of confessing.
(3) The act of confession is an episode in the conflict between God and sin that is at the center of the drama of salvation (122). It does not stand apart from the drama of salvation. The encounter between God and creatures is not just any encounter, but one in which God is confronting sin – sin, which is in part “the refusal to confess.” And so the church’s confession of God is, more precisely, confession of the God who saves; and confession is itself an act of repentance. It is rebellion against the disorder of the world, a joining in with God’s radical overturning of evil.
Perhaps most significant in Webster’s theological account of confession is the conviction that confession is the mode in which the church exists, rather than the production of documents and doctrinal codes. The church “does not convert the drama of redemption into a set of propositions to be policed” (130). And so our creeds are binding, in a sense; but theologically we must acknowledge that this authority comes neither from the creed as an artifact nor from the church and its power to bind and loose, but from the God who is the object of its testimony. The authority of the creed is not self-standing, separable from its own submission to the Word of God. The creed “has the authority of the herald, not the magistrate” (130).
In sum, says Webster, “creeds bind because, and only because, the gospel binds.” Any other sort of untethered propositionalism merely mistakes the structures of human reasoning – even if it be biblical reasoning – for the genuine article of God’s activity in the world.
Confession is finally a spiritual act, an act of worship, the result of God’s having “invaded and annexed” human life. To remain a living act of confessing the church’s confession should be characterized by “astonished and chastened hearing of the Word and by grateful and afflicted witness” (121). That is a tightly-packed and deeply beautiful statement, and a charge to our churches today: its confession of Jesus Christ and his gospel is born out of gratitude (Calvin), witnessing to the act of God on its behalf (Barth), but in so doing ever remaining astonished, chastened in its speech and afflicted out of its self-comfort. To confess the gospel is to be drawn – forced – outside of one’s self.
There is no self-confidence here. There is no self-righteousness. There is only joyful bewilderment, a public acknowledgement of the miracle that God has had mercy on me, a sinner.