One of the newest treasures on my bookshelf is the recently completed four-volume set, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation (compiled and with introductions by James T. Dennison, Jr).
First of all, yes, I am fully aware of how much of an historical theology nerd that confirms me to be.
Second, I call this a treasure because it’s incredible to see not only the depth of biblical insight in these confessions but also the love for Christ and his gospel that echo across every page, offering a reminder of the many saints who have gone before and labored to lift high the saving work and name of Jesus Christ.
To wit, here’s part of a short entry that I read this morning, produced by a group of preachers and teachers in East Friesland, Germany. Written in 1528, it is, arguably the “first Protestant confession” (according to Tanis), because it predates even the Augsburg Confession (1530). [Although Zwingli’s “Sixty-seven Articles” was published in 1523, most regard that as a set of articles prepared for a disputation rather than a confessional statement.]
The confession itself includes 33 Articles, many of which deal with the key issues of the day, i.e. justification by faith alone and the nature and function of the sacraments. What caught my eye, however, was the concluding section, entitled, “A most brief summary and confession of our believing”. Here’s what they wrote:
We believe only in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; that is, we confess and accept forgiveness of our sins, eternal righteousness and salvation solely from God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth; solely through God the Son, our mediator, Jesus Christ, solely through God the Holy Spirit, our comfort’s guarantee. We renounce in every respect what is not of God Himself and His work, keeping nothing unnecessary or detrimental to our salvation.
Affirmation. Following then these articles written above concerning God and the one mediator, Christ, we, grounded in Holy Scripture, may not suppress teaching as long as our sheep desire to hear the voice of their righteous Father through us, inadequate servants. In this case we must obey God more than men. If it is the case that some regard particular Scriptural sayings as having another interpretation than we have, or even error and false teaching, we may and will not condemn them as unchristian, heretics, and false teachers, so far as through their understanding of the doctrine of Christ, the sole righteous Mediator, it does not take or lead them to other works and things necessary and beneficial for righteousness and salvation, but agree with us that Christ Himself is the only Lord, righteousness, and salvation for all the elect children of God.
If they then condemn us on account of our understanding as unchristian, heretics, and false teachers, we shall rejoice and thank God that in the last day they shall not appear before Christ, who shall be our judge, for the way we interpreted the Scriptures and taught the people with respect to salvation.
Test believers and the spirits according to the right measure of Scripture (1 Cor 14:29; Rom 12:7; 1 John 4:1,6).
Men may in many places, commandments, and sayings of Scripture fail to grasp the right meaning of the Holy Spirit on account of imperfection; for this reason one needs this summary, which is Christ, that faith in Him not miss the mark, nor lose it entirely (1 Cor 13:9,12). Our knowledge and prophecy remain piece work, yet in them we may increase day by day (Col 1:9; Eph 1:17; Acts 15:32,41)
–The Confession of the East Friesland Preachers (1528), Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, vol 1: 1523-1552.
I was particularly struck by how candidly yet charitably they acknowledged those with whom they disputed. Insofar as Christ and his saving work is not minimized or compromised, they said, we will not condemn anyone as heretical, even if we disagree about the interpretation of Scripture at various points. Insofar as they condemn us as heretical, they went on to say, we recognize that we will have to give account to Christ for the way in which we handled his Word. In the meantime, they conclude, we commit ourselves to continue to study the word and increase in our understanding of the God whom we worship and serve.
Not a bad model for those who preach in every age, is it?