Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective as a Living Letter

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective as a Living Letter

Article excerpt

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, (1) 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. (2) 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?


Language operates in other ways besides the four to be discussed. …

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