Navigating Confessionalism and Contextualism

Between Scylla and Charybdis (Heading for a Crash)
Between Scylla and Charybdis (Heading for a Crash) (Photo credit: Sheila Ryan)

Earlier this year (2012), I was part of a panel of writers asked by Christian Courier to briefly reply to this question: “What is the most important issue currently facing the Reformed tradition?” Below is my answer that was published in Christian Courier, Jan. 23, 2012 issue, p. 3 (online pdf version here). It relates nicely to my previous post on theological blind spots, to which I have a little more to add at the end of the article. First, here’s my article.


I believe the biggest issue facing the Reformed tradition in North America is how to navigate between the two extremes of confessionalism and contextualism. Confessionalism makes adherence to a traditional formulation of beliefs as the ultimate good. Contextualism, on the other hand, makes engagement and relevance to contemporary culture and life as the ultimate good. We need to walk the fine balance between them. We need to take traditional Reformed beliefs seriously without equating them with infallible Scripture. We need to engage and be informed by cultural concerns without letting them dictate our theologizing of Scripture. This tension is present in most recent controversies.

We see this tension between confessionalism and contextualism, for example, in the recent controversy on evolutionary science and the origins of humanity. How much do we let science and its discoveries inform and shape how we read and theologize Scripture? And how much are we willing to go against long cherished beliefs enshrined in our Reformed confessions? I suspect the knee-jerk reaction of many to recent scientific challenges betray a confessionalism confused as faithfulness to Scripture. Even the debates in the Christian Reformed Church surrounding the Belhar Confession, including related topics like the gospel’s relation to social justice, orthopraxis and orthodoxy, are shaped by divisions between those who lean to confessionalism and those who lean to contextualism.

Connected to these disagreements is the deep issue of identity – what does it mean to be Reformed? Confessionalists tend to answer that traditional Reformed beliefs enshrined in the “Three Forms of Unity” for example, or like John Piper and his ilk would say enshrined in the acronym TULIP, are what defines Reformed Christianity. Contextualists might point to the slogan, “a reformed church is always reforming,” and/or other themes. Contextualists might also engage the recent missional church movement more positively.

Entangled in all these controversies are our youth and young adults. I believe that most young adults want a Reformed Christianity that robustly engages contemporary questions yet rooted in the historic beliefs. They do not want either a fossilized but clear theological system irrelevant to their pressing questions or a dynamic cultural and social conscience but fuzzy in its beliefs and identity. And their voices need to be heard and engaged if North American Reformed Christianity is to find a way between confessionalism and contextualism.


Lesslie Newbigin was Moderator of the General ...
Lesslie Newbigin was Moderator of the General Assembly of the URC in 1978/1979. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In relation to my previous post on theological blind spots, we can say that both confessionalists and contextualists suffer from blind spots caused by either submitting to the past (confessionalism) or to contemporary currents (contextualism). Theologian and missionary Lesslie Newbigin, referred to in the previous post, also talks of the same tension, as quoted here by Mike Goheen:

Newbigin saw two dangers to theological faithfulness. On the one hand, if the church simply repeats theological formulations from the past or from another culture her faith will be irrelevant to the current problems of the present. On the other hand, making relevance to the issues and needs of the present the primary concern harboured the danger of a compromising accommodation. The church would be syncretistically absorbed into the current idols of the culture. Newbigin expresses this twofold danger graphically in terms of a ‘jelly fish’ or ‘petrified fossil’ church: ‘. . . there are Churches which have so evaded the duty of articulate confession that they have become, like jelly fish, incapable of moving in any direction but that of the tide; but there are also examples of Churches which have so identified faith with blind submission to authoritatively prescribed formulae that they have become but petrified fossils, having the form of the Church but not its life’. (Goheen, Michael W. Theology in Context:Lesslie Newbigin’s Contribution, Christian Courier, 2668 (9 July, 2001): 16-17.)

Which of these two – Confessionalism (petrified fossil) or Contextualism (jelly fish) – do you see as a greater threat to the church in your part of the world?

What do YOU think is the most important issue facing the Reformed Christian tradition today?

5 thoughts on “Navigating Confessionalism and Contextualism


    Why does Satan want you to stay away from the the watery grave of baptism?

    1. Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.

    Lucifer wants you dry so you cannot be saved.

    2. Acts 8:39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing.

    Beelzebub wants you dry to prevent you from rejoicing.

    3. Acts 22:16 Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.

    The Devil wants you dry so your sins will not be washed away.

    4. Galatians 3:27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

    The prince of darkness wants you dry so you will not be clothed with Christ.

    5. Acts 2:41,47 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. 47 …And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

    Satan wants you dry because he does not want you saved and subsequently added to the Lord’s church.

    6. Romans 6:4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

    The prince of devils wants you dry to keep you from walking in a new life with Christ.

    7. Romans 6:6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin;

    Lucifer wants you dry so you will remain a slave to sin.

    8. Romans 6:11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

    Beelzebub wants you dry so you cannot be alive to God in Christ Jesus.

    9. 1 Peter 3:21 Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh , but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    The prince of the devils wants you dry because he does not want you to be saved.

    10. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    Lucifer wants you dry because he does not want you to have your sins forgiven nor does he want you to receive indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit.

    11. Colossians 2:12-13 ..buried with Him in baptism…13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions.

    Beelzebub wants you dry because he does not want your transgressions forgiven.

    12. Titus 3:5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have dine in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,

    The Devil want you dry so will remain unsaved.

    13. John 3:5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

    The prince of darkness wants you dry in order to keep you from entering the kingdom of God.

    14. Ephesians 5:25-27 …Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26 so that He might sanctify her , having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory , having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.

    Satan wants you dry because he does not want you sanctified, cleansed, nor holy and blameless.

    15. Revelation 20:15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

    Lucifer wants you dry because he does not want your name written in the Lamb’s book of life.He want you to be thrown into the lake of fire.



  2. Thanks for this post Chong. Jellyfish and fossil are easy images to hold onto in the middle of a discussion. I’m wondering if the Christian Reformed Church could write its own ‘Belhar’ that would walk a closer line – closer references to scripture and other confessions when dealing with the Belhar’s issues of unity with human kind and loving others. Would that be an insult to the Belhar? Has the CRC tried this already?


    1. I don’t think the CRC tried this. Many have pointed out that the Contemporary Testimony already mentions issues that are touched by the Belhar.
      I think an annotated version of the Belhar might be possible.


  3. I find this really interesting and had never heard this particular nuance before. Its ironic because I suspect that even this clarity becomes a bit fuzzy when we look at context.

    I was one of the few that I knew that was not thrilled with adopting the Belhar. It had nothing to do with its content but rather its intent to join the Three Forms of Unity. Having struggled to come to terms with the forms and to even begin to appreciate how to apply them in today’s world exposed me to people far wiser than I who admitted they didn’t necessarily believe it all but signed off on them anyway.

    Can any document that addresses a wrong stay contextual? And can a document that is grouped with other documents that have lost their context be seen as relevant in and of itself?

    I don’t know how the youth responded to the Belhar. I believe that the youth of today are savy enough to know that we need help with racism, sexism and lots of other isms – probably even isms I’m not aware of. How do we become a jelly fish with a spine? We need the theology but in a practical form, we need to teach it but to do it.

    Sadly I’ve done what others have done. Taken great lessons in thelogy from the Reformed tradition to live them out in another. There has to be a better way.


    1. Thanks Vic. I agree that there has to be a better way. Perhaps, by God’s grace, we will stumble onto one!
      I believe that the majority of the younger generation would be content, even if not enthusiastic but content, with the Belhar Confession as a Confession. I don’t think there is the same antagonism or resistance to it among the youth at large. There is a minority of youths who are against the Belhar.

      And I also agree with you that no written document can stay contextual forever. It is why we always have to interpret texts and re-apply them. It is also why we need to write new confessions from time to time, like the Belhar. And, in my opinion, why we need new confessions alongside, not to replace, the old ones because we need that confessional/theological dialogue across history to prevent either confessionalism (sticking only to the old) or contextualism (replacing old with only new ones), and to help us with our blind spots.


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