Starting a study of The French Confession

John Calvin ORLANDO, Fla. – During a plenary meeting for the National Gathering of the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, Joseph Small pointed out the need to be a confessing church.

“It is the faith we proclaim to ourselves and the world of who we are, what we believe and what we resolve to do,” said Small, a theologian, author and ecumenist who served as director of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of Theology and Worship.  “We’re not simply to be a confessional church but a confessing church to share the faith.”

Small made his comments as part of a kickoff for a year-long study of The French Confession of 1559 at the gathering in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 1.

Small mentioned that books of confessions generally are viewed in one of two ways. There’s the liberal view, which sees them as a dusty, mildly interesting look at what people used to confess long ago far away, or nothing more than a museum piece. The other view is that of a law book that provides statements used to test the orthodoxy of other people.

But there’s more to confessions, Small said, noting that some 60-80 reformed confessions were being written in the 16th century, and many of those have endured the test of time.

“What you have in The Book of Confessions is wisdom, insight and encouragement of those who lived and died the faith before us,” he explained. “John Calvin and others said it is the responsibility of every people of every community to express the faith of their time and place.”

Small pointed out that The Book of Confessions is meant to free those of faith from bondage.

“We’re called to be people in touch with the confessions,” he said. “It liberates us from the prison we’re in, the tiny little cell of our own time and place. We’re subject to so many influences we may not even be aware of, and to hear the living faith of our forebears sets us free.

“We are answerable to confessions before the confessions are answerable to us. We need to hear what they have to say to us.”

So why study The French Confession in 2013? Small gave a number of reasons.

The book is unfamiliar, therefore, it may be able to reach its readers in a way that others don’t because it is something strange and new.

It is a confession that is more reflective of the mature theology of Calvin, who was French, and is concerned with the health, safety and well-being of the Reformed church in France.

The book comes from a small minority of Reformed churches in France that had been subject to regular persecution. It expressed their beliefs, proclamation to themselves and their persecutors, and their choices for living.

It also looks at taken-for-granted assumptions of who God is, who we are and what we are here to do with one another. Basically, it is the truths Christians live by, combining belief and trust to produce faith.

Small also pointed out some features of The French Confession that make it helpful to those reading and studying.

It is totally Trinitarian, telling that God is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

“There is a danger of reducing God to an awesome, all-powerful, praiseworthy deity or problem solver there to rescue us in time of need,” Small said. “This tells us what God does in Christ, in the Spirit and through His providential care. It restores who He is.”

Small described The French Confession as richly Christological, confirming the centrality of Christ and how He was sent to die on the cross for the good of the entire world. It also is deeply sacramental, not just in rituals performed like baptism and The Lord’s Supper, but in ways the church body can unite with Christ.

It also is deemed strongly ecclesiastical and thoroughly Scriptural by Small.

“Throughout The French Confession, there is that warm confidence in the real presence of Christ, that He came for us to be one of us,” Small said. “For The French Confession, Scripture is that which is the norm that norms all other norms. It is the standard by which theology, liturgy and pronouncements are judged. Everything is judged in faith and life by the Holy Scripture.”

Small encouraged those taking part in the study of The French Confession to allow a reformation and renewal to take place within them through the Word of God.

“Listen to what it has to say and view it as a challenge because these are confessions in the reformed tradition,” Small said. “It’s a way to unite with Christ, who is really present.”