The first confessional churches were established by the Anabaptists from 1530 onwards. They suffered severe setbacks after the collapse of their lunatic millennial kingdom at Munster in 1535 but regrouped thereafter under the leadership of a former Catholic priest, Menno Simons to become a much more Biblical community of believers. The Anabaptists were confessional almost from the outset. An Anabaptist theology was clearly defined which distinguished them from other evangelicals, believer’s baptism, the gathered church and use of the ban (excommunication) being the most essential ingredients. Pacifism, refusal to swear oaths, to do military service or to take any part in civil government also became defining characteristics of the movement.
Outside Anabaptist circles the whole process took much longer. No explicitly Lutheran churches were established until 1566. In the 1520s and 30s evangelicals would continue to go to Mass and then meet in the pub for Bible-based discussion after the service. Out of these groups grew regular Bible study and discussion groups which church historians call conventicles. Evangelicals who approached Luther for advice on forming a more coherent underground church were strongly discouraged from so doing. Other foreign reformers offered similar advice. In the early 1540s the Strasbourg reformer Wolfgang Capito advised against quitting the Roman church despite all her imperfections.
It was not until 1543-44 that evangelicals living in the Netherlands were counselled to abandon the Roman church. When Calvin heard that evangelicals were still going to Mass he was horrified. He wrote a pamphlet in which on the basis of Romans 10:10 he argued that genuine faith must find appropriate outward expression. If the Mass dishonours God, said Calvin, how then can an evangelical honour it with his presence? Many in the evangelical community thought that Calvin was being over harsh and complained of such and a spokesman for them made the somewhat unwise suggestion that Calvin write another tract to set their minds at rest. In his Excuse to the Nicodemites, Calvin condemned Nicodemism (secret discipleship) and called for commitment:
How long will you go on limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him, but if Baal, then follow him.
The impact of Calvin’s advice was highly significant for Dutch evangelicals. By the mid 1550s churches were beginning to be formed. The most significant was a thriving congregation established in Antwerp led by a gifted pastor by the name of Adriaen van Haemstede. There was also a distinct change in the pattern of evangelical publishing in this period. Non-confessional loosely evangelical pamphlets were largely replaced by catechisms, psalm-books, church orders and the like which were specifically designed for use within the Reformed community. Calvin’s anti-Nicodemite tracts which had appeared in French in the 1540s were now translated into Dutch alongside other books of a similar ilk.
At the same time as an explicitly confessional Calvinist church was being established in the Netherlands, Calvinism was becoming the dominant variety of Protestantism all over Europe. The model church Calvin had established in Geneva was rolled out in France, Scotland, Germany and beyond. Calvin’s Institutes (definitive edition 1559) made him the dominant theologian of the Protestant churches. Success brought its fair share of problems. In France civil war had begun to brew by the time of Calvin’s death and aspects of Calvin’s theology, particularly the doctrine of double predestination came under fire both from Catholic and Protestant theologians alike. Calvin himself was prepared to live with “loose ends” and never sought in doctrine to go beyond where Scripture was explicit. After Calvin’s death in 1564, however, his successors, notably Theodore Beza in an ironic canonization of their hero and mentor felt a need to defend every aspect of his theology to the nth degree. This led to an over-rigid over defined theology amongst the Calvinist churches by the start of the seventeenth century both in the Netherlands and in Europe as a whole.
Of what interest and significance is this for us? There are, I think, a couple of interesting parallels. First, like Calvin back in the 1550s we have established new churches both in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Newfrontiers as a family of churches traces its roots back to the “Restoration” movement in the 1970s. The Charismatic movement in the 1960s had seen an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in mainstream denominational churches. For some in those churches the end game was renewal and God has undoubtedly and wonderfully blessed churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton that have grown out of that experience. For us, there was a more radical approach. Without suggesting for a moment that British denominational churches were like the Church of Rome in the sixteenth century like Calvin, we adopted a more root and branch approach to applying what God was doing amongst us and, in our determination to see a New Testament pattern, new churches were birthed.
So far so good. The danger now is that like the Calvinists in the immediate post-Calvin period we over-confessionalize. Back in 2009 when Mark Driscoll was with us at Brighton he encouraged a number of routes forward that, for various reasons we have chosen not to take. Terry Virgo has not handed over to one successor and we have chosen to go the way of multiplication. We have not dispatched the word “family” from our strapline believing that it is an apt and appropriate descriptor of how New Testament churches functioned and related together. Mark also encouraged us to write lots of theology. This could be both a good thing and potentially a bad thing. Clearly, gifted thinkers in our movement such as Andrew Wilson and Phil Moore should be writing all sorts of books – Bible commentaries, apologetics etc. But Mark, as I recall, was encouraging something more than this. He was encouraging us to define our theology more concretely as a movement, in other words, to confessionalize. This has never been our style as a movement. All sorts of people over the years have either encouraged us to have a statement of faith or have been amazed that we didn’t already have one! We have resisted and should continue to do so. Our identity as a family of churches, a movement, has never been defined by a theology we all need to sign up to (the nearest we ever got was 17 values that don’t say anything at all about many of the central doctrines of evangelical Christianity). That sounds slightly strange as it could imply we are not very serious about theology when, of course, the reverse is true. Terry Virgo always insisted that it was relationships that held us together. I would suggest that it is not so much relationships that have held us together, but doing things in a context of relationships. This is what Paul defines as fellowship, koinonia, partnership in the Gospel (Philippians 1:5). Let’s write great theology by all means, but let’s never try and come up with a confessional statement for Newfrontiers churches. It didn’t work for the Calvinists in the second generation and it won’t work for us.