Why is a historic classical, Protestant, evangelical doctrinal confession credible, relevant and appropriate to undergird fellowship together in this common mission and ethos?
Faith seeking understanding
For many years evangelical university ministries have identified matters such as the atonement, justification and the doctrine of Scripture as primary issues which provide a vision to celebrate as well as foundations and meaningful boundaries.
But how are these relevant to the formation of a Christian mind, and the development of the Christian intellectual tradition? Are traditional articulations still tenable? More broadly, how can the concept of confessional boundaries survive within a context which takes academic freedom seriously?
Who are we in the university?
We believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that by believing we have life in his name. To those who believed he gave the right to be called children of God. As people of this gospel – or the ‘evangel’ – we find our identity in him who is ‘our representative and substitute’, as our statement of faith puts it. What does this mean? Our doctrinal statement provides our point of reference for unity as the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. The use of the word ‘evangelical’ dates from the earliest generations of church history, and was used frequently during the time of the Reformation. In some contexts today it is used sociologically or politically and this can be confusing. We are using the word with particular reference to our doctrine.
What the Doctrinal Basis Is and Is Not
Scripture models the use of mini-confessions where key tenets of the faith are listed out in a brief form (cf. John 1:1-18, 20:31; Rom 1:2-5; 1 Cor 15:3-7; 1 Tim 1:15 & 3:16; Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:1-4). Their points are like tent pegs – they are not the whole tent: they are not expected to set out a full intellectual vision or clarify our mission. But they are the points which together secure the whole. Because they are so important these foundational truths come under significant attack (1 John 2:22; Gal 1:6-10; Phil 3:2; 2 Pet. 3:16; 2 Tim 2:17, 3:13-17). Our evangelical confession is classical, Protestant and non-denominational:
- Being classical it is fully in line with the ecumenical creeds.
- Being Protestant means it includes important clarifications around the gospel and the doctrine of Scripture which were the fruit of the Reformation.
- In this context its being non-denominational means it encourages unity in mission by holding back from taking certain positions on secondary matters such as baptism or church government.
Our doctrinal confession is relevant
Our mission and doctrine are closely linked. While there is much to be learned from other traditions, our own focus is to cultivate the evangelical mind, so that a clear gospel-centred intellectual perspective can contribute to the wider ‘faith and academia’ conversation. In some of those contexts briefer creeds have been chosen, such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. While we of course affirm these creeds we are grateful that our confession also includes the following key elements:
- Scripture as our supreme authority. Of course we can and should learn from other sources, but Scripture alone is the inspired word of God, and is therefore to function as the supreme means through which God guides us as we carry out our mission by his Spirit.
- Christ’s bearing of the punishment for our sin is central to our mission and ethos. The offence of the cross is foolishness to the unbelieving mind but to us it encourages the intellectual humility we need for good academic work. God’s justice expressed at the cross is Scripture’s clearest signal that we live in a stable and meaningful universe where actions have significance such that divine forgiveness requires Christ’s death.
- Justification by faith alone is directly relevant to the content of the gospel (of God’s free grace, not of works), the way we share the gospel (using words by necessity, because justification is only by union with Christ, who is not physically present in this age), and the positional basis on which we as Christians undertake our royal stewardship over God’s creation (our humanity is restored through his resurrection as the Last Adam).
As the church encounters new questions or challenges – sometimes on topics not included in our doctrinal statement – church history shows that the characteristic response of faithfulness is to work internally together on clarifications which help us to apply our historic confession consistently in a changing world.