One criticism that many people, especially those from non-denonimational backgrounds, levy against Presbyterians is that Presbyterians are confessional. That is, we have a doctrinal statement to which our ministers and other church officers must subscribe. Some charge that we have elevated a human document to the level of divine authority, putting it alongside Scripture, or even above Scripture. However, I would argue that doctrinal statements are not merely useful, but almost necessary in our pluralistic age. Dr. John Frame has written on this far more persuasively than I can. So, let me refer the reader to his paper, Introduction to the Reformed Faith.
Dr. Frame makes two arguments that are particularly helpful. First, he notes that, to say that one is a Christian or that one believes the Bible does not really say anything. "All sorts of people today claim to be Christians, and even Bible-believers, who are actually far from the kingdom of Christ. [Theological] Liberals, cultists, and new-age syncretists abound. When you visit a neighbor, inviting him to church, he has a right to know what you believe. If you tell him you are a Christian and believe the Bible, he has a right to ask the further question, "what do you (and your church) think the Bible teaches?" That is the question which creeds and confessions are designed to answer. A creed is simply a summary of an individual's or church's beliefs as to the teachings of Scripture. And there can be no objection, surely, to placing such a summary in writing for the convenience of members and inquirers."
His second argument, which is near the end of the paper is, in my opinion, equally compelling. Dr. Frame points out that a confession gives one the some helpful theological guard rails for engaging the culture from a biblical perspective. Dr. Frame notes, "Because the Reformed faith has, at its best, been critical of human traditions even within its own circles, the Reformed faith has the resources for effective contextualization. Contextualization is the attempt to present scriptural truth in terms understandable to cultures different from our own and different from the culture in which the Scriptures were written. Reformed preaching has been remarkably successful through history in the work of contextualization. Calvinism has profoundly affected cultures very different from the Swiss culture in which it began: Dutch, German, British, Hungarian, Korean. Calvinism had large followings in France and Italy until it was largely snuffed out there by force. It is, therefore, entirely Reformed, to say as I do in Doctrine of the Knowledge of God that theology is the application of scriptural truth to human situations. Progress in theology is the continual application of Scripture to new situations and contexts as they arise. It is not the mere repetition of doctrinal formulations worked out in past generations, as some "traditionalists" might suppose. Rather, the work of theology engages our creativity, without compromising the authority and sufficiency of Scripture." Here, Dr. Frame is talking about the Reformed faith in general, but I am fairly certain that he would apply this to confessionalism.
I realize that many confessional churches have fallen into dead orthodoxy. A confession alone cannot keep a church spiritually vital. However, safeguarding against false doctrine is critical to maintaining spiritual vitality. In this way, a confession can function as a guard rail to help keep the denomination on track.
I also realize that many confessional churches have drifted into liberalism. Yet, this could not happen without the confession being ignored, contradicted, or men being dishonest about their subscription to the confession. One of the ways that our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is seeking to guard against this is by requiring men in church leadership to subscribe to the system of doctrine contained in our confessional standards. A man does not have to agree with every word (very few do), but he must agree with the system contained in them. So that all are honest in what they profess, each church officer is required to state every place he differs with the standards--even if he thinks it is a small difference. Then, the governing body (either the local session or the presbytery) determines if that difference is acceptable or not.
Having a confession helps as we seek to engage our culture with the gospel. There are many writers and thinkers who recognize the need to engage our post-modern culture. They recognize that this requires some changes on how the church engages the world around us. However, because they do not have a confessional anchor, they seem to throw out the baby with the bath water. One example of this is Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian. He seems to have a good analysis of the culture. However, as he moves to prescription in his book, he runs adrift, proposing that theological heresies like the openness of God, might be acceptable. Even Gordon McDonald, a man who has written a number of very helpful books, seems to run adrift in this cultural shift. In his book, Who Stole My Church?, he gives a good analysis of the cultural/generational shift facing many churches. Yet, as he opens the door for changes that may be legitimate, he leaves it open for changes that are unbiblical, like women in pastoral ministry. A confessional grid can help in matters like these by keeping the guard rails up so that the boundaries always stay visible.
A confession will not keep a church orthodox, it will not prevent it from falling into dead-orthodoxy. It is not a panecea. However, it is a very helpful tool and safeguard for the church when it is honored by those who are honest in their subscription to it.