Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Creed or Chaos: Why Presbyterians and Reformed Christians Use Confessions of Faith

If you ask a Presbyterian what he or she believes, there may be a number of good answers. We might reply, “We believe in Christ alone.” Or we might say, “We believe that we are justified through faith, not by works.” Perhaps we might even use the Reformation catch-words of sola scriptura; “We believe that Scripture alone is the sole authority for doctrine, life, and practice.” Indeed we do! Those would all be excellent replies.

One possible monkey wrench in the latter response is that a number of cults could ALSO say that THEY believe in the authority of the Bible as well. The Jehovah’s Witness come to mind. Surely we do NOT believe in the same content as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

For this reason, Reformed believers have tended to be confessional believers. That is, we adhere to what we call the “subordinate standards” of the historic creeds[1] and confessions. Those two words are both important: when we say “subordinate” we mean that our confessions are less authoritative than Scripture. Scripture stands over them as their master. The Bible is the Word of God; the confessions are the words of men. Yet they are also our “standards,” as Reformed people because they delineate clearly between what is orthodoxy and what is heresy.

Think for instance of the purpose of a good fence. The fence is not of itself intrinsically valuable. What it does is mark the boundaries of the field; if it does that well, it is a good fence! The field itself is where the true harvest lies, but the fence exists to keep the thieves out and to keep the fruit of the harvest safe. Or think for example of the walls of a castle. The walls of the castle are designed to keep invaders out and the residents of the royal family safe. In the same way, the historic confessions of the Reformed faith (such as the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Confession, the Canons of Dort etc.) are excellent summaries of pure doctrine. They are no substitute for the Bible, but they draw the firm line between what the Scriptures affirm and the dangerous and unmarked lands of heresy.  

Confessions are essentially concise summations of the Church’s doctrine, and they have a long and storied history. They are statements of our shared faith. For as long as Christian believers have gathered to worship, they have taught doctrine (propositional truth claims) in order to pass on the true faith from generation to generation (Jude 3). In fact, the New Testament itself records some proto-creeds that were in use in worship even before the close of the biblical canon. Examples of this type of creed include Philippians 2:6-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, and 2 Timothy 2:11-13. Many biblical scholars believe that these early creeds were memorized in the form of hymns aiding memorization in a pre-literate society. Within the first few centuries after the completion of the New Testament canon, the early church continued to encode its vibrant faith with early formulations of Christian teaching, such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and others.

In fairness, there are some branches of the Christian family tree that reject the notion of keeping creeds and confessions. However the vast majority of believers holding to the historic Christian faith have found great spiritual power in honoring the teachings of past generations. In fact, one strength of confessional Christianity is the abiding connection that is forged between previous generations and contemporary believers. Clearly, the universal Church of Jesus Christ connects believers not only to others around the world, but also to our forefathers in the faith who have gone before us in generations past. Creeds and confessions help modern believers to remain humble while avoiding what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” that is, the belief that one’s own generation is somehow superior to all those who have gone before it.

Furthermore, confessions and creeds serve to help assure us that the doctrinal faith that we articulate today has not subtly changed over time by being subject to the warping influence of secular society. Creeds stand as ancient landmarks denoting the “boundaries” of believers’ hearts in history. Noting where one deviates from an ancient creed gives a person a clearer understanding of where his or her own theological convictions stand in relation to other believers throughout history. Perhaps this also helps us to discover what direction we are moving. Are we moving closer to Christ? To God’s Word? To the heart of God Himself? Or are we moving further away?

The “subordinate standards” that our church subscribes to is the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the standard-bearing confessions in the Presbyterian branch of Christianity. Influenced heavily by the thinking of Reformation theologian John Calvin (1509-1564), the Westminster Confession (1647) is a confessional exemplar of Reformed theology.[2] The Westminster Confession of Faith is the premiere example of theological intellectualism absorbed in the beauty of the sovereignty of God. The Westminster Confession, and Calvin before it for that matter, were both completely committed to the theological framework that God is sovereign over the entire universe. Therefore, as you study this Confession you will undoubtedly encounter the Living God as ruler of the cosmos, the world, the events of your life, and hopefully your heart.

Historical Context
While the historical context of the writing of theWestminster Confession has been written about at length in other places and can not be repeated here, a few words about its composition are appropriate. “Composed by an Assembly of Divines convened at Westminster Abbey by the Long Parliament (1643-1648), the Confession was designed to unite the English and Scottish churches in their theology.”[3] In the first half of the 17th century, England was in turmoil. Nearly torn apart politically, many believers in Britain looked to the Scriptures and to their Puritan theologians to help articulate hope for their lives. Many hoped that England, Scotland, and Ireland could all be brought together under one confessional standard. More than anything, believers needed their spiritual leaders to help them understand the whole of Scripture in the midst of a rapidly changing and often chaotic political climate.

Fortunately, these theologians and pastors sought to articulate the strong sovereignty of God as revealed in the Scriptures. Commissioned by the English House of Commons in 1643, work began on a new confession. Originally, it was thought that a mere revision of the Church of England’s Thirty Nine Articles was all that was necessary. It soon became apparent that more work needed to be done. They did not entirely reinvent the wheel; the crafters of this document had been inspired by prior works including the Irish Articles of 1615, principally drafted by James Usher, as well as the Genevan Catechism of John Calvin himself. Their final product was nothing less than breath-taking.

After 1,163 sessions meeting in Westminster Abbey, the so-called “Westminster Divines” (comprised of 151 believers including theologians, parliament members, and Scottish advisors)[4] completed a document that would stand as perhaps the most excellent summation of Reformation-inspired doctrine to date. The Confession was approved by the English Parliament and then also approved by the Scottish General Assembly in 1647.  While Calvinism itself waxed and waned throughout England’s history, the final product of the Westminster Assembly lives on in many denominations today.

The Westminster Confession also includes two “catechisms” (from the Greek word meaning instruction) that were designed to help believers learn to articulate their faith. These two surveys of biblical teaching take the form of question-and-answer sessions, as could be given from a mentor to a student. The Larger Catechism is designed to give thorough definitions of such great theological concepts as sanctification, effectual calling, and sin. Its precision has been of tremendous help to preachers, teachers, and theologians throughout the centuries. The Shorter Catechism is briefer and is suitable for use in Christian instruction for new converts, youth, and even children.

In America, the Adopting Act of 1729, “an action of the Synod of Philadelphia whereby the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms were adopted as the doctrinal position of the Presbyterian Church in colonial America,”[5] made the Confession a primary theological tool by which candidates for ministry were examined in the colonies of the New World. This act ensured that all ordained pastors and licensed preachers received the Confession “as being, in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine; and… as the confession of our faith.”[6] Interestingly, the Westminster Confession of Faith was studiously learned by rote, as it was often included in copies of the New England Primer, the booklet by which most school children learned to read.

Today, the Westminster Confession of Faith lives on as the primary confessional standard of Reformed denominations such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (the EPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (the PCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (the OPC), and several other denominations around the world. 

If you have never done so before, perhaps it would be a good time for you to begin a study of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. You will find that, although it can never be a replacement for Bible reading, it greatly enhances your walk with Christ.

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville Florida. He is also the author of Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of 1647. 

[1] The Apostles’ Creed, for instance is recited often in our gathered worship. The Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed have also both enjoyed prominent places in Reformed Churches.

[3]Westminster Confession of Faith” in The Dictionary of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition in America. Ed. by D.G Hart and Mark A. Noll. (Phillipsburg NJ: P & R Publishing, 1999) p. 276.
[4] This group was comprised of 121 ministers (Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Independents, and Erastians), 20 commoners or tradesmen, and 10 landowners.
[5] “Adopting Act (1729)” in The Dictionary of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition in America. Ed. by D.G Hart and Mark A. Noll. (Phillipsburg NJ: P & R Publishing, 1999) p. 13.
[6] Ibid. 


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