Tuesday, March 06, 2012

No Creed But Christ: Down with the Westminster Confession!

"What I strenuously object to is using anything other than Scripture as our source of teaching about God and His eternal plan for the heavens and the earth. One can not deny that many reformed believers in fact really let the fallible Westminister Confession be their day to day source of spiritual information. This results in many more "yardsticks" of faith than going the extra effort and all referring to only Scripture."
This comment was part of a this CARM thread: The Changing doctrines of the Westminster Confession. I hadn't visited CARM's Reformed discussion area in quite sometime (probably years). I was bit surprised to find the boards seemingly overrun with anti-Reformed "no creed but Christ" advocates. If you follow the flow of the discussion, I joined in attempting to reason with this folks on simple presuppositional issues, trying to at least show them there's nothing necessarily evil about the concept of a "confession." I wouldn't for a minute think I could write anything that would endear any of these folks to Reformed theology. But I thought maybe, just maybe, they could see through their disdain of Calvinism and see logically why the basic theory behind a confession of faith isn't the creation of Satan, and that in practice, a "confession of faith" on some level can't be avoided.  I don't plan on re-posting all of that here. You can read it for yourself if interested.

I have a friend of mine who is moving up the ranks in the world of hyper-preterism. He's an excellent speaker, and probably one of the funniest guys I've ever met. In following his on-line progress, I noticed very quickly his rants on "creedalism." The hyper-preterists realize their view won't be seen as just another view on end-times to those who embrace creeds. The overwhelming majority of Christians throughout the centuries have confessed the belief of the future return of Christ. Now here's the irony. I've listened to a number of hyper-preterists, and they indeed have a confession: A.D. 70. No matter what the topic, they'll find some way to talk about A.D. 70.  They're similar to McDonalds naming all their products Mcthis or Mcthat. They don't even realize they collectively have an unwritten creed about A.D. 70. Nor do they realize that part of their  collective unwritten creed is not have any creed.  

A confession of faith is simply a group of people attempting to speak in unison. A confession serves as a response to the word of God. That is, a group of people read the Scriptures and respond back confessing what they hear the Scriptures saying. A confession has a variety of functions. It can serve as a witness to the world as to what a group believes. It can guard that group against what it perceives to be heresy and unbelief. In other words, it serves as secondary standard to unify a group of people.

This of course raises the blood pressure of the "no creed but Christ" crowd. I can hear them shouting back that it's the Bible that unifies us, and your silly confession is nothing else than putting something in its place as an authority. Such a criticism though ignores the fact of "relative" authority. That is, the authority a confession has is in relation to that of the Scriptures. In this case, the Scriptures are indeed the ultimate authority, and any sort of confession created is to serve as a subordinate authority. No one I've ever met (in Reformed circles at least) thinks the Westminster Confession of Faith is an infallible document on par with Scripture. It's at least theoretically possible that the Westminster Confession has an error (and that error would be proved and based on Biblical exegesis). Even for these no "creed but Christ" folks I would speculate some of them typically obey their pastor and realize he isn't infallible. For others, I would assume many of them that don't go to church realize they are fallible people.  That is, they already function with a secondary authority so have no grounds to argue against someone using a confession as a secondary authority.

I found it fascinating that once  I began challenging the presuppositions of CARM's "no creed but Christ" folks, the conversation went from screams to whispers.

By the way, while I like the Westminster Confession and refer to it in my studies, my own preference is that to which my church uses and that by church membership I've  agreed to:

The Heidelberg Catechism
The Belgic Confession
The Canons of Dort

While this analogy I'm about to use is flawed in many ways, I prefer the Heidelberg Catechism over the Westminster Confession (in terms of daily reflection) in the same way I prefer reading Luther or Calvin over a technical tome of Reformed theology. If you haven't read the Heidelberg Catechism, it's a friendly pastoral document that, while a lot simpler than the WCF, has a practical depth that I find helps me continually reaffirm and focus on the essentials of the Christian faith. I've also found it very helpful in explaining doctrine to people.


Mrk said...

Again, a great article. Been in the EPC for about 6 yrs now and have been introduced to the WCF. We even have a program where thie First Cat version was put to music/rap for the kids and it works great in teaching the small truths. I said this before, but I think what you do here is very important. The ev church today has no sense of history, and it sets them up for when they meet an RC apologist. The ev church in general is drifting in that direction, and mega churches tend to set up their pastors as "popes". I've gotten a deep appreciation for church history, and knowing that our history doesnt have to start with the Reformation. You have an important ministry here, and I'll continue to pray for you. God bless.

Tim Enloe said...

Someone recently pointed out to me that the WCF was written by ministers for ministers, as the constitution for a national church. It was not written as a standard for laymen, but as a standard for those with official status as guardians of sound doctrine within the church.

James Swan said...

Given the time period Tim, that would make sense, although I've never studied the history of the WCF.

I would assume there's probably some sort of distinction between primary and secondary use at play as well, in regard to the WCF- but that's only a guess.

Tim Enloe said...

I think the point made to me about the purpose of the WCF agrees with your point about the Catechism. It's pretty clear that the Catechism is made for the instruction of the laity. But since in the Reformed view the laity are not the official guardians of Truth, they don't need to master an official Confession of Faith. It can get mixed up, though, because we Reformed people are such brainy types and the laity too easily forget that just because there's lots of Doctrine Books aimed at them by the ministers does not mean they (the laity) are charged with officially defending the doctrine. Democracy in America has altered our perceptions of some of these historic documents, to be sure.

James Swan said...


Thanks again for your kind words. i think putting confessions to music as a mnemonic device is a great idea. Had I been younger and exposed to Reformed creeds, I probably would've put them to music as well.

James Swan said...


As a member of URCNA, I found it fascinating to learn that by church order, a URC pastor must either teach one of his 2 Sunday sermons on (or at least mention) one of our doctrinal creeds, with an emphasis on the Heidelberg.

Tim Enloe said...

That is interesting, James. I'm not disagreeing with you, I don't think. Just saying aloud something I read recently about the WCF that I had not thought of in quite that way before.

James Swan said...

The WCF does seem to be written on a different level(and expanded content) compared to the Hiedelberg Catechism. I've never studied the origins of the WCF. What you say sounds very plausible.

RPV said...

Tim, the Shorter was originally supposed to be for children. Today, that means adults are hard pressed.
The Larger, a guide for preaching, but nothing like what the Heidelberg is explicitly. The Larger (along with the SL&Cov which kicked off the whole thing) has largely been a forgotten document in presbyterian history.

Say what you will of the SC contra the Heidelberg, they both begin in Calvin's catechism and respectively diverge in their two emphases if I remember.

And while the HC says the warmest things about prayer, only the SC tells us exactly what it is: the offering up of our desires to God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ with thankful acknowledgements of his mercies (98).

FTM as a presbyterian, I had to end up in the Prot. Ref. Ch. in order to have Q&A 89 dinned home to me, "The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners...

So too, the PRCs had to go to WCF 1:8 in regard to the providential preservation (of the textus receptus - not the KJV) to support their decision to make that same translation, the crown of the Reformation translations of the English Bible, their ecclesiastical translation.

IOW there are respective excellencies between the 3 Forms and the West. Stands. Another for instance, the Belgic gives us the three marks of the church and tells us the true and false church are easily distinguished in Chapt. 29. The WCF goes on to say that there are various degrees of purity and faithfulness in even the true church (WCF 25:4).
And while the Canons are more focused, the WS come after the 3 Forms and build upon them.
Or so the argument goes, though not all agree.
But what else is new?
If you got two Dutchmen, you got three denominations and four seminaries.

Bob S.

RPV said...

I would only add further, I grew in leaps and bounds in my understanding of the reformed faith by working through GI Williamson's well known study guide on the Sh. Cat. in a Friday night group. While GI also has a study guide on the HCat., which I have been though also, he particularly mentions that is it because of the perspicuity of the Scripture, that people come up with these reformed confessions and catechisms in the first place, however ood that might sound to those drunk on modernity and a "what works for you, (but not for me)" mentality.

IOW sound doctrine is only divisive when it comes to distinguishing between the wheat and the tares. The reformed standards are called just that: The Three Forms of Unity.

But as the Koreans say, it's always darkest under the lamp.