Why the Focus on the Confessions?

Re-post from Jan 07 from the old HB:

Nancy and “William Twisse” (the first prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly lives!) have both written to the HB to ask why it focuses so much on the Reformed confessions. Nancy writes:

I am new to this reformed family. I’m just another out there like Echo mentions so I still have some questions and hesitations. WT expresses my thoughts well. I do trust that those who do often quote the confessions do sincerely subject them to the authority of scripture. I see no grounds for questioning the genuineness of those in reformed circles. But, like WT I do find the frequent references to confession over the Bible curious. This post is not necessarily a criticism but a curiosity about reformed culture.

Dear Nancy and WT:

First, the HB was established (are blogs “established”?) to encourage the recovery of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

Second, it’s not as if it’s possible to do without a confession. All churches have a confession. Even those who confess “no confession” have a confession. Just try to teach “pro confession” in a no-confession church and see what happens. They’ll ask you to stop or leave. Why? Because they confess “no confession.” Confessions are inevitable.

Third, they come in two forms: written and unwritten. The Reformed confession is written so that we all know what we’re confessing and what is the constitution of our churches.

Fourth, the question is not whether Scripture is the unique authority for faith and life. Of course it is. We confess that it is. The question is how we are to read the Scriptures. By using written confessions, we are reading the Scripture with with the rest of the contemporary and historic Reformed church.

Fifth, the confessions record those conclusions that the Reformed churches have decided are essential to the Reformed reading of Scripture. Think of it this way, if Reformed = “whatever anyone says that Bible teaches,” then the adjective “Reformed” is literally without any fixed meaning. In that case, then “Reformed” means everything to everyone and nothing to anyone. If that’s the case, then why do we bother having Reformed churches at all?

Sixth, this doesn’t mean that the confessions are incorrigible, but it does mean that the confessions define the Reformed reading of Scripture. If someone can show that the Reformed confession errs, the Reformed churches are bound by their own confession to revise it according to Scripture; but that’s serious business done in the courts and assemblies of the churches and after serious research, time, and prayerful consideration of weighty arguments. After all, it’s not as if we’ve never read the Scripture before. Remember, in the whole history of the church all heretics quote Scripture. The Socinians (who ended up denying the Trinity) said that they were “just following the Bible.” The Arminians (who wanted to redefine our doctrine of salvation) were “just following the Bible.” Even the 19th- and 20th-century liberals said that they were “just following the Bible.”

Seventh, the confessions are not and have never been superior to Scripture. The confessions themselves say this. Westminster Confession 1.10 says:

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

We also understand Scripture to teach that ecclesiastical assemblies have real (if derived and ministerial) authority. WCF 31.2 says:

It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word.

Finally, this site focuses on “recovering the Reformed confession” because I am convinced that they are true and that they form the best and proper boundary for what it is to be Reformed. To put it another way, I subscribe (endorse) the Reformed confessions because I think they’re biblical. If I didn’t think they were biblical, I wouldn’t subscribe them.

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  1. For better or ill, it has seemed to me that questions like the one posed here might reveal how many still may be working their way through the distinctions between opinions and views of one thing or another. In un-confessional camps the confessional high view of the confessions is mistaken for an infallible one, but that we actually reserve for scripture alone. Un-confessional camps have everything from low opinions (“paper popes”) to high opinions (“really helpful”) of the confessional formulations, but all stop short of a high view (“…but not binding”). The same could be true when it comes to views on the church: Anabaptistic tradition = low view, Protestant confessional = high, and Roman Catholic = infallible.

  2. Hi Nancy and WT:

    This is from a layman, so here is my layman’s language. But, I have studied this issue under a more general topic “How Important is Truth and Doctrine?” in the lead article “Calvinism is the true doctrine of salvation” at my web site http://www.reformeddoctrine.org .

    If someone asks you: “What do you believe?”, and you just answer: “I believe the Bible.”, then it is not helpful. My Bible contains 1923 pages.

    The person who asks you that question: “What do you believe?” is really looking for a summary of what you believe.

    The value of a Confession is to provide that summary of what we believe that has been formed by the church and that has stood the test of time.

    Or, rather, is it preferable that we should try to whip up some faith statement in a week or so by just one Pastor and maybe one Elder? So to speak, why should we try to reinvent the wheel? I have given one true case study of this actually being done at my web site above.

    Scripture exhorts us to follow sound doctrine. 1 Timothy 4:6, 1 Timothy 6:3, 2 Timothy 4:3, Titus 1:9, and Titus 2:1. Doctrine is defined as “teachings”. Where can we get this sound doctrine better than the Reformed confessions?

    In conclusion, to give you a good example of why Reformed confessions are so important, read the Canons of Dort which is relatively short, well-written, and which specifically deals with the most important doctrine of salvation. Compare what you read there with what many non-confessional churches teach, and you will better understand the importance of Reformed confessions. You can access that Canons of Dort at my web site under the link Reformed Doctrinal Standards in the left column on my Home Page. Thank you.

    Best wishes,
    Bill Hornbeck

  3. Bill,

    There is no problem with having a Creed, in the Church of England we say one of the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds once per week at the very least. Scripture does indeed exhort us to follow sound doctrine. Then you ask, “Where can we get this sound doctrine better than the Reformed confessions?”

    My answer; solid exegesis of the Scripture. that is, prove your case from the text of Scripture not the text of the Confessions, prove that the Confessions are correct. The Reformed Confessions are great, but they were written in the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s. They are therefore historical, that is products of historical circumstances with the data available. Were the Puritans aware that the creation account resembled ANE accounts? No, this was discovered in the 1800s. Had the Westminster divines known this would the WCF have stated what it did regarding creation in six days? Of course we cannot say. The answers to the questions about creation then, cannot be settled by appealing to the WCF because it was written at a time ignorant of where we are at now.The question can only be settled on the basis of solid exegesis.

    Similarly, the NPP; if the Westminster divines misunderstood Second Temple Judaism then we can’t simply appeal to the WCF on justification to win the argument. We need to go back to the text of Scripture, assess the ‘new’ discoveries and settle the question on the basis of solid exegesis.

    Thankfully many evangelical (and Reformed) scholars are doing this, but far too many times I have heard the arguments, ”Oh the NPP is wrong because the WCF states…” or ”Oh the Framework Hypothesis is wrong because the WCF states…”.

  4. Dear Richard:

    Thank you for your reply. I will try to clarify my prior statement. I know that I am not addressing all of your points, and I recognize that if either you or I do not reply further, it should not be inferred that we necessarily agree with the other person’s last reply or last statement.

    “Solid exegesis of the Scripture” is not much more than “solid explanation of the Bible or part thereof” usually based on accepted principles for Biblical study. Each preacher, every teacher, every church, and every denomination claims to be committed to “solid exegesis of the Scripture”. So, what standard of sound doctrine is out there to help us distinguish sound doctrine from false doctrine? Certainly, the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds are among the creeds and beliefs of most Reformed denominations. For one example, I attach the link to beliefs of the Christian Reformed Church – http://www.crcna.org/pages/beliefs.cfm

    Moreover, all doctrine or teaching is “products of historical circumstances with the data available”. They are fallible. Nobody maintains that they are infallible like Scripture. But, that does not make them unuseful or unimportant.

    Neither the Bible nor the creeds nor the Reformed confessions pretend to be science books. Yes, they answer a few basic scientific questions. For example, the Bible states that the world was created by God in six days. But, they are not biology books nor chemistry books nor physics books nor mathematics books nor even history books. They do not even contain all the facts about Jesus or all His works. But, enough was written that we may believe in Jesus and have life in His name. Scripture explains why Scripture was written: “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” John 20:30-31.

    If I am deciding which church to attend or which book to read or which speaker to listen, it is helpful for me to read their beliefs. I would be quite apprehensive if all I read is that they believe in a “solid exegesis of the Scripture”. So, I read that they believe in a careful study of the Bible. I think: “That is great, but it doesn’t tell me much other than they are unwilling to commit to basic Biblical summaries of Scripture. I think they want to feel free to preach or teach whatever they want and change whenever they want.”

    No Reformed denomination, not even the Protestant Reformed Churches which may have the highest regards for the creeds and Reformed confessions, believe that they are infallible or that the discussion should end with a quote therefrom. They may quote from the creeds and Reformed confessions, so that we can know the applicable doctrinal standard so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every study and so that we know the well-trod path so that we are careful not to wander. But, they will unanimously state that Scripture alone is the ultimate judge of truth.

    In conclusion, it was the Reformers, that you seem to slight as being just historical, who came up with the cry “Sola Sctriptura”. Prior to the Reformation other sources of revelation than the Scripture had become the foundation for doctrine. The Reformation was a return to the Scriptures. The reformers said, truth is founded on what is in the Bible. The Bible not only gives us the final answer on truth, but it is the source of truth and gives the complete truth. However, they still gave us the gift of Reformed confessions which help summarize and explain Scripture and which refuted heresies of the day like the Canons of Dort refuted Arminianism. Think about how those denominations and churches which neglected the Canons of Dort have drifted away from the true doctrine of salvation. Thank you

    Yours truly,

  5. Hi Bill,

    I agree with much of what you say above. I am certainly not against having creeds and confessions, I am simply opposed to the way that some advocates of confessionalism have used them in debate.

    The PRC are a funny kettle of fish; on the one hand they attack the doctrine of common grace as being unconfessional and on the other they advocate supralapsarianism which is also unconfessional, the TFU are fairly obviously infralapsarian. Then they turn around and attack the FV saying that it is unconfessional, then a number of their men attack those who sing uninspired songs when their own Standards allow for it.

    Not to pick on the PRC; I know of Presbyterians (both here and Stateside) who attack those who disagree with the WCF on ‘days of creation’ and yet they don’t agree with the statements regarding the pope being the antichrist. they are wholly inconsistent in how they enforce their own Standards!

    I use these as examples as to how a strict view of confessionalism can be somewhat haphazard in its application.

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