A correspondent writes to the HB to ask, in effect, if confessions are not infallible, what good are they? He asks,
Westminster Confession 31:4 seems to be problematic, since it says all synods…have erred or may err, and thus are not to be made a rule of faith. Wouldn’t this logically mean the Westminster Assembly cannot be made a rule of faith, e.g., the WCF? The only prooftext it gives is from three passages that don’t explicitly speak of Councils (in the future) liable to error.
In every question there is an implied premise or two. I find two here, one implied and a second explicit: 1) There must be an extra-canonical “rule of faith;” 2) that Protestants make confessions a “rule of faith.” There is also an equivocation here on what is the “rule of faith.” Let us be clear. For confessional Protestants, there is only one inerrant, infallible, final, rule of faith (regula fidei): Holy Scripture. Only Scripture is necessarily inerrant and infallible. The Westminster Confession itself says that the sixty-six books of holy Scripture alone are “given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life” (WCF 1.2). In 1561 the Reformed Churches confessed: “Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatever does not agree with this infallible rule…” (Belgic Confession art. 7). “”in all controversies of religion,” the church is to appeal to the Scriptures in their original languages, namely the Hebrew (and Aramaic) Scriptures of the Old Testament and the Greek Scriptures of the New Testament (WCF 1.8). The Scriptures are their own final interpreter. Again, in the Westminster Confession we confess:
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly (1.9).
Further, in case the above is not sufficiently clear, the divines added:
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 (1.10).
Explicit here in the Reformed confessions is the doctrine that the Scriptures are sufficiently clear (perspicuitas) for the Christian faith and the Christian life. The confessions themselves acknowledge that all things in Scripture are “not alike plain in themselvess” (WCF 1.7) but what must be known for salvation and for the Christian life can be known from Scripture.
So, for the Reformed, the sufficient, perspicuous, self-authenticating, self-interpreting Scriptures alone are incorrigible. In Scripture we trust implicitly. Church councils are corrigible. Popes and councils err. In primary sense, there is no other “rule of faith” except Scripture. Confessions are framed and adopted by the visible church as subordinate or secondary standards. We confess what we do because we believe it to be biblical. Confessions are ecclesiastically sanctioned interpretations of Scripture on those issues judged to be of sufficient importance for the church to speak to them.
The confessing Protestant churches did not adopt confessions as a parallel source of authority and certainly not as a primary source of authority. That is one of the great errors of the Roman communion. She placed herself over Scripture instead of remaining a minister of Scripture.
The Reformed churches do not think of confessions as rule of faith in the same way that Scripture is the rule of faith. We always understood that councils and confessions err. We only claim inerrancy and infallibility for God’s Word. For this reason, since the beginning of the 18th century, the American Presbyterians and the Dutch Reformed have revised their confessions. The American Presbyterians revised the WCF on nature of the papacy and the nature of the relations between church and state. The Dutch Reformed churches have revised Belgic Confession art. 36 on the civil magistrate.
Depending upon which edition of the WCF one is using, the proof texts may vary but of course the proof texts do not speak of councils. The Divines did not think that they did. The 1648 edition cites Ephesians 2:20, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (ESV); Acts 17:11, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (ESV); 1 Corinthians 2:5, “that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (ESV); and 2 Cor 1:24, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith” (ESV). Each of these is entirely relevant to the point at hand. Contra Rome, the foundation of the church is not the bishop of Rome, whom the Divines regarded as anti-Christ for setting himself up as the vicar of Christ on the earth. Christ, not the bishop of Rome, is the head of the church. The apostles, not Roman councils, are the foundation. The Scriptures, not conciliar decrees, are definitive for the Christian faith and life. The apostles were not like arrogant Roman bishops and arrogant Roman councils. They did not lord it over the churches. Our faith rests not in the Roman curia, councils, and bishops, but rather our faith rests in Christ and in his Word. That is what the divines were saying by citing these passages.
The Reformed confessions are not inerrant but we have no need for inerrant confessions. We do not look to church councils and the products as the ground of our faith. Christ is the object of our faith. His Word is the warrant for our faith.
So, what use are confessions? They are official, ecclesiastical summaries of the faith on certain key points. What good is the United States constitution? Much in every way, if we will follow it. They provide guidance to ministers, elders, deacons, and members. The confessions provide us with agreed language on the key points of the Christian faith and life. Those who unite to confessional Reformed churches subscribe them as true summaries of the faith.
Should the confessions be found out of accord with God’s Word, they should be revised through proper, churchly processes (e.g., complaint, appeal, study etc). Until they are revised they should receive the respect they deserve, as true, careful, ecclesiastical interpretations of God’s Word.