The Value of the Westminster Confession of Faith
We are a biblical church in that we regard Scripture as the Word of God, the only rule of faith and practice. We are also a confessional church: we look to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as our “subordinate standards,” useful tools that summarize and clarify our understanding of the Bible.
Why have confessions and creeds?
Confessions and creeds are summary statements of what a group of Christians believe. Creeds (from the Latin word credo, meaning, “I believe”) are shorter and less detailed than confessions.
Many Christians dispute the need for creeds and confessions of faith. One Christian denomination proudly proclaims, "No creed but Christ." Larry Norman, a Christian singer back in the seventies said, "I don't want to talk about theology, I just want to talk about Jesus." Spiritual-sounding as that comment may be, I would ask Larry, “Whose Jesus? The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Jesus? The Mormon’s Jesus? The Muslim's Jesus?” As soon as you say that Jesus is God you are talking theology. As soon as you say that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead you are making a creedal statement.
Many churches and parachurch ministries that publish only short statements of their essential beliefs have very detailed unwritten doctrinal positions. To discover this all you need to do is teach a doctrinal detail that contradicts the view of the church’s leaders. Many conflicts could be avoided if those unwritten details of belief were made explicit.
Others say "no creed but the Bible." Here, again, we run into problems because as soon as you stop quoting Scripture and summarize something the Bible teaches you are formulating a creed. If you have ever used the word Trinity to describe the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you were formulating a creed, for the Bible never uses the word Trinity. The word Trinity is merely an economical way to encapsulate large swaths of biblical data which teach that the one God exists in three persons.
Most Christians see the value of writing down summary statements of what the Bible teaches on subjects such as man’s nature, faith, repentance, redemption, and the end times. These summary statements, besides being a useful tool for Bible study, come in handy when discussing your beliefs with those who have different positions. After all, you typically cannot sit down with someone and examine every verse in Scripture related to a particular topic. Summary statements enable you to efficiently compare and contrast your beliefs with those of others.
But why write your own summary of the Bible’s main themes when, down through history, God has provided the church with gifted theologians who have skillfully articulated the themes of Scripture? Only the most conceited would deny that they could benefit from the insights of the great theologians that have preceded them. A.A. Hodge, Professor of Theology at Old Princeton Seminary in the 1800's, said, "The real question is not, as often pretended, between the Word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God's people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the repudiator of creeds" (A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary, p. 2). And it is unlikely that any group of Christians today could compose a more brilliant summary of Scriptural truth than that composed by the theologians of the Westminster Assembly.
Historical background of the Westminster Confession
In 1643 the English Parliament called an assembly of godly, scholarly men to write a confession of faith. This assembly, consisting of 121 ministers [Beveridge ,Schaff, Leith (citing Briggs), DeWitt] and 30 laymen from Parliament and the House of Lords, with two scribes or clerks, convened at Westminster Abbey in London. The seventeenth century English Puritan, Richard Baxter, remarked "the Christian world, since the days of the apostles, had never a synod of more excellent divines (taking one thing with another) than this and the Synod of Dort.”
The assembly met for at least 1,163 sessions over a course of five years. The fruit of their labors, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, came to serve as the doctrinal basis not only of the Presbyterians but also, with slight revisions, of early Congregationalists and Baptists.
The perfections of the Westminster Confession
Though not infallible, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms are the finest and most influential Protestant doctrinal standards ever composed. The Methodist Advocate magazine called the Westminster Confession "the ablest, clearest and most comprehensive system of Christian doctrine ever framed." The late Dr. Robert Strong called it an "incomparable summary of what the Bible teaches." Scottish theologian John Murray praised the Confession for its "fidelity to Scripture, precision of thought and formulation, fullness of statement, balanced proportion of emphasis, studied economy of words, and effective exposure of error..." (Collected Writings, IV, p. 260).
Consider, for example, how carefully the Confession articulates the relation between the human and divine natures of Jesus: "Two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man" (VIII.2).
If someone were to approach you on the street and ask "What is God?” what would you answer? Where would you begin? If you knew the Shorter Catechism you could reply promptly and crisply: "God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth."
Church officers and the Westminster Confession
Our elders and deacons must affirm the doctrines of our church as summarized by the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms because they are entrusted with preserving and teaching our understanding of Scripture (II Timothy 1:13-14).
The Westminster Confession of Faith is the standard by which we measure whether a potential officer's beliefs conform to the beliefs of our church. When elders and deacons are ordained they are asked to affirm the vow: "Do you accept the doctrines of this Church, contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, as founded on the Word of God and as the expression of your own faith and do you resolve to adhere thereto?"
God has given His Church a treasure in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. We don't regard those documents as highly as we regard the Bible, but we appreciate the servant role they play in enabling us to better understand and defend the teaching of the Scripture.
Peter Kemeny, Pastor
Good News Presbyterian Church
P.O. Box 1051, Frederick, MD 21702