The Word of God and ‘Human Creeds’ - Rev. Dr. Rowland S. Ward
Last Updated: December 2, 2008
Dr. Rowland Ward is minister of the Knox Congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia in Melbourne. This article originally appeared in two parts in the PCEA journal The Presbyterian Banner, March 2001 and April 2001.
1. Creeds & subscription
Confessional subscription, that is, adherence to a doctrinal statement by office-bearers of the Church, is a subject of considerable importance, particularly for a strict-subscription church like the PCEA. It is also one of some difficulty given that we do not want to deny the primacy of Scripture by seeming to place our creeds on the same level as Scripture by not allowing any dissent from them.
Indeed, even the practice of catechism preaching in the manner of some in the Dutch tradition has been one we have tended to follow only insofar as we follow the catechism subjects in a series of topical sermons drawn from Scripture. We are very jealous about not giving a place to creeds in the pulpit which belongs to the word of God alone. That’s the theory anyway. This article aims to explore how the creeds should function in the life of the church.
Development of creeds
Initially it was enough to assert belief in some major truths of the Scriptures. Yet a brief confession such as ‘Jesus is Lord’ has many implications. As differences arose among those who claimed loyalty to Christ and the Scriptures, it was necessary to set out some of these implications at length.
In early Christian centuries there was much dispute concerning the person of Christ and his relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit. The orthodox Catholics of the time set out their understanding in a form we sum up as the doctrine of the Trinity. In the 16th century Reformation the issues included the relationship of Scripture and church tradition, the nature of justification, the nature of the church and the sacraments. Protestant statements on these and other issues expressed the mind of those who protested against the denial of Scripture as the primary and ultimate standard. In the early 17th century there was controversy over God’s grace and salvation leading to the Calvinistic statements of the Synod of Dort 1618/19.
While the Roman Catholic Church produced its decrees and sought submission to them on the authority of the Church, Protestants produced creeds but insisted on the primacy of Scripture not Church or pope. Many Confessions were produced in the different lands to which the Reformation spread. The Westminster Confession of 1646/47 comes at the virtual close of the creed-writing age among Protestants. This accounts in part for it being really the high-water mark of creedal composition.
Some history (1)
Seventeenth century Scots had no problems with strict subscription to the Westminster Confession, and the Church of Scotland (1690, 1694) and the Scottish Parliament (1693) legislated it as part of the compact which recognised the Church of Scotland as the legally established religion.
In Ireland the English Church was the established one. Presbyterians in the north (Ulster) formalised subscription for licentiates in 1698 but this was not the case in the south of Ireland. In 1719 the Crown granted recognition based on the Westminster Confession, but there were significant numbers who scrupled submitting to ‘human tests of divine truths’ and toward whom the Synod exercised forbearance. Non-subscribers usually eventually went off into unitarianism. The resolution came only much later with the enforcement of subscription in 1835 which paved the way for the union of 1840 with the Secession Church.
In North America a kind of modified subscription was agreed to in 1729. The Confession was accepted but exceptions in articles ‘not essential and necessary’ could be allowed by presbyteries. From this provision, intended to have limited application, came at length a laxity which destroyed the orthodox character of mainstream Presbyterianism, particularly in the early 20th century.
Meanwhile, the Scots’ adherence to strict subscription was weakened in the latter half of the 19th century more especially from about 1875. Declaratory statements designed to soften the clear contours of orthodox Calvinism were adopted by various of the major Scottish bodies (1879, 1892), and had their impact in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. An ill-defined liberty of opinion allowed Presbytery or Assembly interference only if there was disturbance in the church. Changing intellectual currents were significant factors and the mainstream churches were further pushed into major heresy as the 20th century progressed. Key elements of the faith were sidelined or rejected.
I am far from saying that strict subscription is a guarantee of spiritual prosperity: The Church of Scotland during the reign of the Moderates c.1770-1820 was nominally at least a strict subscription church, but it was often cold and formal. The PCEA is and always has been a strict-subscription church, but that has not guaranteed outward progress. However, clear-cut subscription to doctrinal statements by ministers and office-bearers is certainly not without great importance. ‘Guard the sacred deposit’, said Paul to Timothy. But churches have often been unwilling to do this.
In 1720 Irish minister Rev Samuel Haliday of Belfast, refused to subscribe the Confession, but offered the following statement:
I sincerely believe the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the only rule of revealed religion, a sufficient test of orthodoxy or soundness in the Faith, and to settle all the terms of ministerial and Christian communion, to which nothing may be added by any synod, assembly or council whatsoever; and I find all the essential articles of the Christian doctrine to be contained in the Westminister Confession of Faith; which articles I receive upon the sole authority of the Holy Scriptures. (2)
So Haliday affirmed the primacy of Scripture, and the utility of the Confession as containing all the essential items of Christian belief, but he did not indicate how much or how little of the Confession he regarded as Scriptural. Haliday himself claimed that there were many non-essential items in the Confession. Clearly, his is a basis which does not secure clarity of belief, one of the chief purposes of a Confession.
The same position follows if we were to have a subscription to the Confession in so far as it agrees with Scripture, or a similar ambiguous form of words, such as those imposed by the Dutch King on the Reformed Church in 1816. Only if we affirm the Confession as founded on and in agreement with Scripture, and therefore something we accept because it is Scriptural, can we secure clarity and definiteness. But then what becomes of the primacy of Scripture and final appeal to it?
2. The primacy of Scripture
The primacy of Scripture is to be respected in Christ’s Church. Elders and ministers are not to be primarily specialists in Canon Law, resisting examination of the Word of God by a mere citation of the Confession of Faith. They are to be capable teachers of the Word of God, for it is to such that Christ has committed the affairs of his Church. The past cannot be ignored but the Gospel must be confessed in the present.
Hence, the FIRST function of a Confession of Faith is to make sure that Scripture is our primary standard in all matters of faith and conduct.
We make that claim in the very first question addressed to candidates for office! [Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and the only rule of faith and practice?] Thus a Scriptural Confession derives its authority from the Scriptures, not the other way around. The placement of the subject of Scripture as Chapter 1 in the Westminster Confession reminds us of this in a striking way. Also important is the way in which the Confession drives us back to the Scriptures in any controversy (1:8-10). We do not honour our Confession if we use it, rather than Scripture, to refute some error that may arise.
A SECOND function of a Confession of Faith is to provide a rallying point for those of like mind concerning the main teachings of Scripture.
A Confession will probably become more full in the light of fresh disputes or heresies which require a response, but it can never be a kind of definitive commentary on every passage of Scripture. Its explanations, however good and correct, are not inspired as Scripture is. Indeed, it is always open to revision and restatement in the light of Scripture as the primary standard. Given the present fragmented state of the Christian Church it will always be wise to seek wider counsel before formal amendment with a view to avoiding idiosyncratic change.
A THIRD function of a Confession of Faith is to serve as a public statement of the faith of the people of God.
A Confession of Faith will be carefully expressed but it should not be in old-fashioned language lest it fail to be an adequate public statement. Its coverage is not all the minutiae of the theological schools. but the grand and clearly revealed truths in the Bible, which it seeks to commend to others. (3)
A FOURTH function of a Confession of Faith is to be a solemn bond for the office-bearers of the Church.
Their subscription to such a form of sound words provides a bond of fellowship and co-operation. The terms of subscription must recognise the primary authority of Scripture as the rule of faith. And the vow must be taken sincerely (WCF 22:4), therefore also the meaning of the Confession must be clear.
A Confession produced by a meeting of many minds and/or formally adopted by the Church has greater authority than the opinion of an individual. Office-bearers need to be particularly careful not to elevate personal opinions to greater importance than the teachings expressed in the Confession.
A FIFTH function of a Confession is to form the basis of the trust on which Church property is held.
If these trusts do not give any power of change at all, to that extent they may not conform to the inherent power of the Church to formulate her Confession subject to Holy Scripture as set out above. (4) On the other hand, those who seek change have often done so with a view to modifying adversely the essential doctrine of the Confession rather than making it an even closer representation of the teaching of Scripture. If there is a genuine unanimity on the scripturalness of proposed changes, there should be no problem.
The Confession forbids us to make Synods or Councils the rule of faith (WCF 31:4), and this is a uniform principle of our Reformed tradition (eg. Belgic Confession Art 7; Second Helvetic Confession Ch II). Thus the productions of the Westminster Assembly cannot be regarded as the rule of faith, but they may be and ought to be a help to faith.
The Roman Church made its appeal to Scripture and tradition including decrees of Councils. Canon Law was the rule of faith not the Scriptures. The Confession is not rightly viewed if it is seen as a new Canon Law.
True, appealing to Scripture against the Confession in any significant way does involve ‘abandonment of the communion of which the Confession is the bond’ (John Macpherson). Yet even here, any judicial proceeding should emphasise the Scripture basis of the doctrine rejected. That will honour the Confession because that will honour Scripture!
3. The limits of liberty and change
We have considered Subscription to a Creed and the Authority of Holy Scripture. Now the question of changing a Confession, and the issues of liberty of opinion and taking exceptions are addressed more specifically.
While the Church can never pronounce on everything in Scripture, she can never consent to add to or contradict Scripture through her Confession. If she discovers that such has occurred she is bound to change, as the framers of the Scots Confession of 1560 (replaced by Westminster in 1647) pointedly stated, and as was reaffirmed in 1847 by the Free Church of Scotland Assembly when it approved the Constitutional Catechism.
Revision, restatement or correction of the Confession will not involve significant change in its Catholic, Protestant and Calvinistic character. On the issues involved in these matters Scripture is clear, although we may find better words to express them as language changes or a better grasp of particular biblical passages is achieved.
It is on other issues, usually of secondary importance, where scruples may arise. In the event of some scruple arising as to anything in the Confession a subscriber must keep in mind that the Confession is not his only but also that of the Church. The Confession is the consensus of the Church not to silence dissent but to prevent tyranny over the whole body by dissenting individuals and factious parties. We are all prone at times to be over-scrupulous and/or undisciplined, hence the Church in proper Assembly is the proper forum for resolutions of difficulties.
Some scruples arise from misunderstanding. In the PCEA subscription is to “the whole doctrine” of the Confession, that is to all its teaching both major and minor. However, that does not mean that I declare that the statements of doctrine in the Confession are necessarily formulated in the best manner, or that they are exhaustive statements of the doctrines expressed, or that every teaching of Scripture is dealt with or every error condemned, or that mere allusions or incidental remarks are binding.
Here and there the changed historical circumstances of a church with a long history like ours may mean misunderstanding.
• Long-standing, godly elders are not always aware that WCF 23:3, about the role of the civil magistrate in calling Synods, was limited by the Church of Scotland when it adopted the Confession in 1647, and is therefore limited by us, and rightly.
• I’ve heard some of our people express the opinion that the questions used at ordinations and inductions need to be recast a little to relate them more to our Australian situation than to the Disruption in Scotland in 1843. I think there’s merit in this.
• Others may not realise that the term ‘psalms’ in WCF 21:5 was not intended by our Mother church in 1647 to be necessarily equated to the Psalter, or to decide the limits of Biblically permissable songs in God’s worship.
• Still others may misunderstand the reference to the papacy in WCF 25:6, or even the reference to creation in the space of six days, 4:1.
The antidote in such matters is a bit of historical study and maybe some clarifying updating of the text.
Liberty and its limits
There remains the question of liberty of opinion. The framers of the Confession never intended their work to decide every issue. It was, after all, a consensus, and dealt with all the major doctrines. So there will be areas where different opinions on subsidiary/undefined issues will be held by those who are intelligent and genuine strict subscribers.
But what about areas the Confession does speak to? Can there be disagreement there? Yes and No, I would say.
Yes, because even the Confession itself distinguishes between errors censurable in their own nature, eg. the grounds of divorce, and other errors which are censurable because of the manner in which they are maintained and propagated (WCF 20:4). It therefore seems to be open for the church to accept as an office-bearer someone otherwise qualified who has certain exceptions [being ‘errors not censurable in their own nature’] which are not maintained and propagated in an objectionable manner.
No, given that no distinction is made between major and minor doctrines when accepting ‘the whole doctrine’. In the PCEA any exceptions would have to be dealt with at Synod level, and we have not had occasion to do so hitherto.
Most churches, including the PCEA, have allowed good sense to rule in those few minor points where well recognised differences exist. For example, a number of the best ministers in our tradition [eg.Murray M’Cheyne of Dundee, John Sinclair of Geelong] were of pre-millennial persuasion (although not dispensational). This is hardly fully consistent with the Confession but has not given rise to censure.
Sometimes it is argued in less strict bodies that one has a ‘liberty of opinion’ to believe but not to teach a different viewpoint on some secondary issue dealt with in the Confession. I do not believe this is tenable. It leads to a new papalism where the authority of the church binds the conscience improperly. A promise not to teach something one regards as the teaching of the Word of God is rightly forbidden by WCF 22:7. It follows that if a Church accepts an office-bearer otherwise qualified who had certain exceptions, those exceptions should be in relatively small matters (‘not censurable in their own nature’) and could be publicly expressed by that person, so long as there was respect for the consensus Confession of the Church. In other words, the manner of maintaining them would have to be appropriate, not fomenting schism, etc.
The liberty of opinion clauses that became common in larger Presbyterian bodies around 1900 were framed in a context where there was dissatisfaction with major doctrines like the atonement and God’s decrees, even Scripture itself. To grant an undefined liberty of opinion (and logically therefore liberty of expression also) in matters not essential, without defining the essentials unambiguously, is to invite a broadening of teaching beyond the limits of Scripture. Is it being loyal to Christ the only Head of the Church? Yet in rightly strongly objecting to such a procedure as replacing a definite creed with a fluctuating one we must be careful not to advance a confessionalism which undercuts the supremacy of Scripture and thus denies our Confession!
Yes, we need a strict subscription, yet always the recognition that if anything is found apparently repugnant to the Word of God we will give satisfaction from that Word or amend the confession to make it conform to Scripture. Of course the future orthodoxy of a Church will not be secured simply by fine trust deeds or formulas of subscription, but by godly men who know, live and teach the Word of God.
Also, while checks against hasty or ill-considered action are good, the Christian Church must always be free to obey her Lord in entering into a wider expression of visible unity in agreement with the Word of God, where that possibility presents itself. (5)
4. So how would one summarise a proper subscription?
Here follows my draft of the substance of what I believe is involved in my own subscription as a PCEA minister. It is couched in rather different words than the questions and formula I signed in 1976 to illustrate what I have been saying, and to further understanding of the proper place of the Confession.
1. I wholeheartedly and willingly acknowledge before God without mental reservation, that the Holy Scriptures, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, are the Word of God and the only rule of faith and conduct.
2. I further wholeheartedly and willingly acknowledge before God that I believe all the doctrines contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith as received by the Church of Scotland in the year 1647, and interpreted in the Disruption documents by those who formed the Free Church of Scotland in the year 1843, to be a faithful setting forth of the teaching of the Word of God. To all those doctrines, both major and minor, I subscribe without reservation and confess to be my own understanding of the teaching of the Word of God, which I will assert, maintain and defend.
3. In making this subscription I understand that the Westminster Confession is not on a level with the Word of God. Thus, I do not declare that the statements of doctrine in it are necessarily formulated in the best manner, or that they are exhaustive statements of the doctrines expressed, or that every teaching of Scripture is dealt with or every error condemned, or that mere allusions or incidental remarks are binding. Nevertheless, I subscribe as previously stated to all the teachings intentionally conveyed by the Confession because I believe them to be derived from the Holy Scriptures and in agreement with them.
4. I pledge myself faithfully to adhere to all the teachings of the Westminster Confession and to reject all doctrines or opinions whatever that are contrary to or inconsistent with them. Should at any time a question arise as to my understanding of any of the teachings of the Word of God that may seem to conflict with my subscription to the teaching of the Confession, I solemnly undertake not to act or teach independently but to bring such a matter before the relevant church assembly for clarification or resolution, including by final appeal to the Word of God.
5. I further acknowledge that the principles of Presbyterian government by elders duly met in congregational, regional and broader assemblies, as also the simplicity and spirituality of worship as practised by this Church, are soundly based on the Word of God. I acknowledge the authority of the Church to administer the teaching of the Word of God in subjection to that Word, and I promise to observe the Practice and Procedure of the Church in an orderly manner and to uphold its worship, government and discipline. Should I have cause in conscience to disagree with a decision of the church, I recognise that I may clear my conscience by a formal dissent, but that I remain obligated to submit to my brothers in Church assembly and to promote the unity of the Church.
1.) I have provided a more detailed survey in Rowland S. Ward, The Westminster Confession of Faith: A Study Guide (Wantirna: New Melbourne Press, 1996) 204-213.
2.) Finlay Holmes, Our Irish Presbyterian Heritage (Belfast: Presbyterian Church in Ireland, 1992) 65.
3.) Note my The Westminster Confession and Catechisms in Modern English (Melbourne 1996 reprinted
2000). Examples of matters not decided include the infra- and supra-lapsarian order of the divine decrees, the definition of usury, the appointed time for the efficacy of baptism, and the relation of the active obedience of Christ to justification and sanctification. See also Peter J. Wallace, Whose Meaning? The Question of Original Intent at <http://www.nd.edu/~pwallace/intent.htm>
4.) Note this point well made in Constitutional Catechism of the Free Church of Scotland (1847) Q.44 & fn.
5.) A strict subscription as I have defined it to the WCF would not appear inconsistent with a similar strict subscription to the Three Forms of Unity also, except perhaps in regard to the theoretical underpinning of the fourth commandment where the early Reformation position reflected in the TFU has been supplanted in the WCF by the binding moral obligation of a weekly day of rest, cf Richard Gaffin, Calvin and the Sabbath (Christian Focus/Mentor 1998); Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (English translation 1852) on Q 103; G.I.Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism - Study Guide (P & R 1993) on Q 103. Note the two views well stated in Acts of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, 1972, pp. 146-166. In practical terms there appears no great difference in Sabbath observance among the strict subscription churches at the present time, if one allows for cultural variations.
Rev. Dr. Rowland S. Ward