One of the biggest changes—and one of the greatest blessings—in my “church life” over the past several years has been attending churches that subscribe to confessional standards which govern their teaching and practice. While by no means on par with Holy Scripture, these standards provide summaries of what the churches subscribing to them believe and teach, and constitute doctrinal rules to which those that teach and/or hold office in the church are held. Our present church subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and its associated catechisms; my family was previously part of a church which subscribed to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, which was derived from the Westminster.
If you grew up in more broadly evangelical churches, as I did, you might have developed a certain—perhaps unconscious—distrust of creeds and confessions. You may have even heard slogans like “we have no creed but the Bible.” Modern evangelicals are, by and large, an anti-creedal, anti-confessional people, a position which grows out of a commendable zeal for the truth of the Scriptures above any “man-made” statement of faith. Let me be clear before proceeding: the Scriptures, and the Scriptures alone contain the words that are necessary for our instruction, correction, and most importantly, our salvation (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Confessions of faith and related documents are useful, as I hope to show, but a confession of faith is only doing its job if it accurately sets forth the teaching of Scripture and directs readers to “search the Scriptures” themselves.
A (Very) Brief History of Systematic Theology
Systematic Theology, of which our confessional standards are a species, developed for one primary reason: to combat error. God’s Word, with few exceptions, does not provide systematic statements of doctrine. Instead, it records God’s gradual, progressive revelation of Himself over a period of over 1500 years. As a result, sometimes the Scriptures must be “mined” systematically in order to develop a full statement of its teaching on a given topic. This is intellectually and spiritually a very rewarding exercise, but when early theologians began to do this “personal fulfillment” was not the primary focus.
Even during New Testament times various heresies arose out of perversions or “twistings” of the Scriptures. In his epistles John dealt with the error of Docetism, which taught that the spiritual was “above” the physical and therefore even taught that Christ did not have a physical body. Hence, the teaching of 1 John 4:
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:2-3)
Paul, we know, dealt with the Judaizers, who tried to force Gentile Christians to observe the Jewish ceremonial law. We’ve also heard of the Gnostics, who taught that one should seek an “inner light” that would elevate him above other Christians. Later, Arianism, which denied the deity of Christ, and Pelagianism, which made salvation an effort of the unaided human will, arose.
All of these groups, much like the various cultic groups active today, used the words of Scripture in devious ways in order to promote their heresies. It therefore became necessary for the true church to develop systematic expressions of orthodox doctrine in order to instruct Christians in how to recognize and reject these false teachings.
The earliest such expressions were baptismal formulae, short confessions that new converts made when they were baptized, or perhaps that were pronounced over them when they were baptized. It is said that the Apostles’ Creed grew out of such statements, and in the sixth and seventh centuries it was common for new converts to recite the Creed prior to baptism.
In the Reformation era combating the errors of Roman Catholicism (and later, differentiating Protestant groups among themselves) made systematic theological expressions once again very important. Philip Melanchthon’s (1497-1560) Loci Communes (1521, 1543), Huldrych Zwingli’s (1484-1531) Commentary on True and False Religion 1525), and John Calvin’s (1509-1564) Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536, 1559) are important such works. As the error of Arminianism arose, the Canons of Dordt (1618-1619) were developed with the express purpose of systematically and positively refuting the teachings of the followers of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). Not long after, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and its derivatives, the Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (1658) and the aforementioned London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) arose in England.
Why the Westminster Standards (and Other Confessional Statements) are Useful Today
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) said of the 1689 Confession: “This little volume is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be fettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness. Here the younger members of our church will have a body of divinity in small compass, and by means of the Scriptural proofs, will be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them.” Given the tremendous similarities between the two documents, this statement applies equally well to the Westminster Confession. Our confessional standards serve at least three purposes in the church today:
First, they provide a summary of what the church believes to be the teaching of Scripture in a brief, systematic form. This helps to prevent members from drifting away from orthodoxy in their readings of Scripture, and provides an effective means of ascertaining whether prospective officers’ understandings are consistent with that of the church and denomination. After all, cultic groups use the Scriptures, but wrest them from their context to set forth an interpretation that is contrary to that which God intended. Our confessional standards help to protect us against that by rightly setting forth the whole teaching of God’s Word. Because Scripture references are found throughout the confession and catechisms, their teaching remains bound to the inspired text. The standards are a conserving influence, preserving us, Lord willing, from drifting into heresies both ancient and modern, and even from the less flagrant errors that arise from variant interpretations in churches that proudly but naïvely proclaim “we have no creed but the Bible!”
Secondly, our confessional standards give prospective new members a means of quickly ascertaining what our church and denomination teach and believe before seeking membership. This is MUCH better than in many churches that one has to attend for months before discovering that some serious error is being promoted there. It also gives pastors and elders a means to gauge whether a prospective member’s beliefs are compatible with those of their church and denomination. Conversely, the standards provide a scriptural framework for discipline if a member—or, worse, a teacher or officer—strays from orthodoxy and even into sin.
Finally, our confessional standards serve as an apologetic tool, providing a “ready reference” for us to be able to, as Spurgeon said paraphrasing Peter, “give a reason for the hope that is in [us].” Instead of fumbling through the Scriptures trying to answer a particular question or objection, we can turn to the relevant passages in the confession and catechisms and seek the answer among the Scripture references found there. Being able to find answers this way is vitally important when witnessing to unbelievers. It is also important for us, when and if we might have doubts with regard to a certain teaching or doctrine, that we can use these documents to direct us to God’s Word for instruction, clarification, comfort, and assurance.
May we faithfully use our confessional standards as a tool in our hands—no more and no less than that—to help us to understand, teach, and proclaim God’s Holy Word, which alone shows the way of salvation to all that believe.
This post is adapted from a Sunday School lesson delivered by the author at Providence Reformed Bible Church, West Monroe, Louisiana, on June 21, 2009.