In spite of the Westminster Assembly’s warning that the Scriptures are “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 its caution that “All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both,” we see all around us, those who act as if the Westminster Confession is infallible and the standard of orthodoxy.
The desire for a timeless creed is a normal and quite understandable desire. After all, God’s Word is applicable to all men in all ages and is in itself unchanging and authoritative for every day and age. Truth by definition does not change and thus, it is not irrational to desire a creedal statement which contains formulae that stand as reliable expressions of the teachings of God’s Word in all times and places and remain so for every succeeding age. But no matter how reasonable this desire might appear, it is in fact ultimately impossible to attain.
This longing for creedal permanence has always been present in all branches of the church but historically, the Reformed have been particularly keen to avoid this snare. The emphasis placed upon the supremacy of the Scriptures as the one infallible rule of faith and life has worked to undermine the temptation to absolutize confessional statements. Consequently, no branch of Christ’s Church has been more quick to write new creeds and confessions in light of the circumstances and needs of their own day as the Reformed (no less than 50 major creedal statements were formulated in the 125 years after Luther’s posting of his 95 theses in 1517). And we may add, no group has been more careful to warn against idolizing their creedal statements.
When Henrich Bullinger and Leo Jud signed the First Helvetic Confession, they added this comment:
We wish in no way to prescribe for all churches through these articles a single rule of faith. For we acknowledge no other rule of faith than Holy Scripture. We agree with whoever agrees with this, although he uses different expressions from our Confession. For we should have regard for the fact itself and for the truth, not for the words. We grant to everyone the freedom to use his own expressions which are suitable for his church and will make use of this freedom ourselves, at the same time defending the true sense of the Confession against distortions. (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. I, 389-390; translated by Leith, The Assembly at Westminster, 19).
Their preeminent concern was to prevent any confession of faith from usurping the supreme authority of the Scriptures. The confession was not to be used to bind the consciences of men as if it had the authority of the Word of God. Of course, there were important reasons for this in addition to maintaining the Scriptures’ supremacy. In the early stages of the Reformation it was vital that the various groups and leaders be given room to disagree amiably within the confines of God’s Word. If there was to be any unity at all among the various groups and movements of the Reformation, this freedom had to be maintained.
But they were also keenly aware of other realities which stood as barriers against absolutizing confessions and creeds. The first of which is the influence of the historical situation upon theology (i.e. all theology is historically conditioned, i.e. molded and formed in the light of the peculiar historical circumstances in which theologians live). This is always the case no matter what the creed or confession or the giftedness of the authors. John Murray writes:
the creeds of the church have been framed in a particular historical situation to meet the need of the church in that context, and have been oriented to a considerable extent in both their negative and positive declarations to the refutation of the errors confronting the church at that time. The creeds are therefore, historically complexioned in language and content and do not reflect the particular and distinguishing needs of subsequent generations. (“The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith,” Collected Writings, IV, 242)
All creeds are framed by men who have grown up in a particular culture with particular influences and experiences — all of which have contributed to the way in which they read the Bible and understand its teachings and applications – and this reality limits the usefulness of all creeds and confessions, no matter how closely they may express an accurate understanding of the Word of God. Unavoidably, the form and content of particular creedal statements are shaped and influenced by the peculiar historical circumstances in which they are composed.
Thus, to say that the Westminster Confession (or any other confession for that matter) doesn’t address or fully meet the needs of our current theological and cultural milieu, is not necessarily to say that it is mistaken or erroneous. Many of us can affirm the statements contained in the Confession with few, if any, reservations while realizing that there is much more to say still. To acknowledge the time-bound nature of creeds is not a harsh critique. It is simply a fact. But it is a vital fact to remember in order to avoid falling into the trap of creedal idolatry.
The realities of history, distinctive cultural traditions, and the evolving situations in which the Church found itself were preeminent factors in provoking the proliferation of creeds in the Reformed branch of the Church. Reformed churchmen often chose to write new creeds even though existing creeds were available. They believed it was important to confess the faith in ways appropriate to their particular time and place and culture. As John Leith observed, “They refused to exalt any one creed as the perennial theology of the church or as a theology for eternity. They knew that every statement of faith is very historical and limited by the finiteness and sin of man.” (The Assembly at Westminster, 19).
The last observation (remembering the limits placed upon man by his sin and finiteness) leads to the second factor that mitigates against absolutizing the creeds: the progressive sanctification of the Church. God has promised to cause His people to grow up to maturity in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 4:11-16). Just as individuals grow in wisdom and knowledge throughout their lives, so the body of Christ collectively grows in wisdom and maturity throughout history.
Living later is a great advantage. We learn from those who have gone before us. We see some things more clearly simply because we have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of those who have preceded us. The sanctifying work of the Spirit means that those who come after us will have a more clear and accurate understanding of the Word of God than we have at present. This reality means that all creedal statements are limited in their usefulness simply because they are the expression of the best knowledge of the church at the time in which they were written. Professor Murray again notes:
There is the progressive understanding of the faith delivered to the saints. There is in the church the ceaseless activity of the Holy Spirit so that the church organically and corporately increases in knowledge unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . the Westminster Confession . . . is the epitome of the most mature thought to which the church of Christ had been led up to the year 1646. But are we to suppose that this progression ceased with that date? To ask the question is to answer it. An affirmative is to impugn the continued grace of which the Westminster Confession is itself an example at the time of its writing. There is more light to break forth from the living and abiding Word of God. (Collected Writings, IV, 242)
This means that we ought not to be surprised if the Church determines the Westminster formulations (or those of other creeds) are not totally adequate for today and the future – even as those who have gone before us determined that the Apostle’s, Nicene, Athanasian, and Chalcedonian creeds were not fully sufficient for their own times.
This is exactly what is happening today. Recent studies have reminded us of the historical situation which shaped the Westminster Confession. We have been shown that the Confession was written using language broad enough to allow for a rather wide range of doctrinal views at specific points and not just one narrow position. We are seeing how the particular circumstances and concerns of the members of the Assembly affected their doctrinal formulations. Westminster theology was no more immune to the forces of history than any other theology.
This, coupled with the fact that we are continuing to grow in our understanding of God’s Word means that we may be on the verge of seeing some things more clearly than those who have preceded us (think particularly in regard to the doctrines of the Trinity, the covenant, the church, worship and the sacraments among others).
And these insights should lead to the formulation of new confessional statements that build gratefully upon the old. As heretical as that may sound to some, this is the Reformed tradition – indeed, it is the tradition of the holy catholic Church.
(to be continued)