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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)

It’s been a while coming but finally the new printing of The Federal Vision is at the printers and will be arriving in bookstores soon.

But, before it does, Athanasius Press is giving you an opportunity to purchase this new printing at a special pre-publication price of $16!

(That’s 35% off the retail price)

A new foreword has been added along with all the original essays.

All you have to is click here and place your order.

But do it soon so you don’t miss out!

 

Singing dads

Singing with vigor and joyful abandon has always been one of the things we’ve tried to emphasize over the years. I’m usually especially rabid about it after going on vacation, having visited churches where all you can hear is the piano (or organ) playing and a few weak voices here and there in the congregation like night thieves sneaking around afraid of waking someone.

When we join these churches for worship, our family always causes “a stir” – not because we want to or try to, but just because we actually sing the hymns. Out loud. And the result is, before the fourth verse is finished, everyone in the congregation has turned around to get a sneak peak at the show-offs who’ve come to disturb the peace and serenity of the Quiet Waters of Tranquility Church.

Truth is, not many churches sing anymore. I mean, SING – singing the words of the hymn with something that approaches zeal, following along in the general proximity of the tune being played, and acting like they really believe what they’re singing. In some churches, nobody sings. Except the choir. Or the singers in the worship band. In other churches only the women sing – while the men stand, uncomfortably looking about with the same interest and enthusiasm they would have if their wives had dragged them to the matinee of La Traviata.

It’s a shame really. Given what the Scriptures teach about the importance and significance of singing.

It has to be an indicator of our spiritual well-being when the worst singing we hear each week is usually that which we hear in church. During worship.

But let’s, for the moment, put aside a full critical analysis of why this is so and focus upon one reason it is so: Dads – men – don’t sing anymore. And that has had many bad consequences. I was reminded of this after seeing an article by Trevan Wax, titled “A Dad Who Sings.” After mentioning the fact that his dad was always singing, Mr. Wax observes:

We certainly weren’t a charismatic family. We weren’t the type to raise our hands in church. We didn’t dance in the aisles.

But I never remember a time I sat with my parents in church that they did not sing. Not once.

Outside the church, Dad sang too. In the van, he may not have lifted his hands off the steering wheel, but he lifted the roof with his praises. He wasn’t a soloist or a choir member, but he was a worshiper.

Dad didn’t see himself as being “above” praising the Lord. He didn’t see praise and worship as something unmanly. In fact, I remember how many of those songs celebrated the power of Jesus Christ over the principalities and powers of this world. The impression the songs left on me was that Jesus had achieved an important victory, and He was worth singing about and cheering for. Jesus was the Conqueror, so praise the victorious Lamb!

Dad never had to tell me I should sing along. Much of what I learned wasn’t verbal instruction. I knew Jesus was good and powerful, not just because the Bible told me so, but because Dad sang about it so much. The impact wasn’t in him telling me that Jesus was everything; it was him singing it. For that example of faithfulness, I am, as one of those old songs said, “forever grateful.”

There you go.

Dads lead families. Dads often set the “tone” of the family. Dad’s example is always a powerful one – for good or ill. But dads often forget this and think that their lectures are more influential than their example. Wrong.

If you’ve been distressed over the poor singing in your church (or other churches) or in your family, here’s what you can do about it: SING. Sing loudly. Sing with joy. Sing like the gospel is true. Sing like Jesus really is alive. Sing like you would sing if you had been delivered from certain death and given unending life piled high with the most joyful things. Sing like you have been given the great honor of being adopted into the family of the King of the Universe.

Sing!

And your children will join you.

And, more importantly, they will learn about the One who is worthy of all praise. At all times. In every place.

And others will too.

And things will begin to change.

So . . . sing!

 

 

Resurrection

RESURRECTION.

Moist with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul
Shall—though she now be in extreme degree
Too stony hard, and yet too fleshly—be
Freed by that drop, from being starved, hard or foul,
And life by this death abled shall control
Death, whom Thy death slew; nor shall to me
Fear of first or last death bring misery,
If in thy life-book my name thou enroll.
Flesh in that long sleep is not putrified,
But made that there, of which, and for which it was;
Nor can by other means be glorified.
May then sin’s sleep and death soon from me pass,
That waked from both, I again risen may
Salute the last and everlasting day. 

–John Donne, from La Corona

In the grave

For Holy Saturday:

SEPULCHRE.       

O BLESSED bodie! Whither art thou thrown?
No lodging for thee, but a cold hard stone?
So many hearts on earth, and yet not one
Receive thee?

Sure there is room within our hearts good store;
For they can lodge transgressions by the score:
Thousands of toyes dwell there, yet out of doore
They leave thee.

But that which shews them large, shews them unfit.
What ever sinne did this pure rock commit,
Which holds thee now? Who hath indited it
Of murder?

Where our hard hearts have took up stones to braine thee,
And missing this, most falsely did arraigne thee;
Onely these stones in quiet entertain thee,
And order.

And as of old, the law by heav’nly art,
Was writ in stone; so thou, which also art
The letter of the word, find’st no fit heart
To hold thee.

Yet do we still persist as we began,
And so should perish, but that nothing can,
Though it be cold, hard, foul, from loving man
Withhold thee.

–George Herbert

The cross

For Good Friday:

CRUCIFYING

By miracles exceeding power of man,
He faith in some, envy in some begat,
For, what weak spirits admire, ambitious hate:
In both affections many to Him ran.
But O! the worst are most, they will and can,
Alas! and do, unto th’ Immaculate,
Whose creature Fate is, now prescribe a fate,
Measuring self-life’s infinity to span,
Nay to an inch. Lo! where condemned He
Bears His own cross, with pain, yet by and by
When it bears him, He must bear more and die.
Now Thou art lifted up, draw me to Thee,
And at Thy death giving such liberal dole,
Moist with one drop of Thy blood my dry soul.

–John Donne, from La Corona

A Hymn to God the Father

For Maundy Thursday:

 

A Hymn to God the Father

 

I.

WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

II.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

III.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore ;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
And having done that, Thou hast done ;
I fear no more.

–John Donne

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