1. The necessity and legitimacy of creeds. The Church is called “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). The Church is dependent upon the Word of God and not the Word upon the Church, but it is within the Church the Word is preserved and passed on. The Church through her authorised teachers is to speak the truth authoritatively. “And the things which thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). “Preach the Word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim 4:2). “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Historically the Church has endeavoured to fulfil her responsibility to preserve and propagate the truth by preaching and by the production of Creeds and by having office bearers subscribe them.
From the beginning, Christians have confessed their faith. The Church required confession of faith, and faith itself sought expression. Creeds, in the sense of statements of Biblical truth intended to counteract error, emerged early in the Church’s history. Within the inspired Scriptures, some controverted doctrines of the faith were put into alternative terms intended to clarify truth and counteract errors which had arisen since they were first proclaimed. At critical times in the post-Apostolic history of the Church, creeds were drawn up to controvert current error and declare what was understood to be the truth of God on the matters under dispute. Well-known examples include the Nicene Creed of 325 AD, confessing the eternal, pre-existent Godhood of Christ; the Chalcedon Definition of 451 AD, confessing the truth concerning the Person of the incarnate Son of God; and the Athanasian Creed from some time after the fifth century, confessing the truth concerning the Holy Trinity.
Creeds counteracting error and declaring and defending truth were characteristic of the Churches springing from the sixteenth-century Reformation. From the Lutheran section of the Church came such creeds as the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and the 1576 Formula of Concord. Among more Reformed or Calvinistic Creeds, we have the First and Second Helvetic (Swiss) Confessions of 1536 and 1566, the Scots Confession of 1560, the Belgic Confession of 1561 (revised at Dort in 1619), the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 and the Canons of the Synod of Dort, 1619. The Westminster Confession of Faith, completed in 1647 and adopted in that year by the Church of Scotland, is the last of the Reformation creeds and crystallises the best of all that went before. It also came into existence out of a desire to promote Biblically-grounded harmony between national Churches adhering to the Protestant Reformation. The Church of Scotland Assembly received the Westminster Confession “as a principal part of the intended uniformity in religion, and as a special means for the more effectual suppressing of the many dangerous errors and heresies of these times” (2).
If we believe in the supremacy, sufficiency and perspicuity of the Word of God we must ask if it is right for the Church to put her professed faith into language other than that of Scripture – to provide humanly-devised summaries of Christian doctrine as subordinate standards of the Church’s belief and practice. Creeds have been objected to as undermining the place, authority and sufficiency of the Word of God.
Some say that it is enough to confess that we accept the truth of God in the Bible as our doctrinal standard. However, in claiming that we believe the Bible is the Word of God we are already making a statement of our own in response to what the Bible says; we are expressing our own understanding of what the Bible says, uttering an elementary creed, giving expression in our own words to what we believe to be true. But the claim that the Bible is the Word of God means many different things to different people. When we look more closely, we find there are those who, for example, claim that the Bible contains the Word of God, or that it bears testimony to the Word, or that it can be the means of conveying the Word of God to us. There are those whose Bible contains Apocryphal writings. There are different views as to how the Bible came into existence as the Word of God, different views of revelation and inspiration. So our claim to believe that the Bible is the Word of God has to be expanded and put in a form which includes what is necessary to a true statement of the facts concerning the Bible and excludes all the errors which have arisen on the subject.
When people agree on the Biblical view of what the Bible is, they can differ considerably in their view of what the Bible says. Even when we look at doctrines so obviously central to the gospel as the doctrines of God, Christ, sin, grace, atonement, justification and election, we find that it is not enough for people to say they believe what the Bible says on these subjects. They must say what they mean by what the Bible says on these subjects, and say it in such a way that they cannot be misunderstood as implying what another man erroneously means when he expounds these doctrines. A man who claims to believe the Bible to be the Word of God may reject the most basic doctrines of the Word biblically understood. This is not due to any defect in the Bible, which is in its entirety the inspired, inerrant and clear revelation of God’s mind to us. It is due to the fact that the Word of God demands human understanding and reception and response.
To show that we truly understand and accept what God has said, we have to use human words which capture and reflect the significance of the divine words. For example, people mean many different things when they quote a text such as John 3:16. One might think this is about the simplest text in the Bible to understand (although that is by no means the case) and yet almost every kind of error can be contained under a professed understanding of this text. This is not because the text is unclear, but because the human mind is perverted and tends to take Scripture statements out of Scripture context. There must always be human interpretation of the divine revelation and our concern must be to seek, by the use of the Word in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, such a correspondence between the truth and its interpretation as will bring us to say authoritatively, “Thus saith the Lord”.
Correspondence with the Word is what gives a Confession its authority. When a Confession corresponds to Scripture as an account of the Church’s understanding of what the truth of God is, it is quite out of place to suggest that requiring allegiance to the Confession is interfering with allegiance to the Word of God. For those who recognise the authority of God’s Word as the revelation of His will in every matter, a Confession of Faith is not a substitute for Scripture but a necessary expression and summary of what Scripture teaches. As A A Hodge says, “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 judgement and the unassisted wisdom of the repudiator of creeds”. (3) The objection that creed-making and creed subscription undermine the place, authority and sufficiency of the Word of God is without foundation when that creed is subordinate to, and conforms to, the Bible and there is an appeal from the creed to the Bible.
Some have also objected to creeds as interfering with the liberty of the Christian. In response to this objection, it may briefly be said that the liberty of the Christian is liberty to be subject to the will of his Lord revealed in His Word. It cannot be left to each elder and minister to determine his own standard of orthodoxy. “I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine” (1 Tim 1:3); “Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1:13); “And the things which thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2); “Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Titus 1:3). The Church is not interfering with any man’s liberty when he is asked to acknowledge the subordinate authority of a creed which faithfully confesses the doctrines of the Word of God.
2. The public or ecclesiastical uses of creeds and the suitability of the Westminster Confession of Faith for these uses. The public uses of a Confession have been variously described but, according to William Dunlop, “the uses of creeds and Confessions may be grouped under three general heads . . . (1) to give a fair and authentic account of Christian doctrine to the world . . . (2) to furnish a standard of orthodoxy and test for office-bearers . . . (3) to provide the members of the Church with a useful summary of the articles of the faith”. (4) A Confession indicates the beliefs of the body adhering to it as to the teaching of the Bible on the matters most closely connected with the glory of God and the good of souls; it preserves the doctrinal achievements of the Church; it distinguishes between truth and error; it constitutes a means for securing and preserving the purity of the Church’s doctrine; it provides a basis for exercising Biblical discipline as far as doctrine is concerned; supplies a method for instruction; and it is an instrument for preserving and promoting unity in the faith. It is one guarantee that the truth is held and proclaimed by all who have been ordained to office in the Church.
Is the Westminster Confession of Faith suited for the public and ecclesiastical uses of a creed? William Hetherington, writing his History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (5) in 1843, had no doubt: “All that learning the most profound and extensive, intellect the most acute and searching, and piety the most sincere and earnest, could accomplish, was thus concentrated in the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith, which may be safely termed the most perfect statement of Systematic Theology ever framed by the Christian Church. . . . The first thing which must strike any thoughtful reader, after having carefully and studiously perused the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith, is the remarkable comprehensiveness and accuracy of its character, viewed as a systematic exhibition of divine truth. . . . It contains the calm and settled judgement of these profound divines on all previous heresies and subjects of controversy which had in any age or country agitated the Church. This it does without expressly naming even one of these heresies – the great Antichristian system alone excepted – or entering into mere controversy. Each error is condemned, not by a direct statement and refutation of it, but by a clear, definite, and strong statement of the converse truth. . . . Closely connected with this excellence of the Confession of Faith is its astonishing precision of thought and language.”
Although B B Warfield later defended the early twentieth-century revisions of the Westminster Confession of Faith in the Presbyterian Church in the USA (as in an article entitled The Confession of Faith as Revised in 1903 (6)) he wrote an article in 1897 entitled The Significance of the Westminster Standards as a Creed (7) in which he said of the Westminster Documents that, “historically speaking, they are the final crystallization of the elements of evangelical religion, after the conflicts of sixteen hundred years; scientifically speaking, they are the richest and most precise and best-guarded statement ever penned of all that enters into evangelical religion and of all that must be safeguarded if evangelical religion is to persist in the world; and religiously speaking, they are a notable monument of spiritual religion”. Referring to the controversies out of which the Reformed Confessions grew, he continued: “In these struggles . . . the gem of the gospel was cut and polished, and it is on this account that the enunciation of the gospel in the Reformed Confessions attains its highest purity; and that among other Reformed Confessions the Westminster Confession, the product of the Puritan conflict, reaches a perfection of statement never elsewhere achieved. . . . All attempts at restatement must either repeat their definitions or fall away from the purity of their conceptions or the justness of their language. . . . The nicety of its balance in conceiving, and the precision of its language in stating, truth will seem to us scholastic only in proportion as our religious life is less developed than theirs. . . . In proportion as our own religious life flows in a deep and broad stream, in that proportion will we find spiritual delight in the Westminster Standards.”
The spirit in which the Westminster Divines approached their work is illustrated by a sermon preached to them in 1646 by one of their leading men, John Arrowsmith. He told them of three rules he attempted to follow in his own Assembly work: “1. Take heed of voting against light. 2. Take heed of voting without light. 3. Take heed of refusing to bring thy judgement to light by thy vote.”
The greatest thing to be said in favour of the Westminster Confession of Faith is that it is faithful to God’s Word. That commended it to the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1647, which received it as “most agreeable to the Word of God”. Departures from the Westminster Confession have never been in the interests of closer approximation to the Word of God. The result has never been stronger adherence to Biblical truth, whether departures have been by rejecting this Confession in favour of another, or of none; by confining adherence simply to the system of doctrine it contains, or to the substance of the faith included in it; by declaratory statements explaining, or explaining away, offensive doctrines or propositions; or simply by closing eyes or ears to deviations from Confessional statements.
Of course, if the Westminster Confession of Faith is to fulfil the functions for which it is admirably suited, subscription to it must be strict and honest and enforced, and must be reflected in the preaching and practice of the Church. The Free Presbyterian Church came into separate existence to a large extent as a protest against the 1892 Declaratory Act of the Free Church General Assembly, which practically replaced the Confession of Faith as the statement of the Church’s belief with something vaguely described as that which enters into “the substance of the Reformed Faith therein set forth”, the precise determination of which the Church reserved to itself “in any case which may arise”.
1. This is the first part of a paper presented at the 2000 Theological Conference. The substance of this section is developed somewhat more fully by the writer in The Westminster Confession of Faith: Milestone, Millstone or Manifesto? published by The James Begg Society.
2. Act approving the Confession of Faith, Assembly at Edinburgh, 27 August 1647, Session 23.
3. The Confession of Faith, Banner of Truth Trust reprint, 1958, pp 1-2.
4.Collection of Confessions of Faith, Catechisms, Directories, Books of Discipline, etc, of Public Authority in the Church of Scotland, 2 vols, Edinburgh, 1719.
5. Pages 353, 358, 359, 360, 361.
6.Selected Shorter Writings, vol 2, pp 370-410.
7.Selected Shorter Writings, vol 2, pp 660-662.