The question often raised in churches that hold a confession of faith as a subordinate standard is Why? Why do we need a confession of faith? Are confessions of faith not simply engines of division?
In a recently re-published book, The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy, Ian Hamilton, minister of Cambridge Presbyterian Church, concludes with a very interesting chapter on why the church needs a confession of faith.
First, a confession is an appropriate way for identifying the church as such in the world. A confession is like a banner under which the church carries on its activities, telling the world what it is, and what it stands for. Abraham Kuyper said that a creed is not for the purpose of stating our own surmises or conjectures, but for professing that, of which on the basis of God’s revelation, we possess most certain knowledge.
Secondly, a confession also serves as an evangelical testimony to those outside the church’s fellowship. Mr Hamilton quotes my former professor at Westminster Seminary, Norman Shepherd, who speaks of the confession as having both apologetic (directed against error outside the church) and polemic (directed against deception within the professing church) functions. A confession makes known to the church as well as to the world “the faith once for all delivered to the saints”.
Thirdly, a confession of faith serves the ecumenical unity of the church. Far from being engines of division, creeds and confessions promote true ecumenism by honestly stating what different denominations understand by “the faith once delivered to the saints”. Unity that is not built upon, and is reflective of God’s truth, is not Christian unity.
Fourthly, a confession of faith serves to maintain harmony within the church. Without a confession, anarchy, not harmony, would prevail. Mr Hamilton says that this fact necessitates the inclusion in any meaningful confessional statement of a number of doctrines which in themselves do not belong to the substance of the faith, for example, infant baptism and Presbyterian polity. In order to live in harmony and administrative unity, churches need this kind of commitment. To have one church in a denomination practise paedo-baptism, while another rejects the practice, would be a recipe for theological, pastoral and administrative anarchy, he says.
Fifthly, confessions assist the church in maintaining internal discipline, especially among those who hold office in the church.
Sixthly, a confession of faith has the capacity to register the theological attainments of the church. Modern evangelicals have largely cut themselves off from the church of all ages. The learning, wisdom and attainments of the church over the past two millenia are reflected in a confession of faith. It helps to acknowledge those hard-won attainments and to recognise that the church did not begin with us and our generation.
Of course, there are major objections to this line of thinking.
Firstly, some say that confessions of faith detract from the sufficiency and perfection of the Bible as the church’s supreme rule of faith. “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible”, they say. This argument completely misses the point, says Hamilton. Confessions are “subordinate” standards (Westminster Confession of Faith, I,X) and are binding only in so far as they are biblical, and are therefore open to revision, modification and rejection in the light of God’s Word.
Secondly, it is objected that confessions of faith limit and hinder the liberty of God’s people. But it is obvious that confessions do not seek to impose any burden on church members that the Bible does not already impose. Hamilton says they no more restrict an individual’s liberty than the rails of a railway track restrict a train.
Thirdly, some say that confessions limit the progress and development of theology. That might be true if confessions were considered to be the last word in biblical interpretation. They are not “sacred cows” which must never be altered nor discussed. Hamilton quotes James Bannerman:
Let any part of them (confessions) be proved from Scripture to be false, and we give it up; for we hold them only because, and insofar as, they are true. We invite every man to go beyond them if he can. We encourage and call upon every student of God’s Holy Word to press forward to fresh discoveries of truth, and to open up new views of the meaning of Scripture….Those who have studied their Bibles longest and most prayerfully are most convinced of that.
The honoured status or past usefulness of a confession of faith does not exempt it from its provisional place in the life of the church.
Fourthly, creeds and confessions, and subscription to them, do not guard the church against heresies, help it to propagate the truth, or maintain peace in the church. When it comes to elders and ministers subscribing to a confession of faith, subscription by itself does not guarantee orthodoxy. But Hamilton argues that, while not perfect, the existence of a confession of faith provides the church with a biblically tested basis out of which it may conduct a careful examination of those who are candidates for the ministry or the eldership.
Hamilton acknowledges that we cannot escape the fact that confessionalism is considered by many to be a relic of a by-gone era. In practice, the commitment that is required from many ministers and elders today is not a commitment to the church’s confession of faith, but a commitment to the church’s canon law. The issue that matters most is not “What do you believe?” but “What will you practice?”
Such documents are an embarrassment to the Church today, and increasingly relegated to the sidelines of history; documents of historical interest, landmarks in the evolution of the church, relevant to their own day, but out of touch with the realities of today. This kind of thinking may appeal to inclusivist thinking that pervades much of the Church and society, but it is light years removed from the New Testament with its categorical affirmations of truth, and its equally categorical denial of error. Until the Church wakens up to its follies, and is returned to a new confidence in Scripture, it seems likely that meaningful Confessionalism will be the preserve of so-called “fundamentalist” remnants.