Much of what we have already considered regarding creeds can be said regarding confessions. In the Reformed faith, confessions refer to the comprehensive documents concerning doctrine composed by the Protestant Reformers and their successors. Like the creeds from the early church, confessions carry an authority that is subordinate to Scripture. They are not infallible and can err and be improved on. 

Some argue that confessions serve to create doctrinal division within the church. But this is not so. Doctrinal differences already exist because Scripture requires interpretation and harmonization. Rather than escalating division, confessions rather serve to create unity—they unite Christians to a common understanding of Scripture. They create doctrinal “fences” that keep ministers and churches together within what is believed to be biblical doctrine.

Confessional subscription is also an exercise in honesty. When a minister says that he holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, a congregant can (hopefully) have a reasonable understanding of what will and will not be taught in the pulpit. When a church has a ‘Beliefs’ section on their website, laying out what confessions they hold to, they are loving their neighbors by being clear and honest regarding their faith. As Louis Berkhof wrote, “Every Church owes it to other Churches and to the world round about her, to make a public declaration of her teachings… The Church of Jesus Christ should never seek refuge in camouflage, should not try to hide her identity. And this is exactly what she does in the measure in which she fails to give a clear and unequivocal expression of her faith.”[1]

Lastly, subscribing to a confession is an act of humility. It is acknowledging that you are not an infallible interpreter, but instead need the wisdom of the past—the kind of wisdom and learning among men that is largely absent today.

Westminster Confession of Faith

The product of the Westminster Assembly of Divines and completed in 1646, the Westminster Confession of Faith stands today as the one of the most mature and influential documents written in the Reformed tradition. As Philip Schaff wrote, “Whether we look at the extent or ability of its labors, or its influence upon future generations, it stands first among Protestant Councils.”[2] While the important Synod of Dort confined itself to issues of Calvinism, the Westminster Confession explored all of systematic theology, from creation to final judgment. Covering more than Reformed soteriology, the Westminster Confession  has been described as expressing “Catholic Calvinism”—catholic in the sense that it stands on the shoulders and continues the work of the great ecumenical creeds of the church.[3]

The initial goal of the Westminster Assembly was to bring the Church of England into closer doctrinal unity with the Scottish and Continental Reformed churches. As the political landscape on the island changed during the English Civil War, so did the direction of the Assembly. Instead of merely reworking the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the 120 ministers and 30 laymen (representing various ecclesiastical groups) were now looking at writing a new confession altogether. The signing of the Solemn League and Covenant brought a greater Scottish influence to the work, adding the likes of George Gillespie and Samuel Rutherford to the project. The Church of England itself never adopted the Westminster Confession, but this did not dampen its influence. Today Presbyterians and other Reformed churches around the world subscribe to the document or refer to it as a great theological work.

Subscription and Use in the Local Church

In what way is a document like the Westminster Confession of Faith useful in the local church? First, it is useful as a document that ministers and elders “subscribe” to—meaning that they confess to hold to the teachings of the confession and vow to not teach anything contrary to it. Some churches require “full subscription,” where a man must hold to the entirety of the confession. Others allow for certain “exceptions” to be declared, where a man outlines where he may differ with the confession. Common exceptions include exact understanding of the Sabbath (WCF 21) and whether the Pope is the antichrist (WCF 25). 

Without requiring subscription to a confession, a church cannot hold a minister accountable to its teachings or explore where he may doctrinally differ from their standards. While full subscription is just fine if a man truly has no exceptions, we should not want the requirement or desire of full subscription to then hide differences that are actually there. Meaning we should much prefer and allow the declaration of honest exceptions, and judge whether they are acceptable, to dishonest full subscription. 

But what about the congregation? Should they be required to subscribe to the confession in their membership vows? No. As A.A. Hodge emphatically wrote,

“A Church has no right to make anything a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation. The Church is Christ’s fold. The sacraments are the seals of his covenant. All have a right to claim admittance who make a credible profession of the true religion—that is, who are presumptively the people of Christ. This credible profession of course involves a competent knowledge of the fundamental doctrine of Christianity—a declaration of personal faith in Christ and consecration to his service, and a temper of mind and habit consistent therewith.”[4]

St Paul teaches in Romans that if a man confesses with his mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes in his heart that Christ was raised from the dead, he will be saved (Rom. 10:9). A church should never then make admittance into their church more complex or rigorous than what God requires for admittance into His fellowship, for the church is His. While subscription to the confession should not be required for membership, it should be readily used and referred to in the doctrinal teaching of the church and congregants should be encouraged to make use of it (and believe it!). 

Find other posts in this series here.

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 31.
[2] Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom Vol. I, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 733.
[3] Sinclair Ferguson, The Westminster Confession of Faith (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust), 9.
[4] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust), 21.

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