Confessionally Reformed: The Church (Confessional)
“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.“
— Chapter 31.4, Westminster Confession of Faith
Honoring Our Fathers
The Westminster Divines apply the 5th commandment to respecting our elders in the faith. This is expounded in the Westminster Larger Catechism.
“123. Q. Which is the fifth commandment?
A. The fifth commandment is, Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
124. Q. Who are meant by father and mother in the fifth commandment?
A. By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.
125. Q. Why are superiors styled father and mother?
A. Superiors are styled father and mother, both to teach them in all duties towards their inferiors, like natural parents, to express love and tenderness to them, according to their several relations; and to work inferiors to a greater willingness and cheerfulness in performing their duties to their superiors, as to their parents.”
— Excerpt from the Westminster Larger Catechism
One of the proof texts used in the Catechism is from Galatians. Paul speaks of the Galatian church as his children. He also uses the same language when speaking to Timothy.
My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you, I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you.
— Galatians 4:19 (KJV)
Unto Timothy, my own son in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
— 1 Timothy 1:2 (KJV)
The Church throughout history is one family in Christ. Each generation of Christians are not disconnected from previous generations. This is part of a covenantal understanding of how God interacts with his people. If our more learned elders in the faith give us a command or exhortation that is in accordance with scripture, we are required to respect them by obeying their command. We see this with Paul instructing younger ministers like Timothy and Titus. This is not limited to living ministers. We are required to obey the words of exhortation built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, insofar as they are biblical.
Confessions from church history are not infallible, nor are they to be accepted and followed blindly. As the Westminster Confession states, synods and councils can err, and many have, but if they accord with biblical teaching, they are to be accepted and followed. Personally, I believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith can err. It is not infallible or incapable of error. However, I believe that it does not err, and I accept it as a biblical authority, as many others of the Christian faith have before me. The framers of the Confession are more learned men than I, so it would be wise for me to heed their words of exhortation based on the Scriptures, as a help in faith and life. The Scripture is the only rule of faith and life, but the creeds and confessions are an abundant help in both.
A Brief Summary of the Confessional Tradition
Starting with early creeds in the church, Christian doctrines have become summarized in more and more detail as church history has progressed. When the true church was emerging from Romanism, early Protestant ministers began formulating their beliefs in confessional documents to demonstrate that they held to the truth of biblical doctrines, and were not heretics departing from the catholic faith. This tradition began coming into the light in the 1500s, and continues even today.
Particular denominational distinctives have developed over this time. Some have been more regressive, and some more progressive, but overall, the foundation is continually being laid, building up the truth. You can see a basic list of Reformed confessions in my introductory article to this series. You can see a more full list here. Unfortunately, I believe that the confessional tradition reached a peak in the 1600s, and has been declining since. I adhere to the Westminster Confession as it was originally formulated in 1646, and I do not believe the later revisions are biblically accurate. As a reformed Presbyterian, I also do not believe that the baptist confessions of faith accurately summarize important biblical doctrines, specifically relating to the covenants and the sacraments. However, I do respect those who formulate and adhere to them, and I accept them as part of the broader reformed tradition.
Some of these confessions (and catechisms), were initial basic formulations and later integrated into a more detailed confession. Some examples of this are the Scots Confession of 1560, laid down by the Scottish Kirk (Church), and later used as one basis for the Westminster Confession, which was accepted by the reformed churches in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Another basis for the Westminster Confession were the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, laid down in 1571.
In the Dutch Reformed tradition, their confessional adherence is based on a combination of the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, the Belgic Confession of 1566, and the Canons of the Synod of Dordt of 1619, together making up what is known as the Three Forms of Unity. A more modern example of a Christian confession is the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000, which is the officially accepted confession of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Confessions are what we refer to as “ecumenical.” This means that they are not private interpretations of scripture, but a joint effort among believers. This is generally performed by elders or ministers in the church, as they have more education and wisdom pertaining to the things of God than the average layman. As men holding an authoritative office in the church, their words are also binding as authoritative over those under their charge as fathers to children.
Christians Are Confessional
Similar to the way a creed works, all Christians give a confession of their faith that is based on their understanding or interpretation of scripture. Many churches deny being “confessional,” but most of the time, you can go to their websites and view a “statement of faith” that summarizes what they believe about the bible. This is their confession. While it may not be as detailed as a historical reformed confession, or as historically accepted, it is a confession nonetheless.
It is usually necessary for churches to formulate a written confession of faith, generally with scripture references, in order for their beliefs to be easily assessed. While a verbal affirmation is sufficient, the orthodox Christian faith has so many doctrines based on a systematic understanding of scripture, it is difficult to recite them all to others verbally. This is why we write them down. A written confession is more easily accessible and distributable than a verbal one. A written confession can also be more easily referenced than a verbal one.
To Be Reformed Is To Be Confessional
Just because someone has a confession does not mean that they are “reformed.” As I stated, some individual churches have their own statements of faith, but these can exist outside of the reformed tradition. The distinguishing factor is an understanding of how we are unified with believers that came before. The early protestant confessions formulated a separation from Rome over such things as God’s sovereign plan of salvation for the elect through covenantal history, a return to biblical worship, and Christ’s right to rule his church, as opposed to prelacy and popery.
Confessions or statements of faith that depart from these distinctives have departed from the distinctives of the Reformed faith, and therefore cannot be considered to be part of the Reformed tradition. This is why the 39 Articles of the Anglican churches are generally not accepted to fall within the Reformed tradition. They depart from the Reformers’ doctrine of worship, which they considered to be of supreme importance in the reformation of religion, and the Reformers’ doctrine of church government.
This leads into why one must be confessional to be Reformed. The written doctrinal summaries of the reformed faith are of such importance to the preservation of orthodoxy, that to deny their use is to deny an important distinctive of the Reformed tradition. If one calls themselves “reformed,” they are confessing that they hold to the doctrines of the Reformers and their tradition, and confessing such should lead to an acceptance to at least one of the many reformed confessions.
Saying one is holding to reformed doctrines while rejecting an adherence to the very documents that formulate them does not logically follow. Many modern Christians believe that merely holding to the Reformers’ doctrine of how man is saved (generally known as Calvinism), makes them “reformed.” This notion must be rejected, however, as the reformed faith is much more robust than merely the doctrine of salvation. As I stated already, purity of worship was of the foremost importance to the Reformers. God’s covenant dealings with man is another important reformed distinctive. This affects almost all other reformed doctrines, including continuity in worship, salvation, and sacraments. My next article in this series will delve further into covenant theology.
The Practicality Of Confessionalism
Why should Christians be confessional? I’ve given inference to some of the benefits of confessionalism already, but let’s consider a more practical argument.
Neither pray I for these (apostles) alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
— John 17:20-23 (KJV)
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.
—Ephesians 4:11-16 (KJV)
I believe that the unity spoken of in these verses is not only speaking of the basic communion all believers have in the family of God, but also of a unity that truly impacts every aspect of Christian life. This means that Christians are to be unified across all matters of religion, whether it be ecclesiastical (pertaining to denominations and church government), doctrinal (pertaining to doctrine), or doxological (pertaining to worship). We are being built together into one body in the church, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). I believe that the Father will not let the prayer of the Son go unanswered. He has said that the Son needs to merely ask of him, and the nations will be his as an inheritance (Psalm 110). Why should he not present the church as one body unified in all to the Son as his inheritance? If indeed we are to be one as the Son and Father are one, why should we not expect denominational factions to go away as we are being built together? We are by no means complacent in this endeavor.
In efforts to be unified, our fathers in the faith have given us doctrinal traditions that we can confess in order to proclaim our unity with the church of God throughout history, not only pertaining to our spiritual union through the mystical body of Christ, but through our unity in doctrine and worship. He gave some of differing offices, for the edifying of the body, and to guard against the errors of false doctrine. This is the vital role that confessions play. Our elders in the faith have gifted us with formulations of orthodoxy that guard us against errors and heresies. These errors present themselves in different ages in different forms, but usually the substance is the same.
The Reformers and their confessions of faith are a great gift that God has granted to his church for the edification and further unity of the body. It would be a terrible mistake, and ecclesiastically schismatic, to reject this abundance of orthodox teaching in favor of our own private interpretations, divorced from the unity of Christ’s body throughout history.
The Westminster Standards by The Westminster Assembly
1689 London Baptist Confession and the Baptist Catechism from the Particular Baptists in England
The Three Forms of Unity from the Synod of Dort
The Role of Confessions of Faith from Francis Turretin
Why Christians Need Confessions by Carl Trueman