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The Westminster Confession: past help, present hindrance?
A creedal document which was drawn up in the 17th century governs a very significant part of what Presbyterian churches teach and practice. However the document was never intended to be a comprehensive statement of belief and it has caused disagreement and controversy down to the present day.
"Learn from me, how difficult a thing it is to throw off errors confirmed by the example of all the world, and which, through long habit, have become a second nature to us." Martin Luther"Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that."
Mark 7:13"I look on Catechisms as mere landmarks against heresey. If there had been no heresey, they wouldn't have been wanted. It's putting them out of their place to look on them as magazines of truth. There's some of your sour orthodox folk just over-ready to stretch the Bible to square with their Catechism; all very well, all very needful as a landmark, but what I say is, do not let that wretched, mutilated thing be thrown between me and the Bible."
Rev. Thomas Chalmers speaking on the right use of Confessions of Faith.
A document which is held in very high esteem by presbyterian churches contains rules which struggle to find biblical support; and which effectively place unwarranted restrictions on believers celebrating the Lord's Supper together.
Accordingly the ability to share communion together - in the Highlands and Islands and beyond - is being artificially impaired to the detriment of the full functioning of the body of Christ.
Ask anyone outside of presbyterian denominations what they know of the Westminster Confession of Faith and you will probably get a blank look. Conversaly, within presbyterian (and puritan) circles the document is considered second only to the Bible (and it would seem that some would view the Confession as almost on a par with God’s word). And whilst the WCF might not feature much in daily conversation, it has a very signficant impact on how things are done (and not done) within reformed circles.
Produced in 1646, the document was designed and written to define the life and doctrine(s) of the post-Reformation protestant church in both Scotland and England. (Note 1.)Though drawn up and signed in England as a Puritan version of the Anglican Church’s 39 Articles, the documents main adherents are the Presbyterian churches – not least those in Scotland for which the Confession remains the “subordinate standard” for 'life and doctrine'; belief and practice. (Note 2.)
An Achilles Heel
The document is, in the main part, an excellent summation of Biblical doctrine. However – and this is its great weakness – it also includes some rules drawn up by the church leaders of an earlier post-Reformation day as an aid in governing church life. Whilst these rules might have been formulated with the best intent, some of what the Confession states is (arguably) unsupportable from Scripture. The former thus serves to impose unbiblical constraints and prohibitions on how the church of Jesus Christ should function; and this to the detriment of the life of the believer and the healthy growth of the Kingdom.
But what has this to do with the daily lives of Christians in our local communities?
In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (and beyond) the shortage of ‘ministers’ and the (unbiblical) restrictions of the Confession are creating situations where groups of believers are regularly (and decently and in order) meeting together for fellowship, worship and teaching, and yet – and here’s the rub – they are forbidden by the strictures of the Confession from celebrating the Lord’s Supper together. Why?
The following is the text of a letter sent to a mainline Presbyterian denomination over 10 years ago. To the writer’s knowledge no response has ever been made, nor has any reply ever been received.
Copy of a letter to the [Denomination’s monthly magazine] – over a decade ago.
Confession and SacramentI have, over the years, found your magazine a great help in terms of the level of biblical debate contained therein. Indeed I have a question on which I would very much value the views of your readers.However, the question relates to a portion of the Westminster Confession and it has been suggested to me that the Confession is held by some to be at the same level as Scripture itself; a view reinforced by a letter in [an earlier edition of the Church’s magazine] whereby the correspondent says that "if the Confession is in error .... then Scripture is in error." Surely this is putting the cart before the horse and ascribing an inerrancy to the Confession which is due only to the canon?The writer continues: "We cannot pick and choose what statements in the Confession we can accept, and which we reject; we either accept all of it, or none of it."For any in the Reformed church worthy of the name this is an astonishing statement regarding the implied immutability and infallibility - the justifiable criticisms made of other traditions - of a sub-scriptural creedal statement and a denial of the "sola scriptura, semper reformanda" [Scripture alone, always reforming – Ed.] maxim of the Reformed church. Surely every reformed church, and individuals within, must at all times be prepared to re-examine any (and/or all) parts of subordinate statements in the light of Scripture itself? Which brings me to my question.With regards to the administration of the Lord's Supper, I cannot find any justification in Scripture for preventing a group of the Lord's people, decently and in order, "proclaiming the Lord's death until He comes.” This the Westminster Confession (Chapter XXVII para, iv) effectively does. I would argue there is no scriptural support for a so-called 'ministry of the sacrament' which would preclude believers, committed to Christ and to each other, breaking bread together, with or without a "minister of the Word lawfully ordained.” It may be necessary in any age for a church or denomination to introduce such church laws as will ensure the integrity of acts of worship but to include such laws within creedal statements is surely asking for trouble; and the more so if the latter is regarded as sacrosanct and beyond question.P.S. With regards to the section of the Confession mentioned above, perhaps I should first of all be asking myself questions regarding what the Bible has to say about "ministers" and "lawfully ordained?" And perhaps I am.
In the context of an apparent lack of a biblical rationale in support of the imposed restriction, it could be argued that man’s rules are placing an ungodly constraint on biblical life patterns as outlined in the word of God.
A response required
If the reformed Presbyterian churches are to continue to be deemed worthy of their claims regarding biblical fidelity and the 'reformed' epithet, there are some very important issues that need to be addressed.
1. In order to gain the allegiance of the Scots during the 17th-Century English Civil War, the English Puritan fathers formulated, and gave an undertaking to adopt, the Confession within England. This promise, along with that of abandoning the episcopalian form of church government, was never fulfilled; and the episcopal system exists to this day.
2. As a 'subordinate standard' all Scottish presbyterian church leaders (ministers and elders) are required to subscribe to, and to uphold the creeds and rules contained within the Confession.
The WCF's most controversial view (shaped by a post-millennial view of eschatology) is that the Pope is the Anti-Christ (Ch. 25 para 7).
Additionally, the Church of Scotland Act 1921 introduced 'Declaratory Articles' which are ambiguous about the value placed on the Bible, in stating [Article 1] that it contains the Word of God rather than affirming that the Bible is the Word of God. Much, as the legal profession affirms, can hang on a single word.
The Declaratory Articles – which define the Kirk's Constitution – allow for 'liberty of opinion in points which do not enter into the substance of the Faith'. Inasmuch as the 'substance of the faith' has never been defined, the clause drives a coach and horses through the Westminster Confession as far as Church of Scotland membership is concerned.
Ed footnote: The WCF additionally places the same restriction(s) as those referred to above regarding who can and cannot officiate at a baptism. However these issues are not confined to the presbyterian churches alone.