Monday, 13 January 2014

Creeds and Confessions

What, then, of creeds and confessions? As to form, they bind only those who voluntarily profess or subscribe them. As to content, “they bind only so far as they affirm what the Bible teaches, and because the Bible does so teach.”[1] Where they depart in any respect from Scripture, we must follow Scripture and suspend our allegiance to that subordinate standard or to that ‘errant’ section within it. In other words, we follow a man or a confessional document only insofar as they unambiguously follow Christ speaking in the Scriptures. DML-J encouraged Christians to do their own thinking and to work things out for themselves. “We must not swallow automatically everything we read in books, even from the greatest men. We must examine everything.”[2]
This raises then interesting point that has bedevilled many churches over the centuries and that it its mere possession of theologically orthodox confessional statements. While the Doctor referred to these as mere “paper confessions” which found no reflection in what the churches were actually preaching, he had little time for them. Dr Harry Uprichard, a staunch Westminster Confession theologian, wrote, “Mere possession of a confessional basis does not ensure that a Christian body is characterised by the preaching of the Word. It must actively preach the same.”[3] If the Gospel is not being preached in churches where confessional correctness is demanded, then possession of such a confession becomes a liability and a hindrance to true Gospel preaching. It becomes purely academic whether or not the confession is biblical. Macleod who is also an avid Westminster theologian, contends that “it is not the official teaching of any given church that determines its soundness or otherwise, but its actual preaching.”[4] Churches would be better served if they altered their confessions to reflect what is actually being preached in their churches instead of maintaining their confessions and pretending that all its ministers preach according to its dogmas. Machen is right on the money here when he describes such inexcusable anomalies in terms of dishonesty.
According to Reformed theologian, Prof. John M. Frame, churches ought to be free to alter their confessions, and allow elders, whether teaching or ruling, to dissent from their confession of faith within some limits. This safeguards the position of supremacy for Scripture, and removes the possibility of Confessions becoming, not merely on a par with Scripture, but in actual practice, superior to Scripture in authority.  He writes
Confessions are not Scripture, and they should not be treated as infallible or as ultimately normative. Indeed, I believe it is important that in a church fellowship it be possible to revise the creeds, and for that purpose, it must also be possible for members and officers to dissent from the creed within some limits. Otherwise, the creed will, practically speaking, be elevated to a position of authority equivalent to Scripture. A “strict” view of subscription in which ministers are never permitted to teach contrary to any detail of the creed might be seen as a way to protect the orthodoxy of the church. However, in my view, such a view is actually subversive of orthodoxy, because it is subversive of biblical authority and sufficiency. Under such a form of subscription, Scripture is not given the freedom to reform the church according to God’s will.[5]
Frame’s position is reasonable and most commendable, and while it possesses the potential to loosen the hold that confessions have on its office-holders, it also frees those office-holders to demonstrate that Scripture is de facto the supreme standard of the church and the basis of their faith. It is the Christian duty of everyone who subscribes such confessions to do so in the knowledge that where they differ from Scripture in any regard, they must be free to go with Scripture, and not the creedal standard of the church, without ecclesiastical penalty being imposed. It is very easy to agree with Frame’s position in theory but then to invalidate it by saying that the confession of any particular church is so correct that it does not need to be altered. If confessions can be altered to bring them into line with the clear statements of Scripture, especially where the Gospel is concerned, then they ought to be.
DML-J held a similar position to that articulated by Frame. The Presbyterian Church in Wales, into whose ministry he was ordained in 1927, altered its 1823 Confession of Faith in 1875 to include the universal aspect in the Atonement. Then in 1933, the Welsh Presbyterian church adopted a looser attitude to its own Confession of Faith, yet DML-J, who was minister in Sandfields at that time, showed no concern whatever about this. Despite the fact that the Welsh Presbyterian church did this for purely liberal reasons, the Doctor found it liberating and also gave him the freedom to follow where Scripture leads. His evangelistic sermons in Sandfields demonstrate that he too enjoyed a looser adherence to his church’s confessional standards that energised his Gospel preaching, and meant that he was preaching sermons that were in keeping with those confessional standards.
DML-J believed that if a church claims to be ‘Reformed,’ it must demonstrate the authenticity of that claim by continually reforming its affairs,[6] its practice and, where necessary, its confessional standards,[7] according to Scripture. 
The Church is always to be under the Word, ... You must not assume that because the Church started correctly she must continue so. She did not do so in New Testament times; she has not done so since.[8]
Baptist professor of New Testament, Ralph P. Martin, makes a similar point to Frame when he says,
Nevertheless, our confessions are not inherently sacrosanct or beyond revision and improvement; and, of course, church history did not stop in the seventeenth century. We are faced with errors today which those who drew up the great confessions were not faced with and which they did not explicitly address in the confessions, but it is a task to be undertaken with extreme caution. ...[9]
Martin went on to say that “a confession is a useful means for the public affirmation and defence of truth...(it) serves as a public standard of fellowship and discipline...(and it) serves as a concise standard by which to evaluate ministers of the Word.”

[1]   Hodge?????
[2]   DML-J, Puritans, 1987:x.
[3]   Uprichard, H. in Evangel, Vol.3:4, 1985:2.
[4]   Macleod, D. in Evangel, Vol.4:1, 1986:11.

[6]    Latin: Ecclesia semper reformanda est.

[8]    Evangelical?, 1992:30.
[9]    Martin in Waldron, 1989:9-23.