Posted by Bob Mattes
Dr. Frame graciously agreed to write a sympathetic post to TE Jeremy Jones’ remarks on Renewing Theologly. As I said in this post, the remarks run 40+ minutes. In his response, Dr. Frame asked some interesting questions. I provided my answers to one set of them, and I will copy and perhaps expand on them here. The gist of the Dr. Frame’s post concerned the value of being a confessional body and the relevance and use of the Westminster Standards.
Overall, I believe that history provides some key insights into these questions, which appear in the succession they were in the original post. I intersperse Dr. Frame’s questions with my responses. Dr. Frame asked:
The PCA is a “confessional church,” as we are often told. We should, however, forthrightly ask the question whether this is a good thing.
History says absolutely yes. It was the Westminster Standards that united the churches of Scotland, and again in America, and the Three Forms of Unity that united the continental Reformed churches. These are the basis of our fellowship in NAPARC. When questions arose early in the American Presbyterian church about ordination standards and the orthodoxy of seminaries, it was again the Westminster Standards that provided the unifying framework. Going down through the history of American Presbyterianism, it was the acceptance of the Westminster Standards that kept uniting those with sound doctrine and enabled them to organize against those who turned liberal.
As we have learned throughout church history, those who say they “believe the Bible” can mean anything by that statement. Scripture tells us that even Satan believes it to a point. The Reformed church since the very beginning has penned confessions to distill what they believe that the Scripture teaches. There is a 4-volume set coming out now that attempts to collect and translate all of these confessions–4 volumes! It is only when what we believe is codified in a confession do we find clarity of meaning and intent, can therefore have peaceful fellowship (or as peaceful as it ever gets in the human sphere), and a just and objective court system for when that peace breaks down.
If it is, what role should a 350 year old confession have in a contemporary church?
I would suggest that the same role as it has played for 350 years–to unite those with an orthodox Reformed faith. It continues to play a key role in ordination examinations, in succinctly answering questions for those considering the Reformed faith, and for the study by both church officers and congregants. If we really believe, as we all swore, that the Standards “contain the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture”, then how can we not find them useful today? The spiritual truths taught therein are timeless, speaking to all generations. They are contextualized to the common human experience in light of the Scriptures. While technology has changed so much in 350 years, man himself has not changed at all. Not even since Adam, Able, and Cain. iPods and Dockers do not fundamentally change man into some kind of different, post-modern construction who needs a different gospel.
Is it plausible to suggest that we should treat the confession in effect as an infallible presentation of biblical doctrine?
Nothing man-made is infallible, and no such claim has been made for the WCF as far as I know. Yet, in 350 years, no error has been found in the confession or catechisms. We don’t treat it as infallible, but rather as a faithful and accurate human document that “contains the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture.”
If someone thinks that after 350 years they have found an error in it, there’s a process to amend it wisely included in our PCA polity. If someone wants to, as one Federal Visionist has suggested, rewrite Chapter VII of the WCF (and I’m guessing a few others), let them put it forward as an overture to their presbytery and then the General Assembly. If someone thinks that something needs to be added to the Standards, let them put forward an overture. Last I checked, there’s no line at that door.
How then can we do justice to the immense amount of quality biblical scholarship and theological reflection that has taken place since that time?
I’m not sure that I understand what Dr. Frame means by this question. Given my response to his last question, does he wish to say that someone has found an error in the Standards in the intervening period? I’m just not sure where he’s going here.
Surely one can (and many do) write books and papers in reflection upon Scripture, theology, and our Standards. Not all that can be said has been said yet, at least not by everybody. :) If orthodox, these writings do not compete with the Standards but rather cast an appreciative and perhaps illuminating light upon their contents. Responsible and orthodox scholarship stands upon the shoulders of our forefathers, it doesn’t build a parallel and different stack of contrary doctrine and expect to remain inside the orthodox Reformed community. Of course, one can write anything unorthodox one wishes, but not within the Scripture and Westminster-defined fellowship of the PCA (BCO Preliminary Principle 2).
Does confessionalism itself lead to sectarianism?
I would answer no…and yes. Doctrine unites believers together in a faith community. Without common doctrine, there can be no true community. That isn’t Bob’s opinion, but the judgment of Scripture and human history. On the other hand, when some in the community wanders or runs across the doctrinal boundaries of the community, then doctrine does divide, as it should. Jeremy said in his remarks that there were times when this is appropriate, as theology is also preservative. The hard part is to discern wisely when that time comes. By God’s grace, we have done extraordinarily well in the PCA at preserving our unity in conflict, aided by the Holy Spirit and our polity.
If not, how can a confessional church guard against sectarians who appeal to the confession as a “golden age” document?
Ah, the heart is wicked and deceitful, who can know it? I wrote a long comment on a an essay from last week about the value of denominational processes and the levels of courts. Here’s a relevant exerpt:
Certainly serious prayer, study, and spiritual discernment is required in coming to a conclusion about what may be an Acts 15 issue as opposed to one that strikes at the vitals. The heart is wicked and deceitful, who can know it? Individually, we should be reluctant to try to draw these lines. But, praise the Lord, we do have help.
At the base of Presbyterian polity is the idea that any one of our sinful natures wars with the Spirit working in us to color our judgment. But, in a Session, we believe that the truth may be more likely to be discerned through prayer, Scripture study, and the Spirit’s illumination in a number of us, using each elder as a check and balance in the group. At the Presbytery level, even more checks and balances with more men working and praying together in the Spirit to sharpen one another. And how much more when those men number in the thousands at a General Assembly. Against the Roman church, we believe that no gathering reaches infallibility, that councils can and do err, but the likelihood of error diminishes as more elders work together in prayer towards a solution, checking and balancing each other. That’s where true beauty arises from real truth.
I believe that we guard our hearts through mutual accountability. We can do that on a personal level, and certainly through the rulings of the courts of the church. There’s no guarantee in any human endeavor that error will not prevail. But, as believers we have the promise that the Holy Spirit will guide us and illumine the Holy Texts. We can resist that illumination in our sinful pride, and we can refuse to submit to the brothers to whom we swore submission. There’s no guarantee, but working within our polity is the best, God-given means we have to guard ourselves and our church.
Let me close by saying again that I don’t presume to know all the answers. I merely look to the light of history to illumine the path to the future. Our Standards continue to serve us in the same ways they have served our forebearers. They continue to serve us well today, providing critical boundaries within which we preserve the peace and purity of the church. Without boundaries, there is neither peace nor purity. Nor should we trade purity for a faux peace. I anyone thinks that the boundaries could or should be set differently, we are blessed with a polity to effect those changes should the bulk of our brothers agree. And all solely to the glory of God!
Soli Deo Gloria!