The Lens of Confessions Revisited

Posted by Bob Mattes

Lane wrote an excellent post Who’s Lens Are You Using? Unfortunately, the comments were hijacked by a Protestant/RCC/Eastern Orthodox debate on authority. OTOH, Federal Visionists took the discussion on their blogs in the direction I would have expected. I thought that I would try to bring the discussion back on point with this post and address the Federal Visionists’ blatant biblicism.

There are two critical points of clarification that I feel need to be made up front, and will address again later in this post. First, in the USA, anyone can believe whatever they want, interpret the Scriptures how ever they wish – and they certainly do. However, you cannot be an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and believe things contrary to the theological standards of that fellowship. That should be self-evident, but seems a difficult concept for some. Second, there is an established process to modify the PCA Standards, and using that process is the honest approach to disagreements with or about the Standards. More on those points later. First on the lens concept.

Lane wrote:

Let’s put it this way: everyone has lenses of some sort when they come to Scripture. No one can interpret Scripture from a completely clean slate.

What could be more obvious? Everything passes through our perceptual, cultural, intellectual, etc., filters. One of the primary things that makes denominations different is the lenses they use for Scriptural interpretation.

Historically, the church has used confessions both as statements of what it believes and as the lens through which Scripture is interpreted, of course illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Orthodox Christian creeds and confessions originate through particular exegeses of the Scriptures, and are always subordinate thereto. There is no shortage of confessions and statements of faith within the Christian denominational family. The PCA adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith along with the catechisms as its lens.

As Lane pointed out, there’s always a danger that the lens could be elevated to the level of Scripture. This is certainly being alleged by some Federal Visionists. But from its beginning, the PCA made it clear that, although the Westminster Standards “contained the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures,” they are subordinate to Scripture. The BCO defines the PCA’s Constitution thusly:

The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, which is subject to and subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word Of God, consists of its doctrinal standards set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order, comprising the Form of Government, the Rules of Discipline and the Directory for Worship; all as adopted by the Church.

There’s no question about where the PCA stands on this issue, and any attempts to say otherwise constitutes a red herring that ignores the plain fact. Yet, this is exactly the tact routinely taken by Federal Visionists.

One FVer accuses Lane of quasi-Roman Catholic theology, a recurring theme from that quarter. Another declares the use of the Standards as a lens Romanism, Presbyterian Style. I had to chuckle reading those posts, wondering if these individuals slept through Seminary. These FV posts display a remarkable ignorance of how confessions have been used in the Christian Church since Peter’s very first one: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Certainly the early creeds – Apostles’, Nicene, etc. – provided lenses through which Scripture was interpreted, especially to counter the heretics of those days who interpreted Scripture to suit their own tastes. The Westminster Confession serves exactly that purpose today – and perhaps that’s the real issue between Federal Visionists and the Confession.

Let’s take a quick look at how the orthodox Reformed have historically viewed the Standards. Robert Shaw, author of An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, summed the issue of the confession as a lens best in 1845:

The Christian Church, as a divine institution, takes the Word of God alone, and the whole Word of God, as her only rule of faith; but she must also frame and promulgate a statement of what she understands the Word of God to teach. This she does, not as arrogating any authority to suppress, change, or amend anything that God’s Word teaches, but in discharge of the various duties which she owes to God, to the world, and to those of her own communion. Since she has been constituted the depository of God’s truth, it is her duty to him to state, in the most distinct and explicit terms, what she understands that truth to mean. In this manner she not only proclaims what God has said, but also appends her seal that God is true. Thus a Confession of Faith is not the very voice of divine truth, but the echo of that voice from souls that have heard its utterance, felt its power, and are answering to its call.

And, since she has been instituted for the purpose of teaching God’s truth to an erring world, her duty to the world requires that she should leave it in no doubt respecting the manner in which she understands the message which she has to deliver. Without doing so the Church would be no teacher, and the world might remain untaught, so far as she was concerned. For when the message had been stated in God’s own words, every hearer must attempt, according to the constitution of his own mind, to form some conception of what these words mean, and his conceptions may be very vague and obscure, or even very erroneous, unless some attempt be made to define, elucidate, and correct them. Nor, indeed, could either the hearers or the teachers know that they understood the truth alike, without mutual statements and explanations with regard to the meaning which they respectively believe it to convey.

Still further, the Church has duty to discharge to those of its own communion. To them she must produce a form of sound words, in order both to promote and confirm their knowledge, and also to guard them against the hazard of being led into errors; and, as they must be regarded as all agreed, with respect to the main outline of the truths which they believe, they are deeply interested in obtaining some security that those who are to become their teachers in future generations shall continue to teach the same divine and saving truths. The members of any Church must know each other’s sentiments—must combine to hold them forth steadily and consistently to the notice of all around them, as witnesses for the same truths; and must do their utmost to secure that the same truths shall be taught by all its ministers, and to all candidates for admission. For all these purposes the formation of a Creed, or Confession of Faith, is imperatively necessary; and thus it appears that a Church cannot adequately discharge its duty to God, to the world, and to its own members, without a Confession of Faith. [my emphasis]

I’ve not seen the Reformed case stated any better. Shaw directly addresses the Federal Visionist complaint. The FV posts cited also ignore the Scriptural exegesis behind the Standards that was done in great detail by the Westminster Divines and their theological predecessors.

Which brings me to the first point I made above. All PCA teaching elders must answer the following question (amongst others) in the affirmative on their  ordination:

Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?

So, as I stated earlier, in the USA one can believe as one wishes. One can worship ferrets and sacrifice raisinetes to them. However, one cannot become or remain an elder in the PCA unless one freely affirms that the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms contain the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture. The BCO does not say that you can rewrite or reinterpret the Standards to fit the latest theological fad.

Which brings me to point two and my standard challenge to those who use specious arguments to falsely pitting Scripture against the Westminster Standards. The polity of the PCA provides a procedure for making changes the Standards. If, as one prominent Federal Visionist publicly advocated, one wishes to rewrite Chapter 7 of the Confession, then put in an overture to the General Assembly for debate and action. It’s that simple, but it does take a measure of courage.

I’ve made this challenge for the last several years, yet for all the bits expended on Federal Vision blogs, none has stepped forward with a relevant overture. Hmm…

Posted by Bob Mattes