What is the relationship of the Confession of Faith to the Scripture? And by “the Confession of Faith” I am referring here to the Westminster Standards. The question could just as easily be asked of the Three Forms of Unity for our Continental brothers and sisters. This question has produced quite varied answers. On the one extreme, there is practically no relationship at all of the Confession to Scripture. Usually, these people are motivated by a desire to retain the unique authority of the Word of God. Nothing has the same level of authority as Scripture, and certainly not any words of men. This is a laudable motivation, and we must pay serious and careful attention to it. No position that we embrace can bring into question the unique authority of God’s Word.
On the other extreme are those who say that the words of men can have equal authority with the words of God. Certainly the Roman Catholics would be in this category. This is not a position that a Protestant can hold. The question for us is this: is there any middle ground between these two positions? I would argue that there is indeed a middle ground. We can go back to a couple of indicators in the Scriptures, in the Westminster Confession, and also some history to prove our point.
First point from Scripture: there is a pattern of sound teaching in the Bible. 2 Timothy 1:13 says this (in the HCSB): “Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” In the Greek it is ὑποτύπωσιν ἔχε ὑγιαινόντων λόγων ὧν παρ’ ἐμοῦ ἤκουσας ἐν πίστει καὶ ἀγάπῃ τῇ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ. The word ὑποτύπωσιν means “pattern,” or “prototype,” or “standard.” Then the text says “healthy words,” or “sound teaching.” The magisterial Reformers agreed that it was not just the very words of Scripture that have binding authority. It is also the meaning of the words that binds us. After all, would we not agree that the doctrine of the Trinity binds Christians? And yet nowhere is that term used in Scripture. But the meaning of the term is certainly present. Here is a deservedly central truth of the Christian faith, and it is not explicitly used in Scripture! Is this a problem? Not at all! For it is the meaning of the “pattern of sound teaching” to which we hold. I would argue then that this verse is the germ of systematic theology and of church creeds and confessions. Creeds and confessions are supposed to answer this question: what does the Bible mean?
The second verse I would like to point out is Jude 3, which says that we should contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Here we are interested in that phrase “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” The faith here is not the subjective appropriation of the truth, but rather the doctrine to which we must adhere. Jude tells us that this doctrine does not keep on changing and developing (even though our understanding of it may improve or deteriorate). It is “once for all delivered.” Therefore it is legitimate for the church to delineate what this faith once for all delivered is, since it is for that faith that we must contend.
In the Westminster Confession, this idea is expressed by the phrase “good and necessary consequence” in WCF 1.6, which is used to describe the “whole counsel of God.” There are two constitutive ways of delineating the whole counsel of God: what is “expressly set down in Scripture,” and what can “by good and necessary consequence…be deduced from Scripture.” As a practical illustration of this principle, note that the Reformers always believed that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Always assumed in this equation is the idea that the preaching had to be accurate preaching. It had to be according to the “analogy of faith,” which is a phrase used to express the entire teaching of Scripture. The safeguards in the Confession are obvious: it has to be a “good” consequence, and it has to be a “necessary” consequence. In other words, we have to do our exegesis of Scripture. There is no substitute for this, and there is no shortcut. It is the work that every person coming to be ordained in the PCA, OPC, URC, RCUS, etc. needs to do BEFORE he is ordained. He needs to put the standards of the church on trial before he subscribes to them.
I would simply point out that if the preaching of the Word of God is the word of God (i.e., the whole counsel of God), with the caveats mentioned, then how much more are the Standards the Word of God (i.e., the whole counsel of God), with the caveats mentioned! In other words, the Standards seek to express the good and necessary consequence of Scripture. Does this fall foul of making the Standards into God’s own truth? No, it does not, for the following reasons: 1. The standards are mutable, whereas God’s Word is not (witness the 3 changes that have been made to the Westminster Standards since its adoption in America); 2. The standards only have a derived authority (which is therefore a dependent authority, dependent on its accuracy to Scripture), whereas Scripture has an underived (and therefore undependent) authority; 3. The standards are written only by men, whereas Scripture is written by God through men; 4. The standards can only voluntarily be submitted to (this is a self-binding, which is of course mutable if one’s opinions change), whereas Scripture binds the conscience of all involuntarily. The usual adage is this: the Scriptures are the “norming norm,” whereas the Standards are the “normed norm.” But notice that the Standards ARE a norm. They are, in fact, standards.
All too often today, what we see is a false dichotomy being perpetrated: either the Standards have no authority, or they have God’s authority. Since they are obviously not the latter, then they must be the former. This drives a wedge between Scripture and the Standards, a wedge that the divines would have rejected most heartily. The divines believed that the Standards they were writing expressed the good and necessary consequence of the whole counsel of God. This what they believed the Scriptures to be saying. There is no wedge between Scripture and the Standards if the Standards express what Scripture is saying. Officers of the church take an oath stating exactly this point: that the Standards express what Scripture says. There is always an out. If one’s opinions change, they can go somewhere else without violating an oath. What is a violation of the oath, however, is to reinterpret the Standards, or to drive a wedge between Scripture and the Standards, or to put the Standards on trial after one’s oath.