Visitors who are new to our church often ask about being a Presbyterian Church, Reformed, Confessional, etc. One of the first things I say is that we are tied to a Reformed confession, specifically the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is reasonable to then discuss why we are tied to this confession and how we use it. I would like to focus this post on the purpose of being tied to a confession. What is the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)? It can be generally stated that the WCF is the standard of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches around the world. Unfortunately, many churches have minimized its role and function so even some who have grown in Reformed and Presbyterian churches are not well acquainted with it or worse never even heard of it.
By name, the confession is a profession and confession of what we believe. We like to think of it as the codified understanding of the teachings of Scripture. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the history of the WCF (perhaps another post), but generally speaking, the writers of the WCF sought to articulate in more detail, the Christian faith in light of the historical creeds and confessions of the church. Originally, there were approximately 175 English and Scottish theologians and biblical scholars who gathered in Westminster Abbey, London. The WCF could be said to be their confession dating back to 17th century.
More generally the WCF belongs to a larger collection of confessions and creeds that belong to the church. Unfortunately, many Christians aren’t familiar with the historic creeds and so it contributes to an overall weakness in an understanding of both doctrine and worship. Creeds can be thought of as statements of beliefs from churches, communities, or larger bodies (ecumenical). Confessions and creeds are helpful because we need to clarify what we understand to be true and not-true.
Consider that Scriptures are a collection of diverse genres, numerous writers, over a period of thousands of years. Now that we have God’s Word they are left to be interpreted. When people interpret the text they bring their own presuppositions, influences, education, and biases into the process. This happens sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. It isn’t too difficult to understand that interpretations that are based on a partial understanding, absorbed in culture, and in a particular context may have a certain flavor. Thus we must interpret Scripture and we use the help of the collective whole (present and historic) Church and not simply our own biased, limited, fragmented, opinions.
AA Hodge wrote a technical but helpful commentary (available on Kindle), entitled A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith and another work, A Short History of Creeds and Confessions where he says,
Men must interpret to the best of their ability each particular part of Scripture separately, and then combine all that the Scriptures teach upon every subject into a consistent whole, and then adjust their teachings upon different subjects in mutual consistency as parts of a harmonious system. Every student of the Bible must do this, and all make it obvious that they do it by the terms they use in their prayers and religious discourse, whether they admit or deny the propriety of human creeds and confessions. If they refuse the assistance afforded by the statements of doctrine slowly elaborated and defined by the Church, they must make out their own creed by their own unaided wisdom. The real question is not, as often pretended, between the word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God’s people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the repudiator of creeds.
You can understand that the issue is not between creed and no creed, but between recognition of a tried and proven creed, derived from a corporate representative body of the church, and your own creed derived from your limitations. We can affirm the importance of confessions and creeds while also recognizing their limitations. Even though they have the wisdom of generations of godly men, they can never come close the wisdom and infallibility of Scripture which is from God. Thus it is important that we study and be taught from the Scriptures as it is our privilege and duty as Christians. However, to suppose that we, individually, can put a comprehensive theology unaided is both arrogance and unsafe. Hodge again is helpful from his commentary
Creeds and confessions, as to form, bind those only who voluntarily profess them; and as to matter, they bind only so far as they affirm truly what the Bible teaches, and because the Bible does so teach.