More on Confessionalism

Discussion in 'The Confession of Faith' started by JohnOwen007, Jun 1, 2008.

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  1. JohnOwen007

    JohnOwen007 Puritan Board Sophomore

    Steve Holmes has an interesting post on confessionalism on his blog. It is included below and a post that raises some good points for discussion. Comments?

  2. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    First, the sentence is grammatically incorrect. The subject is plural and the predicate is singular.

    Secondly, the article attributes no normativity whatever to the Confession, calling it "rubbish" to say that the confession "defines" the reformed faith. The author obviously thinks that the confession is little more than an historic landmark which points to what the church once believed. The Protestant view, however, is that a confession is "norma secundaria," and "discretionis." It is the word of God in a secondary sense, namely, in terms of what the church believes the word of God to teach. Without this normed norm the norming norm is an unintelligible mystery. It may suit dishonest men to hide their faith behind a screen of mysterious relativity, but the truth of God fears not the judgment of men and therefore manifests itself with absolute clarity for all to hear and consider, 2 Cor. 4:2.

    There is no need to be suspicious of an obvious fact. I think it was R. L. Dabney who drew attention to the arch-like structure of the teachings of the Confession, noting how they stand or fall together.
  3. VirginiaHuguenot

    VirginiaHuguenot Puritanboard Librarian

    I am grateful for the point made about revisions to the WCF and testimonies which negate portions of the WCF (and the subsequent remarks about the magistrate too), although I know nothing about the author or the context of the comments.

    It is wearisome to have to affirm often that one holds to the "original" WCF, as if the original is a sidebar to the repeated revisions. The Savoy, the LBCF, the 1788, 1903 and numerous other revisions all take the original WCF as their starting point and then proceed to go off in their own theological directions. Many people do not know that there is an original WCF that looks quite different in significant respects from the WCF to which they or their denomination adhere. In the interests of "precisionism," it would be helpful in debates and discussions when one states their confessional loyalty which particular revision of the original they are really holding to.

    The PB Reformed Confessions link does not appear to be working at the moment, but in the thread about it I pointed out that the original WCF was not included in the PB's list of standards in that particular link.

    It is my own wish that people would understand and correctly refer to the confessions to which they adhere or discuss. It would save a lot of time and energy in discussions that arise. We (particularly here on a forum which includes a wide range of ecclesiastical affiliations from Presbyterian to Baptist to Lutheran to Anglican to independent / non-affiliated) should all strive to know what we believe and what others believe, seeking above all to be in accord with what the Scriptures themselves teach.
  4. JohnOwen007

    JohnOwen007 Puritan Board Sophomore

    Dear Matthew, thanks for your comments, but I do struggle with the above point. Without a confession, Scripture is an "unintelligible mystery"? Did you really mean to say that, or was it just a rush of blood? It contradicts both Scripture itself and the classic reformation teaching of the clarity of Scripture (say outlined by Luther in the Bondage of the Will and then codified so well by the Protestant Orthodox systems).

    Yes, I found Steve's comment at this point interesting. I must confess I can't see the connection myself between the WCF's federal theology and politics. I'd certainly be open to being shown.

  5. JohnOwen007

    JohnOwen007 Puritan Board Sophomore

    Dear Andrew, yes, I was appreciative of this point also. It may indicate something about a reformed mentality out there, namely that some want to be known as followers of the 17th century fathers, but don't want to admit (for whatever reason) they're ultimately not.

    I suspect that being more explicit about the confession we follow (whether the original or revised WCF) would help people recognize more clearly the role of purpose of the confession.

    In actual fact for all the bluster about the 16th and 17th century confessions defining the reformed faith, those who actually do follow the 16th and 17th century confessions are but a few.

  6. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    Marty, It is because of the clarity of Scripture that the church is able and mandated to confess what it teaches and renounce the hidden things of dishonesty. Your declaration of the "clarity of Scripture" is itself a confession. By that statement you have declared what you believe Scripture teaches concerning itself. Not only so, but you proceeded to examine my statements in the light of your confession on the clarity of Scripture, thereby evincing that you hold your confession to be normative in a secondary sense.

    Federalism was influential in 16th century political thought and shaped modern ideas of the social contract and democracy. It is inherent in the Confession's presentation of a religiously constituted magistrate who is excluded from assuming the administration of Word and sacraments.
  7. VirginiaHuguenot

    VirginiaHuguenot Puritanboard Librarian

    For what it's worth, I see that the link to the PB list of Reformed Confessions that I cited above is now working. However, although the WCF link purports to be the Confession approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1647, it is in fact one of the American revisions, and not what the Westminster Assembly actually wrote. :2cents:
  8. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    I have a few questions for those that question the validity to the American revisions of the WCF:

    1. Was the American Presbyterian Church, properly speaking, a Church or not when she made the revisions?

    2. Does not Chapter XXXI admit to the American Church's authority to settle a matter of controversy as to whether or not the inclusion of a particular paragraph is something the Church ought to be confessing?

    3. If no to question 1, what authority did the Church of England have to confess the 1647 Confession to begin with? Is it because they were English and not American?

    4. If no to question 2, how can a new visible Church with no direct historical connection to the Church of England adopt the original Westminster Confession of Faith? Wouldn't a micro-Presbytery in the USA founded by 2-3 Churches be assuming the authority of a Church to declare a Confession of Faith even if they were adopting something that had been adopted previously.

    I'm trying to get behind some of the implied snobbery that goes along with assuming that anything but the original WCF is out of bounds. The WCF itself admits to being "amendable" provided that it is the Church doing the amending. We can all agree that it becomes questionable when we have individuals picking and choosing and standing outside of the visible Church in the process of selective Confessionalism but how do we reconcile what visible Church does/does not have the authority to settle a matter of the Confession? It seems the individual(s) who go off and form micro-Presbyteries apart from a larger American Church have to answer the issue as to what authority they have to stand in isolation from the American Presbyterian Church at large.

  9. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    The preface states that the Confession was adopted in 1647 but doesn't state, explicitly, that this is the Confession. I'll put a blurb on there that notes it's the American Revision.

    If you click on the History of the Confession then it has a tabular comparison that notes the portions removed in the American revision.
  10. VirginiaHuguenot

    VirginiaHuguenot Puritanboard Librarian

    Thank you.

    I will not be dignifying the "implied snobbery" remark with a response. It is the claim to the mantle of WCF, rather than the approach of the Savoy or LBCF to honestly assume a different title to an amended document, that has been my objection all along.
  11. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    Do you have an answer to whether or not the American Presbyterian Church was a Church when it made the Revision in 1788?
  12. JohnOwen007

    JohnOwen007 Puritan Board Sophomore

    Dear Matthew, thanks for the thoughts, but you haven't answered my question. Your reply is simply showing the need for systematic theology--I entirely agree, we can't live without it; I use exactly the same reasoning on my students.

    However, I questioned you about the clarity of Scripture itself. You claimed Scripture was an "unintelligible mystery" without confessions. Do you really believe this? It is a contradiction of the classic reformation teaching on the clarity of Scripture.

    Every blessing my brother.
  13. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    I too would have to add my objection to that last paragraph. The fact that the American churches recognize the WCF in the first place, that they would amend it to better reflect what they believe, is a testimony to the superiority of that assembly to whose ruling they confessionally adhered and submitted.

    The real question, it seems to me, is whether the amendments remained faithful to the original. For all doctrinal statements made by churches, of whatever hierarchical status, are susceptible to cultural revisions so as to maintain the original doctrines and to keep them wholly intact from generation to generation. In that sense Andrew's sentiments are as suspect as those of the American presbyterian churches. And since we do not delve into the minds of the men who wrote the original, but rather delve into the mind of the Spirit who moved the men to write the original, we turn naturally to the Word of God, trusting that God has sufficiently and perspicuously revealed His Word to us.
  14. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    As answered previously, you are using the normed norm to question my statement, which only goes to proves my point. Scripture is not some nebulous stuff which changes with the wind. It possesses meaning. The normed norm tells us what that meaning is, so that Scripture isn't wrapped up in unintelligible mystery.
  15. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    I'm not sure what relevance the answer has on this thread, but I would say she was a Church which erred by revising the Confession and opening the door to an unbiblical concept of liberty of conscience. As history shows, pragmatism rather than dogmatism influenced the revision, which is lethal to the very idea of confessionalism.
  16. fredtgreco

    fredtgreco Vanilla Westminsterian Staff Member


    Doesn't your statement beg the question in a similar way? If Scripture is "wrapped up in an unintelligible mystery" how can we even arrive at a normed norm? Scripture must be ipso facto an intelligible non-mystery in order to compile a normed norm.
  17. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    I granted that point to Marty -- the clarity of Scripture is fundamental to the normed norm. To move the argument along to the next level, which is the point at which I first answered the OP -- without the normed norm the Scripture is left in unintelligible mystery. The fact that all dogmatic statements concerning Scripture are regarded as normative in theological discussion is confirmatory of this point.
  18. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    I have to say I agree with Andrew on this one. The original WCF is the one that gets the right to the name. Others should say, "The WCF AS AMENDED BY ____ AT ____", or something along those lines. It's not a question of whether a church can revise them or not, but of the transparency of the nomenclature.
  19. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    It may be the case that she erred. The point is, however, that the Church has the authority to revise a Confession to comport it with Scripture. It would also seem to be in the realm of Church authority to rule by Synod that such an error exists and not merely the dictates of individual ministers.

    This issue sort of stabs at the heart of whether or not Synods have any authority. It seems straightforward to merely assert "...well, they erred..." but the same charge can be leveled at the original WCF as some have for a variety of doctrines.

    My only point in all of this is that it's not quite as easy as determining, as individuals, the Confession that is perfect. Confessions are corporate documents and not something every man decides for himself within a particular communion. We owe the elders of our particular Church some deference. It is quite easy to simply assert that the Assembly that decided the matter acted upon pragmatism but I think I owe my Elders a bit more deference even as you would want to show deference withing your own visible communion before you blithely accepted a charge that your Church accepts the original WCF because you're Australians.

    You can see the same worn tracks used by the FV who simply assert that their Presbyters just don't know the Scriptures or the WCF is just wrong but never pause to consider the gravity of simply assuming that a Church has acted un-Scripturally when it cramps their own understanding of a Scriptural truth.

    I guess what I'm stating is that I respect your adherence to the original WCF and even respect the reason why the original framers included those paragraphs. I'm simply not willing to dismiss my own Presbyterian Church so quickly and label it as pragmatism that they chose to re-address those issues. I'd also have little authority within a visible Church to go around throwing rocks at the Church over those areas but would need to labor within to "re-reform" if the issue did indeed need to be reverted.
  20. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    I never disagreed to this Ruben. It was an oversight more than anything. The original version online had that. I updated it recently and it was an unintended omission. The Confessions are included here as a reference and were never intended to be the version. I have always included a link to the revisions so their has been no intent to obfuscate the facts.
  21. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    At the point at which this so-called "confession" is no longer regarded as comporting with Scripture it ceases to be a confession in the proper sense of the term. To then speak of revising it as a "confession" is a misnomer. It is quite clear that the confession is not regarded as a subordinate standard when such language is employed.

    Traditionally it has been understood that the church has the authority to make a declaratory statement as to the way in which she understands her confession, as per the 1647 adopting act of the Church of Scotland. Revision leaves office-bearers breaking their vows to God and saying yea-nay.
  22. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    No, I didn't think you were attempting to obfuscate facts with the links. It was just something I was thinking about yesterday that it wouldn't do any institution any harm to acknowledge if they are using the original or a revision, and if the latter, which one.
  23. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member


    I've read your two paragraphs twice now and I can't figure out if you agree with me or not.

    I fully agree with the idea that the Scriptures are sufficient and clear and, hence, would be the only ground that the American Church would have to revise a document that they believed otherwise confessed what the Word of God was stating. I never meant to imply the revision was authoratative simply because the American Church amended it.

    My main point was to argue that there is an underlying argument in the original article that, unless it's the original WCF, then a charge of being un-Confessional can never really work. This would admit no ability of any Church, ever, from amending the WCF if they believed it conflicted in some point of doctrine from the Word itself.
  24. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    I don't understand this point. If a confession is a summary of Scriptural doctrines x,y, and z and the Church has studied the issue and determined that, in fact, the Scriptures teach x and z, what is she to call this? Is she supposed to write an entirely new document and state that the old Confession is no longer binding or may she revise the document that contains the body of doctrines?

    I don't know if I'm understanding this properly. Are you saying that, once the 1647 WCF was agreed upon, that the Church could never again look at anything she had written and determined there was any error in it? Or are you stating that, if she found errors, she could not act upon them for fear of breaking a vow to uphold the error?

    What were the framers of the WCF bound to, in terms of vows, before they adopted the WCF? Were some breaking vows to disagree with the 39 Articles?
  25. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    Rich, there is alot of history relative to the Westminster Confession which is not immediately apparent when discussing it, and would be tedious to document here. The Confession itself wasn't subscribed by office-bearers until the early 18th century, but was tacitly acknowledged by virtue of being an office-bearer in the Church of Scotland.

    No true church exists apart from a confession of faith. The first mark of a true church is a sound confession. That being the case, the confession identifies the church, not vice versa. If a church admits to error in her confession it is tantamount to confessing herself an erring church. There is no such thing as a changeless change; to change or revise the confession is to change or revise the church. At the point of revision she becomes a different church.
  26. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    OK. I can buy the last part. I don't think it necesarrily carries a bad connotation. It seems at one level, however, it's a question of semantics. In one sense it is certainly true that the Church has become "different" as you put it but it doesn't dictate to the Church how she labels it.

    Are you saying that you and I are not both Presbyterians, for instance, and that American who confess what they call the Wesminster Confession of Faith should call their Confession something else?
  27. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    In the interest of historical clarity I have included a link to both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Confession of Faith as adopted by the OPC.
  28. JohnV

    JohnV Puritan Board Post-Graduate


    I don't want to get too many discussions going in one thread, but for me this is the most important point of all this. For centuries our Reformed forefathers had no difficulty at all in saying they adhere to the Reformed Standards, whether the WS or 3FU, and at the same time whole-heartedly affirming Sola Scriptura. They never saw a contradiction in that. And it wasn't because it never crossed their minds that there might be a contradiction. At least the way I was taught in school and catechism classes, etc., it was of the utmost importance to consider the possibility all the time.

    That is to say, when I cite the WCF, for example, I am not qhoting our great forefathers; I am rather quoting the ruling of a plurality of elders who presided at that time over the whole of the Reformed faith. (The Dutch also recognized it's authority, though they might have differed about a few minor things.) The personal writings of these men are a whole different category, and are (again) not normative to or authoritative over the WS. The same goes for the Great Synod of Dordt. What they decided and wrote down in holy convocation is of a different sort altogether than what any of these men wrote on their own. Their personal views are not normative to, nor authoritative over, the official church rulings.

    In other words, our appeal is to the Word, not to men.

    These church documents have no authority whatsoever as documents. It's the doctrines they contain that are authoritative. And we do not add to them by delving into the minds of the men who wrote them so as to understand what they wrote. We delve into the witness of the Christ and the Holy Spirit through searching the Word.

    If anything we can say that the Word is normative (or, normed norm)to the Confessions; never the other way around. For if we do turn it around then we will have that contradiction that we have so carefully guarded against all these centuries.
  29. JohnOwen007

    JohnOwen007 Puritan Board Sophomore

    Dear Matthew, yes of course I'm using a normed norm to question you. As I said before and say again I believe in the practice of systematic theology (the normed norm). But that's not my question. It concerns the clarity of Scripture.

    You say that Scripture is "wrapped up in unintelligible mystery" without the normed norm (or system of theology). Let me ask the same question this way: I have a close friend who knew nothing of Christianity (or a normed norm) and was converted one night when he read John's gospel. That doesn't sound like an "unintelligible mystery" to me.

    God bless.
  30. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    Marty, some wires must have become crossed somewhere, because your answer seems geared towards teaching me that Scripture is not unintelligible mystery as if I don't already believe it; but that is the very point I am maintaining. It is because it is not unintelligible that confession is normative. Undermine the normative nature of confession and you undermine this perspicuity of Scripture.

    Your converted friend undoubtedly understood something from the Gospel of John which led to his conversion, and what he understood was considered to be the teaching of the Bible itself. This again confirms my point concerning the normative nature of confession.
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