More on being confessional

Posted on May 31, 2008


It seems to me that most people who claim to subscribe to the Reformed symbols today fail in both excess and defect.

There is an excess in that the symbols are elevated to some sort of timelessly normative standard which appears to rival Scripture. It is not difficult to find language of the symbols as ‘defining’ the Reformed faith. This is, bluntly, rubbish. Scripture alone defines faith for anyone who can hope to pretend to the title ‘Reformed’. Certain symbols may be welcomed insofar as they are judged to express the true teaching of Scripture. They are, to repeat myself, norma normata, not norma normans. This is not an abstruse or difficult distinction, but it is a vital, and routinely forgotten, one.

(An illustration might help: my university has various policies to which I am required to adhere, on such matters as health and safety of employees and students, a refusal to discriminate on ethnic or gender lines, &c. These policies exist largely as interpretations of certain legislative acts of the Westminster, Brussels, and Holyrood parliaments. If at any point the policy could be demonstrated to contradict the legislation, it would be the (legal) duty of any employee of the university to disregard the policy and to obey the legislation. The policies are thus rather precisely norma normata, subordinate to the norma normans which are the laws of Scotland, the United Kingdom, and the European Community. Just so, the symbols have real, but subordinate and potentially revocable, authority over those churches which have adopted them as helpful interpretations of Scripture.)

There is also a defect, in that no-one seems prepared simply to grant the symbols authority. This was the point of my previous post.

Finally, a perhaps interesting historical side-note: in the discussion over the Enns affair, everybody has been throwing around the term ‘The Westminster Confession’. As far as I can see, though, no-one has paused to specify which document they are referring to. Westminster Seminary California, according to its own website, does not hold to the 17th century Westminster Confession; it holds to the 1787 Philadelphia revision (it doesn’t tell you this; it just publishes the 1787 version under the heading ‘Westminster Confession’) the main WTS website links to an outside site which publishes the text that is usually referred to as ‘The Westminster Confession,’ a text that has no ecclesial validity at all that I can determine, in that it adopts parts (mainly the Scripture proofs) of the 1648 edition (the one edited at the request of the English parliament), whilst ignoring other parts of that edition (the Erastian ammendments of articles XX, XXIV, XXX and XXXI). The Scots parliament received the original edition in 1648; after Cromwell’s death, the English parliament chose in 1659 to accept the original articles XX and XXIV, but still refused XXX and XXXI. And so on.

Various other American Presbyterian groups hold to the 1799 revision, the Cumberland revision, the 1858 revision, &c. In most cases the differences relate to the role of the civil magistrate as governor and protector of the church; the Westminster standards teach unambiguously the unity of church and state (there are other changes: in some of the later American editions the pope is not identified as the antichrist; in others all who die in infancy are saved, rather than just ‘elect infants’).

There are a couple of small American denominations that hold to the original Westminster Standards, which are interesting case-studies in what it is to be confessional. The Reformed Presbyterian Church held to the original standards, and so maintained a principled political dissent, refusing to participate in the US political process, into the nineteenth century (they seem now to have weakened this witness). Other groups, believing (arguably rightly) that they have no right to edit the work of a synod, receive the confession as written, but then add riders to the effect that they have chosen to demur on certain points–in our Baptist language, the Lord has been pleased to grant more light and truth, and so the confession needs amending.

So what? Well, perhaps four comments. First, none of the revisions affect Article I, which is what the Enns affair is allegedly about, so all this confusion might not matter. But, second, the confusion is perhaps slightly worrying. Do WSC and WTS really hold to different confessions (1787 and 1647-ish)? If not, which one has been sufficiently sloppy on its website to publish the wrong confession? If WTS really holds to the confession it links to, how do its faculty and students deal with the unambiguous teaching of the unity of church and state? (The RPC was right, as far as I, admittedly an outsider both politically and ecclesially, can see: if you believe the 1647 Confession, participation in the American political process is necessarily anti-Christian.)

Third, this all illustrates why we actually need to study symbolics, rather than just shouting about being confessional. As a Baptist, of course, I regard the church/state teaching of 1647 as erroneous; but, bluntly, the 1787 revision, which was simply a writing in of current political realities to the confession to make it congenial to the nascent Republic, is hardly the right answer (that’s not the separation of church and state, it’s the subjection of church to state!). The edition of the Confession contained in the 1658 Savoy Declaration is a far happier document in theological terms in my judgement (unsurprisingly; its main author was John Owen). If we are going to claim to be confessional, we need to understand this history (it’s not hard work…), and our churches and institutions need to be prepared to evaluate the differing documents and choose between them (that is hard work…).

Fourth, and here I tread with trembling, because I am about to challenge the theological insight of Owen, I do wonder whether all these revisions to the magistracy articles are not incoherent. I have a suspicion that, if you analyse it closely enough, the soteriology, ecclesiology, and political theology of the Westminster Confession are mutually implicated. That is, the particular form of federal Calvinism, the particular Presbyterian polity, and the account of the role of the magistrate, are related outworkings of the same theological commitments. One of the lessons of the study of symbolics is that the good symbols have a deep inner coherence that demands respect; I suspect that you cannot change the political theology of the Westminster Standards without damaging or undermining their account of soteriology.

As I say, this is no more than a suspicion, but perhaps it is an interesting one…

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