Thinking about Confessions of Faith.

This page was first written as a resource in relation to the Subordinate Standards Task Group which reported to the 2002 General Assembly. It now incorporates other material on the place of Confessions in a multi-cultural Reformed Church today.

A historical summary of how the PCANZ reached the situation it is in pending the acceptance of a new statement of faith can be found here: Confessions in the Presbyterian Church

Confessions and books of order which set out a framework for worship and how we believe we should be organised as a church, the sorts of leaders we have, how we relate to other churches the government, and how we handle decisions and disputes, have been part of the Reformed churches from the beginning.

Because we have tended to focus on one of those confessions (the Westminster Confession) and continually update our Book of Order, we sometimes forget that their are many of these in the Reformed family, clearly related, yet also reflecting the needs of different times, places and circumstances.

Types of document and their role in the church.

Some, but not all, of these were written to address a particular theological challenge to the church. Each document has an "occasion" which helps us understand what the writers were trying to say in their time, and which will help us know what it might say to us in our time and place.

To make sense of a document we need to know:

  1. why and when and where it was written

  2. what it intends to say

  3. what authority is it intended to have

  4. what is our relationship to it.

Type of Document

Role

Examples

Creed

Statement of Faith "I believe . . ." for use in worship

Apostles Creed (early church, possibly to counter the idea Jesus was not really human), Nicene Creed (325, to settle how Jesus was both God and human)

Confession

Comprehensive statement of shared beliefs; may be used for teaching, for theological discernment of new issues, for discipline. The church decides.

Scots Confession (1560, to provide a statement of faith for the church in Scotland as it was being reformed); Belgic Confession (1618, written by Guido de Bres and important for Dutch Reformed churches); Westminster Confession (1647, written by an assembly of ministers and teachers to provide a new statement of belief for the churches of England and Scotland to replace the 39 articles).

Declaration

Position of a group of Christians on a particular issue.

Barmen Declaration by the Confessing Churches in Germany against the claims of the Nazi-dominated state churches to allow cultural and national interests determine matters of faith (1934). The Canons of Dordt (1619) against the teaching of Arminius.

Book of Order How we organise ourselves and process decisions First Book of Discipline (1560, to define how the reformed church in Scotland would be organised); Second Book of Discipline (1574, to reform organisation further and replace bishops with presbyteries); The Form of Presbyterial Church Government and of Ordination of Ministers agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster (1645); Book of Order (2006, to consolidate and simplify changes to the PCANZ Book of Order which had become more complex over the years)
Book of Common Order Think "Order of service." What forms of worship are allowable in our church? John Knox's Liturgy (1550s Frankfurt and Geneva to avoid any suggestion of Catholicism and to restrict what happened in worship to what was believed to be positively specified by Scripture); Directory for Worship (1994, to provide a model standard of worship with explanations suitable for the PCANZ)
Catechism Teaching the faith to adults and children Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648); Larger Catechism (1648) - these put the teaching of the Westminster Confession in a form which could be studied and learnt by children by their first communion and by adults.
Covenant People binding themselves to a common Christian commitment In the National Covenant (1638) and the Solemn League and Covenant (1640) people of Scotland bound themselves together as a Christian Society and sought that this should be the basis of their relationship with England. In the Lausanne Covenant (1974) Evangelical Christians led by John Stott and Billy Graham bound themselves to an understanding of mission which covered both evangelistic and social mandates.
Formula or Subscription To define how office bearers relate to a particular document Formula and Declaratory Act - to change the "terms of subscription" of office bearers so that they were not being required to say they agreed with parts of the Westminster Confession which were irrelevant or offensive.
Focal Identity Statement Some clarity about the role is needed. Is it intended to be a shorter statement for worship or a longer comprehensive statement? Can it cover both roles? Being discussed by General Assembly in 2008.

Understanding the Subordinate Standards of our Church

Our Book of Order (2006) states chapter 1.1 Standards

(1) The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (which in this Book of Order is referred to as “the Church”) is part of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church recognizing Jesus Christ as its Lord and Head.

(2) The supreme rule of faith and life and the supreme standard of the Church is the Word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

(3) The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms are the subordinate standards of the Church.

(4) The Declaratory Act 1892-3 of the General Assembly of the Church sets out, in regard to certain doctrines what is required from those entering upon office.

(5) The Directory of Worship (1995) and The Westminster Form of Church Government set out generally the order of worship, discipline and government in the Church.

(6) The Church itself has the right, in dependence on the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, to formulate, interpret or modify its subordinate standards, always in agreement with its supreme standard and the fundamental doctrines of the Reformed Faith contained in its subordinate standards. The Church itself will be the sole judge whether this formulation, interpretation or modification is in agreement with its supreme standard.

Living out of our History

The self understanding of the Presbyterian tradition has usually been that it is a "confessing church". From the time of the Reformation in Scotland confessions such as the Scots Confession of 1560 and the Westminster Confession of 1646 have been important, and they also shaped the identity of many of those who helped found the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand. Not surprisingly confessions have been sources of controversy as well as a focus of unity.  Late in the 19th century many Presbyterian churches changed their relationship to the Westminster Confession.  Some Presbyterian Churches in Asia dropped it altogether in favour of the Apostles Creed. In the 1950s Evangelicals concerned for the Presbyterian ethos of our church formed the Westminster Fellowship seeing the Westminster Confession as a defining document. More recently the Presbyterian Church (USA) placed the Westminster Confession alongside others in their Book of Confessions.

Whatever may said about some statements (e.g. about the Pope), the Confessions do embody key elements of the sort of Christianity we will continue to bear witness to. Going back to the Confessions is an important check for theological innovation which may risk going beyond acceptable boundaries more than enriching understanding of what is already there. However the Confessions are also contextual theologies from their own times and circumstances and are not immune from that same risk. Today people from many sections of the church recognise that, faced with enormous changes in culture and world view, other instruments are now needed to help us be true to Christ in our own time and place.

In New Zealand we have found that the issues dealt with in 16th and 17th century statements do not address many of the pressing questions of our own time, and views have changed about some of the issues they did address. We need to do justice to convictions which have been widely held for some time in the church, but not embodied in confessions. No theological stream in the church finds this straightforward. Both "liberal" and "evangelical" traditions have changed enormously in the last half-century and have faced internal debate as well as external as they have done so.

We need ways of maintaining the integrity of our overall tradition at the same time as accepting that our understanding of some issues does change in responsible ways. We also need to build consensus as to which issues belong in the category of "Fundamentals of the Faith" and which are ones about which Presbyterians may legitimately differ.

Making confessions became a feature of the Reformed tradition. It was often a costly one. It is part of who we are. Reformed identity was created by lives lived and lost in the process of writing confessions as well as by the words they contained. Confessions became symbol and memory as well as formulation. Yet, being Confessional became something that people went on doing - as in the Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930s.

Looking back we can learn from the faith involved in both the processes and the outcomes, but it is not always easy to know how subsequent generations ought to relate to the confessions of earlier years. Writing confessions while listening to varied voices in the church and thinking about how the reception of what we write can be positive rather than threatening, is one which less word-focused cultures are likely to think of as exhausting if not irrelevant. It is also of the nature of the case that confessions divide as well as unite, and it is not always easy to know what to do with the diversity generated by the process.

It is sometimes assumed that you can only write confessions in theologically settled and peaceful times. Although eras of conflict are times when people often despair of working together across a divided church history would suggest that times of conflict, even theological conflict, are times when creative and helpful work can be done. Leadership can, Obama like, call for the polarised parties to hold their breath for a while and identify what they have in common. It can be surprisingly possible as well as particularly important to ensure that views fairly allowable in the church work together.

Times when things seem to be going well are the very times people neglect thinking carefully about the truth of God in Christ and the ways he should be worshiped and followed in mission. Today we are still writing mission statements and revising books of order and sorting who we are. The Confessors as well as the Confessions of the past still have something to teach us, and if our confessions are as much about spiritual wells as theological fences we may succeed in giving people words which enable us to affirm faith in Christ together in our time.

The historical context, and the need for the Reformers and then the Scottish Church to define themselves over against first of all the Roman Catholic Church, and then the Church of England, affected the content of the Westminster Confession, the Directory of Public Worship and the Shorter and Longer Catechisms, and the way in which they were used to answer the question not only "What sort of Church do we believe is agreeable to the Word of God?" but "What sort of church should the government of Scotland support?"

After 1690 the General Assembly in Scotland met again for the first time for 41 years. Following the restoration of the monarchy after the civil war, a time of persecution of covenanters and fresh moves by the monarchy towards Catholicism, the "Glorious Revolution" which brought William of Orange and Mary to the throne, England and Scotland were securely Protestant, but a new compact with the government about what sort of church Scotland would have was essential.  Before 1707 there was a shared monarchy with England, but not a shared parliament – the kingdoms have different sorts of churches and the attempts to unify them of the past century had only contributed to civil strife. The English bishops changed allegiance to the new King and Queen, but the Scottish Episcopalians refused. The Presbyterians in Scotland were prepared to be loyal to a Protestant monarchy, but they demanded a Presbyterian church, no bishops, and a General Assembly. The Confession and related documents were broadly acceptable and enabled the Assembly and the government to agree on a church in Scotland which would be moderate in tone, politically loyal, Presbyterian in government, and Reformed in theology.

If there are any parallels here to contemporary concerns, there are certainly some very important differences. There is not the same political urgency. We do not need to prove to the government what sort of church we are. However we still need to know what our core beliefs, processes and structures are and how they relate to other Christian traditions and the alternative organisational cultures affecting how we make decisions as a Church. 

Some Points to Note:

Some Possibilities:

Questions to consider:

Links and notes:

http://www.creeds.net/reformed/creeds.htm as part of a list of creeds generally http://www.creeds.net/

The Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA) Brief Statement of Faith.

Bibliography: Confessions and Covenants in the 17th century

David Cornick,  Under God's Good Hand, 33-54.

Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions

Lukas Vischer, Recent Reformed Confessions of Faith, 1986.

Westminster Confession (PCANZ)

Stephen Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, Orbis, 1992, 2002, looks at how theological formulation reflects the time and place it is written and the assumptions we bring from our own time and place when we read it. Theology needs to be assessed by how well it remains true to essential Christian orthodoxy, even though that task is about understanding language and culture as well as understanding God and Scripture. Although there is no reference to the Reformed Confessions, Bevan's methodology is helpful when we try to make judgments about older and newer expressions of Christian faith

Culture and the place of the Westminster Confession in a Reformed Church.

Articles from The Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology. T&T Clark, 1993, represent a fair summary of recent Scottish scholarship on: Confessions of Faith, Scots Confession Subscription, Confessional Westminster Assembly and Documents.

Alasdair I. C. Heron, The Westminster Confession in the Church Today, Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh. This looks at the place of the Confession in the life and constitution of the Church of Scotland and includes comment by Ian Breward.

Gerhard Müller and Jan Rhols “Confessions and Creeds” Eerdmans Brill Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol 1, 1999. helps provide a wider context by looking at the place of confessions in other traditions besides the Reformed, as well as at other Reformed traditions besides that of the Church of Scotland.

Eberhard Busch, “Barmen Declaration” ” Eerdmans-Brill Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol 1, 1999.

One of the issues not discussed in these is the cultural relativity inherent in confessional statements. Barmen was written in the 1930s and represented a firm  “Christ against culture” stand against the cultural relativism of the “German Christians.” It is a very powerful statement of the kind we still need to make. However what made sense in a relatively mono-cultural context needs to consider other dimensions in a multicultural one. Today the acceptance of the role of culture in the formulation of contextualised theology is widely acceptable in most theological streams, but there is some resistance to it by those concerned at its tendency to relativity. Barmen needed to be unambiguous in its context - it was not a moment for subtle expositions of how context necessarily shapes theology. Nevertheless there are “theology and culture” issues presented by Barmen, and by Westminster and confessions and creeds generally, and these need to be explored.

The Church of Scotland 1986 statement regarding the Westminster Confession
(that year the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand General Assembly initiated a similar decision. (see)

Currently, the Church of Scotland understands 'the Word of God which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the supreme rule of faith and life'. In the seventeenth century, this Church, with other branches of the Reformed Church, accepted the following statement as a 'subordinate standard', giving assistance in the correct interpretation of the Scriptures. There has been much debate in the Church recently, some believing that this document is now too 'time conditioned' to function adequately in the way required while others consider the Confession to be a vital bulwark of the Church's faith and indeed of its identity.

Although, however, the Westminster Confession retains its status, the General Assembly of 1986 declared that it no longer affirmed certain parts, indeed 'dissociated itself' from certain clauses and did not require its office-bearers to believe them. The General Assembly has agreed that ministers, deacons and elders at ordination have to assent to the Confession and its role, but, at the same time, it is made clear that this is a 'subordinate' standard (to Holy Scripture) and therefore open to challenge on the basis of further study of Scripture.

The General Assembly declare as follows:-

1.      This Church no longer affirms the following contents of the Westminster Confession of Faith:

Chap. 22, Section 7

‘Popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty and regular obedience are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares in which no Christian may entangle himself.’

Chap. 24, Section 3

‘… such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with Infidels, Papists or other idolators.’

Chap. 25, Section 6

‘He (the Pope of Rome) is Antichrist, that Man of Sin and Son of Perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God.’

Chap. 29, Section 2

‘… so that the Popish Sacrifice of the Mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one only Sacrifice, the alone Propitiation for all the sins of the Elect.’

2.      This Church therefore dissociates itself from the above statements and does not require its office-bearers to believe them.

John Roxborogh