My confession of faith is not the Westminster Confession. It is the confession of my communion, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Of course, our confession bears many resemblances to the Westminster Confession. But if folks look at the publication of our confession, neatly produced by the Committee on Christian Education, it reads, the â€œConfession of Faith and Catechisms of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with Proof Textsâ€ (the proof texts are especially all the OPCâ€™s). Again, the OPC did rely upon standards handed down from the Westminster Divines, adopted by the Scottish Kirk, and then in 1729 by the Synod of Philadelphia for the communion that was taking shape in the British colonies in North America. Still, when OPC officers subscribe our confession and catechisms, they are embracing documents that are different from those produced during the 1640s, and also with different understandings (because of the development of history) of several of the doctrines taught.
Many of the controversies in our current setting stem from originalists who insist that the contemporary church has abandoned the original sense of the Standards, and those who seek a different elaboration of Reformed theology. I myself find that I am on different sides of this debate, on the one hand wanting to find room for genuine theological developments within our communions, and on the other, realizing the folly and danger that usually attends adapting to the times.
Jason Stellman wants to break through the impasse and proposes the writing of a new confession. At his blog he writes:
Hereâ€™s where a new confession comes in. What is needed is the ability to avoid the task of divining the ever-elusive â€œsystem of doctrine,â€ the confession-within-the-confession, the bits and pieces of our doctrinal standards that really matter. But as long as we theoretically subscribe to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms but allow countless exceptions to be taken to them, we leave ourselves no choice but to scratch our heads over whether things like refraining from recreation on the Sabbath and 6/24 creation are intrinsic to the system. My proposal is simply that if we all agree that something is not intrinsic to the system, then why not omit it altogether? Then, once we have identified what our system of doctrine actually is, we can confess it strictly and with confidence. It is just this kind of approachâ€”one that calls for strict subscription to the system of doctrine but allows laxity on incidental mattersâ€”that could potentially be the impetus for an ecumenical Reformed church consisting of believers from British Presbyterian and Continental Reformed backgrounds.
Maybe it comes from having studied with Scott Clark, but Stellman has a point. And though I canâ€™t find it at Scottâ€™s blog, he has for many years been maintaining that we need a new confession of faith, one that reflects both the tradition and the developments in theology since 1647. And while I canâ€™t identify precisely the points of the argument, I think it runs something like this: if we continue to hold creeds and catechisms written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they run the risk of functioning like dictionaries â€“ reference works we simply pull off the shelf when an ordination exam comes along or when going to a trial, but seldom used in the day-to-day life of a congregation and its broader communion. Richard Muller has proposed a helpful remedy to this situation, one that makes our adopted creeds and confessions part of the warp and woof of church life (in corporate and family worship, and in memberâ€™s piety).
But another way to give us more ownership of our confessional standards is to write a new one.
The more I study the history of the Reformed churches, the more sense this proposal makes. The Westminster Assembly was an incredibly complicated affair, and the issues before that body are virtually unknown to contemporary readers (unless youâ€™re Chad Van Dixhoorn). For instance, here is what Philip Benedict writes about the Divines:
The majority of the delegates who favored a presbyterial-synodal form of church government worked to bring the others around to their position by demonstrating the formâ€™s biblical basis point by point.; but the exegesis proved a time-consuming, contentious business. As the divines puzzled over Scripture, the clash of arms realigned the political situation. The New Model Army proved more successful that the Scottish forces in the warfare against the king and did a better job of claiming credit for joint victories. As the armyâ€™s power increased, the Independents and Erastians within the assembly grew more assertive and forces the initiation of regular consultations with Parliament, which was less sympathetic to clerical independence. As in the cities of Germany and Switzerland in the first century of the Reformation, the issue of who controlled excommunication became a bone of contention. . . . The new form of church government for England finally decided upon in conjunction with Parliament and spelled out in measure of August 1645 and March 1646 approximated the presbyterial-synodal churches of Scotland, France, and the Netherlands . . . . But it contained major compromises with Erastian and congregationalist concerns . . . . These accommodations displeased the Scottish envoys, who castigated the new system as a â€œlame Erastian presbytery.â€(Benedict, pp. 400-401)
Aside from questions of church polity and ecclesiastical authority, England was also facing antinomianism and neo-nomianism churning out of sixteenth-century debates over predestination. Puritan practical divinity was also in the air, as were debates over prayer books and liturgical forms. The point is that the confession can be read as a historical document to see what was animating Reformed English and Scottish churchmen in the seventeenth century. In fact, it needs to be read this way if it is going to function as a reliable standard (has anyone heard of grammatical-historical exegesis?). And as a state-appointed committee, its documents can also be read like Obamaâ€™s recent health care provision â€“ a statement that bears all the compromises that come with politics, which is the art of compromise.
But such historical investigation and political intrigue is a long way from embracing the Westminster Confession as our own confession of faith. For that reason, I do believe that Stellman and Clark are on to something. Maybe if the NAPARC churches ever adopted Bob Godfreyâ€™s proposal for a federated denomination of Reformed churches, their first item of business would be to call an assembly to write a Reformed confession for the twenty-first century.