For one reason and another, I’ve been thinking recently about the inherent tension in Presbyterian confessionalism. The tension arises between two poles. First, the Westminster Confession holds the scriptures alone to be the authoritative rule of faith and life and the only infallible rule for their own interpretation. Second, confessional subscription for Presbyterian ministers requires a commitment to the doctrine of the confession. For some, this is understood as a strict, unvarying approbation of every detail. The confession takes on the role of an authoritative rule. You see the tension.
This tension mirrors a tension which resides close to the heart of Reformed theology. This second tension can be understood as being between the poles of ‘being Reformed’ and the (necessary) corollary of ‘being reforming.’ Those who try to adhere to the first pole without recognising the second are not true to the Reformers’ principle of Ecclesia semper reformanda est (the church is always to be reformed). There always seems to be a vocal party within the Reformed family who want to over-emphasise the former at the expense of the latter. Perhaps some words from Bavinck would be helpful (they usually are):
All the misery of the Presbyterian Churches is owing to their striving to consider the Reformation as completed, and to allow no further development of what has been begun by the labor (sic) of the Reformers. . . . Calvinism wishes no cessation of progress and promotes multi-formity. It feels the impulse to penetrate ever more deeply into the mysteries of salvation…
Herman Bavinck, "The Future of Calvinism," The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 5 (1894): 23 cited by Harvie Conn, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds, 221.
To return to the original tension, resolving the difficulties inherent in confessional subscription is no straightforward matter. This is clear from a debate on confessional subscription held at Westminster Theological Seminary (California) at the end of the last century. The debate was between Dr William Barker, professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and Dr Morton Smith, professor of biblical and systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The former spoke in defence of system (or loose) subscription and the latter in favour of full (or strict) subscription. One report of the debate relates the following:
Smith submits that there is biblical warrant for insisting on full subscription and the church must prohibit any teaching contrary to the standards in order to preserve orthodoxy. The Westminster Standards teach "nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word." If exceptions are allowed to be taught, then ruin is inevitable…
Barker objected to the claim that the Westminster Standards teach "nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word." According to him, this is de facto elevation of the Standards to the authority of Scripture.
Smith defended himself against the charge of elevating the Westminster Standards to the authority of Scripture by appealing to language within the Confession itself which teaches that the Scripture is our single rule for faith and life. If the Confession says this so clearly, then certainly one cannot charge the Confession with being elevated to a position which itself denies.
Here is the tension in black and white. For me, the position argued by Barker displays a greater level of intellectual honesty. No genuine defence of the charge of elevating the Standards was given by Smith: no-one charges the Confession with anything, but people certainly can be charged with elevating the Confession to a position which it denies itself. If there is to be honesty about the tension between confessionalism and reformation, then there must be an acceptance that subscription to the Confession, however it is labelled must involve a certain freedom of interpretation. Otherwise there is indeed a de facto elevation of it to a position of authority on a par with scripture. And yet, the debating of that freedom is always where the rub is.
The Westminster Confession is an incredible statement of the Reformed Faith. I have affirmed it as the statement of my own faith. However, we mustn’t forget that, in the words of the Confession itself:
All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both (WCF 31.4).