John Murray writes very helpfully on ‘The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith’ (Collected Writings 4.241-63). Murray doesn’t just provide a description of the content, but an assessment of it. And it’s also an appraisal of the place of the Confession in the Presbyterian church. So, it’s important reading on a number of fronts. Murray reserves high praise for the Confession: no other creedal confession ‘attains to the same level of excellence’ and ‘no other is its peer’. However, he also identifies the dangers of assessing the Confession too positively.
To appraise it as perfect and not susceptible to improvement or correction would be to accord it an estimate and veneration that belong only to the Word of God. This would be idolatry, and would amount to the denial of that progressive understanding which the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church guarantees (p260, emphasis added).
Murray judges the 350 year old Confession as requiring little in the way of revision. However, he judges amendments as possible, and indeed necessary. But, he makes the point that the ‘system of truth’ of the Confession remains the same.
When the Confession is examined carefully in the light of Scripture and in relation to the demands of confessional witness in the church today, the amazing fact is that there is so little need for emendation, revision, or supplementation. And of greater importance is the fact that justifiable or necessary amendments do not affect the system of truth set forth in the Confession. In other words, the doctrine of the Confession is the doctrine which the church needs to confess and hold aloft today as much as in the l7th century (p261).
Here we find some background to the idea of ‘system subscription’. After describing several areas where the Confession is in his view inaccurate in designation or statement, or unsatisfactory in other ways, Murray again refers to the ‘system of truth’.
It is with something of an apology that attention is drawn to these blemishes. But they serve to point up and confirm the observation made earlier that any amendment necessary does not affect the system of truth set forth in the Confession, and they remind us of the imperfection that must attach itself to human composition so that we may never place human documents or pronouncements on a par with the one supreme standard of faith (p263).
Verily Murray speaketh sense.