Good Faith Subscription? (Part 1)
Confessional Integrity in the PCA
In my judgment, the subject of confessional integrity is vital for the health and fruitfulness of the ministry entrusted to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in our generation. In this article, and in the one to follow, it is not my purpose to provide a comprehensive survey of the state of confessional commitments in our denomination, though some illustrative account of that needs to be given. Instead, it is my intention in this article to articulate the biblical imperative and the pastoral need of confessing the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), without equivocation or any purpose of evasion, as it is summarized for us in the Westminster Standards. In the second article I will address the role our Standards play within the PCA, with particular reference to the rights of presbyteries to restrict any teaching that is contrary to our confessional position. I will also try to offer a few suggestions on the way forward as we work to restore and renew healthy confessionalism in our denomination.
I believe the importance of this subject for the PCA is now matched by its urgency. If I may speak personally, one of the most alarming trends that I’ve seen among candidates for the ministry and among teaching and ruling elders in our denomination, is the growing opinion that the Standards are merely constitutional documents, on a par with the Book of Church Order (BCO) or Robert’s Rules of Order. It is an opinion that I suspect is held in equal numbers by those who take very few or no exceptions as much as by those who take several. To them, the Standards are necessary administrative instruments of good governance, and little more: “Certainly, we need to read them and know them and subscribe to them, but only in so far as doing so allows us to hold office in the denomination.” The idea that vibrant, useful, life-giving, God-exalting theology, piety, and practice can and should be mined from our Standards in any ongoing way, for the sake of the health of our own souls and the fruitfulness of our ministries, is quite foreign to their minds.
The tragic result is that the proclamation heard from our pulpits, the Christian formation provided in our Sunday School classes, and the piety practiced in our churches is less and less fluent in the historic syntax and grammar of the Reformed faith. Too often, in our ministries, after having declared our adherence to them before our presbyteries (or, if we are ruling elders or deacons, before our Sessions), we simply assume the theology of the Westminster Standards ever afterwards. Perhaps, in some cases, it might be more accurate to say that, after subscribing to them, we largely ignore and leave behind the theology of the Standards, in favor of novel ways of framing the truth which appear in our own eyes to be far more exciting and helpful.
Indeed, for some, this state of things is greatly to be desired. To this way of thinking, the Standards are serviceable enough as records of the Reformed theological tradition bequeathed to us by our fathers. But in all honesty, they really won’t work anymore as modern statements of contemporary Christian conviction. They are too technical, too precise, too narrow, too absorbed in making nice theological distinctions. They are overly focused on abstract spiritual concerns for them to be serviceable for believers today, wrestling as we must with identity politics, a revived shame-culture, and the deleterious psychological effects of digital technology. It’s not that the Standards are wrong, so much as it is that they are irrelevant. “The Confession and Catechisms,” we are told, “are too European, too male, too scholastic, too dualistic, and too rationalistic to matter much anymore. So, let’s jump through the theological hoops that the denomination requires in order to get ordained, by all means. But then let’s leave the Standards on the shelf where they belong and move on to focus our ministries on things that really scratch where people are itching.” That, I fear, is an all-too-common attitude. I can’t help wonder whether an honest account of the last time our teaching and ruling elders actually read through the Standards for their own edification would prove embarrassing to a large part of the church.
Well, there is, perhaps, some caricature in that portrait; but if there is, it’s not much. And to the degree that this accurately describes the state of things in the PCA, to that degree I believe we are witnessing the demise of meaningful confessionalism among us. But, you might ask, why should that bother us? What is lost, when the Standards cease to play a living role in the theological formation and ongoing proclamation of a denomination? Or to put it more simply: Why do the Confession and Catechisms of our church matter?
Creeds and Confessions are a Scriptural Duty
We begin with a reminder of the biblical basis for confessionalism in the first place. There are essentially three lines of argument from Scripture in defense of creeds and confessions, and I can only give a very general sketch of them here. First, we have the example of the apostles themselves, who found it necessary to restate, in fresh language, the received doctrine already believed in the churches of their own day, because of the presence of false teachers who made use of the way the existing teaching was stated as a cover for their heresy.
So, even within the lifetime of the apostles, the necessity was forced upon the church of responding to new forms of error by restating more clearly what has always been believed in new forms of words. And that, of course, continues to be the function of a confession of faith to this day. In the face of error, it is the duty of the church to clarify the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
Then, secondly, there is the presence of creedal statements, or fragments of statements, embodied in the text of the New Testament itself. Romans 10:9, 10 likely records the earliest Christian creed when it calls on those who become Christians not only to “believe in their hearts that God raised Christ from the dead,” but also to “confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord.” “Jesus is Lord” is the earliest Christian creedal affirmation we have, audibly confessed by the lips of those who joined the church. But there are others. To that we might add the five so-called “trustworthy sayings” that Paul quotes in the pastoral epistles (1 Tim 1:15, 3:1, 4:7–9, 2 Tim. 2:11–13, and Titus 3:4–8). John Fesko notes that the commendation of each saying as “trustworthy” recalls the commendation that follows the Shema, the ancient Jewish creed of Deuteronomy 6. Fesko concludes that Paul is either quoting preexisting creedal formulas used in his churches, or he is offering these summaries of biblical truth himself as creedal statements in the expectation of their regular use from then on. In other words, the New Testament church used creedal statements to express their shared faith and to declare the boundaries of what is and is not orthodox doctrine.
And then, thirdly, we have the express teaching of Scripture, that calls us to adhere to a verbal pattern of recognized orthodoxy. Paul tells Timothy in 1 Tim. 6:2–4: “Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.” Clearly, there was a recognized body of doctrine—of “sound words”—to which all teachers must conform, and to which Timothy was to insist upon in his own teaching.
Likewise, in 2 Tim. 1:13, 14, Paul writes: “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” There is a pattern of sound words, a good deposit of propositional truth, to which Timothy had been instructed by Paul, and that he was carefully to follow in his own teaching, and to require all others to adhere to. The apostle understood that more was needed than the raw language of the Bible alone, because the false teachers used the Bible too. Timothy needed a pattern of orthodoxy that established the teaching that accords with godliness.
In the same vein, Jude 3 calls us to contend earnestly “for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Certain people had crept into the church, distorting the gospel, denying Christ, and promoting immorality. The answer was to summon the church to “DEFCON 1,” to be ready to stand firm in defense of the faith once for all delivered to them. “The faith” (note the definite article) refers to the body of teaching that had been passed down to them from Christ, through the apostles, in the Holy Scriptures, and was now entrusted to the church. They were to contend for that faith with vigor, clarifying what was not meant, offering precise definitions, and making wise distinctions. In other words, the call to contend for the faith is a call, at the least, to state in fresh language an agreed-upon summary of the sense in which the church understands the Scriptures. Or, more simply, it is a call for catechisms and confessions of faith that make plain what we mean when we expound the Word of God.
Creeds and Confessions are an Ecclesiastical Necessity
In addition to the biblical teaching, there is also a pastoral and ecclesiastical necessity for creeds and confessions. Building on James Bannerman’s categories, we can say that the church needs confessions and creeds in its work of holding the truth, teaching the truth, and witnessing to the truth.
1. Holding the Truth: An Instrument of Unity
The church needs a confession in its work of holding the truth. That is, a confession is an instrument of unity, so that all the members of an ecclesiastical communion can know the agreed-upon doctrine and interpretation of Scripture held in common. A connectional church that is committed to unity only really has two options: either it surrenders all hope of theological unity, and rests whole the weight of staying together upon the ecclesiastical structures of the denomination, or it articulates and requires all its officers to affirm an agreed-upon body of doctrine that expresses the convictional grounds of their union. The former model—unity in ecclesiastical structures—is the pattern typically practiced by the mainline churches who, by virtue of their embrace of near-total theological latitude, cannot now define any shared convictions in common. Instead, they tend to resort to top-down authority structures, centralized power, and other institutional and governmental means of holding the organization together. The latter model, on the other hand—one that seeks unity around a shared confession of faith—is the avowed stance of the Presbyterian Church in America. We believe that our unity is a unity in the truth, and if we are to survive as a single and faithful denomination, we must stand on the same confessional foundation. We must hold the truth in common.
2. Teaching the Truth: An Instrument of Clarity
Then, secondly, the church needs confessions and creeds in its work of teaching the truth. That is, a church confession is a mechanism to provide clarity to its members on where the church stands on all major points of doctrine, allowing the members to assess the church’s message in light of Scripture. Every Christian is called to search the Scriptures to see if these things are true, and it helps us in that duty when the churches share a common, publicly declared statement of doctrinal commitment that does not morph and change with the shifting sands of cultural novelty. What’s more, our Confession and Catechisms offer vital help in our pedagogy, as we instruct the next generation. Simply knowing the content of the Bible is vital, but it isn’t enough. Our members and our children need to have systematic-theological categories, derived from the teaching of Bible as a whole, that will help them interpret any given text and engage with any given theological proposition in faithful and consistent ways. Has it ever been more important for Christians to know what they believe, and why, than at this present time? Our Confession and Catechisms are meant to help us with that.
3. Witnessing to the Truth: An instrument of Purity
Thirdly, the church needs creeds and confessions, as instruments of purity and fidelity in its work of witnessing to the truth. That is, in the face of error, and for the good of the unbelieving world, the church is greatly assisted in bearing consistent and clear testimony to the truth of God by having an agreed summary of the message taught in Holy Scripture. Our Confession and Catechisms are a banner, a public statement, that proclaims our stance against error, and holds us to the same gospel message in all our churches. It is surely a remarkable testimony to the biblical fidelity and theological genius of the Westminster Divines that, despite the many diverse challenges to orthodox Christianity presented by our culture and our time, the Standards continue to prove themselves wonderfully serviceable in defending the faith and exposing error.
Confessions of faith are not simply traditional statements, or merely pragmatic tools that facilitate the peculiarities of our ecclesiastical polity. No, confessions of faith are a logical necessity, demanded by the challenges that constantly confront the church, and they are a biblical duty, as we seek to be faithful to the call of Christ to teach everything that He has commanded us even to the end of the age. In short, we must be a confessional church and a confessional people if we are to be obedient and faithful to the Lord who bought us.
 James Bannerman cites as examples here the gospel and letters of John who assert a robust Christology in fresh terms in response to a Docetic doctrine of Christ. Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 308.
 J. V. Fesko, The Need for Creeds Today: Confessional Faith in a Faithless Age, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020), 7.
 See Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 312–318.