The need to keep confessing

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David Wayne, the Jollyblogger, has an interesting entry, "On Thinking New Theological Thoughts." He cites the late Presbyterian theologian John Murray, no liberal or modernist he, who writes of the need for each generation to deal with the issues of the day in the light of Scripture. While the ancient creeds and Reformation confessions are a rich heritage and are not to be set aside, we can't rest on our theological laurels. Murray wrote:

When any generation is content to rely upon its theological heritage and refuses to explore for itself the riches of divine revelation, then declension is already under way and heterodoxy will be the lot of the succeeding generation.... A theology that does not build on the past ignores our debt to history and naively overlooks the fact that the present is conditioned by history. A theology that relies on the past evades the demands of the present.

Note that he is not saying that we should regard the old confessions as mere historical curiosities, as most of the liberal mainstream denominations do, but we need to apply the truth of the Bible to modern concerns that weren't on the radar in 325 or 1647, while building on the foundation laid by those earlier generations. New problems, new theological movements, new technologies need to be addressed in light of the timeless Word of God. Principles that were held by all respectable members of society four hundred years ago, and thus did not need to be affirmed in a confession, are now up for debate, and the church needs to take a stand.

Occasionally a conservative denomination like the Presbyterian Church in America will adopt a position paper -- for example, on the role of women in the Church. (Here's a repository of position papers adopted by American Presbyterian denominations, including a fairly comprehensive collection of position papers from the PCA and from the RPCES, a separate denomination that merged into the PCA in 1982.)

Only very rarely, however, will a conservative denomination modify the church's basic confession. There are very high hurdles to prevent such an action from being taken lightly. In the PCA it amounts to an amendment of the denomination's constitution, and the process is analogous to amendment of the U. S. Constitution, requiring adoption by the General Assembly followed by ratification by three-quarters of the presbyteries. So while theological statements are issued from time to time on various subjects, rarely are they made a part of the denomination's standards and made binding on ministers, elders and deacons.

I appreciated this statement from David Wayne:

It is proper to examine the older statements to see if they erred in their exegesis. It is also proper to examine them to see if the framers brought presuppositions to the table that skewed their understanding. In my own Reformed tradition this has happened. A case in point is the change in the Westminster Confession's position on the pope being the anti-Christ.

I would add the unbiblical practice of infant baptism in Reformed churches as an example of a doctrine that was shaped by the political realities of the 16th century. The Reformation succeeded then where earlier reform efforts failed because of the support and protection of civil governments. Dukes, princes, and city councilors were deciding matters of theology. Reform could only go as far as the civil magistrates were willing, and they were not willing to abandon the idea that everyone within their jurisdiction was born into and subject to their established church. Once it was decided to retain the practice, it took about a century to develop the theology to construct a theological rationale for it which was more or less consistent with Reformed soteriology. (I need hardly add that this is an area where I take exception with the doctrine of the church to which I belong. It's my prayer that some day this will be revisited, but I'm not holding my breath.)

Ultimately, the infallible, inerrant Word of God is the standard by which all creeds, confessions, sermons, liturgies, and pious opinions must be judged. That's the meaning of sola scriptura. Semper reformanda means the work of "bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" is never done.

BONUS LINK: The 1647 text of the Westminster Confession of Faith with notes showing amendments adopted by various presbyterian bodies in the United States. For example, most churches have dropped the "Pope is the Antichrist" clause, and take a different view of the involvement of government in church affairs than the Westminster Assembly, which was convened by the English Parliament in 1643.


Dan Paden said:

It won't bother me if you don't publish this one, but since you brought up the subject, it occurred to me that a few of your readers might find this post on the subject of sola scriptura interesting.

That's excellent, Dan. Thanks for posting it.

Roy said:

Dear Mike, brother whom I love and admire,

Sorry about this response coming so long after the fact. (Been away from home, and laptop's keyboard too squirrely for serious writing where computer caused random jumping around results in typoing which drives me crazy.) As with Dan above, it won't bother me if this does not get posted.

1) I think I'll email Wayne Sparkman and ask him about expanding his list with a side or sub heading of papers in OPC history. Provides an interesting compare and contrast to PCA history. In general presybterians seem to have eschewed position papers as too far removed from the courts of the church which most specifically adress concrete problems arising from actual discipline cases.

2) Imho the PCA appeal to its "grass roots" origin to make its supreme court (General Assembly) include all Teaching Elders and one Ruling Elder from each church will prove counterproductive. Firstly, that inclusion weights the GA with TEs. Thus it moves control from the historical watchdogs, the REs, toward control by seminary profs. Secondly, the number of men at GA becomes too great for effective debate. Instead, group think results (let's get the business done, let's move along, let's get along). That, in turn, substantially increases the influence (practical power) of commissions (standing committees). (BTW, the OPC at some point decided to limit the size of its GA specifically to prevent hinderance of debate. Its GA consists of elders commissioned by their presbytery, the number of elders allocated on a membership basis and chosen as a given presbytery sees fit, usually, in my limited experience, mostly on a rotating basis and equally balanced between TEs and REs.) So far I don't think anyone can fault the decisions the PCA has made. I hope that continues, making my caveat of no value.

3) Re paedobaptism.
A) Perhaps your view making it the reformed church position because of civil gov't might interact with paedobaptism having been the clear majority position of the church (eastern and western) thru two millenia. In effect you discount Christians prior to the Reformation.
B) Nowhere do the reformed confessions, catechisms, standards appeal to civil gov't as any much less the reason for their position vis a vis paedobaptism. The documents themselves make apparent that no such appeal exists. Stamping a QED on the debate about appeal, one may peruse the writings of many of those involved in producing the written standards. Or one may turn to the writings of the reformed giants whom the writers of the written standards revered. These writings, too, prominently display a lack of the connection for which you contend. If effect you ask your reader to refuse to take seriously the words (often written at the expense of tragedy, sorrow, even blood) of the reformers.
C) Your comments provide a case in point for a major concern long burdening me: the clarity of the preaching one hears. For several years you and I have had the privilege of hearing preaching well acquainted with covenant theology and flowing from a keen awareness of the redemptive historical hermeneutic. During those years in which Genesis and now half of Exodus was covered a couple of notable transitions from antipaedobaptistism have occured (eg, Bruce having his son baptized the day Exodus 4 was the text). I'm disappointed a fellow with your obvious to me godliness, love of scripture, brillance, and typical thoroughness did not interact via something more than your appeal to civil gov't as foundation for paedobaptism. Maybe you'd kindly humor me with some more posts on the topic?

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 29, 2006 8:39 PM.

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